Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cuts You Up.

Above is the cover to George Harrison's posthumously released album "Brainwashed." We'll get to that part of the story much later. I just popped on my iTunes my favorite writing music, the soundtrack to the documentary "The Heart is a Drum Machine" by Steven Drozd. It's elegant and peaceful, rollicking and restful, and he's got perfect pitch to boot in his harmonies, though the one song on the album that's not an instrumental is not sung by Steven himself. It's also really good traveling music, should you ever be inclined to drive or fly. It's a shame the album isn't about, say, 65 minutes longer. But that's what the repeat button is for, right?

But I digress.

Luke's got this great photographic and intuitive memory, always has, yet there's something I believe he's blocked from his psyche, perhaps out of self-preservation, which we just talked about on the phone.

He was 7-8 years old at the time and I had recently separated from my husband, and Luke and I were living at Camp Swanky, our palatial apartment in Chicago that we had no means by which to pay for in the first place. I had no job, and we were living essentially off of Craig's child support, pawning my jewelry and belongings, and we'd spent the money I'd borrowed in order to secure the apartment and survive for some semblance of time. (There was ALWAYS money for liquor and smokes and enough food to at least survive on, though. I made sure of that, until Chris came along and actually started buying us groceries when we first started dating, before I got my job at the medical practice and moved back into Camp Miklasz and got sober and healthy.)

We were in the kitchen, Luke and I, with me by the stove and Luke sitting on a stool across the counter island from me. I don't think I was dead ass drunk at the time; rather, I was probably fixing dinner and still finishing my first bottle of wine for the evening (at that point, I'd typically consume approximately 4-5 bottles a night. Trader Joe's 2 Buck Chuck. Cheap thrills). So I was still lucid. I had long sleeves on, as I typically would, even in warm weather, because I was covering up my sickening little coping mechanism. (I don't remember what time of the year this particular exchange happened during, naturally.)

At some point, I had to roll up my sleeves to, I don't know, chop garlic or something. Who the hell knows. Why the hell I would expose my child to what he was about to see is a question I can't even answer. Luke saw rows of slices in the skin of my inner right forearm that were about, on average, 10" in length apiece, meticulously scraped across the whole arm, from elbow to wrist. Because I was, at the time, severely, clinically disturbed and in addition to being a raging alcoholic, I was an as-yet undiagnosed, improperly medicated bipolar prone to extreme behaviors of all sorts.

Cutting myself was, apart from drinking, the most dangerous and extreme thing I had ever done. My habit was to take a steak knife (not even sterilized!) and dig it into my forearm in a long, even line. That hurt like HELL. It would bleed profusely. I would cut compulsively under distress and it became one of my many addictions in life. I wanted to stop. I couldn't. Just as I couldn't stop drinking.

It's never easy to talk about self-harm, mostly because it seems, on the surface, to be just so senseless and stupid. Your body isn't YOUR creation, it's God's. And we're all beautiful to God. Unfortunately, we're not all beautiful to ourselves. Why a person would want to mar any part of his/her body as a method of escapism is, to the sane person, an unthinkable horror.

The cuts Luke saw weren't immediately fresh. They were healed enough to not warrant bandages (rather, Neosporin, gauze and medical tape), yet still quite reddened and very obvious. So probably about 2-3 days old, I don't recall. He said to me in his small voice, "Mommy, what happened to you? How did you get hurt?" I cannot remember WHAT my excuse was to him. I could've told my 7-year old that I was mauled by a grizzly bear at that point and he probably would have believed me. Quickly, I rolled my sleeves down and let the garlic fly where it may.

I just got off the phone with Luke a little while ago. I asked him if he had any memory of that moment, when he saw those wounds. He said he didn't. I pried him, "You know, when I was drunk all the time, we lived at Swanky, we were in the kitchen?" "Nope," he said. That sort of surprised me, given his smarts and his memory. Like I said, I think he blocked that event out of self-preservation or survival mode. I could be totally wrong. He seemed sort of unaware of the cutting in general, when I *know* we've talked about it since it happened, since I stopped. He said, "Why'd you do that? That's disgusting!" or something to that effect. He asked me now, as a wise-beyond-his-years 12 year old, why I used to cut. I gave him the same explanation as I stated above about my psychiatric illnesses which he now DOES comprehend (all too well).

Why did I choose such an incredibly obvious spot on my body on which to cut? The only reasoning I can come up with was that I *wanted* to get caught. I wanted someone to notice. Not my little boy, but someone. And because I was so good at hiding it with the long sleeves, nobody did notice until I revealed it to a trusted friend. Because I was hurting more on the inside than I was on the outside.

