Trigger Warning – graphic description of self-harming behaviour. Look after yourself and make a conscious decision about whether to read on or not.
This is the most detailed account of my self harm I’ve ever written. From the first moment, to now.
It started when I was 14. I can remember very clearly. I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom with my homework laid out in front of me and my pencil case open and on it’s side, the contents spilling out. My dad had just slammed my door leaving me alone inside. Previously he had lost his temper at me because I was so stupid and couldn’t understand what he was trying to explain about the maths I was learning. I can see every line on his forehead, between his brows, right now as if he’s here. His finger pointing at me repeatedly and the spray of spit as he threw the words out at me. It was very quiet in my room in the moment after he left, as if the door sucked the life out of the space leaving a vacuum all around me. If I’m honest I don’t know what I was feeling. It will have been either completely numb emptiness or totally unbearable agony. Whichever it was, in that moment, I took the metal compasses out of my pencil case and dragged the sharp end across the skin on my forearm. That was nearly 22 years ago and I can still remember how good it felt. I did it again. I did it 8 or 9 times on that arm. Each time I watched the skin pucker, drag and tear open. I watched the dark red beads push their way out of the pinched lines. It felt relieving. Like the lifesaving gasp of a nearly drowned person who somehow managed to push their face against the edge of water into the air just in time.
I remember noticing how it would sting when I washed. How the newly hardened lines, attempting to heal themselves, would resist against any pressure, catch on clothing. I would notice the feeling of the scabs beneath my cardigan sleeves at my school desk. I liked the reminder that they were there. A secret that only I knew.
I’d never known of self-harm before. I was aware of suicide. I remember when I was 8 years old a local mother threw herself off a bridge fifteen minutes from my house. She had four children. I remember hearing my mother telling us that the woman was really selfish. ‘What kind of mother does that to her kids?’ She said. The irony in that statement coming out of her mouth. I felt inside my soul, even at 8 years old, that my mother was wrong. That something more powerful had killed that woman. That she probably thought her kids were better off without her. I now know how those thoughts can consume you when you’re in the depths of despair. It’s the thoughts and the feelings that trick you into thinking death is the only cure. I knew a person could kill themselves wilfully, but I don’t believe I was consciously aware of people harming themselves on purpose. I’d certainly never heard of or seen intentional cuts on a person and growing up without the internet meant my world was quite small compared to kids of today who can access anything they want at the click of a button. I believed I was the only person to have ever done anything like that and I needed to keep it a secret.
After almost a year of sporadic moments of scratching, grazing, trapping and pinching various parts of myself in torturous ways, a friend noticed a scratch poking out of my sleeve. I told her it was my kitten. She looked at me then looked away. Later I discovered she went to my guidance teacher and told him what she’d seen but before that moment things became more intense and my warped coping strategies weren’t having the same affect. Much like a drug, I needed more. One day I noticed the art teacher restocking one of the drawers that held the paper craft supplies. During our lunch break I went back into the room, opened the drawer and stole a craft knife. It was cold and smooth in its shiny plastic sleeve. I slid it into my pocket and left the room. All day I was fixated on the idea that I had this knife in my pocket. I almost felt good, like I had a plan. I was excited about using it. I know how awful and twisted that sounds but I could easily liken it to lots of other vices people have that are more widely accepted in society… like looking forward to trying the bottle of wine you’ve got chilling in the fridge, or the cigarette you’ve been saving for your break, or an evening run… whatever gets you through. For me it was physical pain.
The house was empty. I was in my bedroom listening to loud music. It was late. I remember studying the knife, cleaning it. I ran it lightly across my duvet cover with no pressure at all. Holding the end between my thumb and forefinger and leading it along the line of stitching. It sliced through the fabric with ease. I used a little more force and did the same to my forearm halfway between my wrist and my elbow. The tip of the blade slipped into my skin, disappearing, leaving a white line that parted and slowly filled with red. It dripped down on to my leg. I remember the head rush. I remember watching that first proper cut and thinking, ‘fuck that was so much sharper than I thought it was going to be!’ I didn’t feel it, it didn’t hurt. It was just much deeper than I had imagined. I was almost euphoric inside although looking back I was probably motionless and dull on the outside. I did one more cut, further in towards my elbow. Watched the same parting of the skin, white inside, fine red line that slowly widens, fills up the trench, overflows and drips off the edge of my arm. I watched it, from a distance. There was a moment of panic when reality set in. A make shift bandage made with sports socks with the toes cut off. Lots of pressure and holding. Cleaning the knife. Cold rinsed my pyjamas to remove the blood. It was the first of a long lived love affair with the ‘looking after myself’ part of self harming. The steri-strips I bought, the large plasters, the creams and oils. All the ways I mothered the wounds I’d inflicted on myself.
