Self-Harm – Part 3: What’s to be Done?

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” ~ Corinthians 1 10:13

In the past two posts we’ve discussed self-harm and what can lead to it, and we’ve taken a look at what the bible holds in the way of advice. Now I want to discuss some practical, hands-on ideas for how to deal with this. The above quote by St. Paul can be hard to believe at times, but it’s true. There is always a way out that doesn’t involve sinning. That’s what we’re going to discuss here.

First off, I have no magical cures for self-harm. I don’t believe there are any quick fixes for this. Addictions don’t go away over night. And if your urges are brought on by a mental illness, like mine, it can make overcoming them even more challenging. But getting urges doesn’t mean you have to give-in to them. I can testify to that. And the more you resist them, the easier it gets. Not that it ever gets easy, per se. It’s always a battle. But the more you fight it, the stronger you get.

There are a few tools I’ve developed over the years to help cope. If you’ve been struggling to give up self harm you’ve probably got some coping mechanisms of your own, but they might not be healthy ones. I’ll address that a little further along in the post. For now, lets discuss some healthy ones.

One of the most effective tools I’ve made use of is one I discovered back before I was diagnosed: doodling. It was a self-therapy. It gave me a way to channel my discomfort into something that acted as a distraction. Here’s an example of one of my earliest doodles that I drew back before I was diagnosed:

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Here’s one of my more recent ones:

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As you can probably tell, I’ve done a lot of these over the years. I’ve actually sold some of them, since people seem to like them. Personally, they wouldn’t be my first choice of wall art, but they’ve been a wonderful therapy. As art goes, I prefer my more realistic stuff (the cover images on this blog, for instance), but when I feel miserable I can’t bear to try and draw anything that looks good. I can’t focus and I don’t have the patience to get things “right.” Doodles allow me to freewheel and do something with my hands without having to think much. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to doodle. When I stick my earbuds in with some music and pick up a sharpie, I can completely detach from real life and lose myself for a while. It makes for a wonderful distraction. I encourage you to give it a try sometime. If you aren’t artistically inclined (not that you really need to be for this sort of thing), why not give crocheting or knitting a try? I’ve never knitted, but crocheting is wonderfully mindless. It gives you something to do with your hands other than hurting yourself— which is the whole point.

Now, this sort of thing doesn’t always work if the urges are really severe. Another coping strategy I’ve tried is running. I’m not a jogger. I’ve never been very athletic. But that almost makes it better. It’s easier to exhaust myself that way. I’ll go outside and jog/sprint until I’m about to collapse from exhaustion. Sometimes that takes the edge off an urge. But running, unfortunately, isn’t always an option— like when it’s -40 degrees with the windchill (yay Canadian winters). If you have a treadmill then that’s a potential option. But if not, you’ll have to try something else.

If I can’t get out of the house, or if I’m already tired despite getting urges, another thing I’ve made lots of use of is showers. Long, hot showers. To be honest, it’s amazing I haven’t washed away down the drain. When I was depressed, the shower was my go-to place. It’s somewhat ironic. People often quit showering entirely when depressed because they lack the energy and motivation. Their hygiene plummets. Mine skyrockets. I live in an apartment with my parents (and for a while, my uncle as well). The shower is one of the only places I can curl up in misery and cry without anyone noticing. And something about sitting curled up under a stream of hot water in an enclosed space is comforting. I’ve spent 40 minutes just sitting there before. Admittedly, it really dries your skin out. And it probably didn’t do very good things for our water bill either… But I didn’t much care.

Now, there are two caveats to this particular coping mechanism: 1) do NOT do this if you have a razor in the shower with you. That would be so self-defeating it’s just not even funny. 2) Don’t make the water so hot it gives you burns. It can be tempting to inflict pain on yourself in that way, but that completely defeats the purpose of the coping mechanism. That’s just another form of self-harm. If you don’t feel you have the self-control to avoid doing that, then don’t make use of this coping mechanism.

There are two coping mechanisms I’ve heard of that I want to warn you away from, mainly because they work by inflicting pain. If you’d rather not give yourself ideas, skip the next paragraph. If you’re already making use of mechanisms of that sort, you might as well keep reading and see my reasoning against them.

