Natalia Nottingham

Article submitted February 7th, 2020

Natalia Nottingham

February 7th, 2020

The Secrets Behind the Scars:
Masking the Psychological Pain of Prolonged Trauma

Trigger warning: self harm and mentions of abuse

I never used to understand why someone would intentionally harm themselves. And there were good reasons why I didn’t understand it, why most of us don’t understand it. Every natural instinct in our body is inclined toward protecting and preventing harm to ourselves. It takes an immense level of suffering to self-inflict physical wounds as a means of relieving mental and emotional pain. And I never thought I’d reach that extreme level.I never thought I’d be that person. But of course, we never expect to be that person... until we are that person.

Our society tends to associate self-harm with depression, but each story is different and each reason for self-harming unique. For me, cutting was a way of coping with the psychological effects of trauma—effects that I initially denied, downplayed, and minimized.

It took me a long time to realize that I had been traumatized, and even longer to trust that what I’d endured truly was bad enough for how I was responding psychologically. I knew that I wasn’t doing well mentally, but because it had not originated from a stereotypical cause of a trauma-related disorder—I hadn’t been raped, hadn’t been to war, hadn’t been in a school shooting—I believed it wasn’t valid. When my therapist discovered that, on top of my more recent trauma, I had been abused for ten years of my early childhood, I initially brushed this off as “nothing” as well. And part of me did think it to be nothing; I’d been made to believe that my difficulty in withstanding the abuse served as an indication of what was fundamentally flawed in me. Knowing little else within that context, and being too young to understand how wrong it was, I embraced it as a weakness in my character, not my abuser’s. Despite having contact with that abuser multiple times a week for years on end, I assumed that because it had not come from a parent, it didn’t count. I thought that admitting to the trauma and abuse made me dramatic and ungrateful for everything good in my life.

Most of all, accepting that I had been traumatized meant accepting that the trauma had happened, and I wanted so badly to forget about it entirely. So I told myself that its impact was negligible, avoidable, and inconsequential. Wow how wrong I was about that.

During my first several months of therapy, my therapist continually pointed out my psychological responses which matched what was characteristic of traumatized individuals: the frantic attempts to avoid reminders of the trauma. The resulting tension and overwhelming nerves, to the point of panic attacks, when avoidance was not an option. The flashbacks real enough to be indistinguishable from the present moment. The dissociation, regularly causing me to be so separated from my mind and body that I could barely move or speak. The emotional numbness and disconnection from my thoughts. The alteration and compartmentalization of identity. The hopelessness from being shattered apart and unable to trust that I could piece myself back together.

Those were just the obvious ones. As I continued with therapy, I began to recognize that my core personality traits had developed as a means of protecting myself as a child. My excessive perfectionism stemmed from my six-year-old self believing that the abuse was my fault: that if I were good enough, perfect enough, then maybe I wouldn’t be abused. My intense work ethic then arose from the need to reach such an unattainable level of perfection. The extreme self-criticism was connected to this as well, as was my need to apologize and take the blame for what was not within my control.

And the self-harm. The self-harm too, or at least what caused me to feel the need to self-harm, was a manifestation of trauma. When traumatic memories—which haven’t been properly stored nor processed—are triggered to the front of your mind, your brain fails to distinguish them from the present. Assuming that you are in immediate danger, it sends your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, eventually shutting down your body to prepare for the worst if the threat is perceived as inescapable. Cutting released energy in a way that tricked my body into believing that I had fled or fought the danger, thus signaling to my nervous system that I was safe.

Allowing my body, instead, to reach that point of shut-down meant subjecting myself to a deep distress that stole my desire to live. What usuallymade me feel alive, what normally lit up a fire inside of me, suddenly felt dangerous. Everything, besides sitting against a wall with my arms wrapped around my knees in a dark and empty room, felt unsafe. Not just unsafe in the manner that we usually use the word, but overwhelmingly and suffocatingly so, to the point where I finally understood the phrase “paralyzed by fear.” To the point where I understood what it meant to have my entire body switch off, with no way to stop it, to prevent me from doing what it perceives as perilous. I didn’t want to isolate and withdraw. I didn’t consciously choose it. My mind forced it upon me.

