My Body Took My Soul’s Pain: Bailey
Trigger warning: self-injury.
It started small when I was small—still in the single digits, probably. Huddled in my room after facing my parents’ wrath, I would curl up in a corner and scratch hateful messages into my legs. “Stupid,” I would write, and “bad.”
It hurt, sure, but I felt less guilt over my stupidness and less shame over my badness after I’d punished myself. “You’re not stupid or bad anymore,” I would reassure myself afterwards. “It’s over now.”
When the hell of adolescence struck, I was overwhelmed constantly. Take a sensitive nature, put it in a volatile home situation, and add the chaos of hormones, and it just seemed impossible to find any emotional or mental balance. I felt stupid and bad all the time—not just when mom and dad yelled. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the first of many periods of clinical depression.)
Most of the time, my parents were really quite loving. But they were also strict. For instance, they required immediate, unquestioning, cheerful obedience. But what if I had a deep sadness or a burning question?! I could never comply to their satisfaction, and they said that meant rebellion. I didn’t feel rebellious, and yet I couldn’t stop rebelling! I deserved their yelling. Clearly, I was just a failure at the pursuit of piety. And that was the worst imaginable failure. Failing my parents meant failing God, so their displeasure represented his.
Shame characterized the core of my being. My parents said they loved me unconditionally, but it seemed like their love stopped whenever I displeased them. If they didn’t restore their love, then I had to do something drastic to restore order. If I was bad, I deserved a punishment; if I received a punishment, then I would be absolved—on some grand karmic level, if not in my parent’s eyes. After the punishment, I could feel like I deserved love, even if I didn’t receive it. I had paid the price to absolve my sin, so the weight of my sin felt lifted.
Obviously, I misunderstood God and his grace. I also read my parents unfairly; they still loved me, they just didn’t show it in a way that I understood. They’d been conditioned by the homeschool culture to show displeasure towards any failure-to-be-holy. Otherwise, they’d be letting my sins slide, and then they’d be bad parents who were letting their child’s soul go to hell!
They loved me, so they didn’t want me to go to hell. They believed—because they had been told—that it was their spiritual responsibility to mold me, which meant insisting on a narrow definition of behavior. Unfortunately, that sometimes played out as refusing to show grace toward human imperfections. To a kid, that means conditional love. And that means shame, guilt, self-doubt, and fear.
Even apart from my parents, life wasn’t a walk in the park. Being a teenager just plain sucks. But I never fought back against any of these forces. I internalized everything until I was so full of bad emotions—general anguish, hatred toward myself, and anger toward the world—that I felt insane.
I was desperate to release those feelings, but it had to be private; I didn’t want to get in any more trouble, and I didn’t want to be like my parents, who took their emotions out on me and my siblings. So I did what seemed, at the time, like a great idea. I focused on myself, to protect everyone around me. I punished myself to release my guilt. In my mind, I was even defending myself from my parents: “This is what you’re doing to my soul,” I whispered. “So, fine, I’ll do it to my body. If I deserve it, I’ll take it.”
Self-injury transferred my soul’s pain to my body, and I found the physical pain infinitely more bearable. It distracted me from the terror of the moment, a change that allowed the possibility of quietness and peace. I assured myself that sensations existed other than mental torment. I craved the endorphins.
And I wore long sleeves and pants, claiming chronic coldness even in hot summers.
Everything worsened in college. My parents panicked about letting me grow up and hence became stricter, angrier, louder. Now that I saw the whole world, I wanted to find my own place in it, which meant leaving behind their careful plans. I think this frightened them, which angered them, which frightened me, which angered me. They divided our phone calls between friendly chats and harsh condemnations.
I was furious with them, and I didn’t want to be like them. I knew, on some level, that they loved me and wanted the best for me, even if they didn’t know how to give it to me. I knew they were scared and worried, and their feelings of terror and rage had to go somewhere. (That was a situation I deeply understood.) They chose their target: me. Perhaps in a warped domestic version of Stockholm syndrome, I chose the same target. Me.
Eventually, people found out, which was the thing I least wanted. I was sent to a therapist, which was the thing I most needed. I was surrounded by loving friends and wise counselors, fortunately, and they worked hard to help me. I’m eternally grateful.
