From Hell to Heroin to Here: Jezebel’s Story

selfinjury

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Jezebel” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warnings: child sexual abuse, self-injury.

I’m not really sure how to describe my childhood.  Blacks and whites don’t really exist in my world, so it’s difficult to say that it was ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  I feel like we put labels like that on things to simplify them.

Unfortunately, nothing is simple.

My earliest memories are very fragmented – my memory isn’t that great to begin with, and PTSD combined with years of drug abuse have further eroded the recesses of my mind.  I remember starting first grade.  My parents decided to send me to a ‘cottage school’ where I would go to school two days a week and be homeschooled the other three.  I knew my friends from the neighborhood went to something called ‘public school,’ but from what I overheard my parents talking about, I was pretty sure that public school was bad.  That didn’t make sense to me, because my friends were really nice and their parents seemed nice too.  I was curious about public school, but at such a young age, I didn’t pay too much attention to the differences between myself and the other kids.

Around this same time (when I was seven) my father started to molest me.  To this day, I don’t talk about it too much.

At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening to me.  No one ever taught me about sexual abuse or inappropriate touching, so I thought that what was happening to me was normal.  I hated what was going on, but I understood that it was very important for me to pretend that everything was okay.  From a very young age, I understood the importance of not making waves and protecting my family’s reputation.

As I was growing up, the only sex education I received was from my time with my father.  My mom never talked about sex with me, and since I was homeschooled, I was never given formal sex-ed.  In one sense, I was insanely naïve about sex, but at the same time, I was receiving a sex-education from my father that would prove to be incredibly damaging to my psyche.  The messages he gave me were that I was powerless, worthless, and valuable only as a pleasure receptacle.  It was all very confusing for me.

As young girls, my friends and I used to talk about how we wanted our weddings to be.  We would all daydream about what type of guy we wanted to marry and what type of dress we wanted to wear.  Me, my sister, and our two best friends were planning a quadruple wedding.

When I found out that a father/daughter dance was a part of a traditional wedding, I remember deciding that I didn’t want to get married anymore.  I was willing to do anything to avoid spending time around my father.  The idea of having to dance with him made me sick to my stomach.

My parents continued to homeschool me and my three siblings.  We stopped going to the cottage school and started going to a homeschool co-op (it was pretty much the same thing, just less organized.)  I don’t remember too much from this time period.  I know that I wasn’t particularly happy and that I found solace in drawing.  I was off in my own little world much of the time, and I had quite a few pets that were my best friends.  I didn’t have a lot of friends, and the few I had I didn’t really like; most of the time I preferred to be alone and draw with my dog.

The abuse from my father continued until I was eleven.  I can’t tell you how many people have asked me why he stopped.  Don’t fucking ask me – go ask that pervert.  Maybe he’ll tell you.  I can only assume that I was getting too old for him or that he found someone else he liked better.  I didn’t ask questions about why he stopped, I was just thankful that he did.

I remember the time period after the abuse stopped a lot better than I remember my childhood.  My parents were still together.  I can’t begin to convey how terrible this was for me.  On Sunday’s my family would attend church together (by this time we had started to attend a home church because traditional church was too secular) and my dad would get up and lead worship.  I hated him so much and I didn’t understand why nobody else saw him the way I did.  Everybody I knew acted like he was such a great person – after all, he had a great job, he let my mom be a stay-at-home homeschool mom, and to all appearances he was a loving father.  My mom never noticed him abusing me, but I don’t blame her for this.  I can only attribute it to her own dysfunctional upbringing and the years of emotional abuse she endured with my father.

Even then, as a young teenager, I didn’t have the words to describe what had happened to me.  At thirteen I knew very little about sex, and I knew even less about how to express myself.  I was full of inner turmoil and hurt, and I had no outlet for it.  This is when I found out about cutting.  I was reading a magazine article about Angelina Jolie and the article said that she used to cut herself.  This was the first exposure I had to the concept of cutting and I decided to try it right away.  I got a safety pin and started to scratch my skin.  I couldn’t draw blood with my safety pin, but I liked the pain it caused me.  For the first time in a long time, I felt some release.

Around this same time, I realized that I could achieve a similar level of catharsis through not eating.  I wasn’t entirely aware that what I was doing was considered to be an eating disorder – I just knew that I really enjoyed how it felt when I would starve myself.  I came up with crazy diet plans and arbitrary numbers of how many calories I was allowed to eat in a day.  Occasionally, I would screw up and binge.  I felt horrible about my binges, so I would cut myself to try and feel better.  Somewhere along the lines I figured out that I could make myself vomit.  From that point on, I would starve myself for days, binge, and then make myself throw up.

This sort of behavior went on for quite a few years.  Of course, during this time I did my best to hide my eating disorder and cutting.  To outward appearances, I tried my best to look happy, well adjusted, intelligent, and well educated.  I simply wanted to be perfect.  I was part of a very insular community, so it was fairly easy to hide the symptoms of my problems – after all, everyone was sheltered to the point that they couldn’t recognize the symptoms of emotional disturbances.

