Understanding why some self-harms is so difficult if you've never done it yourself. I hope this essay can help offer some insight into why people feel the need to hurt themselves. The reasons are probably different to what you'd imagine.
The mind of a someone who self-harms is very difficult to understand. With depression being the complex, unpredictable illness it is, trying to pin down a reason behind self harm is very difficult, especially if you have never self harmed. The biggest misconception surrounding self-harm is that it is an indication of suicidal feelings. This may appear to make sense, but it is so far from the truth.
Self-harm isn’t about dying. Self-harm is about living.
I still remember the first time I self-harmed. I was 14 years old. I don’t know where the thought to self harm first came from. No-one I was friends with self-harmed. It could well have been some celebrity or other, it doesn’t really matter. However it got there, the thought was in my head, and I could let it go. When you have been hurt so much that you have become numb to the world, sometimes, you will try anything, just to feel something.
My father had died a year or so earlier. I have many, many issues with him. He was a violent alcoholic, who chose drink over me and my brother when we were children. He had never been in my life since around the time I turned six years old. The problem was, the bastard died before I had an opportunity to confront him, to challenge him. I never had any answers from my father, and now I never would.
Since his death, I had veered between having so much emotion I couldn’t handle it, to being so numb I couldn’t feel anything. I was tortured by his memory, and now I would never have the chance to resolve my issues. I couldn’t cope, and even now, 15 years since his death, I still struggle. Nothing made any sense to me at all.
Then I found myself in the bathroom. I used a pair of scissors to prise the blades from the razor. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I didn’t care. I’d been completely numb for days, and I had this blade. I had a chance to feel something.
I rested the blade against the back of my left forearm. I felt the coldness of the steel as it lay against my skin. Slowly, deliberately, I dragged the razor across my arm.
I didn’t know what I was doing. It was almost trance-like, as I watched the blood form on my arm and slowly trickle downwards towards my hand. I felt the wetness. I felt the warmth. For the first time in days, I felt alive.
That night was the first time I cut, but by no means was it the last. As my emotions, mixed with the onrush of puberty, became more confusing and made less and less sense, cutting became the only way to maintain any semblance of power over myself. When my emotions were numbed, cutting reminded me I was alive. When my emotions were out of control, cutting gave me back the power. The bleeding was my breathing, watching the blood flow was my meditation.
But it was never about suicide.
When I was emotionally numb, I didn’t want to die. I wanted to feel. I wanted to be alive. When I was emotionally overcome, I wanted a way to calm down, to feel in control of the emotions that I couldn’t understand. The razorblade provided the answer to both problems. But, of course, it provided many new ones.
Hiding cuts and scars isn’t easy at any time, but especially not in high school. I played rugby. I played football. Both required changing in a room with many other people. After a while, people inevitably noticed. Truth be told, over time, I became sloppy over hiding it. Maybe, deep down, I hoped somebody would see. Maybe I wanted someone to talk to me, to tell me they understood, but no-one did. So I continued.
I’ve since read that self-harm releases endorphins into the body, and that this feeling can become addictive. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. All that mattered is that when I cut, I felt alive, I felt in control, I felt powerful. I didn’t care what people thought. I didn’t care about understanding why I hurt myself. All I cared about was that it helped me.
It took getting into a relationship with another self-harmer to see things from the outsiders perspective. Watching someone I love self-harm forced me to confront the consequences of my actions. I managed to stop self-harming, although I replaced it with a cannabis habit that had its own set of problems.
Apart from an episode two years ago, I haven’t hurt myself since the age of 18. I was going through a bout of depression unlike any I’ve ever known and I was flooded with suicidal thoughts. The night I talk about, that was the first night in weeks I didn’t want to die. Because, no matter what depression did to me, I could control the bleeding. When I cut, it helped to take away thoughts of suicide.
My body is adorned with the scars of self-harm. But they aren’t scars of suicide attempts. They aren’t scars of wanting to die. They are scars of wanting to feel alive, and feel in control of the life I had. If I hadn’t self-harmed, I might not be here today. But I did, and I am.
If you know of someone who is self-harming, don’t assume it is because they are suicidal. Don’t assume it is attention seeking. Talk to the person, and listen to them, really listen. Find out the underlying causes of their desire to harm, and do what you can to help. Don’t preach to them, listen to them. Support them, but don’t judge them. Don’t try and assume you understand, because unless you have cut, it is very, very hard to empathise. But you can help. Listen to them talk, and try to support them through the process of understanding their emotions and connecting with life. It may take time, but with support, they can get there, and once they do, the urge to cut will fade.
Underneath it all, it isn’t about a flirtation with death. It’s about a desperation to live.
Originally published December 28, 2012