Baby Steps: Recovery From Self-Injury

By Haley ValentaSeptember 21, 2021

This piece focuses on the topic of self-injury. Please use your discretion.

I’ve dealt with self-harm for a little over half of my life. My forearms and right thigh are testaments. The first time happened in middle school gym class. I was wracked with undiagnosed depression and knew instinctively as I stood there, losing touch with reality, that I could stop myself from crying in front of everyone if I hurt myself. And so I did, under my black, long-sleeved shirt, until the pain took precedent, until I could distance myself from those agonizing emotions.

A million thoughts have been circling my mind as I approach one year clean. Firstly, I’m terrified. I’m not ready for this kind of commitment; at least once a day during the rough periods, I think back on all of the moments I was ready to harm but didn’t and wish I had. I remember the unfiltered joy I felt when I reached one-year clean last year, only to relapse a few months later. A part of me wonders if I’m on that same path, if my streak won’t last and I’ll be making and breaking “one-year”s for the rest of my life. On top of the fear, there’s the guilt. The guilt of wanting to harm has been just as palpable as the guilt from actually harming. I should want to get better. I should want to stop. But I don’t. And that’s eating at me.

Fighting urges hasn’t gotten much easier. Sleepless nights remain, unimaginable numbness or emotional weight begging to be released, and that all too familiar feeling of my skin burning for the sensation of an injury or ache. There are times when all I can do is watch the two sides of my thought processes—one healthy, one unhealthy—tear each other apart in hopes of gaining the upper hand.

So many pros and cons lists have been made as I grapple with how to proceed. On good days, I can remind myself of why I continue to fight. I can focus on the people in my life who love me and want me to heal, and I can see a glimpse of why pressing on is the right thing. I imagine a future where I’m OK. On bad days, I go through the motions, turning to every positive coping skill in my toolbox until my eyes roll back in my head while I wait for the urges to pass. Like someone who is weather-worn, I’m well acquainted with the storm, but I’m never ready for the damage left in its wake. Apologies for the cliche metaphor, but it’s true. It’s destructive and all-encompassing and painful. Even if I don’t injure, I’m still carrying and enduring the emotional wreckage. Because on both days, I’m withering in my skin, ready to hurt myself at the drop of a hat.

As of late, I’ve been using temporary tattoos to cope. I have a butterfly on my left wrist placed snugly above scars. It’s a vibrant orange mixed with hints of yellow, like a sunset on my skin; music notes adorn both wings. It harkens to The Butterfly Project, where you draw a butterfly on yourself and keep it alive by not self-harming. As simple as it may seem, I don’t want to kill it. I just can’t handle the guilt.

So, over and over, I put these self-harm urges on pause. I write—anything and everything but especially poetry or journaling. I pray fervently and sometimes through tears. I sing like I’m the only one home even though I’m definitely not. I squeeze my weighted stuffed animal, a gray fox I named Melvin. I stay around people, as much as it makes me feel like a child who needs to be supervised.

All to stay safe, from myself.

Even though I despise this friction I’m feeling, of wanting to backslide and to also stay clean, it’s been a reminder of what recovery actually looks like. You don’t always have a spark in your heart to get better. Sometimes, you hate it. You resent it. You cannot fathom letting go of old habits. I hold tightly onto these self-destructing coping mechanisms with a tight, stubborn fist, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. It’s a comfort.

Within this chapter, the urges to harm don’t surface every day. Sometimes I go months without feeling their presence. They come and go when they please, or when they’re triggered. Those days where I’m free? That’s where my hope lives, and it’s where yours should, too. Because even though I still struggle, I don’t struggle as much as I used to.

Making or breaking milestones doesn’t have to be everything—it shouldn’t be everything.

Reaching one year doesn’t mean I’ll be a failure if I relapse, nor does it mean that I’m making a lifelong commitment to giving up self-harm. That’s too much pressure for one person to carry, or at least, that’s way too much pressure for me. I’m simply not ready.

So perhaps it’s always going to be baby steps; it’s always going to be taking this one day at a time. That’s how I made it this far.

And if it’s baby steps, I think I can manage.

You are worthy of love and grace, from others and yourself. You are enough, here and now. If you’re dealing with self-injury or self-harm, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].

