It started with a hot piece of glass.
I’d sucked hot flame through the empty, broken glass bowl of a waterpipe I use to smoke hemp flower until it was hotter than it had been since its creation, and I slowly and confidently pressed it into the soft, sensitive, hairless skin of my inner forearm. I held it there for four long seconds and let out a long, deep breath. My heart rate slowed to a comfortable, natural rhythm and I felt relief from the panicked fluttering in my chest and stomach as the tremors in my hands stopped. Unfortunately, the burn went deeper into my skin than I’d intended and is still healing now, two months later. But in my deep relief, I didn’t really care.
I wasn’t trying to kill myself or punish myself. Most self-harm has nothing to do with wanting to die. Quite the opposite: it’s usually about feeling better. The chain of chemical reactions in your brain that happen when you feel pain can actually release you from overwhelming negative mental health symptoms. Self-harm is calming. It’s self-soothing. It’s coping in a destructive way, but it’s still coping.
There is a shame that comes when you get caught with a giant burn or very straight red line in your skin. It’s embarrassing. People worry about you, and you don’t want them to worry. More than any of that, though, is the desire to be able to keep doing it unimpeded when you feel that need. Some people do perform self-harm as a way to “get caught” being mentally ill when you don’t know how to ask for help. Like so many other suffering children, I first cut myself at age 12, timidly and without real desire to accomplish anything. I was trying to clumsily ask my parents for help the only way I knew how when I was that young. I wanted to get caught so they would help me. Now, I usually burn or cut myself about once every year or so, and I try my best to not get caught. I hate when people worry about my safety because that actually makes me feel less safe. There’s always the threat of hospitalization hanging behind their fears. Most people wrongly think that the majority of self-harm has to do with suicidal thoughts. This has been proven to be false and that is reflected in the DSM-V, the most cutting-edge bible for diagnosing psychiatric disorders.
After that, I started having mood swings, dissociation (feeling like you’re dreaming), hallucinations, and rapid-cycling mixed bipolar episodes (mania symptoms and depression symptoms combined, lasting less than a day) nearly every day. My brain tells me awful lies and I believe horrible things about myself and the world. The real-life state of the world being so awful makes that part way more dark and dreadful. But believing that I am actually such a terrible person that it should be a crime to not shoot me on sight once you find out what I am is a more painfully panicked feeling than even my climate grief.
I use coping skills actively over the course of the day every single day. I am very, very seriously ill, enough so that the government instantly recognized that I’m disabled from it, approving me immediately when I applied for disability help. I’ve worked my ass off to fight this beast and keep it tame, so I have to work to forgive myself when I get really sick. I do everything I can to stay healthy, and it’s a full-time job that I’ve been working at for the past 15 years. I’ve been forced into being torturously strong so many times that I’m pretty sure I’m stronger than most. I’m strong as fuck. I’m just also disabled.
The episodes continued near-daily for two months. I wept (not cried, wept) for at least an hour every day. For the last three days before my accident, I lost my appetite and stopped sleeping. Classic manic symptoms, but I couldn’t see that yet.
The night before I went to the ER, I desperately wanted to abuse cough syrup and Benadryl, going back to my two previous addictions that I’d been mostly free of for 4 years and 7 years, respectively. I stayed up all night, planning my chemical trip for the next day. I don’t drive, so I needed to use a delivery service to order my “medicine”, and my energy over the night only built, with the clock crawling slower than was acceptable to my anxious, excited, irrational, desperate, hopeful brain. Six o clock in the morning I tried to order. No service til 8. The clock continued to stubbornly slow down. By the time it arrived, I was thrilled and relieved. I was going to feel different, and I’d bought enough of everything to last me 2 or 3 days if I felt like it. I wrote out my chemical schedule, which is very important. I always needed to know where in the trip I was and manage my doses and redoses: I’ve had practice.
My first five hours on the “medicine” were wonderful. A great but very new friend named Garry came over to help me manage the day, not knowing my history of addictions. He passed no judgment and stayed positive and hopeful. I was used to using completely in secret, and his company was wonderful. The first five hours were heaven.
The thing about tripping on Benadryl and cough medicine is that at first, you feel warm and fuzzy and perfectly content. There is nothing else you need in the world. But by hour six or seven, you start to lose your balance. Like you’re walking, then stumbling, then toppling over after taking a few steps. Sometimes you can run your way out of it; it helps you stay upright when you step back and forth between your two feet when you’re standing still. But as soon as you hold still without holding on to something, you end up on the floor. At one point, I stumbled and fell into a wall of the dining room and split my eyebrow open on impact. Garry must have offered to take me to the hospital ten times, but I insisted that I didn’t want to go. Garry did his best to treat it, disinfecting it, getting it to stop bleeding, and then bandaging it. His childhood Boy Scouts troop leader would have been proud. I didn’t look at the laceration in the mirror until hours later, so I didn’t understand that it was split wide open and needed stitches to not look deformed.
