I once read, that nobody has any idea how much self-hatred it takes to make yourself vomit. I think the same is true for self-harm (although let’s be honest here – purging is just a different form of self-harm…) Happy people don’t inflict pain on themselves – physical, psychological, emotional. They just don’t. How do I know this? Because I have a vague recollection of being a happy person – once upon a time. And I didn’t inflict pain upon myself. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid it.
For many decades, I wondered why on earth anybody would, or could, run a blade across their unscarred skin, and inflict pain, misery and permanent damage. Just why would somebody do that?! Then my life fell apart – and I learned why.
My sister started cutting herself when she was a young teen. She had borderline personality disorder and many – if not all – of the associated behaviours, including self-harm. It was an absolute mystery to me. Why would such a beautiful, intelligent, creative, capable person, do something so incomprehensible? I read a few books on the subject and tried to be empathetic and understanding and accepting, but I just didn’t get it. We never talked about it. I knew those scars were there. I tried not to judge – but in hindsight, I didn’t try hard enough to understand.
Early in 2015, my stress levels built to the point I was no longer coping. I was experiencing chronic issues with depression and anxiety, my eating disorder escalated, and I was starting to have significant issues with suicidal ideation. I became so anxious one day – and felt trapped in the situation I was in – that I started scratching at my hands with my fingernails. Hard enough to tear the skin off, but hidden enough nobody around me could see.
Just like that, I became a self-harmer.
Over the course of the year, my self-harm became more frequent and something I used to calm or distract myself. I scratched at my hands when the thoughts in my head escalated beyond reasonable, and deafening myself with the car stereo couldn’t shut them out. When I was catastrophising I couldn’t tell the difference between a likely, possible, maybe, unlikely, incredibly unlikely or impossible scenario. In my head, they were all the same thing and I always leapt to worst case scenarios first, and then took another flying leap. Tearing the skin off my hands gave me something to focus on – something here and now. Something I could feel. Something that stopped the dialogue in my head. Something real.
Within a month, I graduated to scratching with pins. I would hide them all over the house and car and my handbag – they’re still everywhere to be honest. Nobody takes any notice of innocent dressmaker pins in odd spots. They made me feel “safe” – that if my distress levels got too high (at that point it took nothing whatsoever to distress me) then I had the means to calm down again. If I was unhappy or ashamed, I could punish myself for being of poor moral character, a bad mother, a weak person. For making a mistake, gaining weight, or not trying hard enough. For not being good enough in any capacity. I could control the flow of emotions by fishing out a pin and scratching until my skin disappeared. It was hard work – pins aren’t designed for self-harm – but I did it. I didn’t really think of myself as a self-harmer – “those” people did much worse things.
Less than a year and my stress levels escalated a little more and I tried knives. It’s a lot harder than you might think – carving into your own soft flesh with a kitchen knife… Soon after I purchased razor blades. Now I was a true self-harmer. Now I deserved the title of shame.
People occasionally started to notice marks and it was getting much harder to hide or explain them away. I was becoming an emo – a 50-year-old, middle-aged mother, hacking at her arms when she couldn’t hack life. Not the most stellar moments of my life… It is truly shocking how quickly something can become “normal” in your life.
The first cuts I made with razor blades were “V” in my wrists. V for Vanessa – my sister. I still hold so much grief and pain and guilt at her life and death, and wonder why I didn’t help her more. What could I have done differently? The truth is – probably not much. But guilt and shame are normal states of mind for me – not logical or rational, but normal. Carving the V into my wrist that first time made me feel so close to her – spiritual really. I guess I was in a slightly dissociative state. At that point in time, I had not been able to grieve for my sister, so carving a permanent reminder of her onto my body allowed me to feel connected to her – to let her know I understand how much pain she had been in all those years. And to say sorry I hadn’t done more.
