These are the stories of three survivors: Lucy, Jo and Hannah.
When I look back I sometimes find it hard to understand how I got to a place where I was so lost and my value on life had all but disappeared.
I started self-harming in my first year at University. A background of depression and eating disorders had left me barely functioning. Despite years of counselling, therapy, and recently increasing doses of antidepressants, I was a mess with no hope of getting better. My life was a roller coaster of not eating, bingeing, and attempting to make it to lectures where I often fell asleep due to lack of energy. I was so low that nothing seemed to touch me. I would go to the cinema and everyone would be laughing around me, but I didn’t even feel a glimmer of a smile. But conversely, I stopped feeling upset too. I felt like a shell of a person with all my emotions sucked out. The only thing I was able to concentrate on was the best way to die and what to write to friends and relatives to explain why.
I remember where I was when I first cut, but not what triggered me to do it. It is difficult to explain how or why it helped. What amazes me is that it didn’t really hurt at the time. It somehow brought into reality that I was alive. I felt numb and pretty dead inside, but I bled and therefore was alive. This was all partnered with a deep sense of worthlessness. I felt that I didn’t deserve people’s love or kindness. I could only see the negatives. Anything positive that anyone said I disregarded as lies, whereas anything negative I took as 100% truth. Hurting myself felt like something I deserved. Above all, it released something inside of me, and for a little while I felt calm.
Like a lot of unhelpful coping strategies, it initially worked well and made me feel more in control. But it quickly spiralled out of control. I started having panic attacks and the only way I could calm down was to cut. What had started off as a last resort became an everyday part of life. But, as destructive as it was, it kept me alive. Many times I was on the point of trying to kill myself and self-harming gave me just enough to get through another day. Cutting was never about trying to die – it was a way to survive.
How I got through all my exams is purely down to God. I certainly didn’t work enough to pass. I was also blessed with amazing family and friends, without whose support I would not be here today. Very few people knew what was really going on. When I got accepted to medical school they knew about my eating problems, but one of the criteria for letting me in was having no history of self-harm. I lived in fear that they would find out and throw me off the course. Consequently I never got any of my cuts stitched, despite knowing they should have been.
I had been a Christian through all of this. I knew quite a bit about the Bible and Jesus’ teaching. But somehow I felt exempt from the ‘Jesus loves everyone’. I knew that God knew everything, and thought that He could see how awful I was and could never love me. In fact, I didn’t really think that anyone could know me and love me. I knew that God didn’t want me to be depressed, have eating problems, or to be self-harming, but I felt powerless to stop. I had got to a point where my life was so destructive that I thought it was inevitable that I would die.
So what changed?
I believe that God gave me a wake up call. I realised that I had a choice and asked myself whether I really wanted to give up on life. I realised that to get better would be hard work. No one can stop you self-harming but yourself. Even with the best support in the world, ultimately the choice is yours. So I made the choice to try and stop. I prayed for strength and got other people to pray for me. I was very fortunate as I had friends and family that I could call on any time of day or night for support. One of the hardest things I did was to throw away my razor blades. I put them in a dustbin halfway down the road, but even still was so tempted to get them out when I had a huge panic attack just minutes later. Shaking and not knowing what to do with myself, I prayed and then got a friend to come and sit with me until I calmed down.
The first few times coping when you would normally cut are the hardest. Everything within just wants to give in and get release. But I knew that feeling better would only be temporary, and I persevered. After a little while you know you have managed before and can manage again.
It was not an easy journey, and there were times when it all went wrong and I self-harmed again, but gradually those times became less and less frequent. I became stronger, and it took much more serious events to make me react. While I was trying to stop cutting my eating got much worse because I could only give my energy and willpower to one thing. But as I overcame my self-harm I was later able to stabilise my chaotic eating patterns.
People who know me now I’m well say I’m like a different person. I’m still me, but my outlook on life has changed completely. My life is no longer ruled by self-harm and an eating disorder. It has now been years since I last cut myself. My scars have faded to white, but are very obvious when exposed, and will never go away. Sometimes they really bother me as they remind me of bad times and how depressed I was. But they also show me how far I have come. I have survived and, like it or not, my scars are a part of who I am.
