Obviously this one is going to be totally unsuitable for some people. I talk about self harm frankly. I do not describe graphic accounts, but some methods are mentioned. There are no images. Please take care.
I read an article yesterday, called But Still, by Samantha Van Zveden. It reminded me of my own experiences, the fear, the ambivalence, the sense of compulsion, driving inexplicable need. It’s taken me most of my life, but it no longer has me by the throat. It’s an experience that bewilders people, and into the gap in our understandings pour myths, fears, and a kind of casual brutality that can still bring me screaming to my knees.
They’re just doing it for attention. Doing it to be cool. Doing it for acceptance by other kids. Doing it to annoy her parents. Doing it because he doesn’t have enough to do. Doing it because it’s ‘in’.
Falling far down the rabbit hole of trying to prove pain to people who do not believe you. Their belief, their compassion, their acceptance of your sincerity is an unwinnable thing. So many years and so much suffering poured out seeking it. Every day going down, deeper into self destruction, closer to death. I grew up in a world where pain was only real if someone else believed in it. Many people still live in that world. It took me a long time to escape it and reclaim my own mind.
Self harm is complex and full of contradictions. Something I often remind people is that it is common in the animal kingdom. Animals and birds experiencing inescapable pain – loneliness, captivity in an unsuitable cage: too small, too stressful, too close to predator species, overcrowded, or physically ill and suffering, many will head bang, pluck their own feathers, chew or lick off their skin, tear out nails and claws. On one level, self harm is a nearly universal response to certain kinds of suffering. This is the context, the broad picture. We are mammals, part of the world, nervous systems wired this way.
Zooming right in, we get vast diversity in who, how, and why. Some find a single cause and many more a complex web of reasons, needs, struggles.
Some harm to punish themselves. Some to break out of dissociation and stop feeling numb. Some to reclaim their own body. To mark important events, the way some cultures ritually scarify children becoming adults. To discharge suicidal distress and make it safely through the night. To trigger numbness when feelings are overwhelming. To push the boundaries of skin and self and rules of what is acceptable. To prove their pain to themselves or someone else who isn’t listening or doesn’t believe. To ease the screaming panic. To mark the empty days. To annihilate, piece by piece, every last bit of themselves. To get revenge on those who think they own us. To be ugly so we will not be desired and harmed. To make ourselves beautiful. To let out the badness. Because it simply, inexplicably, felt right.
What it is not, and has never been, is the circle I hear so often. They self harm because they are mentally ill: we know they are mentally ill because they self harm.
We self harm because something is wrong, because of pain, because it is the best way we’ve found to meet a need we don’t understand or accept or can’t express.
I remember the first day I bought blades with the intention of self harming. I was suffering from severe PTSD and my world had become nightmares and panic and rage in a bed of grey, empty, exhausting apathy. I felt so utterly weak and damaged, all the time. Buying blades I felt powerful, defiant against all those who required that I show no sign of my suffering. That I should not be changed by my experiences. Breaking those rules felt like being true to myself. That link between owning my own pain and harming myself was powerful and took many years to understand and find an alternative for. Because for me, it clicked so strongly self harm immediately became an intense, consuming addiction.
I experienced such relief from my anguish in self harm it was electric. Physical pain created an intense focus for my thoughts, it shifted me out of the mundane world into a deeply needed altered state and created a powerful sense of ownership over my body and proof of my pain to myself. It eased suicidal despair and sated my constant self loathing. For a short while the internal litany of how stupid, ugly, selfish, pathetic, and what a miserable freakish lonely failure I was would go quiet. It was peace. I felt strong instead of weak. I felt I’d proved something to myself. I felt like I could finally take off my armour and rest for a little while.
The next morning I was drowning in shame, and the self loathing intensified beyond anything I’d previously experienced. The sight of the wounds would trigger rage at myself. Why was I so weak and pathetic? Such a drama queen. I sided with others brutal assessment of my character and motivation.