Shortly after that, my guidance teacher called me out of class. He sat me down and told me my friend had spoken to him. Asked to see my arms. None of this was ever done with the intention of sharing it with anyone. I was completely mortified. I couldn’t look at him. He firmly repeated his request and I rolled my sleeves up and pushed my arms across the table to him as if they weren’t attached to me. He looked at them and said, ‘oh, it’s not that bad…’ He said other things and in fact became an amazing source of comfort and a listening ear for my remaining years in school however that statement stayed with me for decades. ‘It’s not that bad’… I believe he was trying to reassure me, or maybe himself, that I obviously wasn’t trying to commit suicide or at least I wasn’t lacing every inch of my skin with lines… When I was 17 I briefly worked with a psychologist (that’s a whole other post) and when he asked to see my arms and I showed him I told him, ‘it’s okay, my guidance teacher says it’s not that bad,’ he looked at me right into my eyes and said, ‘Lucy, it is that bad. It is.’ In that moment I understood in my body what validation felt like and how I hadn’t even recognised when my guidance teacher had invalidated me because it was the only thing I knew growing up.
There came a time when my friend told her mum who phoned my mum and then she knew. There was also a time when my mum read my diary. She sobbed at me, ‘why are you doing this to me? Why are you making my life so much harder? Why are you so difficult?’ I learned to hide it again. She would occasionally demand to see my arms. I moved to other parts of my body.
I remember one of the times I planned to end my life. I’ll write about that in more detail another time. I sat on the floor of the shower for an age with the blade resting at the top of my wrist. Ready to race downwards. In the end I couldn’t do it. I chose to slice 17 long lines into my thigh. 17. ‘I’ve wasted 17 years of my life on you and now it’s my turn to have a life…’ One line for each of the 17 years my mother resentfully endured me. They were deep, long lines and when the fog lifted I was aware of the blanket of bloody running off my thigh, mixing with the shower water and flowing around me in a pink puddle. I frantically tried to stop the bleeding. I wrapped a towel round my leg. The red seeped through. In the end I needed help for that episode.
I started dating my current husband not long after that. We moved in with each other a few months later and for some reason my inner life became even more chaotic – spilling out into the visible world. I’m yet to explore this part of my life in therapy so I don’t have a lot of introspection about it. I wonder if the parts of me that had been holding so tightly on to the pain for all of my life finally felt safe enough to let go a bit and it all began pouring out of me like a breaking dam. I would scream at him, hit him, slam doors, cry. I cried silently during sex. I would cut myself after sex. Lock myself in the bathroom and do it in a hurried, desperate way. He would kick the door open and plead with me to stop. After many months (probably a few years) of constant love, acceptance, patience and genuine affection from him I slowly softened. I formed a strong attachment with him and in that relationship I healed (I believe) as much as a person can heal in a relationship that is not therapeutic in nature.
A couple of years in to university I made a commitment to stop self harming. 24 years old. Ten years after starting… and I never felt triggered in that time. Again, I’m yet to explore this part of my life in therapy so I don’t have a deep awareness of what was going on for me but I guess partly I was no longer living in an abusive house… maybe I was numb. Maybe my boyfriend and house and studies gave me a purpose. Maybe the alcohol and cigarettes and hash helped. I definitely know there have been many other ways I’ve hurt myself in my life other than cutting. Again, that’s for another post.
At 29 years old I walked in to Paul’s office. The first session I gave him an overview of my life. I remember saying, ‘that’s when the self harming started’ in a very distanced way. He asked questions, made a similar comment to my guidance teacher when I showed him my arms. Said he had done his final papers at uni on self harm. We intellectualised. At one point he said, ‘I worked with a woman once who didn’t have a single piece of skin on her body that wasn’t scarred from self harming.’ This was before I became familiar with therapy jargon like, ‘worked with = client/patient’ and I said, ‘oh my god I would never want any of my colleagues to know I’d self harmed!’ I noticed an unfamiliar expression on his face that I later realised was the split second of him thinking, ‘she has misunderstood me, shall I correct her, no that will be too shaming I’ll leave it…’ I was mortified. A few weeks later I cut myself for the first time in 5 years. I wrote it on a piece of paper and it took me 40 minutes to give it to him in the session. He said, ‘I would usually contract that clients refrain from that while we’re working together as it defeats the purpose of therapy.’ I never spoke about it again… until Anna.
