Editor’s note: The author describes vivid scenes of self-harm. Please be aware if this is a trigger for you.
When I was about 10 or 11, I made myself a promise that I would never drink or do drugs. There was a lot of alcohol use and abuse in my family and I wasn’t interested in having any part in it. So, when I was in junior high school and my anxiety, depression, awkwardness, and fear kicked into high gear, I was the same stubborn fuck I am now when I make a meaningful decision — and I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol.
Instead, I started cutting myself.
Basically, instead of relying on drugs or alcohol, as a teenager I started to experiment with pain as a release. It started with scraping my arm; first with the end of a paperclip, then with a safety pin. I began piercing my own ears, adding additional holes with a thumbtack whenever the mood struck me. I sort of succeeded at piercing my own belly button when I was 14 — I still have the scar to remind me of the three days I had an earring precariously dangling from my midsection.
Instead of relying on drugs or alcohol, as a teenager I started to experiment with pain as a release.
Eventually, I wanted to be more precise and deliberate so I graduated to a razor blade — the kind you find in utility knives. There was a ritual involved, as there often is in the destructive behavior we use to care for ourselves. There were rules I followed: Acceptable places on my body to cut, preferred patterns, and number of cuts I made. Dragging the blade over my skin was a combination of freedom and shame that I had never experienced before.
I also had a rule that I had to wait a certain number of days between each time I cut, but I usually tried to go as long as possible because I knew that what I was doing wasn’t something that good kids did. And I wanted to be a good kid. I continued to stuff my feelings down, ignore my anxiety, and doing what I could to be “normal” until I couldn’t contain it anymore. When there was finally no more room for me to tamp down my humanity and I felt like I was going to burst, I cut myself. As a teenager, I was trying to moderate my cutting in the same way I tried to moderate my drinking in my 30’s.
I usually tried to go as long as possible because I knew that what I was doing wasn’t something that good kids did. And I wanted to be a good kid.
After I came out as gay at 16, a weight was lifted and I didn’t feel the same level of urgency to hurt myself but I still didn’t know how to deal with my feelings. Every so often, after I’d ignored them for too long, the tension would build up. I’d have to release the only way I knew how — by cutting myself.
In my early 20s, I gave up on the promise I made to abstain from alcohol and started to drink. A funny thing happened: As I drank more, I felt the need to cut less. Alcohol did all of the things a razor blade did for me but without creating any new physical scars.
When I broke up with alcohol in January 2016, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that the overwhelming urge to cut myself would resurface. But I was surprised… It’s as if I had forgotten that it was the first way that I learned how to access and numb my feelings. More than once on the light rail headed to work, all of my senses would overload. I’d end up with tears in my eyes, needing a quiet place and kind words to comfort me because my feelings were ready to burst and I didn’t know what to do with them.
That’s when I realized that I was 35 years old and had never really learned how to feel my feelings.
I knew I needed to figure out how to process my feelings if I was ever going to be happy in sobriety. The most prominent tools I used in early sobriety to deal with my feelings were still escapes from them. But they were escapes that offered me room to reflect and accept what I was feeling as I grew and changed.
I began walking when I felt like I couldn’t contain the feelings inside of me. First, it was just a way for me to physically move what I was feeling through my body. I’d walk as fast as I could for as long as it took to feel a sense of relief wash over me.
Eventually, I was able to repeat mantras and examine my feelings as I was walking to release the physical pressure of being human. Walking is a time for me to work through and accept the parts of me that I’m avoiding. Listening to podcasts and music (other people’s ideas and voices) is just another way to avoid what’s inside of me.
These days, I still love to walk. It’s my favorite way to release extra energy or to think through something that’s bothering me. I’ve also found a few more pathways to access my feelings and, therefore, my humanity.
When I broke up with alcohol in January 2016, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that the overwhelming urge to cut myself would resurface. But I was surprised.
Writing has saved me. I write all of the time. Sure, I write things for people to read — articles and blog posts, that sort of thing. But I’ve found the magic has been in the small things: Lists that help organize my thoughts and clear brain clutter, quotes and ideas on Post-it’s, expressive writing exercises, Instagram posts, texts, and DMs to friends when I’m thinking about them. All of my writing, in all its different forms, has helped me learn how to access my feelings without drinking or harming myself.
I like to think that I’ve always been open to new ideas and ways of being, but the truth is, I’ve always been open to ideas and ways of being that have reinforced my existing belief system. And, while I still won’t entertain ideas that force me to have to defend my humanity or the humanity of any other marginalized human or community, I am more open to learning from people and sources that previously would have shut me down.
I’m mostly atheist. Religious and spiritual ideas used to be the kinds of topics that caused me to immediately shut down. I’ve only been able to begin being open to what spiritual folks are saying just this year. Opening myself to the possibility that I might relate to some of what is being said is an act of vulnerability that wouldn’t have been possible earlier in my sobriety, or my life in general. Being closed off from my emotions meant I was closed off from my curiosity. Now I know that I don’t have to connect with or believe in everything a person is saying for me to be able to learn from that person.
Finally, the most recent and possibly most transformational way I’ve been learning how to access and accept my feelings has been through a gratitude practice. It’s a practice where a friend and I email each other the things we’re thankful for every day: The good, the bad, and the ugly. This process is supposed to free your mind from focusing on negative situations by being thankful they exist at all, it’s supposed to help create miracles in your life. I’m pretty sure the miracle this practice has created in my life has been a deeper understanding and awareness of my feelings.
I don’t remember the last time I wanted to have a drink but I do struggle with the urge to cut myself on a regular basis. In acknowledging that, I’m realizing that my sobriety has actually been recovery from what lead me to first cut myself.
I often say the first year of my sobriety was dedicated to me learning how to process feelings, even though things were messy during those first 11, 12, and even 13 months. But I think that first year was more specifically about how to exist alongside my feelings.
Now, almost four years into my sobriety, I feel like I’ve started to learn how to do more than acknowledge that feelings exist and wait them out. I’m learning how to let them in, exploring how they impact my experience in this world and harness them to do my work. I’m finally using my feelings to create the freedom that my teenage self was looking for all along.