In my early teen years, I started participating in competitive speech and debate.  My mom signed me up for NCFCA tournaments, and public speaking and debate took over my life.  I still kept up with my other school work, but the vast majority of my time was spent designing visual aids for expository speeches, researching debate resolutions, and practicing speeches.  I had very little life outside of NCFCA – as has been said by others, the closest thing I had to a graduating class were the people I competed at tournaments with.

During my teen years, I wasn’t allowed to date.  Despite the parental prohibition on relationships, I started talking to a boy I met through NCFCA.  He became my first boyfriend, and he was the first person I felt I could really confide in.  At fifteen, I was looking to him to save me.  I told him things I had never told anyone – I told him about my self-harm problems and my eating disorder.  We commiserated over our teenage angst and unhappy upbringings.  I was never able to trust him enough to talk to him about the abuse I suffered as a child, but this relationship helped me to begin to open up to people.

Of course, the relationship ended badly and dramatically (as most teenaged relationships do.)  Still, the simple experience of being able to confide in someone was profound.  Shortly after this breakup, I was researching something online, and I stumbled across an article on child abuse.  The article talked about sexual abuse and molestation.  For the first time in my life I had words to describe what had happened to me.  Prior to this time, I had heard people talk about molestation, but I always thought that if what happened wasn’t actual rape, that it didn’t constitute abuse.  No one had ever taught me otherwise.

I came unhinged when I read about what molestation actually was.  All the evil I had experienced as a child finally had a name.  Not only that, I felt justified in feeling that the abuse I suffered was wrong.  I spent that whole night crying, cutting, and throwing up.

The next day, I called my best friend.  I told her that when I was little my father had sexually abused me.  It was the first time in my life I had told someone the truth about my childhood.  I was sixteen years old.  My friend told me that she already knew – she could tell by the way I acted and talked about my family.  She knew I was miserable at home, but she didn’t know how to help me.  She was only a teenager herself.

Having the words to describe my experiences made me feel better about myself, but it didn’t help my immediate situation.  I still lived at home with my parents and my siblings and I didn’t feel safe enough to tell anyone about the abuse.  To make myself feel better, I started self-medicating with prescription pain pills and alcohol.  I started to get drunk off alcohol I stole from my parent’s liquor cabinet and I would get high off of Lortab’s and Percocet’s I found in our medicine cabinet.  My weight continued to fluctuate and my arms were still crisscrossed with cuts.  Because I was fairly isolated, few people took notice of my behavior.

My mom and I started to drift further and further apart – we would fight over the silliest things.  I wanted to listen to secular music, and she preferred that I listen to opera and classical.  I was a political libertarian and she was a staunch republican.  I thought that morality had little place in art, and she believed that the books I read needed to have strict moral messages.  We fought a lot.

On one particular day, mom and I had argued over the Harry Potter books (what homeschool child hasn’t been through a conflict involving these books?)  I ran upstairs to my room in tears.  I wasn’t really depressed about having differing opinions with my mom about Harry Potter – it was simply the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back.  The weight of all the secrets I was keeping came crashing down on me and I couldn’t deal with it anymore.  I felt like I had no way out, that my adolescence would never end.  So I did the only thing I could think of – I swallowed a bottle of pills and prayed that it would kill me.

My sister called an ambulance when she came upstairs and found me – I was inconsolable as I told her that I had just swallowed a bottle of pills and I wanted to die.  The ambulance came and carted me off to a mental hospital where I stayed for two weeks.

Ironically, the mental hospital was the only place where I came close to being in a public school.  Because I was in the adolescent ward, we had to attend school while at the hospital.  When I went to science class, I raised my hand and challenged the teacher on her teachings about evolution (that was what I had been taught to do in all my worldview and debate classes.)  I’m pretty sure that the staff took this as further evidence of my mental problems.

After I was released from the hospital, I went through a very rough period.  I finally told my mom about what my father had done to me.  It was an experience that I can only describe as horrific.  My mother believed me, and she had me write a letter to our church elders asking them for help.  I wrote a detailed letter and told these men what my father had done to me.  The church elders responded to my mother and said that both she and I were lying and that we weren’t welcome at that church anymore.  To this day, my father still attends that church and is a very active member.

Amidst all this madness, I attempted to finish my senior year of high school.  It was chaos.  My mom and I cobbled together a transcript that was substantiated by my debate experience, my love of classic British literature, and little else.  I was very intelligent, but no one ever really made me complete my math or science homework.  I would tell my mom that I did my math or science homework, and for the most part, my word was enough assurance that I was getting a well-rounded education.

When I went to take the SAT I hadn’t studied (literally, I think I cracked the study book one time) and I was hungover.  I did very well on the English and reading portion, and I bombed on the math portion.  At this point, I didn’t particularly care about school though, and my home life was so hectic that my mom didn’t have time to care either – she was in the process of dealing with a hellish divorce.

