Aaron Almeida ‘2021
If you have come across this amongst your early years of adolescence and hardship, I am truly sorry. It is highly likely that nothing in this work will aid you in your current situation. The pain you feel now won’t stop for what will seem to be a very long time and the only condolence worth offering to someone in such a place as you is that time is your friend. If you last out, then time will make it better.
But, if you have just narrowly passed beyond the numb rage and sadness, then you have entered into the exponentially more painful place of cognizant loathing. Something has convinced you, even if only in a tiniest modicum of a sense, that how you feel is not how you have to feel, and more importantly not how you want to feel. Perhaps it was motivated by an epiphany, or perhaps a traumatic instance.
Or perhaps you finally bubbled over too frequently or with so much power that it left you alone and shocked. When I combusted for the final time I did so with such violence that it stripped the world down to the floor, and in the following months I floated alone amongst the nothing. This is for those who are still floating.
During your adolescence you may have acquired some destructive habits. Note that I didn’t say bad, simply destructive. I will never deem them bad because you most likely formed them purely out of bewildered survivorship. Maybe it isn’t your fault and maybe it is, regardless of that fact every teen is thrown into the same fire so you can’t be blamed. Without the finalized identity of adulthood or the confidence of childhood we all just clutch to any habit that eases the pain.
You survived, even if just by the tips of your fingers. And now you can make the choice to break or bond with the habits you’ve formed, because either way you will need to accept them. Breaking out of these tendencies will be much harder than bonding, for in essence breaking them is simply fighting the bond. But, I believe it to be possibly the most important venture for adolescents, for it ensures these tendencies don’t formalize into their permanent identity. If you don’t try now it will be near impossible to start later.
The choice is yours and there is no shame in either side, only consequences.
Thoughts, Feelings, Actions
The crux of this work is to present strategies that truly worked for me and leave out the ones that were a waste of time and or made me fall deeper into unwanted habits. Some may work for you, others may not but hopefully it gives you a foundation from which you can break free. Some of the following reprogramming strategies I devised myself, but most were learned from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, which deals intensively with harmful tendencies and programming healthy coping mechanisms. The book is a workbook in the truest sense and provides structure and accountability. It is worth your time and money.
The best way to change the way you feel now is to modify your actions. They are the most tangible link in the chain that is your reality. This chain is called the triangular “Thoughts, Feelings, Actions, Model” pictured above. The model is great because it wasn’t created for the sake of improvement or reprogramming, but simply to display humans’ worldly construct. Destructive thoughts as a result of our environment may cause us to pick up destructive actions and both will exacerbate feelings of loathing. Likewise picking up an unhealthy habit can lead to declines in either two points. Each of the three aspects of our being can positively or negatively impact the others. But I’m positive you already knew that.
The reason I bring this model up at all is because changing how you think now and how your family has trained you to think is absurdly overwhelming. Where do you start when you utterly despise yourself? How is anyone meant to feel differently about someone they wish to exterminate? Take another look at the triangle and note the arrows. Just as your hateful thoughts lead you to hateful actions, you can reverse engineer the hatred through your actions.
The best part about reprogramming my actions was that I could still hate myself. There was no contradiction. When deconstructing my feelings and thoughts it almost seemed like I needed to snap my fingers or recieve a sign from God. With my actions I let my loathing boil over and crackle white hot. So many of the habits I built made me feel like a disgusting loser and everytime I performed them I hated myself more. I wanted to exterminate everything in me I was revolted by and so I did. It almost allowed me to go utterly brain dead and still embrace the hate while at the same time refocusing it.
Many of the strategies that follow will be centralized around physical patterns, because it is a humble place to start. That is the line of reasoning as to why. Note, I am not a therapist. I am a teenager just like you, so I know that any and all of these strategies should be paired with safe professional therapy.
It hurts. It’s easy and it’s common. Cutting is extremely effective in numbing emotional tumult because it’s visually torturous and it gets your adrenaline going. This adrenaline rush is cutting’s main appeal, like a drug the sensation is so oppressive it redirects one’s mind away from painful thoughts. Forcing your hands against your body is thrilling and stimulates the body and mind. It is exactly what you want when you hate yourself. Which makes it no surprising matter as to why many teens struggle with it.
- Draw detailed cuts on your arms + squeeze an ice cube in your hand:
These two strategies work well individually but work even more effectively in unison. The ice cube is good on it’s own as a distraction, it has the physical sensation. But it is too boring to really put your rage into. Alone it lacks the mental stimulation one needs to get their mind off whatever is stirring in their head. The drawings on the other hand, one can really sink their attention into and be meticulously gruesome. The mixture of physical and mental distraction was my most useful weaning tool.