Everything that encompasses who I am—my emotions, my thoughts, my personality, my sense of identity—would be pulled from within me and packaged into a ball that hovered off to the side but significantly out of reach. What remained inside of me was a void, an emptiness, a blankness. I could see my legs and feet in front of me, could vaguely sense my arms around my chest, but my chest was nothing more than a hollow, deserted container. My body had become a detached and separate entity: a costume or piece of armor that enclosed the emptiness, but otherwise not a part of me. It stood as a shield, splitting me off from an outside world that had turned foggy, dreamlike, and unreachable. A world that was no longer real, that I could no longer access. A world with which I could no longer interact.

Trying to move my limbs was as futile as aiming to lift an inanimate object bystaring at it from across the room. From the viewpoint of my mind, my body had become that inanimate object. Trying to speak resulted in muttering a few incoherent words, if I was lucky, before staring lifelessly off into the distance as I disconnected from the few lingering tangible aspects of myself. I could hear a voice in the back of my head, telling me to move, to say something, to do something. Anything. But the thoughts were not my own and their subsequent translation into actions was altogether gone. When combined with the inability to differentiate the past from the present, with physical sensations that felt excruciatingly real but were sheer fabrications ofmy psyche, it was enough to make me doubt my sanity and grasp on reality.

My whole life I’d lived by the concept of “mind over matter,” and naturally I tried to apply the same approach here. I told myself that if I maintained the right mindset and positive thoughts, I could pull out of the suffocating state that was constantly taking control of me. Unfortunately, science was against me on this one: when your body’s danger response is activated, the logical thinking part of your brain is temporarily disabled. You can’t “think” yourself out of a flashback, in the same manner that you can’t “think” yourself into correctly processing memories; the conscious mind lacks direct connection and control over your nervous system and memory storage. My other go-to coping mechanisms had become unfeasible as well; due to the nature of my trauma, my previously sustainable and constructive methods for dealing withadversity had, themselves, become triggers.

Thus, as the flashbacks and dissociative episodes became debilitating, escalating to the point where I was non-functional for days and weeks at a time, I became increasingly reliant on self-harm. I eventually found myself sitting on the floor one night, tears streaming down my face, attempting to pull away from my roommate’s grasp as she held tightly onto my hands to prevent me from hurting myself. More than anything else, I was touched and beyond grateful that she cared enough to sit by me while I was in that state. But on top of that, as I sat there shaking and hyperventilating while my limbsbecame numb from lack of oxygen, I felt helpless and terrified that she was keeping me from what had become my main comfort in those situations. It’s not that the physical pain was enjoyable; it’s that the emotional pain was unbearable, and the worst physical pain I’d intentionally put myself through was still far less than the pain I was experiencing emotionally. Simply deciding that I would try to stop cutting, simply committing to that goal without having an alternative effective coping strategy, was absolutely terrifying because it meant removing that safety net for when the dissociation, flashbacks, panic, self-blame, hopelessness, and fear became unmanageable.

This is what many fail to comprehend: that self-harm, in itself, is not the issue. The same would be true had the story been about drug addiction, substance abuse, alcoholism, disordered eating—the list goes on. While it’s essential to spread awareness about the negative impacts of these behaviors, doing so without discussing what leads to such behaviors in the first place only increases isolation and guilt among those who are struggling, and fosters judgement from those who are not. Yes, self-destructive and addictive behaviors are a problem. But it’s not the problem. It’s a means of coping when the actual underlying issue is too much to bear; it’s a desperateattempt to escape, or at least partially alleviate, a pain that has become intolerable. Removing the mechanism that dulls the pain does not remove the pain itself.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to stop. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’d been consistently going to therapy for the very reason of doing everything I could to get better. We can’t control what has happened to us, and contrary to what the inspirational quotes say, we can’t always control how we respond (our nervous systems will see to that). But it is our responsibility to do what we can to heal. Self-harm, in the long term, hinders that ability to heal fully.