During my senior year I was so busy going to therapy and psych appointments that I never got around to applying to colleges.  Growing up, I had always wanted to go to college, but in the midst of the wreckage of my parent’s divorce, nobody really had time to help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life or where to apply for school.  I got more and more depressed and I started drinking and abusing pain pills even more heavily.

After high school graduation, I was simply drifting through life.  I worked a dead-end restaurant job and spent all my spare time at bars (I had a fake ID that I had stolen from someone.)  The only friends I had were people I knew from work – very few of my NCFCA friends kept in contact with me and I felt a bit ostracized.  Alcohol and pills fixed these feelings though, so I continued to self-medicate.

Eventually I applied to the local community college.  I went there for a semester, and I enjoyed it.  At the time though I was working fulltime at the restaurant, working weekends at a haunted house, and trying to keep up with a fulltime school schedule.  I ran myself ragged – my health started to deteriorate and I ended up in the hospital with meningitis.  I would also periodically have to go to the doctor because I got severe kidney infections.  One day as I was leaving to go to work, I simply collapsed in the garage – my body was wearing out.

While I was going to community college I couldn’t stop drinking.  I would routinely show up to class drunk or high out of my mind.  Alcohol was the only thing that helped me feel less stressed.  After one semester of college, I dropped out.

After dropping out of school my life became a bit of a blur.  I continued to drink myself into a stupor every night because I was severely depressed.  After a while, I got fired from my restaurant job because I routinely came to work drunk.  Within a few weeks of getting fired, I tried coke for the first time and I loved it.  I started routinely doing hard drugs.  My drug use culminated in an addiction to heroin.

To support my drug habit, I started working at a strip club.  I worked as a stripper and a prostitute for several years before I got arrested for trafficking heroin.  My life was a wreck and I had nowhere to go, so I went to rehab.  I had tried going to rehab several times before, so I wasn’t sure that it would work for me, but I was out of options.  I ended up in a year-long program, and it saved my life.

When I was shooting up heroin and stripping, I didn’t care about my life.  I would overdose or get beat up and it didn’t matter to me.  I felt like I was a fuckup and that my life wasn’t worth living.  In rehab I did the hard work of processing everything that had happened with my family, and as awful as it was, I’m a more whole person for all that.

It’s ironic – while I was in rehab, I was processing with a counselor and I told her about how I was brought up – conservative Christian homeschooler.  She was shocked.  She said that my story completely reframed how she thought about homeschooling.  She had always assumed that homeschooling was a good way to safeguard against having your kids become radically screwed up.  I guess I disproved that idea.

Since graduating rehab (most of the kids I competed in NCFCA with graduated college this year – I graduated rehab – ironic, right?) I’ve done my best to live life sober.  I attend 12 step meetings and a big part of my recovery is letting go of my resentments.  I’m still working on letting go of some resentment I have about my upbringing, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it.  In no way do I blame my choices on the way I was raised; I accept complete responsibility for my actions over the last few years.  Still, as people we are the sum of our experiences, and homeschooling was a huge part of my experience.  My upbringing shaped me into who I am today.

I can’t say that I liked the process of getting here, but today my life is good; I have a good job, I’m clean and sober, I’m not incarcerated, and I have people that love me when I don’t love myself.

It’s been hell to get here, but it is what it is and I’m okay with that today.

Sometimes I Am Afraid Of Myself: Lana Hobbs

Sometimes I Am Afraid Of Myself: Lana Hobbs

Trigger warning: self-injury.

Standing in the kitchen.

I need to make dinner.

I grab a knife, stare at my reflection in the blade.

Oddly entranced,

I put the cold metal to my skin,

what am I doing?

I pull away in shock.

I am bipolar, but don’t know it yet,

with a lifetime of pain and self hatred

To deal with on my own – my brain is confusing.

I could never be good enough, godly enough

To gain my parents approval,

But earning a spanking was too easy, I didn’t have to try.

Now I punish myself

for things not my fault.

I hit my wrists against the counter, hit my head on the wall. What is happening?

I thought I had stopped doing this.

I don’t understand my mind,

But I know I deserve this pain.

Know? No. No, I don’t.

I put the knife back into the block.

Sink to the floor.

I text my husband ‘bring pizza’.

To The Daughters of Sceva: R.L. Stollar

To The Daughters of Sceva: R.L. Stollar

Note from Ryan: I wrote this almost ten years ago. In 2004 I dedicated this poem to my friends, and I re-dedicate it to them now — and to all the other brave individuals who have shared their stories this week.

*****

Somewhere I went blind in the conversation —

somewhere between the epidermis

and the angels —

somewhere my stomach lost its way

amidst the tangles of a prayer and an

agony, an anger, and all I hate.

Here is a scar; there, the bruise.

This is the air we breathe.

