Part 4: My First Experience with Self-Harm

Being depressed is a frightening feeling. When you feel no real passion for anything, and you’re not in control of your mood, emotions, and thoughts, it’s your mind’s way of telling you to slow down; it’s your mind’s way of yelling at you to take it seriously. But, as I’ve said earlier, how often do we treat our mental health with the significance it deserves? How often do we treat those suffering from mental illnesses with the kindness and understanding that is crucial to their mental well-being and recovery?

All my life I have always held myself to the highest possible standard. As I’ve mentioned earlier, for the longest time, perfection was the be-all and end-all of my existence. This unfair pressure I placed on myself did have its benefits though: I used to excel academically, I was a great football player, I used to thrive in competitions out of school, and the like. You’d think that these aspects of my life would give me immense joy, right? Wrong. While I did enjoy being on top of my game, I was inadvertently the architect of my own failure. By equating my worth with my successes and achievements, I conditioned myself into thinking that with them I was valuable and important, and without them, I deserved nothing but misery and pain. It was not long before I would face the repercussions of my unhealthy mentality.

I remember the day distinctly – December 19th, 2017 – the day my life changed. It was the night before my Physics exam, and I was in a soup. I had wasted the time leading up to the exam, procrastinating more and more each day, and as a result, I had only finished half of the syllabus. As I sat at my dining table, coaxing myself into absorbing the material any way possible, I found myself being pulled deeper and deeper into a whirlpool of anxiety and frustration. Suddenly, I was profusely sweating with my torso tightening and my heartbeat quickening. I was fixated on the thought of failing my exam, and how catastrophic it would be if I didn’t do well. But in retrospect, that was only the tip of the iceberg as to why I was petrified at the prospect of failure.

In the earlier months of that year, I had been experiencing a difficult time at school. People that I had been friends with my entire life suddenly became my worst enemies. The reason for such a sour turn of events was some petty squabble – who would be the captain of our debate team. But that minor disagreement among us friends had colossal ramifications. I would walk into school and be greeted with scorn and hostility. I would hear all sorts of unpleasant things about myself including my past achievements, my personality, and my personal life. Mind you these people had been my closest friends for a while now, so they knew everything about me. Most crucially, it was disillusioning to see how years of trust, love, and memories could all be discarded over something as silly as a head position, but these things are commonplace. Additionally, at the time, I would also get harsh messages online from numerous people and even threats of being beaten up after school (not a very uncommon occurrence in my life at a boys’ school)!

This bullying continued for months, and for most of my high school years, I would continue to suffer from the negativity being spewed toward me. This was important because I wasn’t merely afraid of doing badly on my exam; I was afraid of what my peers would say about me. Everything I had worked for in the past would all simply fade in the face of this failure. This lapse would only fuel their machines of hatred and antagonism and give them more ammunition to use against me. Furthermore, I didn’t want to use the “victim card” and come across as weak and helpless. Alas, as soon as this thought took seed in my head, I felt isolated and hopeless. Fighting against the deluge of pessimism felt futile. It was me against the world, and I had nothing to show for myself. The only aspect of my life keeping me sane was my academics, but now, even that seemed to fade away.

Suddenly, I was unsure of what was happening. It was as if my body went into autopilot. Pain. Suffering. Anxiety. It all came crashing down on me, and I needed it to stop. I was sitting in my living room with my books in front of me, but I could not do anything but ponder the impending doom that was about to befall me. It was a paralyzing sensation – I had never felt anything so overwhelming. Even now, I remember just how much I wanted to escape that feeling. I tried everything I could. I jotted down a few paragraphs about my mental state vociferously, but it bordered on incoherence and exhaustion. Somewhere, deep within the confines of my mind, I knew I was projecting depressive behavior, but I didn’t even know how to deal with it. I tried to take deep breaths, drawing all my focus onto the breath, but I only felt my breathing hasten. Soon, I was crying, but I tried to stifle the sobs. I didn’t want anyone waking up because of my meltdown.

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I jotted down a few paragraphs of what I was feeling that night, but writing didn’t help.

My chest continued to tighten, and soon, I found myself hyperventilating. I craved an escape from the flurry of emotions that were bombarding me. Anything to alleviate the sheer hopelessness and agony I was feeling. It simply needed to stop. I looked around frantically for anything that could crush this feeling of despair. And before I knew it, I had my pen in my hand and that was the first time I ever inflicted harm on myself. I was crestfallen. In that situation, I felt as if I deserved the self-inflicted pain. I viewed myself as worthless, insignificant, and disturbed. There was something wrong with me. And I deserved to suffer this pain. Any iota of self-compassion within me had disappeared. Any semblance of stability had vanished. My reality quickly distorted, and I was lost in the vortex. As the adrenaline rush quickly dissipated, the magnitude of what I had just done slowly started to settle in.

