Monster in Me: mental health & self-compassion

Content note: description of self-harming behaviour

For a long time now I’ve felt deeply ashamed about some of the things I did during the time when I was experiencing the worst of my mental health problems. I’ve tried very hard to forget but I still find myself lying awake at night in a cold sweat of shame and horror, replaying it all in my head.

When I look back at that time in my life, I can see that it was characterised by an absolute inability to identify and cope with the strong emotions I was experiencing. I still struggle to identify emotions, but back then, well, the phrase “emotionally illiterate” doesn’t even begin to cover it.  Because a lot of my emotional responses were based on past trauma, they were disproportionate to the events that were triggering them in the present. I was sort of aware of this at the time, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why.  All I knew was that I was experiencing unbearable emotional pain. I felt like I had a volcano inside me that was always threatening to erupt and, when it did erupt, that I was utterly in its power. I couldn’t seem to control either the emotions I was feeling, or my own behaviour in response to them. The experience of being driven by emotions that you can’t even name is quite terrifying.

I did a lot of things that I regret and just trying to write about them here makes me sweat with fear and shame.  Like many other people I turned to self-destructive behaviours to try and relieve the emotional pain I was feeling. I repeatedly fell “in love” with people who were clearly wrong for me and then behaved badly towards them when they didn’t reciprocate my ardour, or disappointed the unrealistic expectations that I’d projected onto them.  I got drunk a lot and, at times, I self-harmed, but my primary method of release came through the eating disorder bulimia. Since bulimia does all sorts of bad things to your body, it became both a symptom and a cause of my mental health problems and made it impossible to gain any kind of stability, because my body was in as much chaos as my emotions.

There’s one occurrence that stands out in my memory. I was playing a board game with my housemates and losing badly. As the game progressed, I became more and more enraged by the fact that I was losing. I made no effort to hide my foul temper and ended up storming out.  I’m not a competitive person and have never cared about board games so I’ve always felt bewildered and deeply embarrassed about my behaviour that night. I now think that this seemingly trivial incident haunts me because it encapsulates much of what I was experiencing at the time and how I’ve felt about it since – the overpowering “irrational” response to a situation and the subsequent horror attached to my feeling that I exposed what I consider to be the worst aspects of myself to other people.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that one of the worst incidents of self-harm was triggered by my belief that two of my friends had gone out shopping without me. I couldn’t tolerate the rage and distress that this idea produced in me.  I remember going into the kitchen and, next thing I knew, I’d taken up a knife and made a deep cut across my forearm.  It was like I was watching myself do it.  I was horrified by what I’d done and attempted to hide it when I really should have gone to hospital to have it stitched up. I now have to live with a nasty scar on my arm.  When I look back on it I can see that this incident followed a similar pattern to all the others. I was experiencing a level of emotional response that might be more appropriate to a threat of annihilation rather than to my friends having neglected to tell me they were going to the shops.

I was talking to my partner about it and she said it seems that the most powerful responses were often to situations in which I felt that I was being ignored, dumped or excluded, or in which my feelings were not being acknowledged.  I was certainly hypersensitive to any experiences that confirmed my belief that I was a loser who no one really wanted to know and that the entire world was set against me. The emotional responses came from my past experiences of abandonment and ostracization rather than to what was happening in the present but I was utterly unable to make this distinction at the time.

I’ve decided that it’s time to try and be more compassionate towards myself.  All this time I’ve been interpreting my behaviour as morally “bad”, rather than as symptomatic of an illness caused by trauma. Sometimes the memories make me feel like I’m watching a stranger in my body, but really this is just another defense against aspects of myself that I have designated unacceptable, even monstrous. That person is not a stranger or a monster, she’s the hurt part of me and she needs to be looked after.

I’ve realised quite recently that my shame, and my desire to push this part of myself away, have only increased its power in my life and created a barrier to dealing with what really happened. In saying to myself “I was bad”, rather than “I was unwell”, I avoid admitting to myself just how unwell I really was, which only encourages me in the delusion that I had more control over the situation than I really did.  This is harmful because by otherizing, even monstering, the person I used to be, I also allow myself to deny the possibility that I could ever become that unwell again. This is not true; I may have the “monster” under much better control these days, but she’s still with me all the time.  Having compassion for myself is about having compassion for the part of myself that was and still is unwell; it’s about being kind and accepting towards her, rather than striving to repress her because I’m so afraid of her.  It’s about saying I can take responsibility for what I did, but I don’t have to carry on beating myself up about it and feeling this terrible sense of shame.

All this shame and secrecy is also a barrier to my acknowledging what I gained from the experience. One of the most important things I learned is who my friends are because there are people who have stuck by me no matter how challenging it must have been at times. I also learned who my friends aren’t and, while that’s painful, it’s also very valuable.

The experience has also taught me that everyone’s mental health can be fragile given the right circumstances and not to make assumptions about people because you never really know what’s going on in someone’s life.

Soundtrack to this post: L7, Monster