I hook my middle finger, the nail decorated with a colorful paisley design, beneath the thick rubber band on my left wrist and take a moment to relish the way the thin oval distorts. Then, I let go. Snap. It hurts like hell but it feels like penance and for a moment, my head is quiet again.
Tuesday night, I get pretty low and confess to D. that I’m feeling like self-harming. He pats my knee comfortingly, then runs upstairs and returns a few minutes later with a thick rubber band in his hand.
“Use this,” he says. “I don’t want you hurting yourself.” At this point, I’ve made it two and a half weeks since my last cutting incident. I sit obediently beside him on the couch, fuzzy red blanket draped over my knees, and stare blankly out into space. This thousand-yard stare is one of the signs my husband has learned to watch for–an indication that the disconnect between my mind and my body has become so severe that my own physical well-being has not only taken a backseat to the noise in my head, it has actually fallen out of the hatchback and was abandoned on the dusty road several miles back.
Snap. Snap. Snap. I pull at the rubber band, my mouth set in a grim line, gaze fixed at an indeterminate point somewhere in front of me. D. sighs and returned to his video game, wisely deciding to give me some time to be alone with my thoughts.
For as long as I can remember, strong negative emotions such as shame, guilt, or fear have caused some indescribable darkness to rise up inside of me. I become fidgety, unable to concentrate because my mind is overwhelmed with the urge to punish myself for my perceived wrongdoing. The emotions can be prompted by anything–even something as innocuous as awkwardly phrasing a remark to a coworker that results in a millisecond of confusion is enough to make me long for the blade some days. The fact that I carry around a fair amount of emotional baggage and anxiety from the PTSD doesn’t help; in fact, it’s likely the cause. My therapist is aware of my self-punitive nature and plans to work with me to correct it. In the treatment plan we created together during our first meeting, we decided on self-love as one of my goals. I mentioned “self-forgiveness” as another.
“Forgive yourself for what?” she asked, incredulous. I shrugged.
Even when I consciously try to pin down where this self-loathing came from, I feel as though I’m only scratching the surface. However, my mother is the proverbial black sheep of the family, and I remember thinking from a very young age that I had to be excellent, make something of myself to atone for any damage she might have done. This attitude was not forced upon me by the rest of my family, though they were, naturally, pleased whenever I accomplished something. I’ve always been a very driven person, though that drive comes with a high price: a heavy heart and lots of anxiety. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but for every achievement there is a myriad of tiny sins–stupid, insignificant things that most people would feel foolish over for a moment and then promptly dismiss–that never seem to go away.
Instead of beating myself up for hours over an email that could have been worded better or a text that was sent to the wrong person (it shouldn’t come as any surprise that most of the shame-inducing thoughts that lead to the urge to punish myself involve communication with others), I snap myself once or twice with the rubber band and it’s done–I’ve atoned, in my own small way, for these shortcomings and can move on. And if the thoughts come back…well, you know. Snap.
I don’t see a problem with it as a short-term solution for grounding myself and derailing the endless barrage of negative thoughts. Being snapped with a rubber band hurts, and much like a spanking will shock an errant child into listening to his or her parents, the snap of the band against the tender skin of my wrist forces me to come to, to be in the moment and face actual reality instead of the nonstop shit-show my brain concocts for me. I’m on the lookout, of course, for signs that it could become a compulsive self-harming behavior, but in the meantime, I’m willing to just go with it. The song “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” comes to mind, though my end goal is achieving a default mental state where I can look at an embarrassing moment and pass it off as an innocuous gaffe–nothing more, nothing less.