Here's the thing about cutting: It's REALLY fucking painful to do. I've seen lots of people use straight razor blades, box cutters, etc, but I was too chicken to try that and the steak knife yielded the results I wanted anyway. It hurts so badly physically, and the blood is everywhere, and you're peeling skin off the knife and going at another place on your're so busy and engrossed in THAT that you forget, if just for a moment, literally EVERYTHING that's bothering you in your fucked up head. Because all of that external pain momentarily erases all the internal pain. By then, you're all consumed in trying to treat your new wounds and clean up the're not thinking about how you've been up for 3 consecutive days fighting off insanity, numbing it with as much alcohol as you can afford and still putting on a fresh face at your kid's school when you drop him off in the morning. (I would try to only cut the nights Luke was at Craig's, though I had one memorable night of cutting with Luke asleep after his father and I had a family outing to Celtic Fest downtown after we were separated, and the sorrow of the breakup of my family became too much to bear.)

I remember one morning at St. Paul after I'd taken Luke to school, and I'd hung around to talk to my friend Cathy. Cathy's the mom of Luke's best friend and has been a friend of mine since we were both students at St. Paul in grammar school ourselves. This was before I was driving him to school drunk from the night before, so I was sober when Cathy and I were talking. But I had a scarred up arm, not freshly cut. I forget what she and I were talking about in the parking lot, but she was deeply concerned about me and the state I was in. I believe this was after she and her husband called 911 on me late one night when I was drunk at home and I called Cathy's husband threatening suicide, and was taken to the hospital to essentially sober up, talk to a social worker and was sent home with my brother without any shoes on. (By the way, I stayed sober for exactly 24 hours, after everyone stopped worrying about me and me promising I was done drinking, and I said "the hell with that" and went and bought more wine.) For whatever reason, I just stood there in the parking lot and rolled up my sleeve and showed Cathy my arm. Her reaction was that of utter Christian love and compassion. She rubbed my arm, looked at it, looked at me, and kissed my arm. That gesture of grace is one I will never forget.

I wasn't ready for help yet, though. I'm sure she was trying to convince me to at the very least, see a doctor about the physical aspect of the injuries, and get to a counselor, and I did hook up with this utterly useless therapist through Lutheran Social Services in Chicago who did nothing but talk to ME about HER sister. I tolerated that for a few months before deciding to quit that "talk" therapy and just fucking drink more. At that juncture, anyway, the bottle was a better therapist than any person I could find, not that I spent much time finding someone to talk to.

My mom was completely unaware of what was going on because she was going through breast cancer at the time, undergoing chemotherapy, and we lived apart, not seeing one another every day. My brother lived an hour away. The friends I was hanging around with were all drinking buddies and enablers, apart from my church friends and my band, all of whom I kept in the dark though I wanted help desperately. *I* knew I was insane. I didn't know enough about psychology to diagnose myself apart from the fact that I knew I was deeply depressed. But then I'd have these crazy bursts of energy and enthusiasm and grandiose ideas and lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I was either on top of the world or scraping the bottom of the barrel. I was never, ever stable. And the fucktard at Lutheran Social Services just thought I was depressed and when she asked if I was still drinking, I would simply lie and say "No, of course not."

(Wow. Steven's music has ended and now appropriately enough "Hey Jude" is on. "The movement you need is on your shoulders....." Oh hell yes.)

Anyway, time rolled on, I had a boyfriend (who had the same reaction Cathy did the first time he saw my Edward Scissorhands arm, which is one of my warm memories of him), I got sober and was referred to a proper psychiatrist. Even he couldn't get the meds right at first and had diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. He tried various combinations of antidepressants, none of which worked. I showed him my arm. My boyfriend, having had a BS in Psychology, knew a lot about various forms of therapy, and said that I would be a good candidate for cognitive behavioral therapy. My psychiatrist hooked me up with a CBT therapist, and in the meantime, finally put his finger on the correct diagnosis for my mental maladies: I was suffering from bipolar disorder and most likely had been since at least college. All those high-highs and low-lows. I gave him concrete examples of my manic adventures and my depressive blahs, and he prescribed an anti-psychotic, a mood-stabilizer and an antidepressant, meds he said I will have to stay on for the rest of my life.

If I had to define cognitive behavioral therapy myself, I'd say it's something like this: Negative thought patterns and behaviors (maladaptive behaviors) interfere with your functioning every day. They're deeply ingrained in your psychological make up and often learned behaviors handed down to you by your parents or other caregivers, sometimes siblings, anyone who had influence on you as you developed. These negative schemas, as they're called, all have labels, such as mind-reading, catastrophizing, black-or-white thinking, among many others, and are uniformly irrational. They're called "automatic thoughts." Example: "Christa hasn't answered my email about going to the AA meeting tomorrow night since we argued about something this morning. Christa hates me." or "The alley is dark and Christopher is scary and wants to kill me. I can't go into the alley after dark or I'll die." See? Irrational thoughts that interfere with your daily life. You learn a lot about employing mindfulness into your actions. Being mindful of your inner negativity and fears and learning positive coping mechanisms to deal with your problems. It's complicated, but that's the best way I can think of to describe CBT.

The goal of CBT is to redirect your thinking to replace the negative schemas with positive schemas and positive thought patterns and behaviors. You are taught to restructure your thought processes to more positive and useful ultimate outcomes. It's HARD WORK. Hell, there are worksheets involved! At therapy!

