“I give you permission to hurt yourself.”
I remember staring in shock at my therapist. I’d been stunned to silence, which was a terrible use of my weekly 50-minute session that I had with him. A scabbed up patch of skin on my shoulder itched with exhibitionism.
No one had ever said it was okay to self-harm before.
I had checked myself into the counseling center at the start of my second semester of college. In fact, I’d skipped a class on Monday morning after winter break to go. My first semester hadn’t ended in the way that I’d hoped.
Instead of celebrating the end of finals, I’d spent the day before my last exam in bed, mentally writing out a suicide note – collecting a mental list of resources in my dorm room, and picturing a long, restful sleep.
That wasn’t the ending I wanted anymore.
My therapist was gentle and kind, with brown eyes and a soft salt-and-pepper beard that made his thin face appear bearish. He was a small person with an affinity for sweater vests.
When I showed him my handiwork, he didn’t balk, he didn’t stir. I remember him sleepily blinking behind his wire-rimmed frames and leaning back in his chair. He assessed my posture – head dropped in shame, shoulders caving and asked a question no one had asked before.
“What do you do when you cut?” he asked. My mouth went dry.
I explained what I’d called my ‘rituals’. How I spent an hour before, and an hour after cleaning every tool I used. How I minimized risk and injury by using new tools and strong antiseptics. How after, I would cloister myself in the bathroom, carefully, gently scrubbing my wounds, applying salves, and bandaging them with care and tenderness.
A tenderness that, in months of working with me, he’d never heard.
“You do realize, that in the moments after you feel that you’ve committed the most self-harm, you also commit the most self-love?”
I felt like I’d fallen off the couch. I still can hear his gentle, contemplative voice as he offered the analysis of my behavior, posed as a question to draw the realization out of me. And through that, we had a plan.
“I give you permission to harm yourself.” Only if, he said, I continued to love myself.
My therapist did not shame me for self-harmase countless people had before. He saw it for what it was; a release of deep-seated rage, of inadequacy, ignited by years of parental neglect and abuse. I did not hate myself, I was just desperate for release.
In time, he suggested using a marker to make red lines on my skin instead of a blade. Soon, I was writing words on my arms or drawing flowers where I’d normally torn my body apart. Soon, the marker was transferred to paper, coming out in a kind of poetry that was like a stream of consciousness. I started to paint.
When my mind cooled, I could focus on how my body was feeling. For me, anxiety comes up in a slow tide, that washes me from my toes to my head in a constrictive blanket – like lava overwhelming a coastline, bringing everything to a halt in heavy, oppressive, molten earth.
I had to break the sarcophagus of anxiety. So I started to run.
I anxiously awaited the end of the year, when he would stay in my college town, and I would head home for the summer – back to a home that had ignored the volcano of depression inside of me.
But I had been painting, writing, publishing poetry, and exercising every day. When I met him in May, the shackles of mental illness were looser. They would never be completely gone – but I could breathe, and I could live.
“I’ll see you in August,” he said with a smile. “I’m confident you have the tools for this.”
My toolbox had once been a razor blade, a roll of gauze, a bottle of antiseptic, a candle and a lighter. Now, it was a notebook, a paintbrush, a pen, and a pair of running shoes.
When did I change? When did I start loving myself?
My therapist had a secret. I always had.