Once the wounds healed and were less visible, I would feel panic. I needed to see them. I would desperately want new wounds. The longer I went without seeing my own blood, the more compelled I felt. I tried to meet this need in other ways, considering I have endometritis and adenomyosis and was bleeding heavily literally half of my life I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t enough blood, why it had to be this, too.
So the experience, like all addictions, created the conditions to feed itself, becoming its own trigger and containing both the problem (shame, pain, self hate) and the remedy. Once inside the locked room I was trapped. The compulsion felt simultaneously too powerful to fight, and extremely minor, a mere suggestion that I was choosing to indulge. I could snap out of it anytime, stop anytime I wanted to. I felt divided.
When others reacted with intense anger, shaming, and minimising (you’re just copying someone else because you think it makes you interesting), I merely switched from my preferred methods of self harm to things that caused pain and distress but left no marks on my skin. They were a poor substitute for the rituals but not doing anything felt impossible.
I read books and articles about it, talked to my doctor and shrinks. Nothing made the hunger go away. I tried ‘behavioural extinguishing’ where you simply refuse to engage the behaviour no matter what, and over time the urge will disappear. It did not. In 8 straight years of not harming at all I still struggled with the urge often. Some days it was louder and some quieter but always there. I often dreamed about it in terrifying ways, saw images of it unbidden in my mind when close to blades or while cooking, and when distressed or on seeing wounds or scars on others would intensely yearn for the release.
I remember a friend confiding in me their teenage child had been self harming. I come home from the conversation to howl in bewildering agony – why do they get blades and not I? As if I was deprived of something essential to my survival. Part of my mind listening in, in absolute confusion and disgust. How could I be this messed up?
I remember another friend confiding in me that they’d been to see a shrink and shared their awful compulsion to cut with them, and the shrink had brightly and inanely suggested wearing a rubber band on their wrist and flicking it when the urges come, to simulate the pain. It was like comparing a glass of water to a tsunami. I needed to scream so loud it tore my world apart, set the sky on fire, turned the rain to blood. I was drowning in unspeakable suffering, dying in plain sight, and the world of psychology offered a rubber band. My friend and I were mutually speechless at the gulf between our experiences and their understanding. The trivialising of the darkest hours of my life drove me further into darkness and further from understanding myself. What the hell is wrong with me?
I stayed away from medical care, aware that other’s responses fed the need on me, their callousness filled me with violent rage against myself, their compassion made me want to do it again to be treated with warmth and gentleness again. I listened to a young peer who turned up at ER one day, wild with pain and afraid she would self harm. They told her they would not admit her unless she had current wounds. So she walked out of the hospital and gave herself some, then walked back in. Then they admitted her. In that context, it was simply the admission fee for ‘care’. I noticed you often had to increase the dose over time to get a similar response from mental health staff. I called this ‘the language of symptoms’ and I fought not to speak it. With some peers, self harm was treated as the ultimate proof of your pain. It bypassed skepticism and got you into the club of people who had done it tough. I fought not to internalise this either. I read frightening books that made suicide seem the ultimate way to show other people you were genuinely hurting, and make them regret their indifference. I fought that framework too.
I learned that for me, self harm was often about proving my pain, not only to other people in my world who were minimising my distress, but also to myself. It was a way of proving the suffering of the night before to whoever woke up the next morning. A kind of memo, written on my skin, that said: pay attention, we are hurting. Something that I could not ignore, could not find a positive light for or put a good spin on. Something animal and savage the intellectual part couldn’t explain away, something dark and forbidden the rule abiding part couldn’t condone or ignore.
On bad days I spent hours in the bath, in self imposed quarenteen until I felt safe to walk past the knives in the kitchen. The longest bath like this I’ve taken was 9 hours. Letting out the cold water and adding more hot as my fingers and toes wrinkle. Waiting until the need reduces to manageable or the dissociation numbs it.
Substituting the need was my best approach. Less instant and complete, I learned to be patient with the alternatives and put up with partly met needs. It was by far the best relief I’d found. I developed Ink not Blood and discovered in a strange way that I was equally ashamed of simulated self harm as I was of actual wounds. The shame was more about the visibility of my pain than it was about the taboo of self harm. I felt deeply embarrassed I needed such a thing. Wrist poems continued to weave their way through my life as an alternative too. Talking to myself on my skin.