Garry left to go to work around 5pm (which he feels terribly guilty about now, but I keep reminding him that I’m my own responsibility, not his). As soon as he was out of the door, I downed the remaining 6 ounces of cough syrup, bringing my total for the day to 16 ounces. I caught my reflection in the mirror and saw that I urgently needed stitches. I called my dad and asked for a ride to the ER.
My dad has always had a policy with me that if I get in trouble and need help, he will come help me without judgment. This started when I was in high school and started going to parties. I’ve only had to use this get-out-of-jail-free card a few times. He loves me more than I will ever understand.
When he got to my house it was 9pm, about 6 hours after my accident. He made me sit down and insisted that I not move from that chair no matter what. I tried my best to explain what I’d taken and when I’d taken it through a thick haze of muddled thoughts. My written chemical schedule made a technically helpful appearance, but I’d forgotten that I’d written things on it that no one should see, like “I could shoot myself in the head right now and be perfectly at peace,” which I’d written when I was in the perfect part of the trip.
Some of the times I feel most like killing myself are when I am most calm and happy. Those times are way scarier than depressed suicidal ideation, because it would just be so easy and a perfect exit to a full life. Once you’ve had two sincere attempts to end your life, you know how easy it is to wrap that cord around your neck and hang contentedly until your vision goes white, or how easy it is to take a bottle of Lithium, twice the fatal dose, while smiling because you’re about to be freed. If I owned a gun or lived in a house with one, I would have been dead at 19. Guns are statistically the most effective and reliable form of suicide. Hanging is pretty successful, but pills are not. And I messed that one up by taking them wrong and upsetting my stomach, causing vomiting.
But interestingly, that night, what I’d done and the destructive decisions I’d made had no malicious intent toward myself or anyone else. I didn’t have any suicidal ideation outside of that specific and momentary realization, and even that was only an observation, not a desire to hurt myself. I didn’t know it yet, but I had slipped into a classic manic episode over the past few months and had only taken the “medicine” to subconsciously self-medicate and fight back against my brain’s dysfunctions. I would learn that the following morning in Providence, the medical hospital, when I spoke to their psychiatrist and she put all the pieces together.
When she said she thought I was self-medicating (a classic mania symptom), I felt forgiven. It’s always a violation of my own values when I abuse something. I fought so hard to get sober and have had so few slips since then. Using felt like a failure and a betrayal of my parents’ trust. Now I can see that it was even more a betrayal of my trust in myself. I work so hard to stay healthy, and that day I’d completely thrown that away. I’m relieved that it was self-medicating and not pure addiction. Self-medicating can be resolved by getting treated by appropriate medications, and treating addiction is much more difficult. I was so relieved to hear that I was manic because all I’d figured out over the previous two months was that I was not okay. I was drowning and couldn’t get a breath. I just didn’t know why.
No one had to tell me that I’d be taken to DePaul, Waco’s psychiatric hospital. I knew that before I called my dad. I’m familiar with the system. I’d be put on an involuntary admission that would last until they thought I was better. There were two police officers outside of my door, and I knew why they were there.
Since we live with COVID-19, once you go into Providence hospital, where I was kept after getting my stitches, my dad couldn’t go out. Once you’re in the hospital, you’re stuck there. He could leave but wasn’t allowed to come back in if he did. We waited in a makeshift room that clearly used to be used for storage. One of the walls was a bare, pull-down, metal garage door. I’d had an IV placed in the crook of my right arm, the one still showing a big purple heart-shaped scar from my burn two months earlier, but they never used the IV for anything. I stayed up all night, for the fourth night in a row, and in the morning a robot-like machine was rolled into my room at the foot of my hospital bed, with a video screen nearly at the height of a person’s head, and on that screen was the Providence hospital’s psychiatrist, talking to me and furiously typing her notes. I wasn’t very cogent yet, but I answered her questions as best I could, and unlike so many medical professionals, she was respectful and non-judgmental about my situation. She explained her theory of a classic manic episode, and I was relieved to finally have my mental deterioration explained. Hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is often elusive. After all this time, it can still be hard to identify what’s happening to me while it happens.
By law, two police officers are required to “escort” you between the Providence hospital and DePaul psychiatric hospital in the back of a police vehicle. My dad had to legally to say goodbye to me before I got in the cops’ unnecessarily large SUV. We hugged tight and cried into each other’s shoulders. The police were kind, but treated me like a damaged child with no hope of recovery, like they were delivering a permanent fixture to DePaul.
I was there for the next 7 days, and the majority of it was hell.
My stay in the hospital was very recent and intense and I want to clearly communicate all of it. I really want everyone to have the insight my experience may provide, and I’m currently seeking to be understood by my friends and family. But I’m not quite well yet, and writing about all this is exhausting. So I’m going to break up my 7 days in DePaul into a few different articles so that I don’t wear myself down by reliving it all at once. I hope you’ll stay tuned.
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