Honestly, 2020 was a crazy year, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect. Being inside during quarantine forced me to confront my mental health head-on, because I didn’t have anywhere to go to avoid my problems. During the first few months of shelter-in-place, I frequently worried that my claustrophobia would escalate and cause me to spiral I thought about the fine line that divided my work life from my home life, and I was scared that I would relapse completely and fall back into familiar unhealthy patterns.
It was in quarantine that I really learned the value of boundaries. I never thought that I needed them, because I always figured I had a good handle on my limits. That obviously wasn’t the case as I look back now, since I was always feeling burned out. Turns out, I had normalized the feeling of burnout to the point that it became my usual state of being. I was used to waking up and working until some social engagement forced me to stop — I couldn’t remember the last time I truly felt rested enough to tackle everything I had written down in my daily agenda. And then I’d feel guilty for burning out, because I had conditioned myself to measure my self-worth based on my accomplishments.
I noticed that I would also get easily irritated, which closed me off from those around me. Even though I am an extrovert, social interactions are still draining because my anxiety keeps me hypervigilant. When I would fall into severe depressive episodes, I would stop responding to messages and start avoiding friends. That would often make my depressive episodes worse, forcing me to withdraw even deeper into solitude. But often before I could recover from my episodes, I still pushed myself to be around people, so I could feel like I was functioning normally.
Although I don’t like to admit it, having borderline personality disorder (BPD) and bipolar disorder greatly impact my relationships with those around me. It’s one of the criteria for diagnoses — individuals with BPD not only tend to have an unstable sense of self, but also intense, unstable interpersonal relationships. While I was growing up, I had been conditioned to sense tonal and mood changes in the people around me, and this often affects how I perceive and react to situations. I began to see that my panic attacks were especially unbearable when I felt like my relationships — familial, social, romantic, and even with myself — were spinning out of my control.
It was my most recent therapist that pointed out how much I struggle with vulnerability. “Shame does not see the light of day, Ella,” she told me. “Even though you present yourself in a certain light to the rest of the world, you can never hide the fact that you are always the hardest on yourself.”
To be completely honest, I spent many years hating myself. My first therapist introduced the concept of dissociation to me; I told him that I never felt like I was living in my own body, but rather was watching myself from a different plane of existence. I explained to him that I also didn’t quite feel emotions the way I’ve heard people describe. When I do, I don’t know how to handle the emotions, so I spiral out of control, which often leads to a panic attack.
The only way to stop the torrent of thoughts was to cut into my arms with scissor blades. Sometimes, I wouldn’t know when to stop. I remember those were the only moments I really felt anything at all, when my mental and physical selves would collide to pull me out of the usual numbness. It definitely wasn’t a sustainable coping mechanism because before long, my arms were always bloodied and scratched. I always thought it was okay to treat myself this way, because I was used to it. To me, I was never good enough. I had to be better, be stronger, be more. So when I didn’t feel that way, the only thing I could do was take it out on my skin.
Even though I often felt like I was falling apart inside, I still expected myself to maintain a seamless appearance to everyone around me. Rather than rest and spend time with myself, I surrounded myself with people. I couldn’t stand to be alone, because that meant facing myself, my skin, and everything I hated about being me. Even though I was around friends, I felt isolated and alone. I felt like a freak, with cuts all along my arms, barely holding it together. Because I had such a hard time opening up to my friends, most of them didn’t know how much I was struggling. Sometimes, when they would come to me with their problems, I wouldn’t be in the best headspace to be there for them, which burned me out even more.
My emotional and mental state was like a dimming candle with no more wax to keep the flame flickering. I was often too drained from work and social interactions to take care of myself, and to cope with my spiraling state of mind and self-hatred, I continued to cut and berate myself. Over time, I realized that living this way wasn’t sustainable. I had to put my foot down somewhere. Either I had to ask for help, or I had to set boundaries for myself and communicate my needs to the people around me.
I began to distinguish what was actually happening in front of me from what I was telling myself. I noticed that I often catastrophized situations in my head, and it was the way I talked to myself that often caused me to spiral. I had always told myself that I was just as hard on myself as I deserved, because it was how I had been raised: to see myself in critical light and pick apart my own flaws before others could.
It’s hard to stop self-harm when it becomes a routine coping mechanism. I still berate myself because it’s habitual, but when I feel a panic attack mounting, I try to have a conversation with myself instead of immediately reaching for my scissors. I ask myself if my internal reaction matches the severity of the situation and whether cutting might stop me from doing something even worse. Slowly but surely I talk myself through the panic attacks, which has become a painful, yet honest process. As I talk myself through the anxiety and panic, I become less overwhelmed. And slowly, the sense of necessity for self-harm has begun to fade.
I’ve slowly started to set boundaries with both others, and myself. When I’m not in a good headspace to interact with others, I won’t force myself to be around people. I’ll let my friends know that I’m struggling and need to spend some time taking care of myself. If I can’t be there for them in the capacity they need me to be, I will let them know and ask if I can talk to them at another time when I’m more emotionally available.
If I just can’t finish everything I need to, I decide that I’d rather give myself time to recuperate than push myself to the brink of exhaustion. When that happens, I don’t tell myself that I’m weak or useless. Instead, I acknowledge my limits and tell myself it’s okay to be human. I still struggle with dissociation and depressive episodes, but when I’m really going through it, I try to do nice things for myself, like watch a sunset or read a new book.it’s become much more enjoyable than telling myself I’m repulsive and fucked up mentally. So when I know a panic attack is coming, I no longer feel the immediate urge to reach for my scissor blades.
I realize now that my mind is a much more beautiful place when I fill it with words of kindness. And I’m going to try to keep it that way. Do you pay attention to how you talk to yourself? I hope you are able to find something beautiful to tell yourself today.
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.