One of the questionable mechanisms that I’ve tried personally is that of snapping myself with an elastic band. People use this method because it hurts like hell and doesn’t leave scars. Another one I’ve heard of, but haven’t tried, is holding onto ice cubes. The latter method is probably healthier because it doesn’t leave marks on your skin. But even though these sorts of coping mechanisms are better than cutting yourself, they still aren’t a good idea. Why? They’re still a form of self-harm. If you’re inflicting intentional pain on yourself, that’s self-harm— that includes hitting yourself, pulling your hair, digging your nails into yourself, etc. It doesn’t matter if you don’t break the skin. You’re harming yourself. And when you use coping mechanisms like that, it doesn’t fix the problem. It aggravates it. You’re indulging the urge rather than resisting it. It’s like an alcoholic using beer to avoid vodka. It’s still alcohol, even though it’s much weaker. It doesn’t help you break the addiction, and it can actually make things worse in the long run.

If you’ve made use of mechanisms like that before, trying to avoid them in future is going to be hard. I know because I’ve used them and it was a real challenge weening myself off of them. But coping mechanisms that inflict pain are a bad idea. Avoid them at all costs.

Now that we’ve talked about some basic in-the-moment techniques, I want to address an unconventional self-harm avoidance method that works better than any other thing I’ve tried. If the things I suggested above don’t sound like they’d work for you, then I want you to seriously consider what I’m about to suggest. It might sound bizarre because it’s actually a specifically Catholic tool, and it’s counter-intuitive at first, but it’s made a huge difference for me.

It’s called “mortification.” Protestant readers, bear with me. This will be of use to you. It doesn’t even have to be looked upon as a religious exercise, though for me that’s what gives me the motivation to make use of it.

First off, I’m not talking about the “Oh my word please kill me now that was so humiliating” type of mortification. That’s an emotional state. It has nothing to do with the Catholic concept of mortification. In a Catholic context, mortification is something you do to yourself as an act of self-discipline, either physical or mental. When I first heard about it, my first thought was: “Well, I’ll never be able to make use of that. I have enough problems with self-harm already. That would be unsafe.” But that’s because I completely misunderstood the concept.

Some saints have made use of horrifying mortifications. They sound like worse forms of self-harm than cutting. Mortification in the form of self-inflicted pain is a majorly BAD idea for someone who struggles with self-harm. It’s something that you should NEVER, EVER make use of. There are many different sorts of mortification that are perfectly healthy and will actually help you.  That’s what I’m going to touch on.

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St. Rose of Lima

Before moving on to that, though, I want to talk very briefly on why why what the saints have done to themselves in the past wasn’t “self-harm” in the sense that we’ve been talking about. Things like self-flagellation, hair shirts, wearing belts or headbands with spikes pointing inward beneath ordinary clothing, or sleeping on beds of broken tiles all sound a bit disturbing. In the past I’ve asked myself “Why on earth is it okay for them to hurt themselves when it’s not okay for me to do that?!” Aside from the fact that some of the methods I just mentioned were frowned upon by the Church at the time they were made use of, and aren’t used at all (as far as I’m aware) today, there’s a MAJOR difference between that and addictive self-harm such as cutting.

When we self-harm, we’re doing it to satisfy an urge. We want to do it. Intellectually, maybe we don’t, but physically, we’re craving it. That’s why it’s so hard to resist. When the saints made use of the things I just mentioned, they were not satisfying a craving. They didn’t want to inflict that on themselves. It was a sacrifice they were offering up. There was no pleasure or relief there. I’m not saying I’m comfortable with the methods they used. It doesn’t strike me as healthy. But their motives were very, very different than the motive of someone who self-harms to relieve an urge. The two things are complete polar opposites.

At its core,  mortification is about self-denial. You’re curbing the desires of the flesh. And it serves another purpose as well. In a previous post I talked about “offering up” your suffering for a specific intention— the souls in Purgatory, for example. Mortification can be used for the same purpose. Self-denial is a form of suffering, and in some ways it can potentially be more meritorious because it’s something you’re going out of your way to experience rather than something you’re having to endure against your will. Fasting is one example of mortification. Fasting doesn’t have to mean a bread and water diet, or only one meal per day. It can be as simple as skipping your morning coffee (or putting it off for an hour or two). Or maybe not having that second cookie (or not having a cookie in the first place). Or maybe forcing yourself not to drink anything until you’ve finished a meal (especially a salty meal…). Fasting doesn’t even have to involve food at all. It can be skipping your favorite TV show for a day. It can be not turning on the heated seat in your vehicle for a trip in the winter, or not turning on the AC for a trip in the summer. It can be washing your hands with cold water all day. It can be forcing yourself to eat some extra vegetables at a meal that you don’t really like, or not salting your food for a meal. There are many, many different ways of doing this.