But I fought with my therapist, arguing that my coping mechanism didn’t hurt anyone else and didn’t cause permanent damage. Why was my choice irrational and unhealthy, but it’s fine for parents to crush their children’s souls? Plus, what the hell should I do instead?
I ranted and raged because I felt hopeless. Of course I knew that hurting myself was a foolish thing to do, and ultimately unhelpful, but it was all I knew. It didn’t even matter whether I wanted to get better, wanted to give it up; I simply couldn’t. What would take its place? Terror? Insanity? A homicidal rampage? It was the only way I could control my frantic world.
I acted angry, but I secretly longed for an escape, for any other coping method that might actually work. I just didn’t believe, for a long time, that one existed.
Of course, there wasn’t a magic solution or a silver bullet. Truly changing yourself takes time. Slowly, I let go of my twisted habit—not because I solved the riddle, but because I built a support system and began accepting myself. As I matured, I focused on the things I loved, instead of my parents’ criticisms. I let myself explore my own ideas and believe my own beliefs; I gave myself freedom to be uncertain, to be open-minded, to be a work in progress. I married a man who liked me exactly as I was, and I let the strong, stable truth of his love overcome my self-doubt. I allowed myself to think I might be worthwhile. I let myself be both happy and flawed.
Most of all, I realized that I’m not powerless. I self-injured because I thought it was my only option; I couldn’t control anything in the world except my own body. I still can’t control most things, but I can be a force for good. When you are loved, then you have a radical power to affect the lives of those who love you. You can turn inward, focusing on your own misery, or you can turn to others for both solace and purpose. Even if you’re not strong, you always have the power to help others.
I still think about cutting almost every day, but it’s different. Before, no one knew, and no one saw, and I felt better afterwards. Back then, in the worst-case scenario, my parents would have found out; that would have been (well, was) terrifying for me, but it was also terrible for them, which met some tiny sense of justice.
But if I hurt myself now, my husband would find the marks, and he doesn’t deserve it. I would feel guilty for making him sad—and “more guilt” was never the goal. It would also hinder our fantastic sex life, because I’d be afraid to get naked. (At the beginning of our marriage, before I figured out these things, I would sometimes go a month without taking my shirt off. That’s not a great way to celebrate newlywed bliss.)
And most of all, there’s darling Madeleine. Of course having a kid changes your lifestyle, but it’s also a game-changer for the soul. My entire heart aches to protect her from pain. I treat her with respect, and I glory in my power to build up her self-esteem, but my control ends there. Life hurts, at times, and the world is cruel. And poor Maddie is just as sensitive as her mother. Even if I never yell at her, she will face trials, and she will struggle to respond.
When I first got pregnant, I pledged that I would be a kind mother—at any cost. I know I would experience frustration, fatigue, and helplessness, as all mothers do, but I would not take it out on Madeleine. Yes, I actually planned to deal with these things through self-injury. Better hurt me than hurt her, I figured. She would never see, and she’d never know.
But I’m realizing, as Madeleine grows older, that I missed the real issue. It’s not what I successfully hide from her; it’s what I fail to show her. Things like modeling healthy coping mechanisms. Like responding to life’s challenges with flexibility and strength. Like acknowledging the stress and insanity of life, and admitting it hurts like hell and that’s ok, and then proving that it doesn’t have to beat you.
She should never feel that gut-wrenching sense that she can never make it, never satisfy, never be good enough. As a kid, I always felt on edge, knowing every moment that I was forgetting something, ruining something, or failing something. I think most women feel like this for most of their lives. But I want the opposite for Madeleine; I want her to know that she’s imperfect, to feel at peace with that knowledge, and to know that she’s valuable anyway.
But I can’t raise her in an environment of peace while letting myself live in an environment of anxiety.
Hiding my bad coping strategies isn’t enough. I need to find, test, practice, and then pass on some equally realistic but tremendously smarter strategies. If Madeleine sees me facing pressure and responding purposefully—with healthy methods and, ultimately, with grace—then maybe she’ll never feel so desperate. Maybe, as she observes my strength of soul and develops her own, she’ll decide that she can handle anything.
And if I can empower others like that, then I’m definitely not powerless. Definitely not stupid. Definitely not bad.