When I was cutting, while my therapist said it WAS a coping mechanism that definitely WORKED, it was maladaptive and obviously negative. I had to be taught to restructure my thinking and behavioral patterns to eliminate cutting as a self-soother. (I'm a chronic self-soother. I sucked my goddamn thumb until I was 10 years old.) The first thing the therapist had me do instead of cutting with a knife when I felt the impulse to cut was to use an ice cube instead, and run the ice cube up and down my right inner forearm. "But that's uncomfortable!" I harped. "And slicing your arm with a steak knife ISN'T uncomfortable???" he said. True enough. There was one last crazy cutting episode that was particularly violent where I not only cut my trademark arm, but I also cut several lines across my abdomen, after a major fight with a girlfriend over God-knows-what and I just totally lost it.

The medication combination I was on began to work, and work successfully, the ice trick worked, and the CBT therapist and I worked on many of my negative schemas (many of which I'm still working on with my present therapist). I was sober. I haven't cut myself since then. This was 3 years ago right around this time of year, maybe a month or 2 off, if that. I started interviewing for the job I would eventually land at the medical practice, which seemed an endless process of elimination (I think they hired me because I was the only applicant with a college education), finally functional enough to hold down a job. (Incidentally, if you're still reading this, Ms. Blog Stalker, you really gotta stop logging in at work on work's time. Now I've learned how to screen capture all of your log-ins just in case I ever need them.)

My arm is really quite amazing to look at if you look at it now. One would conclude that after all of that mauling, all those deep digs, all the meticulous patterns I delivered to myself that I would have a shitload of scarring. But like a miracle from God, there are NONE. I have a couple of tiny IV scars from being in the hospital, but you would never know I used to cut by looking at me. God spared me that awful reminder. My arm is once again beautiful.

Which is why it's so damn important to me to get the tattoos I keep talking about. Based on the signature by George Harrison above on the "Brainwashed" album artwork, I want the Hindu "OM" symbol next to a cross (as Harrison signed them himself) on my right inner wrist, because I think both symbols are beautiful and are meaningful to me, and would serve as reminders to me never to cut myself again, and are by my all-time favorite musical artist. They'll be small and not overbearing, and tasteful.

Some people think tattoos are ugly and tacky and low-brow. I happen to think a lot of them are beautiful. Some are downright obnoxious, but we all have our own tastes and inclinations. I want more piercings too, which I can get at the kick-ass, high-end, clean-as-a-whistle, not-full-of-biker-dudes piercing and tattooing studio at which I trade in the city. (

And I want, specifically, my Tatus to go with me to get them, because it is with him I feel safe and secure, and he makes me laugh a lot and I want to hold his hand while I'm trying not to jump out of the seat in pain on what is, as I already know, a very sensitive area of thin skin. Tatus does not get it. He was none too pleased when his daughter came home with a tattoo. Perhaps he doesn't want to be seen in a "tattoo parlor." Maybe he's philosophically opposed to tattoos. Perhaps he has a daddy complex about it and doesn't want ME to get a tattoo. Perhaps he thinks they're distasteful and homely. If it's not already blatantly evident, I could give two shits what other people think of me and I got my eyebrow pierced when I was 26, much to my mother's chagrin, and didn't give a damn. I don't even know if my husband liked my eyebrow piercing. It's uniquely Annie. I'm uniquely Annie. That much I *know* he gets. So what's the issue?

For whatever his reasons are, he's telling me the old parental "we'll see about that," "we'll talk about that" set of lines whereas I'm asking him to do me this favor as my friend. I want a permanent reminder of the harm I caused myself translated into 2 meaningful religious symbols inked onto THAT area of my body to remind me forever that I survived something awful and am once again reborn into the beautiful creation God intended me to be. That's all there is to it. I was waiting for His Eminence to give me a jingle after work tonight to discuss next week's plan, but thus far, he has not. Of course, I told him to read my recent blogs and THEN call me, and he doesn't like to read on the computer at night. But we've got all weekend, so I'm sure I'll hear from him eventually.

Self-harm is a very real, very prevalent mental illness, affecting chiefly women (and some men) typically younger than I am. Folks, there is help out there in plenitude if you're a cutter. Help I didn't know about at the time and I was too drunk to pursue even if I had known it was there. There's a great organization of which I'm a member called "To Write Love on Her Arms," at They specialize in self-harm (or self-mutilation), eating disorders and addictions. You don't have to suffer in silence, hoping one day that somebody will notice your wounds and extend you care. Help yourself. You mean the world to a lot of people.

So essentially, Tatus, this blog was for you. To help you understand why the tattoo I'm asking you to accompany me to is so important to me. You like my blogs that have a cohesive story to them; a beginning, middle and end. I hope this blog is patterned as such, but admittedly, I don't proofread much. And yes, you're the only person on Earth who doesn't like at least *one* ABBA song.

The End....

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