Like every other maladaptive coping behaviour that so many of us hide behind, it kept escalating. At the time of my admission to the mental health unit, I had razor blades stashed all over the house, car and my workplace – always some hidden right next to me. I would cut myself at least two or three times a day – a ritualistic, self-soothing behaviour, that both worked and didn’t work to make me feel better. I would nest in a quiet, calm, comfortable spot, with rugs and heaters and my cat nearby, scented candles burning, a cup of tea, stashes of neatly folded tissues, and a good strong light to see what I was doing. Both arms had neat cuts, in patterns of five – 20 cuts on each arm. Always done in patterns of five… I started on my thigh occasionally after the clinic – so much easier to hide, but nowhere near as emotionally satisfying. I just didn’t have that easy visual reminder throughout the day. The cuts were always reasonably shallow, because under no circumstances did I want to suffer the ignominy of having to attend the emergency department for stitches. The shame of my husband and children and friends knowing what I had been doing was an unbearable thought. So, while escalating desires urged me to cut longer and deeper and more and more and more, I kept it reined in enough that no medical attention was required.
Three weeks in the mental health unit allowed me to temporarily break what had become a daily habit, and I was offered suggestions for healthier self-soothing options. In the six months since I left, I have had sporadic episodes of cutting, but have not returned to the daily ritual – for now. I have not cut my thigh for months and have cut my forearms only once since leaving the clinic. The Vs on my wrist are harder to let go of – and easier to hide. I seem to have a cycle of about two-three weeks self-harm free, then I am tipped over the edge by something and succumb to carving that V back in. It shames me to say, the most recent was today. Sometimes I just surrender to that overwhelming urge to punish myself.
It is less than two years since I started at all and as self-harm is such a taboo subject, I have no idea if my patterns of behaviour and recovery are normal or average or anything at all. I really have no idea. I do know, it is a really, really bad idea to do it all… I also know now, that if I see someone with scars I won’t ignore them. I won’t pretend the scars don’t exist – I will ask about them. I will ask if they’re okay – do they want to talk? My self-harm began because all my painful conversations were happening in my head and I needed to let the conversations out. One way or another, all pain is dealt with – whether it is dealt with productively or not, is the choice we have.
For everything I felt I gained in that moment of pain or grief, shame or self-loathing, I lost a whole lot more. My body generally heals extremely well, but still – I have scars on my thigh and my arms for eternity. Most will fade to silver pretty well – but close inspection will always betray my secret. I left my career as a music teacher, for fear my students would see the scars on my arms. More than three decades of teaching – gone. There are people who know now, and I feel forever changed by that. As though they are always looking over their shoulder, checking up on me, to see if I will do it again. I will never be the same person again. While I am very fortunate to have wonderful people in my circle – kind people who do not presume or judge – there are many others who I would never want to share my shameful secret with.
There are so many presumptions made about self-harming and those that do it, so I want to clear up a few things that are true for me. I can’t speak for anyone else… But I know my own truth.
It is NOT attention seeking – I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t want anyone to see the scars or the evidence. It is appallingly shameful. I am slowly coming to terms with the scars on my arms and I wear short sleeves now. I usually cover my wrists with a watch and bangles, but if anybody notices, I think can deal with it.
It is NOT about enjoying pain – I hate pain. I don’t tolerate pain at all well. I’m a redhead! We feel pain more than non-redheads (I read that somewhere – I’m sure it’s true!) I hate paper cuts and I cringe at the thought of stubbing my toe. I don’t cut to enjoy pain. I try and cut deep enough to get past the nerves and away from the pain – every time. I do not like it.
It has NOT been about killing myself. While I definitely have issues with suicidal ideation and overwhelming temptation at times, at no point in time did I think carving a V into my wrists, or slashing groups of five symmetrical lines into my arms, would ever even come close to killing me. If I want to kill myself, that is not the way.
It IS about emotional pain. I have never managed emotional pain well and eventually it all became overwhelming and I developed really poor coping mechanisms. Sure – I could have made better choices. I didn’t. It’s all clear in hindsight.
Learning to manage, and move away from, all my self-harming behaviours, is part of my journey of recovery. I cannot say I am recovered – but I can say I am trying. How far down this road I will travel, I don’t know. But I can say, I am glad to be traveling the recovery road, even if I never it make it to the destination, because the other hell is not worth traveling back to.