Trigger warnings: self-harm, mental illness
Words are never really just words, and how we use them as we progress in our recovery is critical. For over two decades, I self-identified as a “cutter.” I felt this was a key part of my entire being, often describing the behavior itself as a coping skill; years later, it was a medical professional who helped me to adapt that cutting was a negative coping skill. Today a mentor of mine blew all previous concepts of this out of the way by simply explaining, “These aren’t negative coping skills; they are, in fact, self-destructive behaviors.”
The first issue I need to address is something we as a community struggle with in identifying as being mentally ill instead of a person who has a mental illness. There is in fact a difference, a huge difference, as my existence cannot be so easily simplified to a label. As long as I allow my illness to be my sole or primary identifier, I have cheated myself and others from knowing the reality of who I am. And as long as I am mentally ill verses someone with a mental illness, I am allowing that illness to take control of all that I am, as well as shirking all responsibility for any damage that may ensue.
There is power in language; part of my recovery is reclaiming that power and making it what I want it to be. Making me who I want to be. I am a person with a multitude of traits, qualities, faults and talents, yet no single one of those things can completely define all of me. I was never a cutter; I was a person who used cutting as a self-destructive behavior while claiming it was a coping skill.
Coping skills are the methods a person uses to deal with stressful situations. These may help a person face a situation, take action, and be flexible and persistent in solving problems.
The term negative coping skill seems like a bit of a contradiction. In my case, how did practicing self-harm help me solve any problems in my life? To put it bluntly, it didn’t. I didn’t learn conflict resolution, stronger communication skills, or ways to evolve into a better version of myself in any capacity. Explaining my behaviors as negative coping skills allowed me to alleviate some of the guilt and responsibility associated with the behaviors. It also allowed me to remain in denial that these so-called coping skills were in fact only exacerbating the very stress I was trying to resolve. When someone told me what I was doing was in reality a self-destructive behavior, I immediately went on the defense, feeling judged. It was what made sense to me, what felt safe, and to have that questioned by anyone left me in a place of vulnerability I didn’t want to confront.
Coping skills take time, patience, and a whole of a lot more effort that I’m often willing to give. These self-destructive behaviors feel good right away just about every time I do them, requiring minimal effort, if any. So I dress up my self-destructive behaviors all fancy in an effort to masquerade them around as an attempt to cope with my challenges, the justification being simply that a negative coping skill is still a coping skill, so what’s the real harm in the end? The harm is that in refusing to face my stresses in a constructive way, I am moving further away from the healthier life I ultimately want to achieve. If I chop off my leg, reasoning less of me will get there faster, the irony will be that all along I needed ALL of me to make it happen. A wounded leg will get me there faster than no leg at all. Stopping to treat my leg and letting it heal will give me the best possibility of success.