There are people who will never understand why some people are driven to hurt themselves, but there are others who will love you despite what you are going through. Surround yourself with people who will support you, and get counselling if you can. Being able to talk with somebody who isn’t emotionally involved can be very helpful. Pray for God’s help and support – He is much stronger than we are! Believe in yourself – you can be free.
A couple of years ago, when I was fifteen, I found out that my family was moving away from where I had always lived to a new town. When I found out about it, I thought of the move as a ‘big adventure’ and looked forward to it. But moving was a lonely, numb feeling. I felt really lost without the spiritual home I had in church and missed having my Christian friends around me. Because we didn’t find a church straight away, I really lost touch with God. It suddenly hit me that in an adventure you get to go home, but that I had left for good. I felt like God had just dumped me in a new place and left me there. I had been sure He was going to protect me, but I just felt really lonely and abandoned. To deal with the pain I felt inside I started self-harming. I completely rejected God, believing that He didn’t want to help me. I really hated myself, but I hated God even more.I started cutting myself pretty badly, and moved even further away from God. I really hated Him for not being there when I called, and blamed Him for the way I was.
About six months later, in summer, my self-esteem was really low and I hit rock bottom. I felt really suicidal at times and didn’t see any way out of all the pain I was feeling. It seemed to be continuous and there was nothing I could do to escape the hurt inside me. I realised that, God or no God, I couldn’t carry on the way I was. I was too heavily dependent on self-harm to get through the days, and I knew it wasn’t healthy. I tried to stop by myself, but it was a constant daily struggle. It was like an addiction – I needed it to make me feel better and give me strength.
Then I went away for a week to a Christian camp called Soul Survivor. On the last day the main speaker asked people to stand up if they required healing and I knew I had to stand up. It took a lot of courage, but when I finally managed to tell my friends and youth leader what was happening I felt so much better. To finally let go of all this pain I had been hiding for so long was really releasing. All the fears I had about people being disgusted were erased, as those who prayed for me were loving and supportive and I opened up for the first time in over a year. It’s hard to explain the awesomeness and the powerfulness of what God did inside me that week. He gently gave me the strength to ask for help, protecting me and showing me how His strength was better than anything I could ever get from self-harming, showing me I was worth a lot more to Him.
When I got back from Soul Survivor I started talking with one of my other youth workers who was a counsellor, and she wasn’t judgemental in the way I expected her to be. As she prayed with me she helped me to bring God back into my life – someone I’d been ignoring for a long time. It became less of a struggle to get through each day and resist the urges to cut. Over the next six months I gradually dealt with all the feelings I was having instead of bottling them up. I only cut myself a few times, and God put amazing people around me who I could turn to and who helped me resist the urges to harm myself.
Although I had been doing really well and my relationship with God was improving, I went through a bit of a hard time about three months later, and had a bit of a relapse. Everything got on top of me as I couldn’t deal with everything I was feeling, and I got very scared that I might slip back to the way I was before, so I ran away from home to try and escape everything. Although this wasn’t the best way to deal with things, it did help me to talk to my parents about everything I was going through. They didn’t always deal with my cutting in the way I wanted them to, but I now know that they did everything because they loved me.
Looking back, I think moving was God’s way of moving me out of my comfort zone, so that I relied on Him instead of my church and friends, and so my relationship with Him could grow. I believe that He was always there, during everything I went through, and I had to experience all of it so that I could truly appreciate how amazing God’s love for me is. God is amazing – He picked me up at my lowest point and was always there for me, even when I didn’t really know who or what He was. He helped me when I was at rock bottom, when I really needed Him. He was loving, patient and full of grace. He didn’t force me back to Him, even though it was hurting Him to watch me hurting myself, but He was there waiting as soon as I went back to Him, when I realised that cutting wasn’t enough and only He could provide me with strength to get me through everything. I know that God won’t forsake me or leave me, and He will always be there with me. God’s plan can feel really uncertain at times, but I had to go through a lot of this stuff to realise God’s love for me, my need for Him, and how special I am to Him.
I grew up in a fairly happy family, the youngest of three girls, my sisters being several years older than me. I was quite close to my mum, who didn’t work and was very involved with my life, but my dad was quite emotionally distant. I grew up going to church with my family, but I didn’t have much of an active relationship with God until later. I was never happy at school. I was teased and bullied from a young age, but especially at secondary school. I felt there must be something wrong with me to be treated like that and I bottled up all my feelings, becoming depressed.