But the images burn deeper than the words:

I took all the precious porcelain perfections,

pictured the angels skating across their smooth, body-washed shells,

saw the angels’ traces, the less-porcelain pained faces,

the ethereal ballet,

the euphoria of one salt water ocean masked by another,

the liquid rose smiling at the black heart processional

projected to all as a cherry blossom joy.

I know not how many angels can dance

atop a pin, nor less do I know

how many have danced upon you —

what red slippers they wore, or

if they performed Swan Lake and the shell was the swan,

or if you ask for encores,

or if the show sells out — and how often.

Yet I know this night hurt.

I know the heavens broke loose with a shout,

and archangels, legions with blessed wings,

trumpets of the spirit (the spirit is the sword),

they descended tonight upon my red tremors,

they did a pirouette and I have lost breath and

appetite, and I feel silence, clammy as death itself,

I have a need for Tylenol, and let me effuse:

Can I not cast out angels

nor summon the demons at my command?

Can I not have arms of such love

so as to encircle the universe?

Finding A Reason To Wake Up: Warbler

Finding A Reason To Wake Up: Warbler

Trigger warning: self-injury and self-sexual abuse.

Family Background

I know my older brother cut himself.  Sometimes he was just overly rough in whatever he was doing and got hurt that way.  I remember him sitting on the other corner of the table as my dad made us study Koine Greek together.  He glared at my father with hate-filled eyes and used his one set of fingernails to scrape up and down the inside of the other arm.  He got spanked about 3 times as much as we girls did.  He was “strong-willed” and didn’t seem to care how much they hurt him.  He boasted that he was never hurt and that they could/would have to try harder.  He was always “the rebel” and was the first one to defy our parent’s authority.

The eldest sister was “perfect” and I didn’t think she did anything like that until her ‘courtship’ went up in flames and daddy grounded her and threatened severe repercussions for ever touching the computer or getting online ever again.  I was in the other room listening to all of this, hiding.  She found me late and we sat there mutely staring at each other.  She said she was going to run away and she had a plan.  I was scared and I didn’t want her to get caught and punished worse, because that is what daddy always threatened.  But I looked deeply into her eyes; and I knew that if she did not get away, one of us would find her dead in her bedroom the next day.

I was a “chicken” in the fullest sense of the word.  I never had the courage to actually cut my own skin.  But I would exacerbate any wound or scab by picking at it fiercely and not letting them completely heal.  I would pick at the corners of my fingernails until I pulled off skin down the the cuticles that would bleed and ache for a week.  I would allow myself to get burned when I was cooking and wish the pain would keep going.  I developed a very high pain tolerance as I refused to care for bruises or cuts and attempted to “be tough” about them.

I had an active imagination and I would imagine myself doing things.  I hated being in the kitchen with the knives because I was never sure when imagination would lead to reality and I would “snap.”  Sometimes I wanted to snap.  Other times my primal instincts kicked in and I fought myself for life.  Because I saw myself as worthless and ugly and bad.

An Active Imagination

I hurt myself specifically from the time I was 10 until I was 17 or 18.  I know for a fact that homeschooling made this a problem because had I been taught more, I would not have used this to hurt myself.  A sex-ed class would have taught me much sooner that what I was doing was damaging.

I hurt myself sexually.  I would imagine some scenario where I was being forcibly raped or forced into being a sex-slave.  I would ball up a towel or a sheet and I would lay on top of it until I rubbed my skin raw (and sometimes rub it off).  I did not know much of anything about human sexuality, or why it hurt so much, but I would walk around in pain every step I took for a couple days and then do it again the next week.  I did not even know that it was “masturbating” or what that word meant until I was 14, and at that time, I was told only that it was a sin. I stopped for a couple of months because of fear, but having no other outlet, I began hurting myself again semi-regularly.  I was able to hide it even though I shared a room for most of my life.  I didn’t get any other information about sex until I was at least 16.  When I first understood the workings of sex, I was grossed out and immediately shut off the conversation.

It took me over a year to realize that what I was doing was actually sexual and bad for me physically. By that time I had an outlet for myself in a homeschooled social circle, a pet to care for, and an outdoor hobby (gardening) that gave me exercise, sunshine, and something to love and invest myself into.  I was incredibly depressed most of my teenage years and I know that was a big reason for my self-abuse.

Another reason, I believe, was because when I had a crush on a young man (he was 12, I was 9) my parents squelched it quickly and shamed me for it.  Instead of helping me develop my relationship skills and experience, I was made emotionally stilted.  My next male-interest wasn’t for another 11 years, but it fell apart due to my relationship-immaturity and inability to ‘learn’ years of relationship-growth-experiences/consequences in two years.   It caused a lot of pain and I think it was because I would have been a very different person if I had a larger social group.  I am the girl that has crushes on everybody.  Had I been able to express those and have them dealt with in a reasonable manner (not told to save everything for courtship, or when I was “ready” to be a wife and mother) I could learn what men were interested in me for me, what crushes were stupid and should have bad consequences, and what it took to make relationships work.

