Creative Self-Care

I got a tattoo recently: a black and white lit match about two inches long. You can find it on my left forearm, where I used to cut. The inspiration comes from the song “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1” by the Mountain Goats. Here are the lyrics:

Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day

And stay alive
Just stay alive

Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat’s unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light

And stay alive
Just stay alive

They might laugh at your tattoos
When they do get new ones in completely garish hues
I hide down in my corner because I like my corner
I am happy where the vermin play

Make up magic spells
We wear them like protective shells
Land-mines on the battlefield
Find the one safe way

And stay alive
Just stay alive
Just stay alive

-John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

The song as a whole speaks to me about harm reduction as a mental health strategy and the necessity of finding creative ways to cope.

My loved ones and I (since I am not currently in therapy for a variety of reasons) spend a lot of time developing creative ways for me to cope with the aftermath of my trauma. Sometimes I pretend to be a demon and bare my teeth in the mirror. Sometimes I take my stuffed animals to work in my backpack for comfort. My loved ones talk constantly about what we’re doing for our mental health, what works and what hasn’t, and what we’re going to try in the future.

However, coping isn’t always pretty or Instagrammable. Self care is not just bath bombs and face masks. Sometimes it’s ugly or shameful. Sometimes it’s digging a hole in the dirt with your hands, crying, and not knowing why. Sometimes it’s punching a hole in the wall. Sometimes we would rather not share what we’ve done. “Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches.”

Obviously, not all coping methods are equal in effectiveness or in morality. But how do we know whether our chosen coping methods are healthy? Sometimes, we can only know in hindsight. We are doing what we can to stay alive, and it’s not always well thought-out. Sometimes we harm other people, or ourselves, to get what we need in the moment. We do what we can.

It’s one of my personal rules to work every day on being a better person, bit by bit. Often it’s for the sake of myself, but sometimes it’s for the sake of others. I haven’t always been perfect, and I always encourage people not to feel too ashamed for the things that they did to stay alive. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of in dire circumstances, and what matters is that we’ve committed to doing better in the present and in the future.

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