Trigger warning: self-injurious behavior
When the feeling was at its most intense, for some months in the year 2013, I self-harmed on a regular basis. The emotion behind the action was hard to identify — anger? pride? — but the effect was clear, that it pacified me to do this.
In that time, I learned from a scattered mess of sources that those who practice self-harm do so to make their pain tangible, and therefore easier to control, instead of formless and irretrievably internal. That’s partly true, I guess, but not everything. For me, the calming effect came from how I transferred forms of emotional tension to my body. It wasn’t so much a matter of transmutation — of changing the form, because this isn’t science or alchemy — but organization, of finding a proper place for what was inside me. This shortness of breath, let it be a wound. This regret, let my platelets take care of the collateral damage. It’s an extremely unhealthy way to live, to think the maintenance of one’s equilibrium should come at the cost of one’s physical and mental welfare.
That stopped eventually, mostly due to the fact that after a while I began to see a therapist. And while that certainly helped, every now and then that same emotional dread would resurface, and I didn’t have the same means to access that kind of professional help.
About a year into my first job I started going to a gym near my office. (Side note: If your boss says “You’re going to gain weight here,” believe them.) I don’t go to that gym anymore but the habit of tiring my body stayed, and I’ve been exercising consistently (more or less) since January. Not so much for the health benefits — vanity is usually where it begins, and I guess I’m still there, a little. Though I’m more in it for the soreness. For what running up a slope does when you don’t know what to do with all the rattling in your chest. For how a good lactic acid ache can seal the cracks through which sorrow can seep. To practice perfect form for the body when feelings can so easily resist structure.
Which isn’t to say I was working myself to exhaustion. All the other pieces sort of fell into place — I started aspiring for nights of complete sleep, scheduling rest days, and being mindful of what I was eating, in order for the change of lifestyle to make sense as a whole. Here was something I could do to keep myself emotionally in check, while making sure my body would be okay as well. There was pain, yes. But while the pain of self-harm is directed and destructive, the pain of exercise is incidental.
Plus the fact that some intense emotions require physical articulation. Imagine the last time you received terrible news. Did you talk a walk? Pace around? Punch a wall? Did you wish you could?
This isn’t an original thought or feeling. Journalist Krista Tippett, who runs the podcast On Being, has explored the spiritual aspect of running. Adam Szetela of Jacobin has written about how fulfilling bodybuilding can be, in an anticapitalist sort of way. Then there’s that Haruki Murakami book, which I suppose was what planted the seed of this thought inside me in the first place, years ago, back when I could dish out seven kilometres easy if I was feeling sufficiently agitated.
I’m not about to propose that exercise is the ultimate antidote to sadness, lest this be taken as an endorsement of wellness culture (and all the baggage that comes with it.) And this is of course, not being written to invalidate therapy and prescribed medication, which do more for some people than a freaking gym membership.
But there’s something to be said about how blurred the boundary is between the physical and emotional. And that one can keep the other in check. It was more a matter of luck in my case, that I happened to stumble onto an activity that keep both my body and heart busy. I’m still here, and relatively put together, which says something.
Editor’s note: This essay has been revised and edited to clarify that self-harm should, in fact, not be romanticized. This piece aims not to prescribe a normative, universal approach to self-harm, but to describe a personal experience. For mental health assistance, you can contact the HOPELINE Project’s hotlines at (02) 804-HOPE (4673), 0917 558 HOPE (4673) and 2919 or the Philippine Mental Health Association at 921-4958 to 59.