Self-Harm and Buddhism

At work there is a program called Illness Management and Recovery (IMR).  It was developed for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and consists of 10 modules on managing mental illness.  I am not trained to teach it, but have been working through the modules myself to learn more.  Most recently, the assignment was to explain a symptom to others.  I wasn’t sure which symptom to cover, until I spent 5 nights back in the inpatient unit last week.  I’ve struggled a lot with suicidal ideation and urges to self-harm over the past three months, and reached a point where it was beyond time to take a breather from life and go somewhere safe where I could focus strictly on taking care of me.

While there, I began reading The Buddha and the Borderline by Kiera Van Gelder.  It is a memoir of her experience of Borderline Personality Disorder and her path to recovery via Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and later delving into its roots in Buddhism.  Early in the book there were some fairly graphic descriptions of self-harm, which I only felt okay with reading because I was in a safe place.  It turns out, it wasn’t entirely safe.  They do the best they can with keeping dangerous objects out, but those of us who self-harm can get pretty creative.  At one point I found something dangerous that was built into the architecture.  I showed it to a nurse and she said she would report it to the director of the unit and that I should come tell a staff member if I was feeling tempted.  One night I did.  I’d been feeling anxious during visiting hours and when my mom left I called the same nurse over and told her I felt tempted toward the thing I had shown her previously.  I also handed over my statistics folder mom had just brought for me and asked her to please remove the staples from the packets of notes.

The nurse told me to stay put, but it didn’t totally register and after a different staff member handed back my folder without even speaking to me I started to get overwhelmed by the noise in the main commons and moved to a smaller area near my room.  The nurse came rushing in and happened to see some recent scratches on my arm from before my admission, which led her to exclaim, “Did you hurt yourself?  I told you to stay put!”  I explained that the scratches were older, and she told me that they would like me to sleep in the quiet room that night so they could keep an eye on me.  The quiet room?  That’s the nice term for seclusion room, which is the nice term for restraint room.  The only furniture was a bed in the center of the room, with restraints built in.  The lights were controlled from the outside, there were cameras monitoring the room, and there was no handle on the inside of the door.  Now on the bright side, they really just were putting me there for the cameras, and the door was not fully shut.  I was allowed to get up and leave to use the bathroom or go to the water fountain or ask for sleeping medication.  It was still rather intense.

It was also completely warranted.  The dangerous item I had found wouldn’t do serious damage, but it was in a place where no one would see and stop me, and I could have hidden the marks had I acted on my urge.  So why self-harm?  It can be many things.  It can be a punishment.  It can be a release of psychological pain in physical form.  Those are the main two things for me.  If I’m hurting intensely, it’s less painful to transfer that into something physical.  I’m also usually tempted toward it when I feel shame, which unfortunately I feel frequently and for sometimes inexplicable reasons.  The important part to note is that, while many people both self-harm and feel suicidal, the act of self-harm is not a suicide attempt.  Severe acts of self-harm could result in death, but it’s different if death is not the intent.  Self-harm is a coping skill, just not a very healthy one.  Some people come home from a hard day and have a glass of wine or eat a comforting meal or go exercise intensely for an hour, and all those things reduce the pain somewhat.  Self-harm does the same thing for some of us, and therapy (such as DBT) is about replacing that with a healthier way to reach the same end result.

I finished reading The Buddha and the Borderline last night, a couple of days after my release from inpatient, and toward the end the author asked one of her Buddhist teachers if suicide was the same as killing another person.  Likewise, is self-harm the same as attacking another person?  The conclusion was that it is impossible to fully practice loving-kindness toward others if you cannot love yourself.  I can’t say that I will never slip and act on those urges again, as that’s much too simplistic to think a line from a book is going to undo decades of experience, but the book did inspire me to look more into Buddhism.  I am not a spiritual person.  I am even less a religious person.  I have, however, found myself drawn toward Buddhism over and over throughout my adult life, and have benefited immensely from DBT and the elements of Buddhism Marsha Linehan incorporated into it.  So I am steering my upcoming focus on reading toward books on the topic, to discover if it is something I want to explore further.

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Top Reads of 2016

Last year I failed to complete my Goodreads challenge.  In 2015, my goal was 48 books, or 4 per month.  I bumped it up to 52 books for 2016, thinking I could manage a book per week.  Perhaps this would have worked out, but I returned to college and some of the books I read were lengthy textbooks, which took time away from that last 4 books I needed.

