Content note: This article contains in-depth descriptions of self-harm and discussions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
The first time I saw the film American Beauty, one scene stood out to me. Annette Bening stood in the living room of a home she was trying to sell. She assertively closed the vertical blinds, turned around, and started to cry. She then slapped her own face repeatedly as she screamed, “Shut up! Stop it! You weak — you baby! Shut up!”
I watched that scene alone in an Atlanta theater and felt an immense amount of shame. I felt I had been outed. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by “negative” emotions, I’d slap my face over and over again. That usually worked to calm me down, but in the few instances it didn’t, I’d tie a scarf to a doorknob and tie it tight around my neck. I’d lean into it until I’d feel light-headed, and whatever “negative” feelings I’d had went away.
I was recreating the sadistic abuse that my borderline, narcissistic mother perpetrated on me. After physically beating me or sexually assaulting me, she’d stand me in a corner and slap me in the face repeatedly. In a quiet voice, she’d say, “Smile. I said smile.”
The slapping would not stop until the corners of my mouth turned up and tears streamed down my face. Eventually, I didn’t even cry. It was only in that moment, when I smiled, that my mother’s body would relax and she’d walk away.
It was her fix.
My mother would also strangle me to the point of passing out and then slap me back into consciousness.
Even though my mother’s hatred of me was vitriolic, I don’t think she wanted to kill me. She just wanted me to know that she could. For her, it was about absolute power and control.
I have only a few memories of these moments because I’d learned early on, when I sensed the Beast in her awakening, to disassociate. I’d only come back into my body as I was being made to smile. This form of domestic violence is so prevalent that many states are currently instituting laws against non-lethal strangulation. Victims of non-lethal strangulation are more prone to strokes later in life, in addition to other physical problems.
Before I got the restraining order and was still trying maintain a relationship with my mother, I was deep in repression and denial about the extent of the trauma I had experienced – and still was experiencing. When I felt anything, slapping myself was my response. One of the triggers was the regular verbal lashing I’d get from my mother, even in adulthood.
I’d also use slapping to stem the overwhelming anxiety I’d feel when I had to see her in person. I was suppressing the feelings of sadness, grief, rage, and terror that were bubbling up and begging to be expressed. In order to maintain the delusion of a good relationship, I had to engage in the clever art of minimization and emotional suppression that many survivors have mastered.
I also engaged in a more pervasive form of self-harm: extreme deprivation. My mother consistently let me know what a burden I was to her, how much life would have better without me, and I internalized that message within every fiber of my being. Getting up to brush my teeth or wash my face on a day when I wasn’t going to see people was always overwhelming. I had very few material goods — minimal furniture and only work clothes. When I did do something good for myself or even dared to have fun, I’d feel extreme guilt and shame about it afterwards. This self-deprivation colored every aspect of my life: relationships with friends, experiences with love interests, and career choices.
For me, the road to harm reduction began with recovery. I often describe recovery as spiraling up out of a black hole. Sometimes when you’re spiraling up, you come back to the same place, but from a different perspective. Self-care has now become routine. I no longer feel guilt when I have fun or am enjoying life. But when I get flashbacks – whether these be auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, or even emotional – the urge to self-harm can come on like a freight train.
Here are four tools I’ve developed to use when theses self-harm urges arise.
1. Remember that these urges don’t come from me.
I remember that these desires for self-harm aren’t mine. These are my mother’s actions, words, and thoughts. Sometimes I’ll say out loud, “This is my mother.” Remembering can be very hard when I’m in the depths of a depressive episode.
I also try to see what the feeling underneath is. Sometimes it’s another bout of grief ready to be released. Allowing myself to feel the emotion and just cry or even rage appropriately can take away the urge.
2. Identify my self-harm triggers.
As I’ve gotten deeper into my recovery, the triggers have definitely decreased. Some have even been eliminated completely. However, there are still ones that send me over the edge, such as intense, chronic physical pain.
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I’ve had and continue to do a lot of bodywork to combat the effects of the years of deprivation and abuse. But sometimes, because of the physical nature of the work I do, I experience severe pain. I’m working on transitioning to another profession, but that takes time. Knowing my triggers has helped me to remember to increase my self-care, such as getting massages, working out, and taking other actions that make my physical being feel better.
3. Talk to the right people.
When I’m in the midst of an emotional flashback that triggers the urge to self-harm, I don’t turn to a person who has a kindergarten-level understanding of trauma. I can’t be bothered with someone who doesn’t know what a trigger is, who doesn’t recognize that a mother can be abusive, or who is in the closet about their own trauma.
Moreover, some people who haven’t experienced trauma simply can’t fathom the urge to self-harm that it creates. Other people lack empathy and want you to just get over it.
Frankly, I don’t have the time for these types, and most people wouldn’t be able to handle it. I need people who either know my story or can at least relate to it. My therapist and members of my support group hear everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s with these people that I feel free to celebrate, to rage, to grieve, and to cry, no holds barred. It’s with these people that I can talk about the horrific, dirty details.
Most of the time, just talking about the urge to self-harm takes the edge off. Hearing from people who’ve been in those spaces and the tools they’ve used to get through, not get over, brings me hope.
4. Practice extreme self-care, again and again.
I keep doing it. I’m well past the point that basic grooming feels overwhelming, even in moments of despair, which is an accomplishment in itself. I work out four to five times a week. I get acupuncture, massages, Rolfing, and chiropractic care. I also am able to recognize when I just need to sit and relax.
Sometimes, when I’m having an emotional flashback, especially after long bouts of chronic pain, the acts of self-care seem to bring no relief. The point is, I still do them. But it’s not a fake-it-’til-you-make-it scenario. When I engage in self-care, I’m giving myself the nurturing I didn’t receive as a child. And that’s how I know I’m recovering: every good action towards myself, whether I can feel it or not, is a step back towards me.
When I shared about a recent urge to self-harm in my support group, one woman offered some profound feedback. After I listed all the things I was doing to maintain my self-care, she commented, “I hear that you are really fighting for your life.”
In so many ways, remembering to engage in extreme self-care and consciously reducing harm has been like reclaiming occupied territory. That’s what recovery from complex PTSD looks like. It’s learning to reclaim a ravaged land through multiple, repeated acts of self-kindness and care.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a Black woman with short red hair and red fingernails. She is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and pale pink lipstick. The woman half-smiles with her lips closed while hugging herself as she looks into the camera. Behind her is a white background.]