WARNING: This post addresses a disturbing issue and should
be read with caution.
“My head was full of wild ambitious urges to hurt myself. I tasted the ambrosia
of maddened impulse. I wanted my interior pain out in my body somehow.
I wanted this vague pain to be specific. That’s how I explain it.”
–Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love
While I’m talking about stigma, what about self harm? Maybe you call it self-injury, self-mutilation, or maybe you don’t even dare to give it a name. Whatever name you give it, there is huge stigma attached to it, which simply makes it harder to talk about so harder to help people address.
A news report in New Zealand last week said that up to half of all teenagers will harm themselves deliberately and the researchers claiming this are starting to ask why. It made me think, because while I didn’t self-harm as a teenager and actually I doubt I even knew it existed, I have self harmed for a long time. Thankfully now, I can say that I haven’t for a long time. But you need to know just how this issue can have a grip on you, because even now there are times I still get the urge to self harm. I’m not free of it yet.
It’s not an easy topic to discuss and when my blogger friend Kevin from Resonate Freedom came up with this image recently, I knew it was time to use the image (thanks, Kevin) and to talk about me and self harm.
There are a range of views about what self harm is, so I want to start with my understanding of it.
“Any deliberate, non suicidal behaviour that inflicts physical harm on your body and is aimed at relieving emotional distress, without a conscious intent to commit suicide. Physical pain is often easier to deal with than emotional pain. Individuals may consider that injuries can prove to themselves that their emotional pain is real and valid. Self-injurious behaviour may calm or awaken a person. Yet self-harm only provides temporary relief, it does not deal with the underlying issues. Self-harm can become a natural response to the stresses of day to day life and can escalate infrequency and severity. The types of behaviours considered as self harm are wide and vary according to the person, and therefore are not listed here. To determine whether what you are doing is self harm you need to consider the reasons for what you are doing. What are you doing it to achieve?”
It’s not straightforward. If you thinking it is just about cutting, you’re wrong. There are many forms of self harm which really only can be determined as self harm, by looking at the motivation behind the action. I think that any harm to your body is bad, but you will find that some websites recommend that you use a lesser harm in place of a worse harm. For example, they suggest flicking your wrist with a rubber band rather than something more serious than cutting. The problem with this is that it is all a matter of degrees, and it is far too easy to take a ‘lesser’ harm to the extreme very quickly. Because of this, I don’t accept any harm (even the rubber band) to my body as okay. That said, I know some people find that helpful and if it works for them, that is what matters.
The thing is, I realise that I am writing about self harm rather than what I said I’d do: me and self harm. Actually it’s really hard to do. Self harm is not something that is talked about openly, so I guess I am fairly used to keeping it to myself. To turn around and put it out here is hard. I am also conscious that self harmers often pick up ideas from others, and I don’t want to give anyone ideas. Recently I had to ‘un-follow’ a blog because the person was regularly including pictures of her self harm. I really didn’t need that. It’s not that it gave me ideas, but just reminded me of a place I don’t want to return to.
Self harm began for me one weekend (at the age of 29) when my husband went away. He needed a break from my battle with depression and suicidality, so I was on my own. I was fairly anxious about being alone, and about where I was at generally. I was dissociating often in an effort to manage my feelings and found myself scratching my arm (with my fingernail). The skin was raw and bleeding before I realised what I had done.
I knew nothing of self harm. I had been sick for about two years and had one lengthy spell in a private hospital, but I hadn’t encountered it there probably because I was confined to bed rest, thanks to my anorexia. Actually the whole thing completely freaked me out but I wasn’t able to admit it to anyone for some time. Instead I began the routine of wearing long sleeves, regardless of the weather.
When I confessed to my doctor, and then to my therapist, they both told me that my self harm was a good thing. Good? Yes, really… they saw it as me expressing my feelings, and I hadn’t been doing too much of that. The self harm continued but there wasn’t much good about it. Eventually it extended to other means of self harm, not necessarily more painful but definitely more dangerous. Thankfully I found other workers who didn’t think it was a good thing. I have heard this theory since, that self harm is a form of expression of feelings and so is good, but I don’t buy it at all. It’s too destructive and it’s too dangerous.
Self harm is different for everyone, but for me it I eventually learned that it was about control, and was often tied into dissociation. Somehow it provided a sense of relief, and the feeling pain that I could explain enabled me to feel a sense of control that was otherwise missing. It also became an addiction for me, and while this isn’t the case for everyone, it was a difficult addiction to break. If there was undamaged skin, I needed to harm. I also needed to harm everyday in order to gain that sense of control over what I was feeling. More so, if someone hurt me, then I hurt myself.
It was never a suicidal action for me, but there were a couple of times where I was lucky I didn’t kill myself. And that’s the problem. It’s too easy to just go a bit deeper, and before you know it, you’ve gone too far. It is on that basis that I don’t accept any harm as okay for me. I know myself well enough that I just can’t go there. I know that if I give myself the opportunity, I could just push it too far.
So now… it is some time since I have self harmed, but as I said earlier I still get the urges to do it again. It’s really like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka. It’s dangerous and you just wouldn’t do it. The thing about self harm though is that it is a personal thing that I have to monitor myself. I have to make sure I don’t give myself that bottle (or a blade). Unfortunately there are many ways of self harming. It’s not just about cutting. I need to continue to watch myself carefully.
And meantime I have scars all over my body that I regret. Most of them aren’t where anyone can see, but you wouldn’t catch me naked with anyone. They hold great shame for me. I have moved on, but the scars will always remind me of the extreme emotional pain I felt, and expressed, through physical harm to my body.
“It didn’t occur to me that there was something decidedly odd in
finding a box of razor blades aesthetically appealing. I wonder if
a heroin addict loves the elegant simplicity of the needle, if a
drinker romances the curve and shape of the bottle.”
–Caroline Kettlewell, Skin Game
“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”
– Desiderius Erasmus
The Body I Hate (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
Infinite Sadness – the book (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
Half of all teens ‘harm themselves’ (stuff.co.nz)
- Self Harm – Warning Triggering (poetryescape.wordpress.com)
- The complex motivations for self-harm (mindhacks.com)
- Non Suicidal Self Injury/Self Mutilators ( Cutters) (unwrappingminds.wordpress.com)
- Deliberate Self-Harm & Self-Mutilation by Distressed Mental Health Care Consumers (jeanettebartha.wordpress.com)