The year is 2010. I’m sat in English class, and it must have been warm because the sleeves of my school jumper were rolled up past my elbows.
This shouldn’t have mattered, but it did to me. I’d forgotten about the prominence of the angry red cuts slicing through the smooth porcelain of my inner arm, now flashing like a warning beacon to everyone around me. I usually wouldn’t forget. Usually, I was careful. I made sure my sleeves were pulled down, hiding any evidence of the pain I inflicted upon myself.
There was no way I could completely forget the cuts were there. They were a constant presence in my subconscious, part of a game of hide and seek I played against the world. But I must have had a momentary lapse in judgment. It’s easy to forget how those familiar marks must look so much more alarming when you’re not used to them littering your skin.
My best friend must have noticed, because she asked me what they were. I don’t remember exactly what she said but I remember her expression, a cocktail of anger and concern, and the way she physically pointed her finger towards me from a few rows away. I also know that it must have been loud enough for our classmates to hear; because I can still feel the hot burning shame that prickled over my body. I was paralyzed with panic as my brain scrambled for a feasible excuse to explain away the cuts. Anything to prevent people knowing I harmed myself.
14 year old kids aren’t stupid. They know what self harm looks like. What kids, and often adults, don’t know is how to react when they notice someone self harming. My high school friend was not malicious. She only wanted to help, but she didn’t have the language nor understanding to do so effectively, without alienating me further. Now I’m 22 and whilst the conversation around mental health has improved, I still find that people don’t know how to approach the subject with me.
It’s hardly surprising, when you consider the context that people learn about self harm. When I started cutting myself, I would cringe as people made jokes about “slitting their wrists”. I felt like the brunt of the joke. When I was growing up, self harm was something to laugh at, to judge. It was something that ‘Emo’ kids did. It was the Tumblr of black and white self harm photos that I trawled through, trying to understand what I was doing to myself and why, in some strange way, I kind of liked hurting myself. Needed it, almost.
In a society where self harm was either glamorised or stigmatized, I couldn’t see any possibility of having positive conversations about my feelings and why I did what I did. Instead, I slipped into shameful secrecy, under the pretence of self-preservation.
This is extremely isolating. And yet, it’s likely that most young people have either self harmed, or know somebody who has. An estimated 110,000 children aged 14 in the UK have self harmed. That amounts to nearly one quarter of all girls.
It can be hard to understand why someone would self harm. And It’s upsetting to know that a person you really care about is hurting themselves. I’m aware of that. I’ve seen it in the concerned eyes of my friends, the tears they’ve shed when I’ve finally opened up to them. I’ve also felt that concern and confusion myself, when friends have admitted to it. So, I don’t hold anything against people who have upset me in the past, trying to help but missing the mark. It’s hard to find the right words of comfort, when you can’t peer inside a person’s brain to unravel the mysteries of their mind and truly understand their pain.
But we can help alter this reality, to remove the shroud of mystery and stigma that surrounds self harm. We can do so by opening up a healthy dialogue, a world where people feel able to speak up about the war raging in their head, the mental pain that’s difficult to put into words. And then, people will have a fighting chance to understand, and to help.
The first time I self harmed, I tried to cut myself with a blunt kitchen knife. I have vivid memories of standing in my parent’s kitchen, frantically searching through the cutlery door for a knife sharp enough to slice through my skin. I don’t know where the idea came from. I was about 15, and I was putting myself under a lot of pressure for exams, and struggling with self image, self worth, friendship and relationship drama… an amalgamation of the growing pains of being a teenage girl.
The urge to self harm can become intensely overwhelming. It slams into me with unrelenting ferocity, smashing through the frantic thoughts circling my brain. There’s no tangible logic to the compulsion, but it feels like there is at that moment. Amongst the all-consuming distress, the anger, the sadness… All you know is that you need to hurt yourself, to cause yourself pain. And you know it will help.
That first time I cut myself, I wasn’t very good at it. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do it ‘properly’. To intentionally hurt yourself, you have to feel utterly crushed by the weight of your self-hatred, tormented by a inner bully. The result is a scary, overwhelming desire to punish yourself for imaginary crimes.
People self harm for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s brain works differently and no two people experience mental health exactly the same. For me, cutting myself acts as a release.
You know how sometimes, movies show a dam bursting, destroying whatever lies below? That’s what it’s like, to cut your skin. A dam slowly filling with water. The pressure builds and the walls begin creaking under the strain, but the water keeps coming. It doesn’t stop, until, eventually, the concrete cracks, water bursting out. The dam feels able to breathe again. But it comes at a cost of utter destruction.
It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense to you. You don’t necessarily need to understand the why of someone self harming to help them. How would you treat a friend who told you they had a cold? You wouldn’t obsess over what they did to the catch the cold, you would simply offer them tea, medicine, a blanket, tissues and Netflix suggestions. You’d ask them how you can help, if there is anything they need. You’d treat them with sympathy and care. That’s really all it takes to make someone feel less alone.
I wish I could say that I managed to curb my self harm habit because of some mental breakthrough. But in reality, my main motivation to stop came from not wanting anyone else to ask me about them. I was sick of making excuses and hiding away.