What I am saying, however, is that it’s not a quick fix, and recovery is far more complex than what appears on the surface. After years of prolonged or repetitive trauma, you start to believe that that’s how it’s supposed to be. The trauma becomes your “normal,” and never having known the absence ofit, you believe that it’s your destiny or even your purpose to suffer. Particularly when the trauma is interpersonal, when an abuser repeatedly sends the message that your pain and emotions don’t matter, that your bodydoesn’t matter, that you as a whole don’t matter, you begin to question whether you are worthy of healing. The mere idea of happiness and safety suddenly feels distant, unfamiliar, and unattainable, and trusting that things will get better can seem nearly impossible. Setting out on that journey to undo a lifetime of trauma can seem nearly impossible. Once begun, the journey itself is full of relapses and setbacks and breakdowns, with each stepforward buried beneath several steps backwards. The steps forward do happen, though. And no matter how long that takes, it doesn’t make someone a failure. It doesn’t mean that they’re weak. It means they’ve survived a hell of a lot more than what anyone deserves, and they are fucking strong for finding the willpower to push through.

Were we to talk about it more, perhaps more of us would understand that. Perhaps we’d observe the human side of those who are struggling, see the reasons behind their fears and the rationale behind their reactions to those fears. Maybe we’d witness their persistent strength, despite all they’ve endured, and find the compassion within us to acknowledge that strength.

Still, though, we dodge the conversation. There exists a vicious cycle of secrecy and shame, in which those of us who are self-harming fear judgement from those who are not, causing us to sidestep the one thing—talking about it—that would help most in lessening their judgment and thus decreasing our need to hide. I won’t deny that stigma is there. But stigma can only exist when understanding is absent. The only ones who are truly capable of creating that necessary understanding are those who have experienced it themselves, whether directly or through the eyes of a close friend or loved one. Opening up is uncomfortable, but leaning into that discomfort is what will allow it to slowly dissipate.

To those who are going through a tough time: reach out. As scary as it may be at first, you’d be surprised by the amount of love you receive. I definitely was. Know that those around you want to give their love and support, and more importantly, know that you deserve that love and support. You are not a burden, you are not selfish for asking for help, and you do deserve to be happy. Arriving at that place of happiness may be the hardest task you undertake, but it will be the most rewarding investment you can make for yourself. You are worth that investment. I promise.

To those supporting someone going through a tough time: listen to understand and empathize. Listen to seek a new perspective and to forge connection. Even if there are no words to mend the situation, be a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on, a body to hug. It’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference, more than you’d ever imagine, and I’m forever thankful for those in my life who provide this to me.

And for both groups, for those supporting and those being supported: challenge the image that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “mentally ill.” Recognize that it is indeed possible to be vulnerable yet still courageous, delicate yet determined, fragile yet resilient, and broken yet relentless.

It’s often the ones you’d least expect, the ones who embody the attributes opposite to what we associate with mental illness, who are carrying the heaviest burdens and fighting the darkest battles. It’s the leaders and presidents of organizations, the star athletes and team captains, the students with the seemingly flawless resumes and countless job offers, the friends who light up the room with their laughter and positive energy. It’s the guy who’s the life of the party, the teammate giving the motivational pep-talks before early morning practices, the girl next to you in lecture who can’t stop smiling over the mathematical representations of quantum decoherence.

In many ways, it affects every single one of us. Trauma isn’t black and white. It’s not an all-or-nothing binary categorization of what counts and what doesn’t. It exists on a spectrum, and each of us, regardless of the extent of our trauma, hold a place somewhere on that spectrum. We all experience trauma in the sense that we all, to varying degrees, experience difficult life events that shape our perspectives and influence our interactions with the world around us.

Maybe the trauma didn’t result in a diagnosed mental health condition. Maybe it didn’t lead to a self-destructive or addictive behavior. But perhaps itwas enough to lower our self-esteem and self-worth, to inhibit our sense of healthy boundaries, or to shift our previously excited and optimistic outlook towards one of caution and doubt. Perhaps it created the need to seek constant reassurance and validation, to apologize for our presence because we see ourselves as an inconvenience, or to be perpetually busy to suppress otherwise inevitable emotions. Generally, these are so engrained into our thought processes that we’re not even aware of it. We don’t think twice about it. Yet it’s still there, and it’s still creating an impact.

Everything that is “wrong” with us, whether labeled so by ourselves or by society, developed as a subconscious attempt to overcome past life events and experiences. Some of those might be more extreme than others, but really, we’re all in the same boat—we’re all simply doing what we can to dealwith what life throws at us.

I’m not proud of my scars, but I’m not ashamed of them either. Ultimately, I’m doing the best I can to function and survive, given the obstacles I’ve been facing. And we need to stop shaming ourselves for doing our best to survive and start giving ourselves credit for all that we have survived.

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