Homeschooling meant that my parents controlled my outward actions around men with fierce looks, codes of conduct, chaperones, and stringent rules.  So my emotions turned inward in a bad way.  I would imagine violent scenarios and hurt myself personally.  I could hide it from them because sexuality was never again discussed.  Homeschooling kept me away from my peers, leaving me with the romantic-relationship-IQ of a toddler.

When it comes to relationships with authorities; I am co-dependent and I feel the need to hide any part of me I think they will censure.  It was not healthy and it is something I still struggle with, personally.

Advice For Others Who Struggle

Find a healthy outlet.  Depression kills.

Go jogging, or plant a morning glory, grow an herb garden and start making tea, or adopt a pet, or volunteer at a shelter, or buy a junk car and find parts at a junk yard to get it running, or restore a painting.

Or climb Mount Everest.

Find something that you love and that you can pour your energy and emotions into: a place to give.

When you find a reason to get up every morning, you will not want pain any more.  I remember taking a shower and screaming into the gushing water, because that was the only place they couldn’t hear me.

It eats you up inside and I know you want to be free.      

Advice To Parents

Dear Parents:  Your kid is struggling.  Don’t say this isnt your kid.  I know they are.

This is not 1% who have a few problems, it is the 99% who hide it.

Your kid is struggling because you have set up a shame-based system of right and wrong.  If you ask them, they will deny it because they don’t trust you and they don’t want to be shamed even more. They know their failings more personally than you have ever had occasion to point out and they have internalized it.

You know that one issue that never seems to go away?  It’s a sign that something rotten is eating away at their heart.

The bad news (no, the first part wasn’t the bad news): you cannot really do anything about it at this point. Your child does not trust you; your words and actions and rules and teaching and religious views are largely the reason that this behavior began and has been happening.

You cannot stop it until after you prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are changing. And that will take a lot of time, more time than it will take for them to grow up and move away.  So I suggest that you do major damage control by being as brutally honest about your failings first.  Don’t expect anything from them except to try to live with you as you learn to listen.  Get books and read them and ask your child for help.  And if they actually tell you something: do everything they say.  Don’t argue, don’t talk back, don’t tell them that you never taught that.  Take what they say and live it.

Maybe after a couple years they will start trusting you enough to share their lives with you. When you demand your child give you her heart, she will give you the one you want to see.  Her real heart will be hidden as far away as it takes to stay alive.  

** 

I have this one quotation saved in my email drafts with the title “Raising Children”:

“The only hope you should have is that they will gladly share their own adult journey with you.”

Hard Bones, Electric Wire: April

Hard Bones, Electric Wire: April

Trigger warning: graphic description of self-injury.

These bones are too hard.

I can’t break them.

I can’t feel my heart all the way behind them.

If I scratched off my skin,

I could hold these little blue veins in my wrists.

I can see them already.

Oh, God, I’m shaking thinking about it.

Why are they visible?

So vulnerable.

So tempting.

I could feel my heart in them.

I could know it was beating.

I could pull them out –

disconnect them like electric wire.

I could hold them like slippery blue worms pulsing between my fingers.

Then I could cut them open –

clean like the end of a hose.

I could watch the blood wash the floor or feed the dirt.

I could see myself fade in the pool.

No more chaos.

No more noise.

I could be deflated and flat.

Convenient.

Finally still.

I wouldn’t be me anymore.

It’s what everyone wants anyway.

My Body Took My Soul’s Pain: Bailey

My Body Took My Soul’s Pain: Bailey

Follow Bailey on Twitter or read what she calls her “weird blog,” which is “half about finding truth, half about television, and half about arachnophobia. (It’s mostly not about math.)”

Trigger warning: self-injury.

The Triggers

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.

The Transition

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.

The Truth

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.

Ashamed Of My Own Skin: Lily

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lily” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warning: this post contains references to eating disorders and self-harm.

“You may not wear that.”

This phrase, and others like it, made up a large part of the soundtrack of my journey into womanhood.  Modesty, and all of the accompanying clothing restrictions, were part of the homeschool community of “keeping our daughters pure until marriage.”

As young girls, my sister and I were told that dressing modestly was important, in order to not be a stumbling block to men.  I remember hearing modesty talks and going to modesty “Fashion Shows” as young as 10 or 11.  Before my body even began to develop into that of a woman, I was told it needed to be covered up.   Why? To protect the eyes, minds, and hearts, of men.

Of course, I was only in middle school, and my sheltered self didn’t understand the idea of sexual attraction.  I was skinny and developed relatively late, and so the legs, chest, and shoulders that I kept covered were those of a child.   Before I even developed womanly curves, then – I learned to be ashamed of my own skin.

I have long, thick, dark brown hair, and my aunts and other extended family women will joke about the blessing and the curse this thick dark hair is for all of us – because it grows everywhere.  Face, chest, sideburns, arms, legs, stomach, eyebrows.  As I turned 11, 12, 13, 14, even – I grew more and more self conscious of my hairy legs and dark upper lip.  I would timidly ask my mom how to take care of it, embarassed by my own body.