After that time in my parents kitchen, I fell into a cycle of self harming. I’d cut myself, then care for them, keeping them clean. Then would come the itching as they healed. Then I’d want to self harm again. The time between episodes varied greatly. What sticks in my mind more than anything else is how people react when they find out.
Sat outside a pub, getting food with family, my Nan caught sight of my inner arm, looked up at me with worry swimming in her eyes, and asked me what it was. I brushed it off, like I always did, making up some bullshit excuse that neither of us believed.
My boyfriend at the time was one of the only people I spoke to about it. It was pointless trying to hide it from him, when I couldn’t conceal my skin. He made me promise to stop, and would check whether I had any new scars. This was humiliating. I hated it. But it was what I needed.
Simply showing you care goes such a long way. Anger, accusation and probing questions don’t. You don’t want to feel like you’re on trial. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to help people who are suffering. But, I wish that people knew how helpful it can be to put your horror and shock aside and ask what’s going on, and what you can do to support them.
I’ve never had an honest conversation about why I self harm with a therapist. Talking to mental health professionals, in my experience, has been an exercise in box ticking. How often do you do it? What do you use? Is there a risk of you killing yourself — or someone else? It’s hard to talk about, when I’m facing a human and not a keyboard. So, if anyone builds up the confidence to try to explain, please listen.
I am not doing it for attention. That’s a cliche understanding of self harm that has the potential to isolate those who need help. When I self harm, I’m not even thinking about other people. I’m thinking about how disappointed I am in myself. And when I get carried away in the rush of emotions, tears streaming down my face as blood trickles down my arms and legs, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to feel self-conscious, how I’ll have to be careful when I wear shorts, how I’ll have to cross my arms over my legs when I’m going to the toilet with a female friend at a party, or turn the lights off when I’m having sex.
These thoughts come directly after, when I come out of the almost trance like state of self hatred, and I look at the resulting damage. That’s when I think about how I’ll have to explain away the scrape on my ankle, how I’m glad it’s Winter so I can easily stay covered in jumpers. Fresh scars are incriminating, and you grow protective and ashamed of them. I never want people to see them. This is the sad truth. I am learning not to be ashamed of my scars, to recognize them as a part of me. As ugly as that part is. It’s hard, but I’m getting there.
We shouldn’t have to hide our scars, or feel embarrassed by them. Because they aren’t a dirty secret. Mental illness is often invisible, and that makes it easier for some people to dismiss it, tell people to cheer up; that it’s their own fault they feel that way. But sometimes mental illness manifests in visible ways. In rapid weight gain or loss. In violent teary outbursts over seemingly insignificant things, in drug addiction, in psychotic episodes, and in self harm scars. And this makes people uncomfortable. Because it can’t be denied anymore. The pain is apparent. It shouldn’t have to get to that point for people to take other humans seriously when they say “I’m feeling shitty”.
Often, when we talk about self harm it becomes a theatrical drama. It conjures up images of pools of blood in the bathroom, huge brown bandages wrapped tightly around wrists, emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Whilst this isn’t fiction, it isn’t always the reality. Sometimes, self harm is much quieter. Much more discreet. It’s not an attempt to end my life, its an attempt to cope with the life I have. People can self harm and never need treatment for it. People can self harm and never actually cut themselves, instead turning to drugs, alcohol, casual sex, skin picking or burning.
Self harm requires a shift in a state of mind. And that’s what I want people to understand. I want you to picture the tornado of negative emotions that tears through me before I self harm. As the storm rages, it seems like self harm really is the answer; the only thing that will help. The only way to escape the mental torture.
But it isn’t. It truly isn’t. You are too beautiful and precious to want to hurt yourself so much. I deserve to treat myself with more compassion. Everyone does.
So, if you struggle with self harm or thoughts about hurting yourself, please, know that there is always another option. There’s other ways to work through intense emotions. When things get too much, I let the words tumble out of my mind and onto the paper, releasing a stream of consciousness that has been rattling around incessantly inside me. Putting my abstract feelings into tangible words helps me separate them from me, sending them into the atmosphere with each stroke of the pen. Cycling helps too. The anger dissipating with each pedal, propelling me forward mentally and physically. What works for me might not work for you, but something will.
I will be completely honest here and say that sometimes, these coping methods aren’t enough. They don’t work. I still experience urges to self harm, and whilst I’m usually able to ignore them, sometimes I feel so desperate I reach for the blade. This is incredibly disheartening. It makes me feel like a failure, like I’m weak for going back to a teenage habit. But that’s the thing with recovery, it’s not linear. And living with a mental illness is a lifetime of hard fucking work. Sometimes it’s too much, and I’m learning that’s OK. That it’s a sign I need to take extra care of myself, not berate myself for apparent failure.
So, if you know someone who self harms, be kind. Be calm. Be sensitive. Push too hard and you’ll come up against a brick wall, hastily built in defense. It’s not your responsibility to make them stop and you should never feel that it is. But you can help make them feel less alone. You can love them unconditionally. And maybe that love can break through the self hatred that causes them to pick up a blade again.