In Australia, 200,000 people harm themselves every month. Many of them are teenagers.
Every time I come across a story on ‘self-harming’ I am physically sick to my stomach. The mere mention triggers memories of intense feelings of guilt and self-loathing. It is a reminder of my ‘dirty secret’. A secret which is hard to forget when I remove my ‘armour’; my 25 year old scars are hidden by the designer watches and bracelets I adorn myself with.
As I remove my adornments I feel that very same sense of vulnerability come back, thankfully I accept those feelings and I now know how to deal with them differently.
My first memory of self-harming was at around 12 or 13 years of age. I remember feeling a combined sense of comfort and some kind of adrenaline rush, as I would sneak a razor blade or a knife into my bedroom with me – ‘just in case’.= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
I have always been a person that feels deeply; I have learnt to accept that is very much who I am. Those close to me often refer to me as being ‘passionate’ and there is no doubt that I am passionate; I feel the emotional peaks and troughs of life completely. When I love, I love completely, when I am sad I am really sad, when I am angry I am livid, when I feel guilt and fear I am paralysed by those emotions. And then there is my old companion, which I call ‘the void’ – an overwhelming sense of emptiness and loneliness that feels larger than life.
In my case it was the intensity of those deep emotions that drove me to ‘cut’. I would lock myself away in my room and dig as deep as I could until the stinging sensation would hurt so bad that I couldn’t feel the emotional pain anymore. There were times I felt like I wanted to physically cut the deep, emotional pain out of my own body. Like any addict [and I was most definitely addicted to this self-destructive, vicious cycle] I learnt to become creative. I remember being asked about the cross cut I had on my ankle at the time that I said was my was my attempt to tattoo myself.
I really didn’t care what people thought, as long as I could keep doing it. The physical pain distracted me or numbed me from the emotions I struggled to confront and deal with. When I first started it was mainly my wrists, the feeling of a razor or a knife over my wrist was my way of self-soothing.
The physical pain totally masked the emotional pain… well at least it distracted me from those emotions temporarily. When my emotional pain was really profound I would cut deeper; they are the scars that I still have 25 years later. I could feel the emotional pain release as I cut deeper until the numbness would kick in and I could then breathe again; that is until the next day when I would be riddled with guilt and shame.
I often hear about ‘cutters’ being loners or introverts, predominantly girls who did not fit in or were bullied in high school and even more commonly; girls who were sexually abused. I can honestly say I was none of the above.
I was academically a high achiever, I was popular, I was an extrovert, I appeared relatively ‘normal’ by teenage standards… that’s the really scary aspect! I kept my cutting a secret for at least two years; it was the 80s and I wore dozens of Madonna-like rubber bracelets that covered my scars.
Then, one day in the midst of an emotional crisis, I didn’t care who saw me, so I grabbed my mother’s kitchen knife and locked myself in the bathroom. By the time my mother pried the door open in I was covered in blood and perfectly spaced knife cuts from my wrists to just below my elbows, even in self-destructive mode I strove for perfectionism.
My mother cried as she cleaned me up [the smell of Dettol always reminds me of this moment] and she asked me why I would do ‘this’ to myself. At the time, I really did not know how to answer. Most of the time my family simply viewed me as an ‘attention seeker’ or an ‘un-appreciative spoilt brat’. What I do know now, is that I never really felt good enough [mostly because of the unrealistic goals I set for myself] and although I always had family and friends around me, I somehow always felt different and alone.
After an intense few years in my early to mid-teens I did stop cutting. I convinced myself I was doing okay, because there were no physical scars, but I never really stopped my self-destructive habits or behaviour, I just swapped them for other behavioural habits.
As I noted above, I was and I am a high achiever, so I used my achievements and my popularity to mask the ‘not good enough’ void for many years. After seven years of intense therapy I have really got to understand who I am and what makes me tick. The list of various therapies that my highly skilled psychologist has patiently worked through with me is as long as my arm: Distress Tolerance, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Schema Therapy, have been the most effective therapy styles to assist me in helping myself overcome my self-destructive patterning.
Although I can flip back to unhealthy black and white thinking, I am still highly self-critical and like I said above, I am a person who feels things deeply I am able to understand my behaviour now. During a highly stressful period last year I did cut again, for the first time since my teens. Once again I had to come up with creative ways to hide the cuts that were present from my wrists to my elbows throughout the Christmas period.
My husband’s way of dealing with it was to hide all the knives and blades in our house, until my therapist told him it was important that I could prove to myself that I could co-exist in a home with knives and blades. I have and I do not beat myself up over it, because I realise it was a highly stressful period, where I was not able to cope with the intense emotions that felt were enveloping me. I worked through this period with intense therapy and by February I felt like me again.
To say I no longer have any self-destructive habits is a lie; I still pick my face and my cuticles when I am highly stressed. I still use creative excuses when someone asks me what happened to my alabaster skin. I still use food to push down intense emotions. The difference is I am aware of what my triggers are now, I am honest with myself and although I can flip into those self-defeating modes I also am able to come back from them quickly with the tools I have learnt. I am able to ask for help when I feel like I cannot cope, I express my feelings, rather than keeping them all bottled inside and I am not punitive about my slip ups. I acknowledge the emotions or my reactions straight away, I forgive myself and I let it go or I face up to whatever is going on for me that has triggered that behaviour.
Looking after ourselves is a lifelong commitment and it does not end with our physical selves. The more work I do on myself the more inclined I am to want to give back, because I realise I am not alone and I am not the only person who has ever felt the way I do or experienced what I have experienced. Encouraging people to talk about their troubles and to help them help themselves, to get the help they deserve, particularly when in crisis is what I get the most satisfaction from in life.
My message to women or men who have self-destructive behaviour is do not be afraid to reach out, there is always someone to lean on until you are able to stand on your own feet. Please do not suffer in silence and learn to let go of the guilt. We are all unique and special in our own way, embrace your ‘uniqueness’ and be kind to yourself, it is amazing how much love you are filled with and surrounded by; how much gratitude you have for life when you are able to release your negative thinking and patterning. I absolutely revel in my ‘uniqueness’ as an adult; I feel blessed beyond words for the life I have and the person I have become. Self-acceptance really is the key to recovery!”
If this post raises any issues for you or your family and you need to speak to someone about how you are feeling, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.