Today’s guest post about self-harm and OCD is from Kristen Helmer, a scrupulosity survivor living in rural Alaska.
Standing in the shower, hot water poured down all around me–but my mind felt as cold as an Alaskan winter.
The addictive urges of self-harm were gnawing on me fiercely, begging me to give in. I knew that if anyone found out about my self-harm, I would remain on “red status” at my residential treatment program. Red status meant that I would be spending the majority of my time in our small, locked unit. I wouldn’t get to go outside with my group at all.
However, I had lost so much hope that I barely even cared.
Thoughts of condemnation, shame, and self-hatred raced through my mind, urging me to give in to my intense emotions.
I deserve this… All I do is make mistakes and sin constantly!
If others knew the horrible thoughts in my head, they would all leave me!
I am a terrible example of a Christian, if I truly am one…
Do I really intend to get better? All I seem to do is hurt others…
Everybody just ends up rejecting me!
When I was sure no one could hear me, I unleashed the torrent of emotions and self-loathing upon myself through self-harm.
A Scrupulosity Survivor
Hi, I’m Kristen!
I am a Christ follower who has struggled with OCD since childhood. I’ve been desperate to gain victory over my OCD and comorbid conditions. I’ve desperately sought help from God, pastors, family, and friends. I’ve tried 18 different psychiatric prescriptions, some of which I am currently on. I’ve used many supplements. I’ve desperately searched online for answers.
In recent years, I’ve been to intensive residential treatment programs for my mental health five times, four of which were specific to OCD treatment. I have also received inpatient psychiatric stabilization treatment two times and have been through partial hospitalization programs multiple times. I’ve also completed a course of accelerated TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation).
I’ve traveled the depths of crushing mental pain and despair.
Self-harm, specifically, has been a part of my struggles, on and off, for years.
I’d like to share with you more about my journey with self-harm and OCD, including the beginning of my self-harm, dealing with my fears of clinical treatment, the relationship between my self-harm and OCD, the impact of God’s love in my life, and skills that help me resist self-harm urges.
I hope you find encouragement in this post because I do believe that God can also help you with your struggles!
Please Keep in Mind
Self-harm is a dangerous and addictive behavior. It is not anything to be glamorized.
If you don’t think you can keep yourself safe with your self-harm urges and/or suicidal ideation, please reach out for help immediately by talking to a loved one, calling emergency services for your country, or going to your local emergency room.
For Those Dealing with a Fear of Self-Harming
Dealing with a fear of harming yourself can be a theme of a person’s OCD. In this case, the individual doesn’t truly want to hurt themselves. Please check out this page for more information.
The Beginning of My Self-Harm
In 2016, I began to face a battle with physical self-harm that I never really expected. In previous years, I had punished myself by attacking myself with words of self-loathing and by withholding things from myself. When I began self-harming, I didn’t really have much of a concept of it being addictive.
My heart felt compassion for those who were engaging in self-harm, but I didn’t realize what a hold it could have over a person.
When I began engaging in physical self-harm, it became a way (albeit a dangerous, ineffective way) to deal with the strong emotions and self-hatred stemming from my OCD and comorbid conditions.
I had spent years prior trying to open up to people about my struggles, especially my Religious OCD, but that resulted in a lot of pain, invalidation, and even a deeply traumatic event.
I am guessing in most cases, it wasn’t their intention to hurt me, but their words still jabbed into the wounds of my heart.
“Like one who takes away a garment in cold weather,
And like vinegar on soda,
Is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”Proverbs 25:20 NKJV
God has helped me learn through this pain the value of being quiet and truly listening to others. Dick Fetzer wrote a book titled, “Please Listen to Me! A Christian’s Guide to Reflective Listening” that beautifully illustrates the importance of this skill, especially in the life of a Christian.
I believe that the skill of truly listening is so instrumental to our lives that developing it would significantly lower the amount of self-harm in the world.
Clinical Treatment Fears
To better understand my journey with self-harm and OCD, I think it is important to share about my hesitancy to engage in clinical treatment due to my OCD. Maybe you will see yourselves in some of this.
I have long had a fear of clinical treatment for my mental health. That may be surprising for someone who has gone through so much intensive clinical treatment. I’ve unfortunately found myself many times in such debilitating dysfunction that I desperately needed intensive treatment.
I had to trust that God was opening the doors for me to go to treatment, despite my fears taunting me. Here are some of the fears I struggled with while pursuing treatment, which are ultimately turning out to be evidences of God’s healing touch.