The drawings have expanded utility in that they are socially invisible and always available. Many struggle with what to do if their emotions grow unruly at school. I had this issue often. I started to draw on my arms in class and think about how much I wanted to slice myself up at that time. Lots of kids draw on their bodies and so there is no concern about performing the act or accidentally revealing them to be seen by your peers. Worst case scenario is going to the bathroom and washing them off.
- Snapping rubber bands against your skin:
This is a decent replacement for cutting yourself, the snapping is very different from the ice cube. In my opinion it is hard to say one is more physically stimulating than the other, but I preferred the ice cube because it was a constant sensation. I feel as though the rubber band technique would be great if you need the build up and the fidgeting. It is a replacement in the most literal sense of the word, just takes the place of something more destructive. Please note that it is lower on the list because with constant or heavy application it can wear out the flesh on one’s wrists. But that being said, it is a great stepping stone habit. Beginning with rubber bands and transitioning slowly into ice cubes and drawing is an excellent plan.
- Throw away your cutting instruments:
In your brief moments of clarity throw them away. Collect them all up and put them in the trash. Don’t think about it. It’s extremely difficult. For me it was scary and it hurt to do so, but once they were eliminated and I stepped back into my room it felt safer than ever before. I felt fresh like a new morning.
Perhaps it’s too scary, and there is no shame in that. Consider setting an attainable goal and if reached you may throw them away: “If I use healthy techniques 8 times I feel comfortable enough to throw them away.” This approach is quite possibly even better than the aforementioned, because it mentally confirms that you do not rely on the cutting instruments to soothe yourself. Be proud when you do.
Things to Avoid:
- Don’t sit where you would normally cut:
This is not a hard and fast rule, many times it is easier for an individual to create new habits in the same position they formed the old ones. Beginning in a place where you are comfortable (odd to describe a place where you cut as comfortable, but cutting is an odd form of comfort), may make you more open to new habits. Once you have a replacement habit that you like, try to move to other places nearby. This will help you work on consistent application. This can be as simple as moving from the desk to the floor. Continue to expand until you are comfortable performing these techniques anywhere it is appropriate.
- Digging your fingernails into your arm without drawing blood:
Page 16 of the workbook suggests this. Don’t do it; it’s the same thing as cutting and you are likely to do the same damage. I tried this and regretted it very much even during and immediately after I performed it.
This guide is being published on a school sponsored literary publication so out of respect and decency I will address oral fixation in broad terms and offer strategies that should hopefully apply to specific areas of the broad spectrum which ranges from chewing fingers and limbs to substance abuse. I apologize if it seems as if I downplay these issues, and I apologize doubly so if this results in an air of dismissiveness. I would simply rather speak candidly and downplay than patronize with dramatization. These issues are extremely common and normalized in highschool and they have been since the beginnings of the institution. Said habits are dangerous and are the most common for teens to carry into adulthood. It is likely your peers aren’t going to help you, most schools handle it poorly, and so it’s really up to you if you want to break free. There is no shame in your choice; I commend you in either path you take.
- Chew on toothpicks:
Chewing on toothpicks is holistically one of the best healthy self soothing practices I have ever employed. It’s effects bled into so many areas of my life and I continue to carry it as a strategy in my back pocket. It gives you something to do and it fulfills the role of a distraction. I won’t kid you or myself, chemically it is not comparative. But that path you’ve chosen is difficult and toothpicks were the best option for me. Every time I began to slide into despair or got urges, just chewing a toothpick took my mind off of it. I think what also helped was a perceived placebo. I instituted the toothpicks for the sake of improving myself, so everytime I stuck one in my mouth the idea that I was doing something well inadvertently cheered me up.
- Running or Biking:
This may sound strange and it most certainly is not for everyone. It was less convenient than the toothpicks because a toothpick is socially invisible, whereas leaving class to do laps is mostly non-feasible. Convenience aside, in terms of deep rooted satisfaction I found running to be extremely fulfilling. When you run you must push your limits, even if you haven’t touched ground since the middle school mile. Run as hard as you can and for as long as you can even if it means walking home. Run until the pain burns away the loathing and you are so overwhelmingly spent that you can think of nothing else but the next step. Running is successful for that reason, it is a full body experience and a strenuous one at that. Whatever is eating at you is likely eating at you alot less compared to the side cramps. People vary in athleticism so know your own limits.
