This post is about self-harm. Some may find it triggering.
Self-harming is often misunderstood by people on the outside. It is seen as attention-seeking or the sign of an extremely disturbed mind – after all, why else would someone deliberately set out to hurt themselves? Equally there are some Western subcultures that have veen accused of seeing self-harm as a badge of belonging or a rite of passage, and it is treated as nothing serious.
To me, self-harming is serious. And idiotic. I know that it is an unhealthy way to deal with emotions and stresses and yet I continue to do it. It is a compulsion. When I was 19 I hesitantly confessed this to a grief counsellor that I was seeing, only for him to reply that if it helped me to cope then it was ok, it wasn’t harmful. I was horrified – I wanted someone to tell me to stop, that I shouldn’t do it, that it was wrong. That was the last time I saw the counsellor and the last time I spoke about self-harming to anyone in the healthcare system.
I began self-harming at about 7 years old, while being bullied by my school teacher. My mother recalls finding bitemarks all over my arms and realising that I had done it myself. I soon moved onto breaking the skin – I would get a small plastic hairbrush from one of my Barbie toys or similar and scrape it along the skin of my forearm until it bled. By the age of 10 I had discovered my father’s disposable razors in the bathroom. By the time I started university I was using kitchen knives, or my fingernails if I got the urge while I was out.
This may be horrifying reading for someone who has never felt the urge to self-harm. But it helps, counter-intuitive as that may seem. I self-harm when I am in a state of heightened stress or emotion, when my thoughts are frenzied and I feel trapped. Pain helps me to focus – not only does the knife cut through my skin but it also cuts through the fog in my mind. It’s a way of regaining control. It’s almost equivalent to slapping someone who is hysterical – it shocks me out of the mental frenzy. By the time I have staunched the bleeding I am calm, rational and focused again.
Of course, there are many different ways of self-harming. Cutting is perhaps the most obvious, along with burning. Some people take up sports and push their bodies to the limit. Some people drink to excess or take illegal drugs. However I have recently come to realise that my compulsive overeating is also a way of self-harming and one that I seem unable to control. I haven’t cut myself in almost 2 years despite battling the urge almost every day; I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that it is normal, that it’s ok and a legitimate way of dealing with stress. However I comfort eat like you wouldn’t believe. At the first sign of stress my thoughts turn to food, usually sugary. I am unable to focus until I have eaten and once I start eating I struggle to stop.
This post has turned into somewhat of a confessional for me – I have never been this honest with anyone but DH. And now I am about to fire it into the ether for anyone to read. :-S But in a way I think it is just as important to be honest about self-harming as it is to be open about mental illness. (I have no doubt that for me the two are related). If this post makes one person feel less abnormal and less alone, or if it makes one person more compassionate towards self-harmers then it will have been worth it. So I am going to take a deep breath and press publish. Here goes.