Anna has encouraged an open dialogue about self harm to the point where I no longer feel shrouded in shame when I talk about it. There is still the panicked prickle of needing to hide if I’m having to tell her I’ve relapsed but I know she won’t shame me. I know she won’t belittle me. I know she is sitting with me in this recovery process, prepared to witness my journey.
When I drew the above picture and finally brought it to Anna I felt sick at the thought of sharing it. But it was important to explore all of the reasons why I did what I did… here is an excerpt from my notes taken after that session.
‘I got the folder out and flicked through looking for the drawing. I saw it and closed the book again and thought about it… did I really want to share this? I flashed a cringey look at Anna and she said, ‘how about you just describe it to me to begin with? Rather than showing me, if that feels too much just now… would that be okay?’ I said, ‘no. because I know I would go home and be really annoyed with myself for not sharing.’ Anna smiled widely and said, ‘well done! Good… okay then…’ She nodded at the folder. She was so pleased that I knew myself enough to know how I would feel after the session. I pulled the drawing out and looked at it myself. I said, ‘it’s not physically accurate… it depicts what I wanted to do the other weekend but I dont do it like that anymore… well it is what I did when I was a teenager but I haven’t cut my arms in a long time…’ I took a breathe and handed it over to her. She asked me if it was to be read left to right and I said it didn’t matter. As soon as she started looking at the drawing I felt the need to be closer to her so I moved to the chair beside her. I folded one foot under the other leg and intermittently looked away at the window and then back at her face. Watching. She was looking at each of the sentences and taking in the whole drawing. She said something about the words being really powerful or moving or something. She said something about the drawing pin really striking her as being like a stabbing motion at all the things that I couldn’t hold on to – the hope, the kindness. She asked me if I still feel like this. I said I didn’t. I felt like that when I started working with her and all the teen feelings resurfaced again but I don’t feel that helpless and hopeless anymore. We talked about the other coping strategies I have now and how I can keep myself safe.
I talked about how alone I felt back then – how alone and lost and totally lacking in other options I was. That all that kept me going some days was knowing I could go home and hurt myself. That I would osculate between feeling the worst feeling anyone could ever feel and then feeling nothing at all. Anna talked about how the cutting was a way to feel something. To have a physical representation of the pain I couldn’t express. She asked me how I felt she was being with me and I studied her face and replied, ‘you’re your usual calm self… I think we’re still okay, you don’t think any less of you.’ She said, ‘I am so proud of you in fact.’
I said that through the week I had thought about how for 20 years I’ve abandoned myself, not met my own needs. Not talked about this. When the child in me so desperately needed a witness. Anna suggested I forgive myself. She said, ‘this was a coping strategy when you felt you had no other option. You couldn’t talk to your mum about it, I’m sad you couldn’t talk to Paul about it, your husband knows about it but you haven’t really talked in any detail with him about it… I feel honoured that you trust me with this, that you feel you can talk to me about it.’
More recently I have talked to two friends about the self-harm in my past. One friend asked to see my scars and I showed her my arm. It was almost as if I was showing her an old bracelet I’ve had for years… nothing major. She didn’t reject or mock me… she’s still my friend! I’m finding there is room for me to show more of myself within my relationships and that some people are resilient enough to handle raw honesty. Those are the kinds of people I want in my life. Maybe raw honesty is the best filter for real friendship. Those who can’t cope don’t stick around!
It’s been two months since I last self harmed. And the time before that was a few months prior. Both of which were triggered by Anna cancelling a session… attachment wound rejection/abandonment stuff rearing it’s ugly head. Having the courage to talk about it with Anna gave me (and her) a huge insight into the things I struggle with, what triggers the younger more vulnerable parts who don’t remember healthy coping strategies and it enabled me to have restorative moments with her. To have her genuinely care for me and allow that feeling to go in.
I still have obsessive thoughts about cutting. I still randomly google images every so often. I stare at the scars and can see them as they were twenty years before. But at the moment I feel more stable. A few feet back from the edge. I can see it but I’m not close enough for it to be a risk. I guess this is recovery. Slowly moving up and down the jagged line of progress. Two steps forward and one step back. Moving towards ‘better’… the journey is the important bit.
I am UK based so can only offer suggetions within the UK – please seek support if you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve brought up.
There is help out there and YOU ARE WORTH IT.