Psychosis resolved through body painting, full body art with simulated blood. Gold drips from my mouth, splashes of red across my hip. Simulated self harm and altered state on a massive scale with not a blade in sight. A wound in me heals, the need weakens.
I read about the Bloggess, she discusses her self harm frankly, with neither pity not rage, simply that she ‘fell off the self harm wagon’. She dusts herself off and climbs back on. No one screams at her or takes her kids away. I can’t see anyone forcing her hands over to show mutilated wrists and dropping them with a lip curl of revulsion. I envy her. Self harm as a bad night, not a moral failing.
Then I’m pregnant and the proximity of children quietens the need. Star and Poppy arrive and it continues to fade away. The self hate stays, a near constant companion, the daily voice “I hate myself”. The nightmares of graphic self harm; dismemberment, self immolation, degloving, stop and don’t come back. The triggers lose their power, evoke a pang rather than a desperate thirst. I watch it drain out of my life with relief and confusion. I take less baths, wear less gloves and wrist cuffs, write fewer wrist poems.
I still don’t entirely know why it’s gone, or if it’s ever coming back. Has it gone with some wild part of me I’m losing touch with? Is it a good thing that it’s eased? Has it been replaced by the depression, the sense of choking failure that haunts me? Health is not merely the absence of a symptom. Why didn’t it take the self loathing with it? What does it all mean?
I don’t know. I’m glad not to be struggling with it, it was a many headed hydra that seemed to grow stronger the more heads I lopped off. Most days I’m glad my scars are so invisible. Some days I regret my restraint a little. I’m glad to have found that the symbol of harm, the imitation of it, has so much power for me, and learned that self harm is in itself a symbol of something else, a word in language you don’t yet speak but must learn to decipher.
I don’t hurt like I used to hurt, stuffed full of secrets and bewildered by my pain. It’s in the open now and I have names for it (queer, trauma, multiple, altered state, creative). I’ve got other ways to scream and I don’t ignore myself so much.
It’s such a victory, and yet, while the self hate remains it seems in many ways a hollow one. However far I go, it’s not enough. Have I won the war, or just stopped caring enough to bother fighting? Is it still a blessing if the screaming stops but the pain remains? I don’t know. I’m still working on it, feeling into it, trying to understand it. I’m glad to be out of the shame spiral, the snake vomiting its own tail. I’m glad my girls don’t live with it as a daily reality for their parent. I’m under no illusions though, I know exactly what it feels like to live with people who hate themselves and I try to be mindful of that, to decode it when I must and protect them as I can.
I’ve come a long way. I’m not done yet. Self harm, for me, met a need. It also fuelled that need. Finding other powerful ways to meet it broke the spiral. (you don’t break addictions, you replace them) It’s nothing to do with the drug of choice, and everything to do with the environment. I had to make very hard, very painful choices to change my environment. In some ways much more painful than merely cutting myself. It was a substitute, a symbol, a signal of how trapped I felt in that life.
I left. I severed relationships and found new ones. Came out as multiple, then again as bisexual, and again as genderqueer. Made art. Nurtured others. Found self compassion. Stopped trying to find my salvation in my own blood. Learned to live with the scars and the places where there aren’t scars. Go home and scream when people tell me self harm is attention seeking, but in the moment try to validate their bewilderment and anxiety, gently correct attention seeking to connection seeking. Try to bridge the gap and make the incomprehensible make some kind of sense, engender some kind of compassion. Try to make people rethink their instinctive revulsion, to question their belief self harm is always fundamentally wrong, that it deserves involuntary disgust of the kind usually reserved for rapists.
Our skin, like our bodies and our lives, is our own. It’s shame that kills us. Loneliness that destroys our lives. Love that saves us, that makes the pain bearable and heals the screaming wounds. It’s not always enough, but is always necessary for life.