Through the foggy mirror of time I see a different version of myself. A Max who despised himself with volcanic intensity. A Max who blamed everything that went wrong in his life on himself. A Max who was absolutely convinced that he was useless, worthless, irredeemable, unworthy of love.
Much of this went hand-in-hand with first undiagnosed then later poorly understood autism. Whenever I struggled with something, which was often, my difficulty with emotional regulation led to frustration, and when lashing out at the world proved ineffectual, I directed it inwards.
Instead of seeing my challenges for what they were; a disconnection between the way my brain worked and a world that was not accommodating of my neurology, I interpreted them as me simply not being good enough, capable enough, or trying hard enough.
I’m not sure exactly the first time I self-harmed on purpose. I was 13 the first time I remember cutting myself. I kept it a secret, because I felt that I didn’t deserved to be helped or given any sympathy.
What a lot of people might not understand about self-harm is the addictive satisfaction of it. When you’re in mental anguish, it feels almost like scratching a maddening itch until you bleed; yes it hurts, but that hurt is a comparative release compared to the itch.
It was at University that my self-destructive compulsions began to spiral out of control. I constantly compared myself to my peers there, who always seemed to have more friends, get higher marks, and have more success in romance and sex.
I wish I could say that the turning point was a positive one, but in truth it was when I hit rock bottom; one particularly nasty incident when I was 22 landed me in the emergency room, and it was the shock of this harrowing event that initially broke the habit.
That was 10 years ago now. In the years since, with the help of my amazingly supportive friends and family, and through finding my place in the autistic community and gaining a better understanding of autism and thus myself, the self-loathing that consumed me for so long has been slowly replaced by self-acceptance.
My work in mentoring other young people on the spectrum held up a mirror through which I learned to see the good in myself instead of just the bad, and over time I learned to treat myself with the same compassion and empathy that I would a mentee, colleague, or friend with the same struggles.
That’s not to say it’s all been sunshine and rainbows; the spectre of relapse has reared its head on multiple occasions, lurking like the coward it is to strike when I’m at my weakest. On these occasions, I found that the best countermeasure was to immerse myself in my special interests, or immediately reach out to a friend or family member; the urges tend to be short-lived, so if I can hold them off for just a few hours, they subside.
Over the years, this spectre returned less and less often, until by now I can’t exactly remember the last time it showed its face.
As I write this, it’s been a decade, almost to the day, since the last time I hurt myself on purpose. The scars will always be there, but where once they were angry red, they are now pale and faded.
I look back at that younger version of myself, and I’m reminded of so many young autistics that I work with in my career as a mentor and advocate.
If I can, in some small measure, give others the support and connection that helped me find and follow the path to self-acceptance, then I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my life.