There are non-physical mortification as well: making an effort not to complain. Forcing yourself not to daydream when you’re getting work done. Refraining from engaging in unnecessary, compulsive chatter about someone (especially if its gossipy in nature). Being punctual with timing. Forcing yourself to not snap at your significant-other or sibling when they annoy you. Little sacrifices here and there. You’ll notice none of what I’m suggesting is dramatic. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, smaller efforts more frequently is better than immense efforts occasionally.

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Why am I suggesting this?

Well, how does a weightlifter get stronger? By weightlifting. How does an acrobat become flexible? By stretching. How does a pianist gain skill? By practicing. Self-discipline is no different than athletic training. It’s a muscle that needs to be worked. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The less you use it, the weaker it gets. Resisting self-harm urges requires immense self-discipline. If you make use of a little mortification once or twice every day when you aren’t getting urges, you’ll start to get used to denying yourself. Then, when you do get an urge, you have more discipline with which to resist it.

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What’s great is that the very act of resisting a self-harm urge is a mortification. It’s self-denial. You can offer it up for something— preferably something really meaningful so that it gives you strong incentive. I’ve heard of people drawing butterflies on themselves and naming them after friends or family with the idea that if they give in and cut themselves then they’re killing their friend or family member. It’s a nice idea.  If it helps some people, great. It doesn’t work for me, though. When it comes right down to it, I know it’s just a butterfly drawn in marker. A make-believe mechanism of that sort is of zero use to me. But when I know with a certainty that the effort I make to resist self-harming will help someone else, maybe even someone else getting a self-harm urge or possibly contemplating suicide, that’s incentive. That’s real. And spiritually, there is definite merit there.

It might not sound like it, but at first, little mortifications are hard. Way harder than they have any right to be. But if you keep working at it, they get easier. I encourage you to set yourself a challenge: make an effort to deny yourself once, every day, in some small thing. Make sure it’s a legit denial. If you decide to skip your morning coffee when you aren’t feeling like coffee, that’s not a mortification. When you’ve been craving coffee with a vengeance since the moment you opened your eyes and you force yourself to wait until after lunch to drink some, that’s a mortification. After you’ve been doing it a while, you can increase it to multiple things per day. It’s just like weightlifting. Once your muscles get stronger, you end up having to move on to heavier weights to make progress. When a little mortification becomes easy,  move on to something harder. And don’t always use the same thing— unless its something that always works, every single time. I find if I make use of the same thing for several days in a row, it stops being effective.

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This has the bonus effect of making you appreciate things more when you don’t deny yourself. You’d be surprised how much more you enjoy your morning coffee if you force yourself to skip it sometimes, especially when you really want it. You’re also less disappointed if you don’t wind up getting something you wanted— like showing up at your favorite restaurant and discovering it’s closed.

I have one cautionary caveat: never deny yourself in a way that’s unhealthy.  For instance, never skip your prescribed medication to make yourself miserable. If you have an eating disorder, never make use of food-related fasting. Fast from activities, like TV or video games or whatever. Or better yet— eat. Forcing yourself to eat when you need to but don’t feel like it is a great mortification. I went through a phase during my repeated depressions where I was hardly eating anything, both because of the depression and because the antidepressant I was on completely killed my appetite. Forcing myself to eat was a major sacrifice.

On that note, however, I don’t recommend going out of your way with mortifications while depressed. Good mortifications for people who are depressed are things like forcing yourself to take a shower, eat regularly and go for walks— activities that you need to do in order to stay healthy, but are made very, very hard because of the depression. Don’t make things unnecessarily unpleasant for yourself. Depression is unpleasant enough on its own. You’ve got to be smart about this. The idea is to build your self-discipline, not make yourself utterly miserable.

A last cautionary note: don’t go overboard. If you find that you’re miserable all the time because you’re constantly trying to deny yourself, you’re doing it wrong. Yes, it should be a challenge, but its not meant to suck the joy out of life. Little efforts here and there are all it takes. Nothing major.

I’ve found mortifications actually make me happier. The actual act of denying myself is a bit of a drag, but then I enjoy things way more when I do indulge myself. And when self-harm urges come calling, I have much more practice exercising self-control. St. Paul agrees with me on this.

“Sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. And do not present the parts of your body’s to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness.” ~ Romans 6:12-13

Weapons for righteousness. Making the effort to control yourself is a weapon you can use against the enemy to help build God’s kingdom. That whole “offering it up” concept is very much at play here. To wrap up this series of posts, here’s one last quote from St. Paul:

“Just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” ~ Romans 6:19

If you’re a self-harmer, now’s the time to make a change. If you’ve yet to give into it, keep fighting. If you’ve been trying to overcome the addiction, renew your commitment. Remember why its important. Pray to God for grace. Try employing some of the things I suggested–particularly the mortification idea. You can do this. It is possible. I’m praying for you.

Have any questions or comments? Leave me a reply and I’ll get back to you. 🙂

Take care and God bless,

Kasani

 

Now by Fireflight

The clock is ticking
The seconds pass you by as you lie frozen
You are petrified of one more failure
A swing and a miss might break your heart in half
Yeah I know you feel alone
Don’t let it break your back

Don’t lay down
Don’t let it destroy you
Pain is real but it’s not gonna own you
Not this time around
(This is your time now)
Get back up, gotta keep on trying
Raise your fist, gotta keep on fighting
This is your time now
This is your time now

Your head is spinning
The path is right before you but you’re stopping
The cycle locks you in and you can’t see
That you’re so close to finally being free
Yeah I know, yes I know
That you can turn the key

Don’t lay down
Don’t let it destroy you
Pain is real but it’s not gonna own you
Not this time around
(This is your time now)
Get back up, gotta keep on trying
Raise your fist, gotta keep on fighting
This is your time now
This is your time now

You’re not hopeless, you’re not worthless, no
You are loved, don’t give up now
This is your time now

Don’t lay down
Don’t let it destroy you
Pain is real but it’s not gonna own you
Not this time around
(This is your time now)
Get back up, gotta keep on trying
Raise your fist, gotta keep on fighting
This is your time now
This is your time now

The Advantage of Suffering – Part 2: Purgatory

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the concept of putting your suffering to use by offering it up to God. Now I’d like to suggest a specific intention that you can keep in mind if you don’t already have a few that you can pull off the top of your head. This discussion may seem to diverge a little from the topic of suffering and head in a more theological direction, so bear with me. Purgatory is fundamentally tied to suffering, but for those who don’t understand the concept, I want to explain it first.

My understanding of Purgatory (which is certainly not perfect) goes something like this:

When God thought each of us into existence, we were a masterpiece. But we were born defaced by the effects of Original Sin. As we are now, we are not our true selves. We are not what God intends for us to be. But he sees our potential, and he knows we can be transformed back into the perfect works of art that he first created. As we progress through life, our choices have an effect on who we are. We are either cleaning God’s masterpiece off and revealing what he means for us to be, or we are defacing ourselves even further and becoming more and more unrecognizable in his eyes.

foolish-virgings-parable-ten-virgins-explained-e1361384022400If we die unrepentant, we choose to remain apart from God and refuse to allow him to clean us off. We end up like the five foolish virgins in the parable of the ten virgins. Death catches us unprepared, and we are so far from what God intended for us to be that we are virtually unrecognizable. If we demand to be let into heaven, we receive the heartbreaking reply “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:12) And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But what if we die repentant? What then?

I think its probably safe to say that few people succeed in completely cleaning themselves up in this lifetime. Most of us will probably die with stains on our souls that we haven’t quite managed to rid ourselves of: various long-ingrained vices, negative or judgmental mindsets, weakness of faith, stubbornness, pride— just to name a few. As long as those stains are there, heaven won’t be heaven for us. It will be exceedingly uncomfortable, even unbearable. Why? Because we will be in the presence of the all-perfect, almighty God, and our failings will be completely laid bare. We won’t be able to hide from them, and they will become as much a torment to us as deep, festering wounds— not because God is punishing us, but because he loves us so utterly and completely and we will be so very painfully aware of how much we have hurt him and let him down.

This is Purgatory.

