When I was a teenager, there was a period in time that I physically harmed myself. I was never extreme as one might think, since even the words self-harm conjure up a thousand horrors, but I got into the habit of getting depressed, purposefully tripping myself to fall onto rocks or down steps, rapping my knuckles over concrete til they bled, or cutting myself on the face with a knife. I feel that enough time has past in which I can admit those things. It has been six years.
I harmed myself because I wanted attention but I didn’t want to ask for it. I was raised as a middle child but my parents were always good with spreading attention around to all of us, so that wasn’t it. I wanted attention from girls I liked, and that may have contributed some, but the largest factor I can remember is the need for significance. I felt like my life had little meaning. Here I was, a young man who was friendly and funny, thoughtful and relatively intelligent, but lonely and undisciplined. I had no work I could be proud of, I had no accomplishments that satisfied. I composed music on the piano and I even begun to write songs for the guitar, allowing me to perform a few local venues and ultimately play piano for 8000 people during the Alberta Winter Games, but like the old adage, I knew that this too would pass. Soon I would be finished High School and I would have to point myself in a direction that offered me meaning and significance. Soon I would be on my own without a compass.
Already you can see my thirst for accomplishment manifest. Hurting myself was a way to see the faces of others light up with concern. Even to this day, I must admit, seeing that concern on another’s face is as unattainable then as it is now. Only difference between then and now is that I don’t need to see the same care from people, or if I do, I’m willing to try and attain it with the long run. Maybe if I finish a novel and it becomes a success then people will look at me and care—but I don’t have to worry about that until the novel’s complete. I can stave off getting what I want until the next accomplishment, and when that doesn’t change anything, I can set my sights on another goal and pretend like that will make people care. At least cutting myself had people look at me like they cared about me, I thought back then, which only drove me to do it even more. If only I would have realized sooner the negative cycle it was keeping me in.
Like all things in life, the consistency was never pure. There were times of great and miserable depression, but joyful moments and memories still rose their shiny heads now and then. These moments came through working on my craft. I wrote in High School and when I was doing that I was enjoying life. I remember vividly the ecstasy of writing my first real song. The period between writing a song and showing somebody is a wondrous joy. Once I start to share a song things go downhill from there, but at least there was this period I discovered. I loved making things and relished the moments of wanting to share them. That was something.
Another something was the joy of stories. I used to watch TV shows like mad. I laughed and cried along with my favourite characters and was genuinely moved. Stories moved me. I became enamoured with the silver screen and I finally decided that I would go to school to become a big actor. That would give me the best of both worlds; I would get to be involved in stories and I would be lauded for my accomplishments. I applied and was accepted into the Vancouver Film School. I put off going for a year in order to try and raise money for it, but also because I was scared. If I tried that meant I could fail.
That year was a year of transformation, and my tendency for self-harm was at it’s peak. I worked a few different jobs and each time I became further depressed. The type of work was mundane and uninteresting, everybody went about and did their own thing, and I spent hours in my room watching television or writing. I started working on an early draft of my novel and I enjoyed it so much that I began to question whether not I was made for the screen. Maybe I would get meaning if I wrote stories instead, I thought. The indecision ultimately resulted in me quitting Film School before it started, getting accepted into a school for Professional Writing, and then quitting that before it started because I was terrified of failing again.
Then I met my future wife and followed her to Chilliwack. I pursued a career by studying psychology but stopped doing that as soon as I realized I was only doing it so I could be a better writer. I thought if I knew something about people I could write better characters. Turns out psychology is just a field of study that people go in to better understand themselves and that it muddles itself in so many unscientific, unfounded theories, that it conflates the whole understanding of human nature by reducing mankind to a product of his or her own influences. Every prominent school of psychological thought is subject to this, and the thought that a man is free to choose is something unpopular. This from people who chose to go into the study of psychology. But I digress…
In University, the panic attacks started. This was probably because the self-harm stopped. My girlfriend loved me and looked at me with care and concern, so the decision to stop hurting myself was more along the lines of a decision to not hurt her. It hurt her to see what I did to myself, so I lost the temptation to give in. The panic attacks were a monster I was not capable to handle alone.
These went on for about two years and they culminate in an event where I panicked at my summer job while in the driver’s seat of an eighteen-wheeler. I got shirked from working for a while to undergo counselling (certainly a wise decision of my employers), and I returned to my girlfriend in Chilliwack for a month to be unemployed and depressed. It was the month I got my tattoo, and it’s the last time I ever had a full-blown panic attack. This stopped because I very much disliked my counsellor, who was apt to have me blather on about my life like I had the insight to fix myself and instead just depressed me further, and I picked up a book by Dr. David D. Burns called When Panic Attacks. In it there were tools for dealing with anxiety, the one that sticks with me being the ability to put your destructive thoughts on paper and talk back to them. Reason with yourself. I tried this tool and stopped reading the book half way into it. I tried writing my thoughts down once. Ever since then I’ve been able to avoid having a panic attack.
But I still get stressed, and sometimes depressed. Stress aches my muscles and I withhold complaining about them as much as I’d like. Depression keeps me struggling with the motivation to sit down and write, so my novel takes longer to do, the screenplay I’m writing takes more effort, and joy becomes a disincentive in the process of my craft. I sit down to write because I have less time and so for me to accomplish the things I want to accomplish, I have to seriously work at it. It’s not easy to write a novel, and it’s not easy to write a screenplay, especially when you have a due date. It’s not easy to even write this article, but I do it because it’s the only thing that works. Having a good chat with my wife will solve many problems, but the root of a problem is never fixed for me unless I write it down. Writing is cathartic, though it is painful.
I guess you could say that writing is my new form of self-harm. It’s not just that, but it is that. Self-harm was a tool I used to deal with stress. I mean, it was a horrible and destructive tool, let me not mince words about it, but a tool none the less. Though I love writing, I can’t help but make the dark comparison between it and what I did back then.
The question arises: Why do I put myself through endless hours of writing and rewriting, sitting in my computer chair while I hear my wife deal with a crying baby upstairs, thinking about stories and deadlines and goals and all these castles in the sky that I’ve made?
Or another: Why do I will myself to suffer like this, likely adding to the suffering of those around me? My wife is making supper and dealing with a baby and all I can think sometimes during a scheduled writing session is how distracting it is. How selfish of me is that? I know rationally that we’ve talked about it beforehand, and I do try to pull my weight and help ensure she has time to herself as well, but it just bothers me. I feel like I’m being a bad father and a bad husband.
So then I talk back to these thoughts (this after getting up to go and help the family).
Writing is creative and unless I find another way to make income in the long run, it’s going to be another decade before me and my wife can even think about owning property. She has her career and I have mine, but because writing has potential for income, it makes sense for us both to invest time in me pursuing it—for the sake of our family’s future. I’m not being a bad father, I’m being a good father for pursuing these goals. I’m putting in blood and sweat and tears for a career that hopefully becomes something to benefit my entire family. It certainly won’t unless I try.
But enough back and forth. What does it all boil down to? Is there any sense to be found?
I guess I could say…
Writing is what I’ve turned to in the face of overwhelming anxiety and stress—writing is what helps me face those things, though it hurts to face them. I can not face them without pain, whether that pain comes from cutting my face or cutting my heart open on the page.
Either way I’m gonna bleed.