“You’re still a little girl. That would look awful if you plucked your eyebrows.  You would look so bad.”

Athletics became unbearable – not just because of the long, knee-length shorts that stuck out from the crowd – but because of the dark, thick hair on my legs.  “It’s time to pluck the stache!” joked one of my girl friends at a homeschool co-op gathering – not knowing my shame and embarassment that came from not being allowed to.

Makeup, shaving, and tweezing would have made me look too adult-like, said my mom.  Looking too adult-like was an aspect of immodesty.  Immodesty was a stumbling block to men, and I should be ashamed of myself for the way that I was leading boys on.   My mother once told me that the fact that my hair smelled good was a valid reason for other homeschool mothers (of boys) to be angry at me: after all, I was a stumbling block to their children.

I stopped eating, quit athletics, and ran alone in my neighborhood.  My 96 lbs at 5’4″ at age 14 dropped down to close to 80.  The dark hair on my body grew finer and more plentiful, and my breasts stayed almost completely undeveloped.  I hid food every chance I could, and threw myself into school and more homeschool co-ops and extracurriculars so that I would be able to skip meals and say I had already eaten.  My nose started bleeding about twice daily, and I bruised easily – even from small bumps, I developed large bruises that stayed for weeks.

Feeling embarassed and ashamed of my body was now a regular part of my life, and self-abuse became a way to deal with those feelings.  I started cutting my upper legs – a place that I knew would always be hidden away from the world, thanks to modesty restrictions.   My parents explicitly didn’t believe in privacy for teenagers, and I began to cut myself more and more because it was the one thing that I could keep secret.   Although I was allowed no control of my own body, the secret scars I left underneath my modest clothing was something that I could control.

When I confided in a male friend about my self-injury, my parents immediately found out thanks to heavily monitored spyware on my computer.  At this point, I weighed in the mid-80s and look and acted incredibly depressed and unhealthy, but my parents saw my issues as rebellion against their authority that should be broken instead of mental and emotional issues that needed to be treated seriously.  They loved me dearly, but refused to admit that self-injury and anorexia were “real” disorders.  The few times that I went to the doctor during this period, they strongly reccomended my parents allow me to attend sessions with a medical therapist – but they refused, as they saw no potential benefits from a medical professional hearing about my “rebellion”.

I was 14.  My mother started coming into my room immediately when she saw me leave the shower and make me take my towel off so that she could check my naked body for scars.  If I was in public with her and wearing shorts, she would pull the fabric of the shorts back on my thighs to see if I had cuts on my legs, or pull the waistband of my shorts down to check my hips.

I started showering less, wearing clothing that was harder to remove, and cutting myself in even more “private” places.  As it got less convenient for her to check my fully naked body, and more time passed since she had found cuts, she stopped remembering to check – but it was much, much longer until I stopped cutting.

As for my weight, she mostly dealt with it by telling me how awful I looked.  “You’re sickly,” she told me.

As I went through high school, I got better, mostly from interacting with parts of the homeschool community that simply didn’t know about my self-harm.  I played music with a successful band and worked hard for leadership in academics, and eventually graduated and was able to cut financial ties, and subsequently a lot of the manipulation in my life.

I have three points from this story.

First of all: If you are struggling with self-injury, an eating disorder, or anything else: get help.  Get medical, professional, help.   One of the resources that children in the public education system have is private, personal access to guidance counselors who are trained to recognize problems like this and point children in a direction where they can get help.  In a homeschool situation, well-meaning parents are not always able to understand or recognize the mental/emotional issues behind things like self-injury.   When there are no other adults present who are able to help a child/young teenager and parents have ultimate authority, it can be hard to find help sometimes.

Get help though – any way you possibly can.  One thing that I learned after graduating high school was that my mental issues almost always should be discussed with a medical professional, as well-meaning church elders who I talked to would almost inevitably point me back to my parents.  Self-injury is not something that can always just be “fixed” by praying to quiet your “rebellion”.  It is real, and as a human being, you deserve real help.  Don’t be afraid to seek it out. 

Secondly: To anyone who is struggling – it gets better. Someday, you will be on your own, with access to clothing and makeup/skin care stores that you can purchase from, free from guilt.  Someday, you will have friends who never would have known that you had a dark unibrow.  Someday, the way you look will be your choice, and you won’t have to be ashamed anymore.  It gets better.  I know what it feels like to be shamed into not being beautiful.   I know what it feels like to be told that your simple desire for hygiene and feminine attractiveness is slutty, sexual, and wrong.

It’s not wrong.  Wearing a v-neck is not wrong.  Wearing makeup is not wrong.  Plucking your eyebrows or waxing your upper lip is not wrong.  It is not wrong for you to want those things, and it is wrong for them to make you feel ashamed of wanting those things.  You shouldn’t have to lash out at your own body because you are ashamed of wanting those things.

