I had the honor, the pleasure of speaking to a beautiful group of nearly 400 people last week, and I can honestly say that I was moved beyond measure by each one of them. During one of the breakout interviews, I noticed some rather recent scars on the forearm of the beautiful young girl interviewing me, and it took all of me not to reach out and cover her braised, healing, keloided skin; to put my hands on the remnants of her pain like a salve, and tell her that she was not alone.
Self-flagellation is something that is so rarely talked about, and so rarely pointed out because it is scary, it’s awkward, it’s difficult to acknowledge, but it is happening. And it’s dangerous. And it is a sign that something deeper is going on with the person that you love.
After the most traumatic incidents in my life, namely, those that happened at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I found myself in a cycle of self harm. However, unlike many students’ binge drinking, drugs, smoking, or other often more socially acceptable means of coping, my inclination was toward cutting myself—and in a few cases punching or kicking a wall until my hand and foot broke, respectively. Granted, these were severely extreme circumstances, however, it is never, ever too early or late to identify whatever symptom may indicate a deeper emotional struggle.
In my case, I had just suffered two sexual assaults close in proximity to one another—a shock to all of my senses, that instantly left me emotionally and physically stranded; bereft of any grounding that could bring me back to the present moment. I would get caught in PTSD loops of each assault, playing them over and over in my mind, while I lay prisoner in the fetal position on the floor. I felt I needed to hijack that loop if I were to function, so, when I felt myself slip, slip, slipping from the present moment, I would try to physically shock myself into staying in the now. I tried as hard as I could to tether myself to the reality of the moment, instead of drifting, inevitably, into the familiar abyss of my past pain. If punching my leg didn’t work, I would resort to more drastic measures.
A horrifically perfect storm contributed to my journey with self harm. For one, I felt—as most survivors do—that what had happened was my fault. I felt I deserved it, for not listening to warning signs, not heeding the red flags of danger that my nervous system had raised around the two attackers, and perhaps ultimately, for not having been able to save my sister’s life so long ago. Guilt, shame, unworthiness, they are the most corrosive feelings that we have. They can eat away at our spirit if left unchecked, and they can allow us to accept wretched treatment by ourselves and others, until we deal with their root causes.
Not only was I trying to process surviving two brutally violent sexual assaults, but I was trying to do so in a highly competitive, fast-paced, aggressive atmosphere…while having been a perfectionist my entire life. I was trapped in an unyielding environment while trying to make sense of penultimate vulnerability. I felt there was no way to just stop, pause my world—pause USAFA—and deal with the flood of emotionality raging inside of me. Especially since I had absolutely NO idea how to properly process those kinds of feelings, events or circumstances in the first place. I felt my only outlet was to do whatever I needed to do to keep functioning. And, what I did know how to process was physical pain. I had been an athlete my whole life, so, physical discomfort, pain, strain, it had always been a part of the process of growing, of getting better. I knew how to conquer physical pain. It was emotional pain that had left me feeling isolated, terrified, alone in the solitary confinement of my circumstance.
And so, I punished myself for it. More and more, worse and worse, wanting it, so badly, to bring me out of despair, but not realizing how dangerously precarious each act was. For, there is a very fine line between a cut to relieve the pressure of your surroundings, the pain of your past, the fear of people in your present, and a cut that puts you in mortal danger within seconds. That notion may be scary, but it is the human truth. And it is why it is so important to say something if you see something on your friend, your sister, your daughter, the one you love.
Cutting may seem extra mortifying to talk about, extra shameful, taboo, scary or awkward, but it is only a symptom of the pain, unworthiness, shame, guilt that is festering beneath the surface of your beautiful loved one...and THAT MUST be addressed if you want health and wellness for those about whom you care so deeply.
If you see something, say something. It will only speed up the path to finding healthy coping mechanisms for those that need them.
Your love can transcend a moment of fear. For, all of our LIVES are worth SO MUCH MORE than a moment of awkwardness.
I did all that I could do in the brief period of time I had to help the beautiful little soul who interviewed me—to help her know that she was not alone, to help her understand her beauty, her worth, her contribution to this world; to help her understand that she had nothing to be ashamed of, ever; that there was nothing so bad that you could not speak up, say something on your own behalf. For she was me. And all those shes are WE.
It is up to the rest of us, to lead by example. It’s up to us to seek help for those things we feel we cannot tackle alone; to find ways of coping that are healthy, and that lead to wholeness, so that in our own aligned state, we feel comfortable addressing that which we see on the arms of those around us...
We deserve health and wholeness. And so do those we love in this world...
Polo REO Tate was born in Lansing, Michigan, where her family has deep ties to the community. Her Great Great Grandfather was Ransom Eli Olds (R.E. Olds), a pioneer and prolific inventor most notably responsible for inventing the first internal combustion automobile—the Oldsmobile. Growing up, [...]