I wanted to write about my experiences of mental illness and specifically self-harm as a way to help those who don’t understand those of us who struggle with these issues.
I first harmed myself when I was about 14/15 years old. I didn’t understand what depression and anxiety were, and I struggled deeply with both. I was a very angry teenager and took my frustrations out on myself. I remember spending hours hauled up in my bedroom in a ball on the floor crying and crying, not knowing why. One day I clawed at my arm slowly and viciously until I drew blood. I didn’t understand why I was doing it. It just happened. In that moment I stopped crying and managed to breath. I didn’t feel any pain. I recall looking at my arm reddened with scratches and where the skin had lifted slightly and blood was starting to appear and I felt better. It made no sense to me. I wasn’t a prolific self-harmer, but would do it on occasion when I simply couldn’t stop the emotional turmoil in my head. It was horrid. At the time, it made me feel better, but shortly afterwards, sometimes minutes, sometimes hours, the stinging physical pain of what I had done would begin and I would panic about someone seeing my arm. I’d tell myself how stupid it was and that I wouldn’t do it again. Fortunately at school we wore jumpers, so I would cover it, and it was never a particularly nasty injury, so I just made up a feasible excuse about the scabs if anyone asked.
I only did it for a year or so on and off and then my mental health improved of its own accord when I hit 17.
I thought it was something I’d never revisit until I was in mid twenties and depression crept into my life again. As an adult my self-harming was more severe. I first used a kitchen knife in a fit of rage when something went wrong and I was furious about nothing. I didn’t cut to injure myself, I just pressed the blade into my skin to feel pain, and stop me from screaming. I threw it on the floor when the realisation of what I was doing hit me. It’s not something you can control though. In my normal “sane” (aka well) mind hurting myself in any manner is a ridiculous thought, and I find it hard to comprehend how I can so easily do it. I don’t do it for fun, I don’t do it for a reaction, and I certainly don’t do it for attention.
It got to its worst over Christmas when I began using a blade from a razor, and as a result, I have several scars on my arm and a cluster of horrid purple scars above my knee on my left leg where I cut quite deep. I utterly detest these scars. These are a constant reminder of how ill I was. Of the time I sat on my bed watching blood run down my leg because that was the only thing that briefly numbed the pain of being inside my own head, of living. It became an addiction, a way to cope. I would have to fight the urge not to cut myself and to feel the pain of existing instead and I had to rationalise that this was what I needed to do to get better. It was no longer something I did once every so often, but sometimes several times a day to get me out of my head. I hate the fact that there is a part of my body that I’m ashamed of. It upset me to the point of tears in a pole fitness class as I kept catching sight of the scars on my leg trying to nail one move (which I couldn’t). The combination of not being able to get the move and seeing them was too much and I just broke down. I’ve also had people comment on them. My waxer said, “Oh you’ve cut your leg”. I don’t know if she wanted a story to go with the scars, but I wasn’t willing to share with someone who waxes my intimate area, so I just said “yes” and continued to wince. Someone I was sleeping with also noticed and said “what’s that darling, looks like you’ve been cutting yourself”, I’d slept with him several times I just said “yes I have”. That was the end of the conversation on the matter. I won’t lie about what they are to anyone, but I’m certainly more conscious of sleeping with new people for example. I would be absolutely gutted if my parents found out, as whilst they know of my illness, I hate the thought of them knowing I suffered that much, as I know they struggled with it as it was. It’s bizarre as I’m very open and not at all ashamed to talk about my mental health issues, but when it comes to self-harm, I’m much more guarded. I think the stigma around it is much higher still and the lack of understanding far greater.
Simply though, self-harm is a coping mechanism. In the same way that alcohol or drugs might be for others. Why it is, is hard to put into words. If you’ve ever experienced depression to the point of sheer desperation, where living just feels exhausting, waking is painful and the next minute is terrifying, let alone daring to think of what tomorrow might bring, you might begin to understand how hard it is to cope with. I would urge that those who do not understand it do not judge those who do it. When I was doing it daily it was to try and forget I was living this pain. I didn’t feel the pain of hurting myself in a real sense, but the physical pain it gave focused my brain on something else. Watching myself bleed used to transfix me too, I have no idea why, it was an odd sort of fixation, as if seeing my blood flow showed me that I was in fact still alive. When I did it out of frustration it was an entirely different entity. I wouldn’t feel any physical pain at all. I was mostly so angry with myself or the situation it was more of a punishment and I think I did it to snap me out of my depressive induce rage. I didn’t tend to harm myself as badly then, and I’d be more shocked and panicked if I bled. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience, so I have no idea if others feel the same.
I once told a friend what I had done and she simply said, “Why would you do that, it’s stupid”. She later said she did not understand my actions and did not wish to discuss it with me again. This instantly made me feel worse, I felt even more ashamed of my behaviour. It is comments like this that make sufferers want to hide their actions, which is a natural urge anyway. Yet in fact it’s important to speak up. If you’re suffering, the best thing to do is to talk about it. Ideally with your GP in the first instance, but speaking to a trusted friend can be extremely reassuring. I have three close friends who know I self-harm; I message one when I feel close to doing it, or if I have done it. She always makes me feel better, she never judges me, she reassures me that everything is ok, and it will get better. When I was under close supervision with my GP and a mental health team, they always asked about self-harming behaviour. Never have I been made to feel stupid for my actions by any mental health professional or doctor. They simply ask from a point of care, to ensure your safety, and to ensure you’re not in need of medical attention. One of the psychiatric doctors I saw explained it was a coping mechanism, and once I was in treatment for my depression they would address it and help me with alternative coping mechanisms, but I should not put undue pressure on myself or feel any guilt or shame about doing it.
So if you ever see someone with the tell tale signs of self-harm, or someone opens up to you about it. Don’t stare. Don’t judge. Try and think what a hellish place they must have been in to do that and that if they’re anything like me, they’d want nothing more than to be better and rid of the affliction.
For further information about self-harm, see Mind, NHS, Harmless or NSPCC or Young Minds if you’re concerned about a child or young adult. If you need someone to talk to the Samaritans are a confidential service available 24/7.