This is an article about self-harming, from someone who regularly self-harms. The point of this article is to try and explain why I do it, what it means for me and how I see a future for myself without harming. This is a long history, and I will be graphic, and if you’re too much of a wuss to listen, for whatever reason, I don’t care. I’m not speaking for any other person but myself on this, because despite affecting so many people, every case is completely different in every way. But I can describe reactions from other people to my harming, and in this I think I share with most other harmers a similar feeling of rejection and isolation, and because of that I want to at least offer some solidarity with you.
I started harming in November 2007. At the time I had gone through six months of infuriating hopelessness as my (then) ex-girlfriend got with another partner days after we split up, and I had no one but myself to share my jealousy and regret with. A deeply unpleasant and stupid incident in August massively diffused the intensity of my feelings, but the situation and catalyst for them remained the same, and would do so until the following May when I finally completed my college courses. By November, I was without the friends I had made in the previous year, I was in a new relationship where my partner was hostile to any mention of my ex, and I was just frustrated at being 17, and not knowing of the many avenues open to people suffering from psychological issues.
So, one cold night at the end of 2007, I picked up a kitchen knife and slit open the skin on my arms, abdomen, stomach and back. It didn’t appear as severe as it felt, which was extremely painful; it just looked like tiny red lines dotted over my body. So for the next four days I went back and slit open my body again and again. I felt a perverse kind of enjoyment of it, like I was finally addressing how I felt with physical results, and every day I felt better despite my body raw with pain. I even took some pictures on every day to track my progress. Sometimes I look over them: I see a very young-looking, long-haired, surprisingly thin version of myself, my body embarrassingly free of tattoos except for the hideous one I lied into getting the previous April, but covered, instead, with seemingly hundreds of red grooves, with hardly a space on my body that wasn’t criss-crossed with them. About three inches above my left nipple was a huge gash, like someone marked and excised a piece of flesh, when really it was caused by a particularly violent slash that nearly made me faint with the sharpness of the pain. Today I have a large celluloid scar in its place, which used to be bulbous and a gruesome shade of dark pink, but has now flattened and got some natural color back, even though I have no physical sensation around it.
It was after that last horrible piece of violence against myself that I cautiously backed off, and I didn’t self-harm with that regularity for the next three years. The sparseness of my harming meant that I can remember exactly each month I did it. It would take a long, intense build up of bad luck and powerful emotional triggers that would trap me into bottling up my feelings instead of diffusing them before I harmed. Unconsciously, I would accumulate feelings of sadness or anger and only when they visibly erupted over a period of weeks ending in drastic actions could I feel any kind of relief. But, at least until Autumn 2010, the times I had harmed could be counted on one hand, suggesting that either it took a serious amount of overpowering emotions to tip me into violence, or I was able to keep a better check on reacting so seriously to things. Or there could be many other reasons that have just never occurred to me, it’s not like I can objectively analyse this issue very much.
October 2010 saw me experience a copy of the events that lead up to my starting to self-harm in the first place. I was at university in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England, studying acting and loving it, and I had found a wonderful person with whom my life felt colourful, detailed and limitless. But relationships such as ours don’t last long, or end without a tedious trauma, and once again I found myself sliding into frustration and misfortune. It’s obvious I felt powerless, and isolated, especially since I was over 100 hundred miles from a place and people who were familiar with me. For nearly the entirety of the academic year I subjected my body to a campaign of regular, visceral abuse, ceasing when I decided to quit the course without completing my final year, and fleeing, pathetically, back to my home town.
When I feel like self-harming I feel like an injustice has been done to me. Why are these people saying this or doing this to me? What have I done wrong? It’s a very egocentric view, that I am being singled out, or victimised in particular for being me. But it’s also about reducing everything just to blame: I must have done something wrong, or someone else has done something wrong to me. It divides the world into black and white, that every incident can and must be lumped into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ categories. That isn’t how life works. Relativising things that make you feel bad removes the mostly objective nature of the world. I didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did anyone else – that’s just how I perceive things because I have reacted to something negatively. Right there and then I should say to myself ‘Why do I feel like this?’ Is it because my new classmates are implicitly right-wing? Is it because I’m not giving praise/criticism during rehearsals for a play? Is it because I argued with someone – anyone – and am upset because it was a pointless argument to begin with?
The causes of my self-harm have changed many times too, as well as what they mean. Sometimes I’d harm over people ignoring me, sometimes over people ‘feigning’ (in my opinion, again without objectivity) concern over me; sometimes I’ve harmed over arguing fiercely with a close friend, sometimes with a total stranger; sometimes I’ve harmed after a long period of failure (exams, assessments, performances, missing events, break ups etc), sometimes because my life is in an extremely happy place and I feel great except for one tiny freak incident. This makes it impossible for me to identify and avoid the things that will cause my desire to harm, or indeed if they even exist. Equally, for the first few years harming was an option of last resort, something violently intense to cancel out equally intense feelings. Now, my self-harm is almost a cause of my becoming upset in itself, with my methods becoming cruder, such as harming at the end of a night out when very drunk and thus numb to ‘ordinary’ cuts.
The bigger picture is that my life, for whatever reasons and for any number of them, is not a happy and enjoyable one. That doesn’t mean it is devoid of pleasurable experiences, periods, friends and events, but that the overriding tone and conduct of my existence is one of loneliness, sadness and negativity, where I feel the bad experiences in my life far outweigh the good ones in terms of both occurrence and impact. Most of the immediate people around me – friends, family, partners – have always been terrified of broaching the subject with me, partly because they put the entire blame for it on themselves and don’t even entertain the idea that there are other things and elements in my life that greatly affect me, and partly because they just want to pretend that I don’t self-harm at all. Part of the problem is the problem itself, and it just spirals into a cycle of cause and affect unless you change the course, however drastic and difficult that may be.
So, where do I go from here? I’m a very very long way off from stopping my violence against myself, that’s a sure thing. All I can do is strive to find ways and options to help me explore, address and heal this ugly, increasingly out of control element of my personality, and I can at least recognise that I need to do so now because my previous attitude – ‘make your life better first and then everything bad will just naturally go away’ – was stupidly, naively, clearly ineffective. For anything to change, for my harming to stop and my mind to be free from hurt and rage, I need to want to overcome it, and I do. I love this beautiful planet and the so many beautiful people on it, and so many times in my life have I felt boundless and powerful and deeply in love, sometimes all at the same time. It is possible, and I will find a way there, permanently.