Fears of Medication
At the age of 18, I had to get on my first psychiatric medication. I was so afraid of the medication. The only thing that helped me was that my sister found a doctor for me who went to her church. Despite having tried so many, I still have a fear of medications.
But, many years later, I’m thankful for how God has used medications time and time again to stabilize me and even decrease my self-harm urges.
Fears of Exposure & Response Prevention Therapy
Exposure & Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) has scared me greatly because I am afraid of sinning and becoming what I am afraid of.
What has helped me a lot is the Biblical support Jaimie Eckert has found for ERP and her post about secular therapists.
God has given many people different talents and I know He can help me through those people if He wants to. An ethical OCD ERP specialist, who doesn’t share your same faith and beliefs, can still help you learn to better manage your OCD symptoms.
Not long ago, I was the person who felt I absolutely needed to see an outpatient OCD ERP specialist who was truly a Christian. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find OCD specialists who effectively treat OCD who publicly identify as Christians. I did happen to find one, but then I began doubting if I could trust even her.
OCD will lead us to doubt anything and will demand to make our worlds smaller and smaller.
It can lead us to a box so small that nobody matches up to what the OCD demands the therapist should be like.
The OCD in our minds is just searching for the same old certainty, never willing to embrace the uncertainty of our obsessions.
I used to have a “but” when people mentioned that I could see a secular therapist because they themselves see secular medical doctors. My “but” usually was along these lines: But therapy deals with our minds, and our minds are subject to being affected by our therapist’s values and beliefs.
I realize in hindsight that I wasn’t trusting God to grant me the wisdom to know what I could or couldn’t take away from therapy sessions.
Fears of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Throughout my stays in residential treatment programs, over and over again, my treatment team told me that I desperately needed to receive Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
Inside, I was deeply afraid of DBT because I thought it might cause me to betray and offend Christ.
I knew that it was a very effective treatment for many, but I was adamant in my heart that I would rather stay sick than apply myself to a treatment that I was afraid God may not approve of.
This last summer, I found myself in a spot where I was stuck in my partial hospitalization OCD treatment. I was unable to cope effectively with the onslaught of intense emotions coming up in my treatment.
I felt hopelessly stuck and like a great failure.
But then, a door opened for me to get residential treatment in a safety unit that used DBT treatment heavily.
While there, God actually helped me greatly through some of the DBT skills I practiced, especially the TIPP and self-soothing skills.
While I was in residential treatment, I practiced adapting one DBT skill, Willing Hands, to better suit myself. It became an act of worshipping God and a reminder of the concept of surrendering to Him and His ways.
I still have fears of sinning by doing DBT treatment, but I have come to the point where I am willing to challenge myself by signing up for a DBT psychoeducation course next month.
The verse below reminds me that the good things in my life, including the DBT skills that help me resist self-harm, are from God.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.James 1:17 (NKJV)
Self-Harm and OCD: When Self-Harm is a Compulsion
Looking back on some episodes of my self-harm, it’s clear that there can be a tie to the act of self-harm and OCD.
OCD is terrorizing condition that can lead many to punish themselves as a compulsion.
I know that the darkness and distress that result from my intrusive, ego-dystonic thoughts can sometimes leave me with strong urges to punish myself physically in a way that I can see visually for awhile after.
Throughout my time in intensive OCD treatment, I’ve discovered that this seems to be a struggle for many others as well.
A Fear of Being Kind To Myself
In my struggles with self-harm and OCD, part of me was torn on how God would view it. I had heard of people long ago harming themselves on purpose to show God their devotion and love for Him. While I knew logically that this was a terrible idea, the distorted part of my mind wondered if self-harm was helpful for my spiritual journey.
Tearing myself down in different ways was far more comfortable to me than being kind to myself.
I was afraid that being kind toward myself would turn me into an ultra-prideful human. I was carrying a deep fear of this.
I loved it when I could encourage others.
But when it came to myself, I was afraid that being kind to myself would take me further away from Christ. I was afraid of even saying one nice thing about myself. When others asked for me to do this, I tended to do mental compulsions to cope with it.
As a result, I was unintentionally bringing my view of God down with me!
God has given us different talents and we glorify Him when we use them well. The reason we have them in the first place is because of God. So to push them down and pretend they are not there does more harm than good. Jaimie Eckert helped me to see these things.
Self-Punishment Versus God’s Love
I believe that God’s love for us has the power to bring more change than our self-punishment ever could.
