Friday, August 2, 2013

Self-Inflicted Violence: It Doesn't Always Meet the Eye

I beat myself up all the time. Does that sound scary? Yet you won't find cuts or scars or bruises on my body. No... as is so often the case, I'm talking about something I do inside my head.

I think its important to take seriously the metaphor of "beating ourselves up" mentally and emotionally over our own real or perceived failures. These metaphors resonate for reasons that are deeper than we may realize.

Mentally ill people can develop even compulsive forms of interior violence, and repetitive psychological self injury. This can be even more crippling than visible, external self-inflicted violence, although I think the two often go together in life circumstances and illnesses other than my own.

Whatever the nature of the behavior, we need to become more aware of how damaging (and how potentially dangerous) it is to "beat up on ourselves."

I am not a medical doctor or a therapist. I am just a "patient" who has lived with my own mental illness for more than 40 years. All I can do is share what I have learned, what has helped me in my own struggles. And I have certainly learned that beating up on myself is very bad thing. Neurological dysfunctions in the brain can give rise to dark and distorted perceptions or feelings of doubt, which then strive to articulate themselves as compulsive thoughts and emotions.

This can break out into a cycle of interior self abuse that is not only painful, but that causes me to withdraw from my responsibilities and from others who need me. I know that I must try my best to break this cycle, by turning to God in prayer, certainly, but also by sticking with my medications, watching what I eat, following my routine, managing stress, exercising, using cognitive therapy, and relying on people who can help me get back into focus and stay there.

I have never been able to think my way out of this. Help comes from outside, and no degree of illness can take away the personal responsibility that I have to be receptive, to struggle to be open to the help that I cannot give myself.

I know that there are many people who don't worry about much of anything, and who would benefit from a good dose of sober self-criticism (n.b. sober, which means balanced, measured, realistic). And we all feel guilty and ashamed at times simply because we've done something wrong. This is normal and good. But its something entirely different from a pathological and constant interior assault that is all out of proportion to any fault, that seems to block out goodness and that leads to discouragement.

Don't give in to this. Move away from it, even if all you can manage is an inch. Do it one inch at a time. And search for anything that helps you to draw out of yourself. If some of those helps begin with "psych," don't be ashamed of that. Its awkward terminology, but when properly applied these "helps" encompass both corporal and spiritual works of mercy. And we all need mercy. 

It is essential to people with mental illness to remember that God loves them just as they are, and that they must learn to love themselves, to be kind to themselves, and to turn their energies outward in constructive ways. And they must not be ashamed that they need help from others.

From my own experience I can say: It is possible to live in a relationship with God, with joy and patience, and constructive engagement of work and relationships, even with chronic depression, bi-polar, OCD, and other neurobiologically based disorders. It is also possible to be healed greatly from much self inflicted personal damage.

It is an ongoing process, and you can't do it alone. You need help.