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Finding Meaning in the Chaos: A Story from Self-Harm to Love by Crystan Irwin.

Updated: May 26, 2022

A quote I hold dear to my heart is "The healthiest people are the ones who find meaning in chaos" -Faith Harper.

When I picture the last nine or so years of my life, I see dysfunction. I think about the dysfunction in relationships with my friends, lovers, family, and myself. I lived in disruption for many years because I hated who I was at my core. I could not truly love others because I lacked that love for myself. As a result, I started self-harming at the age of 15.

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) states that "the essential feature of nonsuicidal self-injury is that the individual repeatedly inflicts shallow, yet painful injuries to the surface of his or her body. Most commonly, the purpose is to reduce negative emotions, such as tension, anxiety, and self-reproach, and/or to resolve interpersonal difficulty. In some cases, the injury is conceived of as a deserved self-punishment". For myself, I felt like I deserved punishment for the things going on in my life and the way people were treating me. I struggled with this for ten years.

I pursued my bachelor's in psychology for answers to fulfill my need to understand why people were so corrupt. I was in a very emotionally abusive relationship for some time, which created a lot of anxiety and hate within me. Throughout my time as an undergrad, I decided I wanted to become a therapist. Eight months after I finished my BS, I began my master's in social work. Grad school was a beautiful and dark time in my life. I experienced an excruciating breakup that led to a lot of self-reflection on my part. I realized how much I relied on others for my happiness. I allowed everyone around me to dictate how I felt about myself, and it created years of darkness because (shocker) people constantly fail us! We live in such a broken world, and without the Lord and self-awareness, the brokenness is nearly unbearable.

Throughout grad school, I was coping with negative emotions through self-harm and alcohol use. I felt guilty going to my internship because how could I assist children if I could not even help myself? Finally, I disclosed my struggles to my field instructor, and she referred me to a therapist. If I hadn't taken that first step of acknowledging my hurt and needing help, I do not know what I would be like today.

I began work for PTSD with my therapist (from the abusive relationship). Seven years later, I was finally exploring wounds that had dug such a deep crevasse into my heart. After I reached my baseline, I stopped going to therapy. However, I still routinely participated in patterns of self-harm and excessive drinking to cope. I slowly realized it had to be me to put in the work to better myself. I started asking myself questions such as: "what thoughts do I have leading up to a self-harm episode?" and "what stems those initial thoughts?".

When I further explored this, I began making small changes in my everyday life. I changed who I was following on social media. I started reading more self-help books. I became more intentional with my time and with whom I was spending it. I bought a self-harm workbook that changed my life. I vividly remember the last time I was actively struggling with self-harm. I was sitting at my favorite park, going through the workbook and texting one of my friends about it. He said, "Crystan, you don't have time to make decisions that could get you admitted somewhere. You have a life to live." This friend of mine doesn't know how much that statement impacted me, but I have since not self-harmed. That was 20 months ago.

After that, I began exploring what it looked like to love myself. I started going to the park alone every week. I would get coffee alone. I went to a concert alone. I went out to eat alone. I started sitting with my feelings and acknowledging them instead of pushing them away or using something to numb them.

I'm 27 now and a mental health therapist for a transitional living program in Birmingham. I go to therapy. I try to be intentional with my time. I still have self-harm thoughts. I acknowledge the idea and let it pass. I cultivate love within myself and those around me. I still have flashbacks from that abusive relationship. I show myself extra love, on those days. I love Jesus. I try to see my past as something to grow from instead of being ashamed. I try to find small glimpses of gratitude in each day.This life is complex, beautiful, messy, and full of chaos. What we do with that chaos makes our lives uniquely ours.

Resources that helped me along the way:

  • Don’t F*cking Panic: The Shit They Don’t Tell You in Therapy About Anxiety Disorder, Panic Attacks, and Depression by Kelsey Darragh

  • Unf*ck Your Brain: Getting Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers…With Science! by Faith G. Harper PhD LPC-S ACS ACN

  • Didn’t See That Coming by Rachel Hollis

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van de Kolk M.D.

  • New Mindset Who Dis journal and podcast: Case Kenny

  • Sara Kubric on Instagram

  • Headspace app


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