Finally:  I am an undergraduate education major, and I teach young students and teenagers in the public schools on a regular basis – and, let me tell you, conservative, non-distracting clothing is not what the homeschool community or the Modesty Survey or Josh Harris or anyone says it is.  If you want to dress conservatively and not be distracting, dress professionally.  Wear those heels and dark jeans and a sweater.  Wear dress slacks and a button-down shirt, and guess what?  It’s okay if it’s form-fitting! It’s okay if it makes you look attractive!  It’s okay if you’re wearing lipstick!  After multiple years in the real world interacting with real people, I am finally beginning to realize that conservative and “modest” clothing is not what we were told it is, and it can bring about real, serious, body-image emotional and physical harm to girls who have never learned to love their own bodies. 

I hope that one day I teach my future daughter(s), who will most likely also have dark hair all over, small breasts, and a great smile,  how to dress in a way that makes them feel attractive.  I hope they feel confident enough around me to ask me for makeup or shaving or clothes advice, and I hope that I am able to help them learn how to dress attractively and appropriately for all situations.

Maybe, just maybe, they will grow up a little bit more comfortable in their own skin.

Self: Sarah

Self: Sarah

Sarah blogs at Who I Am WIthout You.

Trigger warning: self-injury.

I am a member of the family
I am a member of the housework crew
I am my parent’s possession
I am their trophy
I am a representative for Christ
I am a future mother in a future family preparing to serve a future husband

I am not an individual.

Feelings are superfluous, needs are selfishness, I do not know the vocabulary of self.

I am depressed overly dramatic
I am hungry gluttonous
I am tired and overworked lazy
I am sick weak
I have anxiety lack faith
I need affirmation whine too much
I need privacy am selfish
I need to be respected punished

I do not deserve to have needs.

So I take tweezers and tear a blade out of my father’s razor. And I keep the razor in a tiny jewelry box that my grandma gave me, under the cotton, because nobody can see it, because using it is selfish, and I am ashamed. But nothing compares to the relief of sliding the blade across the soft parts of my thighs, my calves, my ankles, my wrists.

Simultaneously punishing myself and expressing my hurt.

People deserve love
people deserve support
people deserve respect
But I don’t know these things

Because I am not an individual
I am not a person
I do not know the vocabulary of self.

Cookie Cutters and The Power of Secrecy: Esperanza

Cookies Cutters and The Power of Secrecy: Esperanza

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Esperanza” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warning: self-injury.

I was so grateful when I saw that HA was doing a series on self harm. Because it is something that I feel is so prevalent within the homeschooling subcultures, yet, is the one thing that everyone is still afraid to speak up about, because it is “that” problem. In my opinion, self harm is not merely restricted to cutting, or injuring one’s self, but can also include eating disorders. With over two million cases reported in the United States alone, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder, and is something that the homeschool community simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Before my mid teens, I had never even known of someone that had an eating disorder, or self harmed. I certainly never thought that I would ever in a million years be “that girl.”

Growing up, I was the perfect little ATI daughter. I wore the jumpers and culottes, wouldn’t even look a boy in the eye, and constantly bent over backwards to protect my family’s good image so as not to tarnish their ministry. I rarely did anything wrong, and that is why it came as such a shock to me when I realized I was actually pretty darn good at lying. I lied about the scars, the sudden weight loss, the passing out. I only remember ever telling one lie before this in my life, and so it surprised me when this life filled with lies just came so naturally.

I still remember the day I stopped eating. It was a very simple decision, and one that oddly enough gave me courage. I was at an extremely broken place. The only person who offered me  protection had left my life, and life was about to become even worse than it had been. Nothing was mine, everything was being taken from me, and I felt trapped in this massive cycle of manipulation, threats, loss, and depression. I could not see that there was any way out. I’d never been told that this way we lived, the things that were happening were wrong. How could they be, when I’d been shown Bible verses that “proved” otherwise? My head was so twisted around that I couldn’t tell up from down, right from wrong. The only thing I knew for sure was that no one could make me eat. That was the one tiny part of my life that I could control, and as long as no one knew my secret, I could keep at least a little control over my own life.

The dangerous thing about the homeschooling culture like the one I was raised in, is that no one expects their daughter or son, brother or sister, friend, to cut their body, or to stop eating. And in these type of cultures, because of the secrecy and lack of education on the issue,  it can very easily become a dangerous situation very fast. These types of behaviors are a reaction to what is happening in one’s life, or a release of some type of pain. As we all know by this point in our lives, we certainly didn’t  grow up learning how to properly talk about and process the difficult things in our lives, and homeschoolers, in my opinion, are even more likely to engage in these types of harmful behaviors. Being homeschooled leaves you feeling very isolated, with no way to reach out, and certainly not as much access to help as those in a traditional school environment.

