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"I still hide my scars when I meet new people."

The first time.

 

Self-harm refers to people deliberately hurting or mutilating their bodies without necessarily wanting to die.

It often begins in teenage years, with around 10% of adolescents reporting having self-harmed at some point in their lives.  

People self-harm for a range of reasons, it may be a way of telling other people about distress and asking for help, a way of coping with stress or emotional pain, or a symptom of a mental illness like depression. 

But most often the behaviour goes unnoticed. It is commonly done in private and most young people who self-harm don’t get help.

 Laura, now 24, struggled with self-harm for nearly 10 years, here she bravely tells her story…

The first time that I cut myself, I don’t remember what I was thinking. It was clear, however, that I had no inkling that this act would become an unrelenting and ingrained response that would begin to take over. I didn’t know that it would become something that I would later turn to at every available opportunity, or that it would lead me to deceive my friends and family, or that it would be something that I would still struggle with nearly 10 years on from that day. All I was looking for was a way to feel a little less awful, and initially, it seemed that I had found what I was looking for.

I was 15, and I was attempting to cope with what I later realised was the earlier stages of a veritable bounty of mental health problems. I was anxious, depressed and I had managed to isolate myself from everyone who cared about me. I discovered that making those marks on my skin brought my feelings from the intangible to the visible.

After all, physical pain seemed so much easier to endure than the seemingly infinite flood of crap feelings that being depressed throws at you. I could look at the lines on my legs and see my hurt reflected back at me, and I could understand this physical pain because it had such an obvious cause and I knew it would fade. Feeling those twinges of pain during the day reminded me that I was alive and surviving, despite feeling like I wanted to disappear.

It’s been an arduous and frustratingly slow process.

In an uncharacteristically honest moment, I admitted to a friend what was happening. With her support, I decided to get help. Over the next six months I spent 90 minutes per week just bawling my eyes out in a counsellor’s office and refusing to talk. It was suggested that I try some anti-depressant medication to enable myself to start functioning enough to deal with my feelings, which was somewhat effective. I saw numerous therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists whilst continuing to self-harm regularly. I winced, as the psychiatrist I was seeing described my self-harm as ‘chronic.’

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What had started off as something that I was using to cope with my problems had become a problem in itself. I was self-harming several times a day and found that what I was doing was no longer providing me with any respite from my feelings. Life became a jumble of appointments, emergency departments and concealing evidence. Every time I hurt myself I would grit my teeth and promise myself that it would be the last time. Every time I broke that promise I felt more frustrated, angry, and hopeless.

It would be nice, at this point, to be able to reveal some inspiring realisation that enabled me to turn my life around overnight. Instead though, it has been an arduous and frustratingly slow process of recovery and relapse, trial and error, and effort and failure. To stop hurting myself, I was required to break the cycle of using it as a way to feel better. This meant actually dealing with my feelings, instead of pushing them away by hurting myself. Gradually though, the thoughts came less often and were less intense. I was able to push through my stubbornness and actually use some of the things I had learnt in therapy to interrupt that cycle and think of other ways to cope.

I can’t think where I might be now if I had not accessed the support that I did, as I know I could not have done it alone. Sometimes the only thing I could do was live minute-to-minute, and regular contact with professionals who genuinely wanted to help, made this so much easier to navigate. My psychologist described the urge to self-harm as a wave. It rose up and peaked, but it would always come down again because no wave can be sustained at a crest forever. I had to choose to ride the wave, knowing that it would always diminish again, even if it meant getting dumped.

Self-harm is a hard thing to understand, and I know the stigma that is attached to this issue. I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me, self-harm was not a suicide attempt, nor was it a ploy to attract sympathy or attention. It was just a way of coping with my feelings. It was self-punishment, it was externalising my feelings, it was a way of distracting myself and in the end it was a kind of addiction. It’s hard not to feel ashamed, but there is nothing I can do except not get caught up in it again.

I still hide my scars when I meet new people, and unlike a lot of 24 year olds, I’ll probably never feel able to wear a bikini. I know that those waves of thoughts might not ever completely go away, but I’ll always have the choice to just hitch a ride on them until they fade into whitewash. 

Here is a useful video about self-harm for parents and teenagers. This document also contains useful information on the topic.

Headspace is Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation. Support for 12-25 year olds and their parents at headspace.org.au or 1800 650 890. For crisis support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.