19 March 2017

Stress and Self-Injury

I read something the other day about how self-injury takes many different forms. Obviously there's things like hitting or cutting oneself, starving oneself -- but the article also mentioned people who constantly push themselves to the limit, the people who stay up late for no real reason, the people who will exercise to the point of utter physical exhaustion.

These are all me.

I took eight courses -- a maxed-out course load -- for two consecutive college semesters. The first one left me extremely bitter and I wound up emotionally dead. By the end of the second one (which was this past semester) I was suicidal because I could no longer withstand the mental pressure in the corner I had backed myself into. But even then my perfectionism with relentless. I stayed awake for 65 straight hours at the tail end of that second maxed-out semester writing papers and editing them mercilessly (though given the amount of sleep deprivation I was working under, there was no way I could possibly have been editing very well). And through that hellish 65 hours -- during which even the director of my program started commanding me to go to sleep because he could tell that I wasn't -- the question that kept screaming through my head was, You idiot, why do you do this to yourself?

Going farther back: I've always been a night owl -- since I was two months old, according to legend -- but I was about fourteen when I started consistently staying up past midnight. Usually I was reading, writing, or listening to music. Even now when I stay up late that's usually what I'm doing on some level. But why? All of these things could have waited till morning in most (if not all) cases.

This past summer I discovered another outlet for my self-hatred: dance. I would practice tap dance for one half-hour, every day, with zero breaks. If I took a break longer than one minute, I would have to practice for another five. It was merciless, but I had nowhere else to vent my anger and hopelessness so I turned it on myself. If I couldn't execute a step perfectly, I would do it over and over again, shaming and guilting myself until I did it. I would get to the end of that intense half-hour practice and literally collapse, half-dead from lack of oxygen. More often than not I was in tears, from exhaustion, frustration, and from the harsh words I would tell myself to prod myself to keep going. Looking back, that was probably not healthy. I was still mourning three deaths, two divorces, a cancer diagnosis, and a wholesale family split. I was still so bitter at God that I was telling other people not to bother praying because it didn't work anyway. I was working a physically demanding full-time job (which honestly was the least stressful part of my life). I was still physically recovering from the sleeping-four-hours-a-night-eating-one-meal-a-day life that I had been living through my previous semester of college (the first of the two overloaded back-to-back semesters).

Reading the aforementioned article made me realise just how much of the behaviour that mystifies even me comes from a place of self-injury, a place of trying to prove myself, to get attention. I'm trying to either earn love and acceptance from somebody -- anybody -- or destroy myself trying. If I destroy myself, if I drive myself so far down that I end up dead, maybe then somebody will feel sorry for me. Maybe then somebody at my far-too-early funeral will finally clue in and say, 'We were too hard on her. We should have made sure she knew we loved her.'

See, very early on in my life I hit on something that inspirational viral stories on Facebook would later exploit -- if you slog through adversity and still make something of yourself, people will love you. In fact, this is the only way to get people to even notice your existence. So my generation overloads themselves beyond reason, beyond sanity, so that they can 'brag' about the long hours and the hard work they've put into something -- because surviving intolerable levels of stress or hardship is the only way to get anybody's attention anymore, and you can only get love and acceptance if you have some tiny piece of someone's attention. What I would do was emphasize the bad things in my life when talking to people so that they would be more in awe of the insurmountable odds I was facing. This, of course, may (sometimes) inspire admiration but does not (ever) inspire friendships. People saw me as a complainer, and I suppose that's a legitimate claim. But instead of changing my self-destructive habits, I burrowed further into them. And I found myself getting angry that they were not putting me (visibly) at death's door as quickly as I wanted somebody -- anybody -- to notice me and really truly show that they cared about me.

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