When I left home for a year out between school and college, I developed an eating disorder. I was a long way from home and very lonely. I was in a stressful job and felt more in control by not eating. But because I had to eat at work I quickly became bulimic.
Then, a few months later, I deliberately cut myself with a kitchen knife. I had never met anyone who self-harmed before, so I don’t know what triggered it, but it immediately gave me a sense of power over my body and my emotions. I began cutting my arms more frequently, often triggered by an emotion I wanted to shut off and see physically rather than emotionally. Self-harm and bulimia meant that I didn’t have to feel lonely or homesick any more.
When I went to University, things escalated, and my GP sent me to a psychiatrist, which was very scary. My eating was way out of control, I was cutting a few times every week, I was depressed, and I began having panic attacks. I left Uni in January and went to my parents. Things were no better, and I felt guilty for my destructive ways, knowing that it was hurting them. Whilst at home I began writing poems, which was a good channel of release.
The following September, I tried studying again at a different University. I just about managed for two years, seeing a counsellor who specialised in eating disorders, but everything seemed just as bad, and it was hard to cope. I started taking anti-depressants. My self-harm got worse, and I started keeping a knife under my pillow in case I needed it in the night. I only felt safe if there was something to cut myself with close at hand. Eventually, I took my first overdose, and was admitted to the local mental health unit.
My college tutor was very understanding and let me take a year out of my studies. I stayed in hospital for a while, trying to get my anxiety and depression under control. My eating got worse, and I was eventually referred to the eating disorder service where I had counselling. Still, things were very difficult, and I spent the next couple of years really battling, taking overdoses when things were too difficult and going in and out of hospital, both mental health and medical wards. It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to die, but I couldn’t bear living life the way it was.
I never went back to college – I was too unwell. I lived with my parents, and tried to cope with what was going on. I tried not to worry them, but I couldn’t stop using self-harm to deal with how I felt. I used to cut at night so I wouldn’t worry them – sometimes even spending most of the night in Casualty (ER) without them knowing. I was still seeing a counsellor, but I didn’t really feel she was doing anything other than helping me survive each week. I also still went to church, but didn’t let anyone get to know me too well.
In 2001, things began to get better. I started having counselling with Helena Wilkinson, who was a Christian eating disorder specialist, who helped me move towards recovery rather than just survival. I also applied to a housing association for a flat on my own with a support worker. I had my most difficult time at the end of the year, when a friend committed suicide, causing my eating to become very chaotic and putting me back in hospital for a while, but I moved into my flat in December. Although it was hard, it was a real turning point. I realised that I did want to fight to be better, and although there were some rocky times to come, I see now that it was the beginning of my recovery.
In 2002, I did a workshop with a theatre company, and ended up going away with them to Greece on a ‘creative holiday’. It had a huge impact on me – I laughed more than I ever had before, and also cried more because I felt I was in a safe place. Memories came back and I was able to deal with them through the dance and drama in a way I never had the confidence to do before. I had to deal with eating in front of people, and with people asking about the scars on my arms, but through it all I was shown love and acceptance, and realised that my emotions weren’t too scary or bad to deal with. I didn’t have to take it out on myself. The other people there weren’t Christians, but I believe that God used them in my recovery.
The drama group also introduced me to 5Rhythms(TM) dance, which I have to mention when I talk about my recovery because it has changed me so much. It has helped to increase my self confidence and the way I relate to others and myself, and it has helped me to release and express emotions in a positive way. This meant that I didn’t feel the need to cut as much or release emotions through physical pain.
Over the next few months, things improved slowly. I did voluntary work with the theatre company and grew in confidence, and although it was a slow road, my eating got better. I was still cutting, but not so much. I went back to working just a day a week, and stress sometimes led to problems with eating and self-harm, but I worked through them.
I have now been completely free from my eating disorder for over eight years, and, despite the occasional temptation, I no longer consider myself a self-harmer. I am a very different person to the person who became unwell at 18, and I believe that God brought me through the desert times to strengthen me and change me into the person He made me to be. During my dark times God gave me a sense that I was a caterpillar stuck in the cocoon, so I had hope for the future butterfly I would become, which I so thankful for now that I am free.