I’ve set my goal back at 48 books for 2017.  There will still be lengthy textbooks, but maybe I’ve better learned how to juggle the necessary reading with the fun reading.

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[Not pictured: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.]

  1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan – I read my first book of 2016 in one day, during my last stay in the inpatient psych unit.  I was admitted late on January 2nd, and January 3rd was a Sunday so there were no groups to attend that day.  I pulled this, the only decent-sounding book, off the bookshelf and curled up in bed and read all day.  I’d recommend it for anyone who was able to look past historical inaccuracies and enjoy The DaVinci Code for the fun story it is.  It also evoked images of the TV show Warehouse 13.  I wouldn’t say it is directly comparable to either of these things, but I feel those are reasons I enjoyed it.
  2. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT by Russ Harris – Sadie printed an article by Russ Harris out for me, which was a brief introduction to the content of this book.  I use some of his techniques frequently.  If you have trouble with getting stuck on negative thoughts, read this for ideas on how to accept them as just thoughts and let them go.
  3. The Sherlockian by Graham Moore – If you enjoyed any of the Sherlock Holmes books, you must read this.  It weaves a continuation of Sherlock’s story with a modern story about a Sherlock fan trying to solve a crime.
  4. The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle – You will probably cry more than once during this book about immigrants from Mexico and residents of gated communities who want to keep the Mexicans away, but it’s wonderfully written with rich details and interconnected storylines.
  5. Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo – This is definitely a love-or-hate book.  Obviously I loved it.  I haven’t exactly finished the tidying up, but I did get through all my clothes and donated a bunch of stuff that didn’t “spark joy”.  I also learned better ways to fold clothes that are stored in drawers.  If you are the type of person to care about decluttering, I’m sure you’ll find at least a couple of helpful ideas.

Making Space

I am currently reading two books simultaneously.  Usually when this happens I am struggling to get through a challenging book so I take a break with something quick and humorous.  This time, however, both books are challenging, I’m actively reading both, and they are intertwining in a fascinating way.

From A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle:

“I’m not asking you to do anything.  All I’m asking is that you find out whether it is possible for you to allow those feelings to be there.  In other words, and this may sound strange, if you don’t mind being unhappy, what happens to the unhappiness?  Don’t you want to find out?”

She looked puzzled briefly, and after a minute or so of sitting silently, I suddenly noticed a significant shift in her energy field.  She said, “This is weird.  I’m still unhappy, but now there is space around it.  It seems to matter less.” This was the first time I heard somebody put it like that: There is space around my unhappiness.  That space, of course, comes when there is inner acceptance of whatever you are experiencing in the present moment.

Compare to this bit on “expansion” from The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris:

Step 1: Observe

Observe the sensations in your body. Take a few seconds to scan yourself from head to toe.  As you do this, you will probably notice several uncomfortable sensations.  Look for the one that bothers you the most.  For example, it may be a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, or a teary feeling in your eyes.  (If your entire body feels uncomfortable, then just pick the area that bothers you the most.) Now focus your attention on that sensation.  Observe it with curiosity, like a scientist who has discovered some interesting new phenomenon.  Notice where it starts and where it stops.  If you had to draw an outline around this sensation, what shape would it have?  Is it on the surface of the body, or inside you, or both?  How far inside you does it go?  Where is it most intense?  Where is it weakest?  How is it different in the center from around the edges?  Is there any pulse or vibration?  Is it light or heavy?  Moving or still?  Warm or cool?

Step 2: Breathe

Breathe into and around the sensation.  Begin with a few deep breaths (the slower the better) and make sure you fully empty your lungs as you breathe out.  Slow, deep breathing is important because it lowers the level of tension in your body.  It won’t get rid of your feelings, but it will provide a center of calm within you.  It’s like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t get rid of the storm, but it will hold you steady until it passes.  So breathe slowly and deeply and imagine your breath flowing into and around the sensation.

Step 3: Create Space

As your breath flows into and around the feeling, it’s as if you are somehow creating extra space within your body.  You open up and create a space around this sensation, giving it plenty of room to move.  (And if it gets bigger, you give it even more space.)