In my case, I kept lying, every single day. It helped that I was actually working outside the home at the time, and so very often I only ate one tiny meal a day when I got home. When I eventually found freedom for myself and left, and finally had a chance to just stop and be in a peaceful place, all of the emotions of the past 21 years came rushing at me like a tsunami, and I had such a hard time dealing with it, that my eating disorders suddenly became ten times worse. Suddenly I wasn’t eating for days on end, and it was getting harder and harder to lie to the people around me. But suddenly I was meeting people that were actually caring and noticing and saying that I was too valuable to be hurting myself this way. However, the problem with eating disorders, and harmful behaviors, is that while they most often start as a way for you to control your life, before you even realize it, they suddenly control you. Once I was out, and had a chance to begin to really process and heal, I no longer wanted to starve myself. However, this cycle of self harm had become an instinctual reaction to the pain and issues I was facing during this healing process had completely overtaken me. Once I realized that the only power this thing had was in the secrecy, I opened up to the people closest to me, that loved me, and cared, and it was as if immediately, the massive hold this disorder had over me was gone.

And that is the problem with eating disorders, and self injury in the homeschool world. All of our families are supposed to be picture perfect. Cookie cutter families who never have any problems. So many families I knew growing up acted as if this life were a competition, to see who’s family they could beat in the godliness Olympics.  I know that growing up as the daughter of a preacher, there was an enormous amount of pressure placed on me to be perfect. So, when I would see little cuts or burns on my friend’s arms, when I would notice a friend who wouldn’t eat anything in front of anyone, my heart hurt for them because I knew. I knew that we shared this unspoken burden. One we could never reach out for help from because that would mean breaking that perfect little family picture into a million pieces.

These days things are a lot better. There was a time last year where I thought that this thing, this pain that took itself out on my body was never going to go away. That I could never beat it. While honestly, there are still bad days where food is not my friend, and there are sometimes new scars on my arm, but the battle is getting easier to fight.There are still days where my father’s nasty comments about my weight echo in my head and I hate my body all over again. But the days when I remember all the people that love me for me, just as I am, who tell me daily that I am valuable and have worth are far more. The ability to just be me, to have struggles and to be broken is strangely enough the most freeing feeling in the world. The need to be perfect is finally gone, and I can rest in each day, just taking one step at a time, doing the best I can possibly do that day.

The Bruises Becoming My Silent Screams: Timothy

The Bruises Becoming My Silent Screams: Timothy

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Timothy” is a pseudonym.

Trigger warning: self-injury.

I don’t really remember how I got the idea. It just sort of happened.

I was at a homeschool speech and debate conference run by Communicators for Christ, that traveling caravan that brought NCFCA to the Christian homeschool masses. I wasn’t exactly the model homeschool student. Which doesn’t meant that I wore pentagrams and listened to Korn. It means that, when I liked a girl, I would try to hang out with her. But a guy and a girl hanging out — in the I Kissed Dating Goodbye world — meant that, I don’t know,  they’d have sex. And we all know sex leads to social dancing. Or that was the running joke.

Apparently I spent too much time with this girl. Because I got dragged in front of three sets of parents and — in front of all of them, as well their kids — got raked over the coals for all sorts of questionable activities. Not making out, or holding hands — I don’t even know if the girl liked me, so, yeah, we didn’t get as close as even holding hands. But apparently just talking to a girl for those few extra minutes in between debate classes justified this public inquisition.

Frankly, I was shaken to the core. I had never had experienced such a strange situation, having parents — not mine, mind you, as they weren’t there — criticize me in front of peers, as if to make an example of me. I was horrified and embarrassed.

I wanted to cry. I felt confused and surrounded and had nowhere to run or hide but just had to sit there for hours, listening to this “purity intervention.” But I already felt like I was a failure. I did not want to be myself in the position of revealing the pain I was in. Then I would have felt even more like a failure.

So after that, in between classes, I would hide in the bathroom. I was embarassed and didn’t want to hang out with anyone. And then I started hitting my thighs. At first just to get the negative energy out. But then I began hitting myself harder. Harder to the point that I was beating myself. The more painful it was physically, the less I felt emotionally. I was using my fists to bruise my skin — the bruises becoming my silent screams.

That was the beginning. For the next few years this became my chief method of releasing stress and turmoil. When parents criticized me, when my parents wouldn’t stand up for me to other busybody parents, when I would later leave Christianity and fundamentalism behind and find myself ostracized by my former friends and communities — I couldn’t bring myself to accept myself as my own self. I’d simply punish myself, my body. I would think, I was predestined for hell. That’s what they probably were thinking anyways. I was a vessel for wrath; I was always a vessel for wrath; I might as well prepare myself for eternal punishment in the here and now.

Now I know better. Now I know that those parents were trapped by their own fears, creating their own prisons of perfection and trying to bring everyone else into their prisons as well. Now I know that my body deserves better, that I deserve better.

It’s taken a long time to find this new strength. But I did find it. And now I refuse to treat my body like those parents treated my spirit.