Self-Control Needs to Be My Survival Strategy
Trigger Warning/Content Warning: Mention of self-harm, suicidal behaviour and sexual assault
I often feel out of control, which is a very frustrating thing to experience if all you want is to be more in control. More in control of my behaviour, of how others see me, of how my body is doing, of what I can and can’t accomplish. So I am constantly stuck in a rut of frustration that seems almost impossible to get out of. A lot of self-acceptance and acceptance in general is about letting go of the things that you can’t control and that are a reality that can’t be changed in the now. I get that, but god damn it, I need to be in control of that reality shit!
Reasonably thinking, and one thing that I strongly believe in, is that all we can actually control and change is our own behaviour. We don’t need to change how we feel, because what we feel is always okay. It can be validated because feelings are instinctive and human. Some feelings are yucky and we’d want less of those. And we can affect that by the way we behave, and by the way we approach things. Sadly enough, most people rather try changing other people’s behaviour, feelings or the circumstances, instead of the one thing they actually have any sort of control over: their own behaviour.
One of the main markers of mental illness is the inability to control impulsive behaviour. The emotions (often fear, anger and hopelessness) become so overwhelming that you automatically react impulsively to make those feelings stop. It can feel like you have zero control over what you are actually doing: yelling at someone, harming yourself, trying to kill yourself, avoiding scary situations, cutting people out of your life. It is first in therapy that people learn the importance of agency, of self-control and taking a second to think before acting. And you know what? It is fucking hard to do that if your demons are screaming, you are in a flashback, in despair or well, in my case, switching from one alter to the next and they do whatever they feel is right.
So mental illness often equals erratic behaviour and impulsive decisions based on overwhelming emotions. And gosh yeah, my bipolar disorder definitely makes me that way. So does my Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, my Dissociative Identity Disorder and my Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Add to that all the vulnerabilities caused by my chronic physical illnesses and I am not much in control of my behaviour. Or so I think. Or so I sometimes hope.
What is frustrating is that you are still responsible and held accountable. Of course you can cut yourself some slack, and it is okay to focus more on self-care than taking care of others when you are struggling. It is also okay to not be as productive as healthy people, to socialize less, or to give up sometimes. But accountability and responsibility linked to how you treat others, and yourself? I think that still stands for me, and others who suffer from mental illness. What you suffer from is an explanation, but never an excuse. What you feel is okay, and no one can take that away from you. But you choose how you express that feeling.
I can go into different directions with this now. But I want to focus on something that has been on my mind recently. I have not been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in five years. That is a huge deal for me. For many years I had been in and out of psych units and hospitals. I sometimes had to spend months there, I sometimes was sectioned/admitted against my own will. But I have been able to stay away from them for five years now.
I’d like to think that the main reason for that is that I am practicing self-control in a way that most people never have to deal with. A great motivation to work on that self-control is definitely avoiding admission to a psych unit. I have been traumatized by these places. I have seen terrible things. And I have been raped there, I have been tied down and meds were injected into me without my consent. Bad bad memories. So yeah, I had to learn how to practice self-control in two areas, so I could stay away from feeling even more out of control. Those two areas are self-harm and suicide.
I am having a flashback. I hate myself so much for not being able to control my feelings. I am weak, I am stupid. And those feelings are so so much. Why would someone like me even deserve to feel good? How the fuck am I not able to be like a normal person and not get triggered by the smallest shit? I need those stupid feelings to stop right now. I can’t can’t deal with them. Why am I crying? Why am I screaming? Why the fuck am I behaving like a little baby? I need this to fucking stop. I can’t deal with it. Why is it screaming in my head? Panic panic. Fuck. How do I make this stop. Can’t breathe. I am such a fucking weak loser. I need to be punished. I need to hurt. I need this to stop. I need a distraction. I need these feelings to stop. Now. Now. Punished. It needs to stop.
Okay, so this kind of a typical scenario of when I want to self-harm. I might want to add that I didn’t start to self-harm before I was 30 years old. At least not in the traditional sense. It was then when I started to cut with razor blades. I also sometimes hit my head really hard against a wall or hit my head with my fists. The issue with self-harm for me was never that it didn’t help anymore. Oh, it helps. It was more that the consequences of it were too severe. I gave myself concussions. And as a result of that, I have post concussion syndrome now. And the cutting led to some pretty ugly scars on my arms, which means that I always have to wear long sleeves when I am around people. Both are pretty shitty consequences.
But I want to self-harm. I think that is an urge I will never get rid of. And just the other day, I fell off the wagon again. For me, self-harm is the best way to get out of a flashback. It is the most efficient way for me to deal with overwhelming feelings. It helps to get me out of dissociation. Hands down, self-harm has probably saved my life dozens of times. Why? Because I was able to cut off the emotions before they pushed me into doing something even more drastic.
But the consequences! So what I had to learn, still am learning, is to control that impulse when I am at my very worst. See, if it were to practice self-control when I am doing fine, I think I’d do a perfect job. But when I am at my worst? It is an additional spice that I am adding to the soup of despair. It means that while I am battling with the part of my brain that is overwhelmed, I also need to fight with the part that wants to make things better and get out the despair. More often that not, I am able to use different coping strategies now. I know what to do. But it is hard. So fucking hard. But I need to practice self-control or I might end up in the psychiatric unit again. And never ever do I want that to happen again.
Suicidal impulses are way more dangerous than self-harm impulses. See, I have been able to handle the suicidal ideation in depression for a long time now. I can be passively suicidal and never go into any kind of active headspace. Passive suicidality means for me just imagining that it could all just end, being at peace with that there is that possibility. The big danger is impulsive suicidal thoughts.
I have tried to kill myself over 20 times. And with that I only count the actual attempts I was able to act out. There have been hundreds of times when I have been stopped, interrupted or wasn’t able to take the last step. I have tried out many different ways, all through out my life. It got worse in the years following my breakdown in 2010. Has it gotten better? I am quite sure. But it is not because I am suddenly all happy and embrace life. No. I still have strong suicidal urges that often seem out of control. And sometimes I am definitely not safe, at all. And I need to have my Master with me. Just this week, there have been times when I was a danger to myself and he had to stay at home from work to keep me safe.
What has changed is my ability to practice self-control. There are so many things that can just push me into a suicidal crisis. I wouldn’t even say that it is triggers. It is about drops. One thing too much. And boom. One paradoxal thing that seems to happen is that I feel out of control over my physical health and my health anxiety kicks in, telling me that I am dying of some terrible illness. And because that terrible illness promises a painful long death, I better take control of the situation and kill myself right now, so I am in control of the how and when of my own death. That is how messed up a mentally ill mind can get!
So practicing self-control when it comes to suicidal impulses is even harder than when it comes to self-harm. I have found my strategies here too, most of them involve safe places, safe objects and safe people. And reminding myself of that whatever causes me to feel suicidal, is not going to last forever. I just watched a movie today and it ended with a Rilke quote that very much sums up what helps me control my urges during a suicidal crisis:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
For most people, self-control is about eating that cookie, going to the gym, or not buying those expensive shoes. For me, self-control is about survival. If I don’t learn and continue to practice self-control when I am in crisis, I might just end up dead one day. And that would be very unfortunate because I have hopeful moments that push me towards working for a possible future too. And what if there actual is a possibly okay future for myself?