As I look back, another aspect of my decision to inflict self-harm was to seek a degree of control. Until then, I had felt as if everything was going wrong, and I could do close to nothing to stop it. My dispute with my friends, my grades, my general sense of fulfillment and happiness, and my goals. It seemed as if I would continue to fail in improving any of these issues, and as a result, my automatic response was to find any way of reestablishing control – no matter how drastic. The inconvenient truth is that self-harm is becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon, and more and more young children and teenagers see it as a release. However, as I recount this, my intention is not to idealize self-harm or even justify it as an appropriate mechanism to deal with mental suffering. Instead, the circumstances that led to this incident are what matter, and I merely hope to explain my psyche leading up to that fateful decision.

The Physics exam came and went. I didn’t fail that day, but something deeper and more complex had started to manifest within me. In the aftermath of my first self-harm incident, I felt confused, worried, and fell further into my depressive state. After a couple of days, I revealed what happened that night to my family. Naturally, they were equally confused and taken aback. I had not shown any obvious signs of depression, and to them, I was just going through a “bad phase.” But during that conversation, I finally unfolded how alone and terrified I felt. My parents did their best to hold back their tears, and I did my utmost to reassure them. I could understand where they were coming from: they started to view their own upbringing of me as flawed and problematic, and it led to them harboring guilt for my predicament. That could not have been further from the truth because my family have always been the most understanding and supportive unit I could have ever asked for.

However, in the past, whenever I would speak of therapy, they would courteously decline as they believed that therapy was for those who “actually” suffered from serious, mental conditions. I told my family bluntly that perhaps I was one of “those” people. In truth, my decision to harm myself was also a cry for help. Not only was my mind blaring the message that I needed to look after my mental health more, but I also wanted my family to see that I was not myself. I was not the unsmiling, unhappy, and frustrated individual that they saw. I did not want to feel this angst and perpetual discomfort. But most of all, I had never felt like this ever before. I was a frightened sixteen-year old boy who had never really pondered what mental health entailed. Ultimately, after much deliberation (and a few more tears), we concluded that the best course of action would be to seek help from a medical professional.

When a person is suffering from depression, it is imperative to realize that the afflicted is not themself. Depression has the crippling ability to suppress the beauty of a person’s inner being. A person’s happiness, motivation, passion, qualities, virtues – everything that makes you you – is buried deep within. Buried under a mound of pain and melancholy that is apparently gargantuan in magnitude and burden. It is akin to a war of attrition – each side slowly attempting to eat away at the other until one can no longer exist. Your beauty versus your pain. But things are not always as awful as they seem and realizing that depression can be combatted and can give way to who you really are will ease the twinge that you feel presently.

Unfortunately, this would not be the last time I harmed myself with the intent of causing pain. There would be more attempts, and for a long time, I perceived this period of my life as the darkest. A period that I had no desire to speak of and ruminate over. I would always keep this “dirty” secret shrouded in the cloud of secrecy and mystery. However, as I have grown and healed with time, it struck me that I could not simply shrug off my depression as “just a phase.” I have viewed my depression as a monster – a ghastly demon whose clutches either irreparably damage someone or cause them to perish. Depression was that immovable chip on my shoulder – feeding my insecurities, pessimism, and antagonism while starving the very essence of my being. My empathy – my ability to deeply understand and relate to those around me – would be engulfed by the cloak of my melancholy. My passion and zest for life were murdered at the devilish hands of my inexplicable belief that I deserved nothing but pain. Oh, how foolish.

Today, I have the clarity of thought that my depression was an unlikely gift. Without it, I would not be half the person I am now, and I wouldn’t be standing here to tell the stories that I am. Yes, I did harm myself again, but that’s only half the picture. There were also several times when I didn’t allow myself to be encapsulated by everything going wrong in my life. I fought back even when I didn’t think I could. While my depression far from defines me, it has played an undeniably pivotal role in molding me into the person I am today. It has forged resilience to adversity, empathy towards all those around me, perseverance during troubled times, and gratitude for everything that I have been endowed with. This is not to say I’m perfect (although a younger me would’ve desperately desired that). I am growing and learning every day – there are some days where I get it right, and others where I can’t seem to even make my breakfast right. But what really matters is endeavor and persistence.

Think of your mental health as a marathon and not a sprint. You can’t simply say you want to try and be healthy one day of the week and engage in unhealthy thought processes the other six. Your mental health demands consistent effort, dedication, and judicious use of your mental resources and rightfully so. Just as you wouldn’t stop eating your greens or taking your supplements, why not do the same with your mental well-being? Exercise the same compassion and concern with yourself that you would show a loved one if they came to you with their insecurities and troubles. Allow yourself to heal and make mistakes. Life may seem bleak and dreary now; it may seem unrelenting and harsh. But if you start recognizing that you deserve happiness and care, half the work is done. Sometimes, all it takes is a start. Mind you, a healthier approach to your mental health will not come in a day, a week, or a month. It will take time; but often, beautiful things do.

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