*Trigger Warning – this post contains graphic reference to self-harm*
I glanced anxiously at the nurses that were aimlessly charting, and with shaking hands snatched a heart-shaped button from the craft table. I looked longingly at the, undoubtedly, more efficient cacti outside that were just out of reach in the hot sun that our too-thin bodies couldn’t handle. All I could think of was finding an outlet, any outlet, for the obsessive, punishing anxiety pounding away at my brain’s sanity. Several minutes later found me frantically carving shallow lines in my forearm with the pathetic point of the ironically-shaped button—as if by scraping away my flesh I could find the remnants of my insane sanity that I felt the treatment facility stole from me.
Almost four years ago, I began self-harming. What began as a passing venture with that ridiculous pointed button spiraled into an unexpectedly difficult behavior to stop. Unlike the years of starvation, depression, and anxiety, this behavior garnered an immediate, and utterly horrified response from my treatment providers, friends, and family members. I was literally starving to death for over six years, but a few scrapes on my upper thigh with scissors and shit hits the fan? Inwardly I cringed at the added attention to my body that I felt took up too much space after a summer at the inpatient eating disorder facility. Why couldn’t everyone just glance away and say, “Oh that’s just how Kelsey is,” as they had in all those dysfunctional years before?
As I cautiously moved forward at a healthier weight, self-harming slipped in as a way to reassure myself that I still hated my body and distorted brain just as much as before. I was not permitted to exercise, so self-harm was a welcome release after eating meal after meal, day after day. When I was swinging back in a relapse with my eating disorder and depression, self-harm sat comfortably on the back burner. I only had a finite amount of energy to direct at these familiar destructive behaviors, and when I was starving myself I didn’t have the energy to also partake in self-harm.
I started self-harming with a laughable piece of plastic, then with scissors (slightly dull, alas), but when I went back to college a veritable arsenal awaited me. Sometimes I could sit quietly in class and scrape away the skin above my ankle for the entire hour, which left a nice Argentina-shaped scar on my lower inner leg. Or I could mull over what would be for dinner and whether the oven would be on, and if I could conveniently slip my arm inside to rest briefly against the hot side of the oven to achieve yet another burn on my arm. When I got my new kitten, I discovered that letting him maul my hands and arms with his tiny needle-sharp claws was effective, and easily explained away. As studiously as I counted calories, so I began planning when, where, and with what the next self-harm session would be.
Burning was ideal, as there was no blood to clean up afterwards, but I could still walk away with the benefit of a deep scab that would yield a very permanent scar. Of course, I would make the scar deeper by repeatedly picking off the scab. One particularly desperate day, when I was alone in the apartment with my roommate’s dog, I heated up the oven to 400 degrees. I waited patiently for it to reach the goal temperature, grabbed some hot pads out of the nearest drawer, and then took the oven rack out to burn three deep gouges on my back. They are each about the length and width of my ring finger, and they will be with me until the day I die.
On the other hand, the overall experience using my shaving razor was more euphoric. I would stand in the shower with the water running, where no one could see or interrupt me, and strategically slice away at my body—most often somewhere on my torso, upper arms, or upper thighs. Once I started cutting, I often kept going until I ran out of room on the offending place, or until I felt that it was “enough.” It was simply and completely addictive. That adrenaline-filled sharp stab of pain when the razor sliced and the water hit the new cut, watching the bright red blood surging out of the open wound, running down my naked body, and pooling with the water to swirl down the drain was all beautiful to me. Finally I would rinse off the shower walls, stop the water, hastily step out and dry off the fresh wounds with a dark towel, dab some antibiotic cream on them, pull on a dark t-shirt and shorts, and then step out of the bathroom hoping no one noticed how stiffly I was standing to keep the shirt from sticking to my abdomen. In a time of my life when I fiercely despised the appearance of my body, the scars and fresh wounds were the one aspect of my body that I perceived to be beautiful.
Fast-forward to the present day and I will sigh and proudly tell you that I have not self-harmed for almost two years. Not to say that I have not longingly considered engaging in that addictive behavior during particularly difficult periods of depression, or when I’m feeling especially hateful towards the healthy weight my body must stay at. But, over time, and with lots of kick-in-the-ass talks from my therapist, for a couple of days I was able to not self-harm. Then I’d slip back and it’d be a couple more weeks before I’d be able to abstain for another couple of days. Suddenly, a couple of days slowly turned into a week, and a week turned into a month and then here I am, two years later. Not to say that I’m not still tempted any time I accidentally cut myself shaving, but it seems that the longer I refrain from self-harming, the less alluring the blood is. In the meantime I focus on pouring my boundless energy and passions into more productive ventures and into the relationships I value.
I want to make something very clear: the wounds from self-harming are not the remnants of a failed suicide attempt, but rather a red flag. Think about the scars on people you know who self-harm(ed)– those are not the scars of people who attempted to end life, but rather they are the scars of people who are experiencing intense mental anguish. As difficult as it might be to understand, the wounds from self-harm are a symptom of underlying issues that a person cannot healthfully cope with. Self-harming is often used as a way to punish oneself, to provide an outlet for intense emotions and struggles, or sometimes even just a way to feel something when your body is otherwise completely numb.
While self-harm doesn’t necessarily equal immediate suicide intent, researchers and practitioners have found that suicide risk among those that self-harm can be hundreds of times more than the average person. The risk of suicide in those that self-harmed is higher in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations. The vote is still out on whether men or women with a history of self-harm are at higher risk for suicide, but regardless self-harm is something to be taken very seriously.
The magnitude of shame that individuals who self-harm are made to feel for this behavior is immense, while often the underlying depression and/or body hatred remains unaddressed. So instead of gasping, and exclaiming something unhelpful the next time someone’s sleeve accidentally hitches up their arm to expose a wound, try to see the bigger picture. Yes, it’s serious, but most of the time people will clam right up and hide. Compassionate understanding, a shoulder to lean on, and being willing to listen will go miles further than the knee-jerk reaction of freaking out, or rolling your eyes at the “crazy” person. Check in to see if they have a support system that is aware of these behaviors and making sure they’re safe. If they don’t, then consider being the friend that makes sure that their wounds aren’t getting deeper, that they keep showing up to school or work, and encourage them to find a professional to help them. But most importantly, let them know that their self-harm won’t scare you away from them.
Maybe you’re reading this, and you are struggling with stopping the self-harm cycle. Obviously, I want you to stop, but I also want you to know that your feelings are completely valid. You can’t do life alone, so reach out to to those that you’re closest to and then together you can take it from there. I believe in you, darling.
Oh, and how could she forget? She has three cats which she loves to bits and pieces.