Step 4: Allow

Allow the sensation to be there, even though you don’t like it or want it.  In other words, “let it be.” When your mind starts commenting on what’s happening, just say, “Thanks, Mind!” and come back to observing.  Of course, you may find this difficult.  You may feel a strong urge to fight with this feeling or push it away.  If so, just acknowledge that urge.  (Acknowledging is like nodding your head in recognition, as if to say, “There you are, I see you.”) Then bring your attention back to the sensation itself.

Mr. Harris continues to explain that this technique of expansion is not limited to bodily sensations and encourages bringing up painful thoughts and memories in order to practice.  It actually works!  By making space around the pain, it became easier to accept and gradually dulled.

Book Winners

I’m a little late in posting winners from the giveaway in Top Reads of 2015.  An upcoming post will explain why, but for now here are the winners.

Marci won Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert –

mistyfuji won The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Sarah (Collins) Hoff won The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Winners will be notified in comments on the previous post.

Top Reads of 2015

I have read 115% of my goal on Goodreads this year, and it will probably be a little more after the last 10 days are finished.  However, I know I’m ready to share my top books of 2015 and this year I wasn’t able to limit it to 5 – there is a bonus 6th book.

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  1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – I was a bit turned off by the idea of this the first 100 times I heard of it, and I definitely wouldn’t have watched the film as I’m not a Julia Roberts fan.  When I saw it for $0.50 in a Goodwill store though, I figured I’d try it.  Although the author and I have next to nothing in common and I’m not at all into the pursuit of religion or spirituality of any kind, I still found the book inspiring.
  2. The Happiness ProjectOr Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin – As someone who has struggled with depression all her life, I’m always on the lookout for ideas on how to be happier.  What I enjoyed about this book was the fact that the author was already happy and could still find ways to increase her happiness.  It made me feel hopeful that happiness didn’t just come down to luck.
  3. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey – I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t read this book sooner, given that I’ve been using an element of it for 15 years.  One of my college professors introduced me to the concept of the Urgent/Not Urgent, Important/Not Important grid for prioritizing tasks and I’ve used it frequently over the years when struggling to get through enormous to-do lists.
  4. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson – I’ve followed Jenny’s blog for a while and read her previous book last year, which I also enjoyed.  This one focuses a lot more on her struggles with depression and anxiety, but it’s not at all a downer.  It’s still filled with all the hilarity her followers know and love.
  5. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – Another of her novels, Sharp Objects was on my Top Reads of 2014 list.  I downloaded this one night when I awoke around 2 am and couldn’t sleep, and I read straight through without stopping.  I’d say I enjoyed Sharp Objects just a bit more, but both were excellent books.
  6. You’re Never Weird On the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day – I’ve been a fan of Felicia Day for ages and was so excited about this book that I pre-ordered it at full price.  It did not disappoint.  In fact, I had been feeling discouraged about my own memoir-in-progress and though reading other memoirs often discourages me more, this one instead made me feel motivated and encouraged to keep writing.

The best news in this post is that I am giving away copies of books 1-3.  They are the copies pictured above – paperbacks in good condition with no writing in them.  All you have to do to enter is to leave a comment stating which of the three books you’re most interested in reading.

EDIT: I forgot to set a deadline.  Comment by December 31st and I’ll select winners on New Year’s Day.

Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge

I have been a member of Goodreads for years, and since 2011 I have participated in the annual reading challenge.  My goals and completed books in the first four years were:

2011: goal – 48; completed – 10
2012: goal – 36; completed -16
2013: goal – 24; completed – 25
2014: goal – 24; completed – 41

This year my goal was 48.  A little higher than what I managed to complete last year, but still a reasonable 4 books per month.  Given that when I’m enjoying a book I can finish it in a day or two, reading roughly 1 book each week is not unmanageable.

Today I started my 48th book of the year.  If I really pushed myself I could get it done yet this month and be 3 months ahead of schedule, but I’ve got other projects to tackle tonight.

Last year I did a Top Reads of 2014 post.  I’m not going to do that early, because I fully expect to complete another dozen books or more this year and don’t want to end up leaving out a really good one.  Instead, here’s a peek at what I’ve read this year, in chronological order.

