The time right before and during the winter holidays (Christmas, Chanukah, Yule, Kwanza, etc.) is not only a time associated with preparation, cooking, shopping, and anticipation. For many, it is also a time of depression, anxiety, and emotional stress. Some of these go together; anticipation and anxiety are very nearly the same emotion. The difference between anticipation or anxiety is in whether you expect to enjoy or dislike the experience. For people who already deal with depression, PTSD, or high levels of anxiety, added holiday stress can be way too much. For those who lack support or who have unhappy associations with these holidays, added stress can be way too much. Add one more factor, the short days and long nights, and we have a situation leading to the highest levels of suicide and suicide attempts in the entire year.
That’s why I have, or had, striped arms. The Lines Project (you can find it on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter…) is about drawing 6 or more lines in ink on your arms on the days between Dec 15 and Dec 20 in support and reminder of those who self-injure and those who attempt (and sometimes complete) suicide. If you are drawing in support, they go on your right arm, if you are drawing as a self-injurer, someone suicidal, or someone who has gone through these issues, the lines are drawn on the left. I had lines on both arms, since I am a self-injurer AND a supporter, friend, and therapist of those who do.
This is one of those places where people tend to do a double-take. As a counselor, of COURSE I can be in support of self-injurers. I can see them as clients, go to workshops & seminars about self-injury, read or write articles. Admitting that I do, or did, self-injure? Admitting that yes, I have scars, and many of them I put there? That’s another story. (And it’s not a very comfortable experience to sit in a seminar on trauma and self-injury while someone expounds on their opinion of something I’ve lived with.) Some people freak out. Some want to know why. Some want to know how you fix it, cure it, stop it.
When I say I ‘am’ a self-injurer, it means different things to different people. Present tense is probably the first part that people wonder about. Different people experience this issue differently. For me, having been a self-injurer means that it is always a part of my identity. I continue to know that this coping strategy is an option in my mind. I do not regularly self-injure now, and self-injury has not been one of my major coping strategies for years, but it is still a part of my sense of self. I know that I did, and that I could. I also believe that it was a much better choice for me than the strategies some of my peers used. Heavy drinking, especially followed by driving, unprotected sex, and smoking are three very common behaviours in the United States, and all of them are likely to cause more physical damage than many kinds of self-injury
The other thing people wonder is what it is, and why it is. Self-injury falls into different categories. I can roughly divide it into four categories, but that certainly doesn’t mean I’m the last word on the subject.
First, there are people who do not actually want to injure themselves, but have a need to have their feelings seen. Some of these people are told they are ‘posers’ or just ‘wanting attention’, but wanting attention this much is still something to be noticed. It’s real. It matters.
Second is the category I fall into; people who have used the act of injuring their bodies as a way to cope with even more painful circumstances. This can also be a way of wordlessly, soundlessly, asking for help, or it can be something the injurer keeps very private and very covered. The idea is not to commit suicide or to cause a permanent injury, but mistakes do happen. Some self-injurers accidentally go farther than they thought they would.
The third category in my way of mapping the concept is self-injury as suicide. It can be practice; it can be working up to going through with suicide. It can be seeing how far you can go this time, or injury that falls right on the border between life and death and leaving it up to Fate, Deity, or other people on whether it results in completed suicide or not. It can be a serious attempt that was interrupted, or someone who changed their mind soon enough to stop, at least for now. For whatever reason, this person is still alive, but they are suicidal, while people in the previous two categories did not want or intend to die, though some do.
Fourth is the category of people who are trying to create a physical change. Some people are so angered or repulsed by a body part that they want it gone, no matter the cost. Some are the victims of trauma or abuse that makes them no longer at home in the body they live in. Some are influenced by brain chemistry giving false messages that a part of the body isn’t wanted or needed, or that to expiate guilt or effect an external change the body must be changed.
No matter the reason, self-injury matters, and it, along with suicide, tend to spike at this time of year. When music on the radio, offerings in every type of media, advertisements from groceries to clothing to hardware stores, friends, family, houses and businesses all say that you should be having a wonderful time with family who love you unconditionally and friends you care about, not to mention cooking up a feast and affording gifts for everyone, it gets overwhelming for a lot of people. If you don’t have that kind of family, or friends, or if they live too far to visit, or a great present would be simply managing to keep the heat on and yourself fed, it’s not anticipation. It’s anxiety. It’s stress. It’s a feeling of somehow going terribly wrong but having no idea how to do it right.
That’s why I’m wearing stripes, on both arms. I’ve been there myself; I support those who are there now; and if I’m ever there again, I hope people reach out to me.