- Wear Jackets or Hoodies with Pockets:
Everytime you begin to bite, chew, or indulge instead of doing so, stick your hands in your pockets and push deep within. Making your hands unavailable makes many oral habits also unavailable, and at least for me leveraging my weight into my pocketed hands became a comfort position. This is surprisingly effective such something so simple
Things to Avoid
- Cold Turkey:
Cold turkey works for people sometimes, but I never have seen it last. There is no harm in trying because maybe you will stop for a month then pick it up next month. No harm no foul; you are in the same place you were before. I only say to avoid it because cold turkey doesn’t replace the habit, it only tries to eliminate it with brute force. So when you fall back into hating yourself it is easy to pick back up because you have no other effective options.
This section will be structured differently than the previous two because the habits I picked up were a result of stress and family life and not related to body image, so your experiences may differ greatly from mine. I will be frank, because I want to equip the reader as best I can. I am only personally familiar with fasting, gorging, and purging behavior and I did not use healthy coping mechanisms to fix these issues; they just somehow went away.
I believe these patterns are quite possibly the hardest to break. In writing this and recalling my own experiences I have come to the conclusion that extensive therapy would likely be the only thing that would have helped me. This guide is honest and so I will speak candidly of what I believe to be true. I don’t believe that anything in this work or The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook will assist you and your best option is therapy.
I know this is probably infuriating and degrading to hear. But it is coming from someone who struggled with similar issues and received no aid. My dietary habits and paranoia are still affected and I would not say this is the best option if I didn’t truly believe that it is. Fiscal concerns are also very pertinent. Therapy is not cheap. I recommend The Southern California Counseling Center who’s rates depend on your ability to pay, and I also recommend DBT programs. DBT programs can often work around your budget especially if they are group based and in terms of efficacy they are perfect for eating disorders.
Direct or Indirect Suicidal Tendencies
Again, note I am not a therapist. This is only a work of numerous strategies that I personally found effective in my own struggle. You know as well as I do there is nothing to be said of this. I’m sorry, for whatever brought you here. All these strategies are not centered around refocusing habits, they are structured around keeping you alive.
- Cold shower:
Cold showers are clinically proven to help depressive episodes. Most of the time when you are in such a state you lack the energy to fight yourself into a better mindset. A cold shower is an utter shock to the system and oftentimes can reset your mood. This is all very easy to say in hindsight but it really does work. I included it because it has worked for me personally on several occasions. It almost sounds asinine to employ such a simple technique for such a serious and emotionally cataclysmic event, but if you plan on killing yourself you can still do it after you shower.
Like a cold shower running is a harsh physical distraction, as explained in the oral fixation section. The added benefit of running in the context of suicidal tendencies is that by its very nature it gets you away from home and by proxy away from the means by which you would try to harm yourself. If you don’t like running then workout, it is the same in its fundamental aspects. Working out strains the whole body and oppresses the senses. If you plan on killing yourself you can still do it after working out.
Sleep is an extremely powerful tool. It is nature’s off button. You may or may not feel better in the morning but you will be alive in the morning. If in a depressive state, once you have commited to lying down it is highly unlikely that you will have the will to even get back up so sleep is almost a given. If you are going to kill yourself you can do it tomorrow.
The Greatest Strategy:
The above strategies are the ones that I have deemed most effective, but it doesn’t matter. Do whatever it takes, anything but this. Halfway down the rope I realized I didn’t want to die. I don’t really want the pain to end, I want it more than anything. It’s worth it. A million times over it’s worth it. So yell at your parents, hate your friends, slice yourself up, regress as much as you need to stay alive. That is the teenage spirit. When you regress or make another attempt to harm yourself you will feel like all the therapy was a waste of time and all of the new habits never really worked. You will be ashamed. But you won’t be dead.
Thank you for reading my work. I am proud of myself for writing it (how arrogant is that!) and the fact that you so much as gave it improvement so much of a chance to actually finish it is something you should be proud of. Whether any of these reprogramming strategies help you or you go forth thinking this was an utter waste of time, I hope at least that I have seeded in you the idea that you don’t have to feel the way you do now. Even if you only think of it for mere seconds before falling asleep, know that it is possible. The climb to self love is a brutal one. You will fail. You may go the whole distance just to be forced back to what feels like square one. But mindset plateaus and as long as you are still alive you can still climb. It’s a humble beginning, but we all must humble ourselves in order to love ourselves.
I hope this helped. Good luck.
Puff, Robert, and James Seghers. Everything Guide Anger Management Proven Techniques to Understand and Control Anger. Adams Media, 2014.