Baths have always been a dangerous time for my mental health. Like many survivors, ritual bathing and extreme washing became routine for me. Unlike some survivors, I had no idea this is what was going on for me.
Every Sunday night after I was abused, I would run a bath. There were many justifications I gave to myself for this. One was that the bathroom was the only place with a lock and thus the only room in which I would be able to evade comment from my parents about my apparent closeness to my abuser. Also, it was the night before I went back to school, so it was sensible to wash then, right?
Never when I was in the bath did I have the common thoughts of how dirty I was or how desperately I needed to clean myself. There was no conscious awareness of the motives behind my behaviour. Even as it soon turned to scratching every inch of my body, accruing dead skin under my nails, and not stopping until the marks were ubiquitous, I had no actual idea what I was doing. I rationalised my behaviour creatively: apparently the ancient Romans also scoured themselves clean with instruments like blunt knives. See, I was just being historic.
It was long after the abuse stopped that I realised baths weren’t a good time for me. Firstly, when I was in relationships there was natural concern shown for the fact I exited the bath covered in scratches. Also, the slight telltale sign of ending up suicidal every time I had a bath started to make the connection hard to ignore. In the end I realised that baths are not good for my mental health. Without me knowing, I had been trying to cleanse myself of the bad stuff that happened to me, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of that fact.
Even now baths are hard work. I make sure I have them earlier in the day as my mood is prone to crashing at night. I have to keep control of myself so washing doesn’t become scratching. And I never have alcohol in the bath (depressant + depressant = nightmare). I no longer feel like I am dirty or guilty and yet baths are still a hard time for me. Habitual behaviour can become hard to break free from. Especially when you aren’t even aware that it is a result of your trauma.
Making the connection is certainly the first step to taking control. Being aware of why you are doing something means that you have the power to change your thoughts surrounding the behaviour and therefore over time change the behaviour. It isn’t easy. But especially if the trauma is now over, you can begin to self-soothe and remind yourself that you are an adult now. You are safe now. And as such, the behaviours that used to make sense are not helpful anymore. It doesn’t happen overnight and you don’t always get it right. Sometimes my perception of my recovery is my own downfall – I think I must be well enough to have an evening bath by now, and then I end up lying in a bath drowning in dark thoughts. But step by step it is possible to move away from these behaviours and into healthy new routines.