  1. What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats by Jack Handey
  2. Suicide: Opposing Viewpoints edited by Tamara L. Roleff
  3. Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt
  4. Paper Towns by John Green
  5. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
  6. The Everything Health Guide to Adult Bipolar Disorder: a Reassuring Guide for Patients and Families by Dean A. Haycock
  7. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  8. Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl by Stacy Pershall
  9. Cut by Patricia McCormick
  10. Foundations of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing: a Clinical Approach by Elizabeth M. Varcarolis
  11. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
  12. The 15-Minute Psychologist by Anne Rooney
  13. The Darwin Awards Next Evolution: Chlorinating the Gene Pool by Wendy Northcutt
  14. Bipolar Disorder: a Clinician’s Guide to Treatment Management by Lakshmi Yatham
  15. The Happiness Project: or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
  16. Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown
  17. When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish: …and Other Amazing Tales About the Genes in Your Body by Lisa Seachrist Chiu
  18. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih
  19. YOU: The Smart Patient: an Insider’s Handbook for Getting the Best Treatment by Michael F. Roizen
  20. Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
  21. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
  22. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
  23. The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
  24. The Book of (Even More) Awesome by Neil Pasricha
  25. Furry Logic: Don’t Worry by Jane Seabrook
  26. Furry Logic: Love by Jane Seabrook
  27. Furry Logic: Wild Wisdom by Jane Seabrook
  28. The Dilbert Principle: a Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions by Scott Adams
  29. My Friend Leonard by James Frey
  30. The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells
  31. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Bipolar Disorder by Monica Ramirez Basco
  32. If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently by Fred Lee
  33. 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work by Bob Nelson
  34. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
  35. Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
  36. The Little Book of Humorous Quotations edited by Alison Bullivant
  37. Altar of Bones by Philip Carter
  38. You’re Never Weird On the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day
  39. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  40. What’s the Connection?: Amazing Links Among Seemingly Unrelated Things by Jake Oliver
  41. Why Intelligent People Are Overweight by Hedley Turk
  42. Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison
  43. Crazy Enough: a Memoir by Storm Large
  44. People I Want to Punch in the Throat: True(ish) Tales of an Overachieving Underachiever by Jen Mann
  45. Pills, Poetry & Prose: Life With Schizophrenia by Rebecca Chamaa
  46. The Road to Becoming a Survivor by R. R. Hayden
  47. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
  48. Netomology: From Apps to Zombies – a Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World by Tom Chatfield (in progress)

Top Reads of 2014

I have read 158% of my goal on Goodreads this year.  Some of the books have been life-changing, others have been complete garbage.  Here are my top 5 to recommend, in no particular order:

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(Not pictured: Mental Health First Aid USA, because I gave my copy away and haven’t replaced it yet.)

1. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
A lot of the content will be familiar if you read Allie’s blog, also titled Hyperbole and a Half.  Yes, if you’re like me and “clean all the things?” is your favorite internet line ever, you will find it here.  There’s just something special about holding it in book form though, with the bright colors on pretty glossy pages.

2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Not one to follow the popular crowd, I skipped over Gone Girl with all its pre-movie hype and tried this one instead, based on the intriguing blurb on Amazon.  Part murder mystery and part exploration of the main character’s physical and emotional scars, I was impressed with the author’s success at tackling the rather unsettling topic of self-injury without making the character one-dimensional.

3. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
This book was a gift from my first therapist when she left at the end of her internship.  As I read each chapter I thought, “This is why she gave me this book!  No, wait, THIS is why!”  I found it funny that a book on imperfection could be so perfect for me.  Now, 6 months later, I feel like it’s time to go back for a second reading to see if I’ve grown in any of the areas addressed in the book, and to really tackle any areas where I haven’t grown yet.

4. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney
I first discovered this book when someone shared the page “What is a “MOOD DISORDER” anyway?”, which is featured in this interview in The Guardian.  I read quite a lot of books on Bipolar Disorder this year, having just been diagnosed.  I have a couple of favorites, and this one (as a non-self-help book and humorous) is the most relatable for those who don’t share the diagnosis.

5. Mental Health First Aid USA by Betty Kitchener, Anthony Jorm, and Claire Kelly
Designed as a textbook for the course of the same name, this book is a basic, straightforward guide to identifying potential mental health issues and supporting those in crisis.  Like physical first aid, the idea is to teach average people to help long enough to get the person transferred to a professional.  As I mentioned above, I gave my copy away after I finished it, because I felt that strongly about other people learning to use these skills.