Self-punishment is damaging to us in so many ways. It’s not a powerful motivator for change. It was easy to think that I’d do better next time if I came down extra hard on myself. It gave me a false sense of control. But in reality, tearing myself down caused me to have less control over my behaviors.
So what can we do?
One thing I have done is to ask God for Him to help me experience His love better. My OCD causes me to focus far too much on the attributes of God that scare me.
Lately, God has been helping me to see His love more. This gives me hope that I can learn to manage my OCD and mental health much better in time.
A Taste of God’s Love
How do I see God’s love in my life now?
I see God’s love in how He has been with me through all my years since I was young, even when I didn’t realize it.
I see His love in how He has provided me practical help with my OCD through clinical treatment and Jaimie Eckert, my scrupulosity coach.
I believe that He wants to work on me and use me to help others with scrupulosity. And that makes me feel so loved by Him, because He really sees me. He knows that I’ve hungered for a long time for a deep and meaningful purpose.
And though He doesn’t need me, He actually wants to use me. He is using my past pain for greater purposes to help others and that’s what I like to call “redemptive significance.”
Regarding my battles with self-harm, I see His love in that He doesn’t treat me the way I feel I deserve, but rather took my desire for self-punishment upon Himself.
The Depth of God’s Love for Us
Christ was wounded in horrific ways to pay for all the sins of mankind, if we will trust Him personally as our Savior.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.Isaiah 53:5 (NKJV)
His love is calling to us…
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.1 John 4:9-10 (NKJV)
Self-Harm and OCD: Skills to Help Us Move Forward
In the last six months, especially, I have learned a lot of skills that now help me to resist self-harm urges.
- TIPP: This is a DBT skill. The “T” from TIPP – “Temperature” – is a favorite of mine to try when the urges are especially strong and I don’t know if I can resist them. This involves stimulating the “diving reflex” that can help calm me down some, so I can proceed to use other skills.
- Music: I created a no self-harm music playlist filled with songs that help me resist self-harm urges.
- Self-Soothing: This is another DBT skill. I use different things for my senses that could be calming to my nervous system. For me personally, this can help me when my self-harm urges are not any higher than medium on a scale of urges.
- Support from a loved one: There have been times that when my self-harm urges are higher, I push myself to tell my husband when he is home. It can feel really uncomfortable to open up about it. But once I do, he is able to offer me support until the urges calm down.
- Fidgets: Fidget toys are great for not just kids, but adults, too. They help me to keep my hands busy. There are lots of discrete fidget toys out there if you are around others and don’t want to draw attention to yourself.
- Distraction: When my self-harm urges aren’t high, sometimes distracting myself with other activities can help.
- Sit on my hands: Sometimes I have sat on my hands to stop myself from using them to harm myself.
A Way Out of Self-Harm and OCD
One time recently, I really wanted to give into my high self-harm urges so badly. I prayed to tell God that I really wanted to self-harm and I asked Him to provide me a way out.
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.1 Corinthians 10:13 (NKJV)
Right after I prayed, I realized that my husband would be home in a few minutes. I didn’t want to see him hurt finding me in the midst of self-harm. That and the strength God gave me was enough to help resist my urges and choose to use skills instead.
You Are Less Alone Than You Feel
My heart goes out to any of you dealing with self-harm and OCD.
OCD can be incredibly distressing and overwhelming to deal with. Self-harm being thrown into the mix just complicates it even more.
I suspect some of you have reached out for support at times and have sometimes been met with hurtful words, instead of gentle, listening ears. This can make it harder to resist the self-harm urges when we feel invalidated and misunderstood.
Are we truly alone? Is there no one who can grasp the depths of our pain and experiences?
It may feel like it, but I find these Bible verses helpful to keep in mind:
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:15-16 (NKJV)
Christ understands your struggles. He understands the depths of your pain and the temptations you are facing. You can be honest with Him about what you are dealing with. He loves you more than you’ll probably ever understand in this life.
Something that has helped me in my mental health struggles is a Bible passage that I kept coming across without meaning to:
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NKJV)
I hope these Bible verses can bring some comfort to you in your own journey.
You are special.
You are unique.
You are valuable.
And you are irreplaceable.
Kristen Helmer lives in rural Alaska with her husband Daniel and their two Australian Shepherds, Ransom and Spice. She is an INFP and HSP who is driven to support others struggling with mental health issues, especially OCD. Kristen desires to know her Lord and Savior better and to make a difference for eternity. She has written one children’s book called The Yukon River Golden. Kristen enjoys being a lifelong learner in a variety of subjects. You can find her on Instagram @takingthehelmer.