Purgatory is not some place we are sent to because we didn’t quite make the grade. It’s a state of existence— an uncomfortable one. Yes, Jesus died for us and paid the price for our sins. If we accept that salvation with our whole heart, we are guaranteed a place in heaven; thus, the souls in Purgatory are full of joy amidst their suffering. But they are suffering. It’s not a suffering being inflicted on them by God. It’s as I described before: pexels-photo-274014when we die and stand before the Almighty, if we haven’t died in a state of utter sanctity, we will be like jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. The price for our sins has been paid, but we are still not fit for heaven. The fact that we are so close to heaven, but not quite there, will, I suspect, be the main cause of our suffering. It will be like a traveler who has past through a desert and is dying of thirst, but has fallen to the ground just short of an oasis. He knows with a certainty that he will make it to the water without dying. He’s come that far. But oh, that remaining distance. Those final few feet of inching forward along the scorching hot sand, pulling himself with shaking limbs towards the Living Waters.

Now, this analogy isn’t quite accurate. We aren’t “earning” our way into heaven on our own steam through our suffering. It’s God’s grace that is cleansing us. But depending on where we are at when we die, that cleansing process might take a while. It might be difficult for us to submit to his healing touch. We might be willing, but hesitantly so, and God will never force himself on us.

Other people have given much better explanations of Purgatory than what I just gave. It’s simply my understanding of it. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, gave an insightful assessment of the matter:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy” ? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you know” “—even so, sir.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Purgatory:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter into the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

“as for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age but certain others in the age to come.”

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: “therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead, and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

“Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and offer our prayers for them.” (CCC 1030-1032)

When you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? But how does this tie into our discussion of suffering? We aren’t dead yet. We’re still on earth.

There are two points I want to touch on.

First off, our suffering on earth can help us to avoid Purgatory after our death. Think of it as an advance payment. Our free choice to accept/submit to suffering in this life is worth more than our potential sufferings in Purgatory. In one sense, people who suffer unbearably in their earthly existence have an advantage over people who don’t. I very much doubt they’ll be spending much time, if any, in Purgatory. Their earthly sufferings suffice to finish the cleansing process of their souls. With this in mind, accepting suffering in life can prove very beneficial to us after we die. But this isn’t the whole of it.

The second point is more important (as far as I’m concerned). We can assist the souls in Purgatory. In fact, they are relying on us to do so. The souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves. They rely on the prayers of the living and the saints (those already in the-purgatory-with-figurinesheaven) to secure their entrance into paradise— so pray for your loved ones who have died. All of them. Even the ones who died years and years ago, or those who seemed like hopeless causes. Especially the ones who seemed like hopeless causes. God is outside of time. Your prayers now can assist someone who died decades ago. God can apply the graces you request for them in their final moments, since he sees you praying for that person fifty years after his or her death at the same instant as that person is dying. Your prayers have the potential to open that person’s heart to God, even if it was closed for an entire lifetime. And for those already in Purgatory, your prayers are like soothing balm applied to their wounds.

But even more than your prayers, you suffering can assist them. Just as you can offer your suffering up for a specific intention, you can offer your suffering up for the suffering souls. It’s like what Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus in carrying the cross. You ease their burden. And the wonderful thing is that the souls can return the favour. They can’t pray for themselves, but they can pray for those of us still on earth, and their prayers hold a lot of sway with God— more than ours do. They are much closer to Him than we are, and He takes pity on them in their suffering. You can even specifically ask the souls there to pray for you in exchange for your prayers for them. It’s a beautiful exchange. The value of your suffering is suddenly multiplied. It can be used to ease the suffering of those in Purgatory, or even completely free them, and their prayers for you in turn multiply the grace that your acceptance of your sufferings would have bestowed on you in the first place. And you better believe the souls you free will be watching over you in heaven and interceding for you with God, not to mention being there to pray for you if you wind up in Purgatory yourself.

So, to sum up this post and the previous one in a single sentence: if you accept your suffering and offer it to God, it can prove to be a huge advantage for you, and for others, because of the value it holds in His eyes. I encourage you to give it a try.

Also, I didn’t pull all these facts about Purgatory out of thin air. Most of what I know 51wavceqsblcomes from the marvelous book Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections by Susan Tassone. It’s a very powerful, enlightening read, and I encourage you to check it out if the subject is interesting to you.

Have any questions? I encourage you to go take a look at this fascinating blog post by an Evangelical Protestant convert to Catholicism. He addresses several objections that most Protestants raise regarding Purgatory, and he does so very insightfully. It’s safe to say he has more knowledge about the subject than I do. If you still have any questions after that, feel free to leave me a comment.

Until next time,

Take care, and God bless!

Kasani