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Comments (12)

  1. KJL

    Thank you for writing this, for sharing your story; for keeping on, even if only one day at a time.

    Your words articulated the muddled thoughts and feelings rolling around in my own head and reminded me to keep fighting. To keep pressing on, even if only one day at a time. My therapist used to tell me that line “one day at a time”. That line was more to me than just words. That line saved my life time and time again. It helped me keep going. Thank you for reminding me of that.

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  2. sharaya

    wow this was written so well, I felt everything you said lol! thank you for sharing your story <3

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  3. Thalia

    Thank you so much. I really related to this.

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  4. Kaitlyn

    I feel like you were taking the words and thoughts straight out of my mouth and my heart! I just hit the 3 year mark and I still have those “day at a time” and sometimes even “one second at a time” moments. Some days I’m thankful for those moments though because if I’m not recognizing my struggles and my triggers then I’m not consciously making efforts toward continued recovery! Thank you for so eloquently sharing your heart and your story! It definitely touched me!

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  5. Kaylie Isaac

    this is so beautiful and helpful. thank you.

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  6. K

    Wow… I could have written every single word of that myself. It’s almost scary how you’re able to describe exact feelings that I’ve had myself but don’t know how to put into words…
    And the part about baby steps… I’ve been wanting to get that tattooed somewhere for a long time now- an old friend used to say it to me all the time…
    Thank you for being brave enough to share such a personal struggle- I know your words have helped so many already.

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  7. Kat

    You get it. I have relapsed a few times in the last two months. Before that, I was almost five years clean. Almost. But I hit a breaking point and I’m struggling to find my way out. I have an amazing support system and immediately when I told my therapist and a few of my closest friends they all started trying to set up supports to keep me from relapsing again. Sometimes it’s worked, but not every time. It hasn’t worked every time because I haven’t used them every time. A couple of times I chose not to try to use them because I had given up on myself. Part of me doesn’t want to stop. It’s been so so hard to stay safe the last five years and I made relapsing into this horrible, unimaginable thing in order to keep from doing it again. But now that I have and the world hasn’t ended, as bad as it sounds it doesn’t seem like such a huge deal to me. You said it so perfectly, “it’s comfort” it’s old, it’s familiar, and I know it works in the moment. Thank you for helping me understand why I don’t want to give up something I logically know isn’t healthy

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    1. TWLOHA

      Kat, we’re really glad you found these words and feel seen by them. You truly are not alone, in what you are facing or feeling. And while recovery healing, relapsing can also be part of that healing. You don’t have to be defined by milestones or hurdles. Those things are worth celebrating, but so is you being alive, you learning, you growing, you asking for support from your friends. So while you do deserve and are capable of recovery, we hope you also know that when you’re in the middle of it, the gray area, all of those things are still true, too.

      With Hope,

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  8. Sophia

    Staying clean and on the road to recovery/healing isn’t easy. I’ve been self harm free for 8 years. I relapsed 8 years ago after being self harm free for 4 years prior to that.
    I’m currently struggling with my addiction. The thoughts have been SO intrusive and consuming. I listen to music, watch TV, game, read, puzzle, run-anything to try to help drown or at least quiet the thoughts.
    I’ve been free for 8 years…why ruin that? Why give in? It’s so hard.
    Your entry REALLY resonates with me. You’ve given me another hand to hold, another foot to bring forward, to keep going.
    Remember, you are human. Your feelings are valid. You can keep going because you are not alone. We stand with you and cheer you on; minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day.
    Thank you sharing a bit of yourself. You have helped at least one person <3

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    1. TWLOHA


      Thank you for sharing. Your honesty and vulnerability are beyond appreciated. We are grateful for your presence.

      With Hope,

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  9. RL

    Wow. Thank you for your honesty and bravery to share this. You’ve got this. We all do.

    Reply  |  
  10. Hannah

    It has hurt so much, feeling so alone in my pain and so misunderstood as I am navigating healing from self-injury. I feel like no one around me understands, that I anger them, upset them, that I am hurting them every time I relapse. So, thank you. Thank you for sharing with so much honesty and compassion. Thank you for being a friend.

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