**Trigger warning: Self-harm, cutting, suicide.**
Everyone has them.
The one above your eyebrow from when you walked into the coffee table, age 2. The one on your knee from when you skidded across the gravel-laden driveway on your way to the perfect street hockey save, age 13. The one on your heart from the first boy who broke it, age 17.
Some people say scars give you character; others, that they give you lessons.
I think scars are whatever you make of them. But some are a little harder to live with than others.
I have my fair share of scars. The knee one from above is one of mine; still have some of the gravel embedded in that m-effer to prove how dedicated I was to the save. I have one on my lip from a baseball injury. I have a few from practicing karate.
I have more than a few on my hands and wrists and arms and thighs that I don’t ever want to talk about.
The thing about self-harm is that it is really misunderstood. It is vastly and horrifyingly misclassified over and over again. And along with leaving scars, it leaves a sense of overwhelming shame that doesn’t ever go away.
I’m breaking my silence today and it scares the shit out of me. Bear with me, please.
My scars stare up at me every day. As I type, the crescent moon patterns on the meaty part of my right hand wink at me like eyes with a dirty secret. My hands know how deep the pain goes. They know so well because I’ve bled the pain out of them.
I have fake stories for all of them, ingrained in my memory to save me from the awkward pause as I try to think of an excuse. Part of me hates myself for the lies. But what other choice do I even have?
“Oh, that? Yeah … totally scratched myself until I bled.”
*cue awkward silence*
I vacillate between wanting to educate people and needing to hide. Even as I write this, I’m cringing at the spotlight I’m shining on myself with these words.
When you talk about cutting, there are a lot of gut reactions. People do it for attention. People do it because they are suicidal. It’s a fad. It’s fake. They’re just crazy.
There is very little empathy or compassion in the general public for cutters. It is a misunderstood side-effect of depression and anxiety. Lots of people talk about cutting, but very few people actually understand what it is.
And it’s not surprising. There are a glut of romanticized images of cutting out there. If you go on Tumblr or Pinterest you can find thousands of images of delicate wrists bleeding, of intricate white lines up and down an arm. They’re triggering and they only show either the act or the consequence. They don’t deal with the cause or what leads a person to cut. And they certainly don’t deal with the aftermath.
I think that is really dangerous.
Like any mental health issue, self-harm is unique in each person. I can only talk for myself here. I don’t cut because I want to die. Or to get noticed. On the contrary, I hide those scars from everyone.
I cut because I cannot take the internal pain anymore. Because the inner hurt is so great, so unbearable, that it needs a physical outlet.
The internal scars that lead to a cutting episode are so much more pervasive than any scars I have on the outside. And that is what is so hard to explain. I ache inside for so long. I push it down and let it build until the black, smoking pile of hurt takes up almost all of me. I feel like I might burst from being full of pain.
And it comes out at the worst times. It’s not A + B + C = D. It rarely ever happens at the moment of pain.
Have you ever read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom? It’s a kids’ book where the entire alphabet piles on top of the poor coconut tree until it literally bends in half from all of the weight. It’s kind of like that. An entire alphabet of circumstances pile on top of me until I break from the pressure. The cuts are the fissures in my brokenness.
I guess that sounds a little romanticized. I assure you there is nothing romantic about locking yourself in a bathroom and digging your nails into your own skin so that you no longer feel like you’ll explode from the pressure. There’s nothing romantic about watching yourself bleed and knowing that you did it to yourself. There’s nothing romantic about looking down at scabs that bleed again and again and knowing that they will scar and knowing that you fucking did it again.
There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s just sad and painful and full of personal shame.
I’ve been self-harm clean for over six months now. I wish I could tell you that it is getting easier, that I’ve found something else to release the pressure and get me through those tough times. I wish I could tell you that, but I don’t like lying.
The thought is there in the back of my head all the time. I sometimes have to use all of my energy to fight that impetus to excise my pain. There are times when the scars help: I see them and I remember “no more.” There are times when they call out like a siren tempting me to let it out again. Because it’s so easy in that moment to think that cutting will ease the pain. I have to tell myself on loop that it isn’t that simple.
I have a few talismans that help. The first one is this aluminum ring I wear on my left thumb. It wraps around just tight enough that it leaves a ring indent, but not so tight that it is uncomfortable. When things get bad, I look down at it and read the fading inscription on it: “I am enough.” I can turn it around on my thumb and feel the metal move against my skin. All of that helps.
There are other things that sometimes help, but my biggest talisman is actually hidden from most people’s view. In August, I got my largest tattoo finished. It takes up my entire right side, from just below my breast all the way to my hip. It’s a gorgeous color piece of a phoenix rising from its own ashes and bursting into a bright explosion. In the swirling smoke, the words “Still I Rise” are written.
You can’t get a more poignant reminder that you need to rise above the hurt than looking at almost nine hours’ worth of intricate artwork forever etched on your side. The bumps of the line work have long since faded, but I still often run my finger over the area and remember. There was a ton a pain involved in getting that ink. It covers my ribs and the very sensitive side area; not an area I would recommend getting inked unless you were really committed to having artwork there.
I knew exactly what I was getting into pain-wise when I chose it, but that was where I pictured my phoenix rising. The time it took to get it and the recovery from it were really hard, but that image is always with me now. I look at it before and after every shower, every time I get changed … I see the words and I remember. Still, I rise. I can do this.
It’s the most powerful reminder I have and I’m grateful that I was able to do that for myself.
Posting about this subject is really difficult for me. Thinking about it and ruminating over how to talk about it puts cutting foremost in my mind. I know that isn’t great for me. It makes staying clean harder. But … I can do it.
My other, and perhaps worst, fear is that something I say may trigger others. It is really, really hard to be in a situation where self-harm is part of your self-care. It is twisted and seems so foreign to those who do not engage in it, but for many cutters, it is actually a way we care for ourselves when the pain gets too much. If you find yourself hurting yourself in any way (cutting, scratching, hair pulling, hitting….), please, talk to a good therapist.
It was the best thing I ever did for myself. I found it hard to admit my habits, even to a therapist. But when I did and I wasn’t met with disdain or anger or misunderstanding, I began to forgive myself.
I really believe that forgiving yourself for the impulse is half the battle in getting better. Letting go of some of the shame I feel for my impulses has helped me stay clean. I no longer have that huge, dark cloud hanging over me. Or, at least, not as prominent. It’s still there, but it’s dissipating.
Talk to a therapist. Confide in a trusted friend. Find someone you can call at any time and say, “I’m in danger.” They’ll know what you mean by that and they’ll show you the compassion you maybe can’t show yourself.
Compassion, my friends, is where the healing needs to begin. Compassion for yourself, for your pain, for the impulses that you try to control but cannot always fight. Compassion.
Try it with me.