It’s not Self-Injury Awareness day as of when I’m posting this, but I’ve been working on editing it since I originally posted it a few years ago. I finally finished the edit and I just couldn’t wait to get it off my desk again and get it posted, so here it is, several months early for Self-Injury Awareness Day 2017.
My life did not fall apart when my mother found out I was self-injuring. It did get a little intimidating for a while, more overwhelming than it was before, and even downright scary. But it was nothing like the horrors that many young self-injurers imagine when they pain over thoughts of their family finding out. What would happen? Everything would be even worse. Everything would fall apart, even more than it has already. The things that would happen if my parents found out… The shame. The guilt. Mental hospitals? Forced therapy. The questions they would ask to try and understand what the hell is going on, and the aggravation you would feel when you were unable to provide answers – because you cannot explain something you yourself do not fully understand. What do you mean you don’t know?! Just tell me what you’re feeling!
With these thoughts in mind, it occurred to me that that the easiest cure for my anxiety over my injuries possibly being discovered would be to simply stop. But there was a problem with that. I was addicted. This “simple” solution seemed like a joke. In fact, the more I thought about it, the entire situation seemed like an evil, fucked up joke.
Talking about self-injury is never easy. I think one reason for that is because it is such a personal and typically hidden part of a person’s life. And we know it is so easily misunderstood. When we try to speak up, we can find that so much about self-injury is difficult to find words for. We have can have trouble adequately expressing what brought us to start doing something to ourselves that most humans find repulsive.
The trouble with findings words can in itself be a reason. Feeling speechless when you deeply desire a satisfying outlet can be crippling.
It is difficult, but that is exactly what I want to attempt with this essay. There are many self-injurers who have taken the time to find their words and share their experience. When I first realized that other people did what I did and I discovered their stories, it helped with some of my feelings of isolation and strangeness. It helped me begin understanding what I was doing and going through. I slowly developed a vocabulary to talk about things I was experiencing. As a nod of thanks to all the people who have shared their stories, I would like to finally share mine.
I have self-injured for over a decade. I am 24 years old now and self-injury has been a part of my life since I was 14. The first time I remember hurting myself and feeling the sense of relief and comfort that I became addicted to was from something that happened by accident.
I was in 8th grade and I had come home after school and gone straight to my bedroom. There was something going on that I was feeling extremely upset about (I don’t remember what). I remember I felt like I wanted to cry. But I never cried.
I was laying on my bed, on my stomach, and I reached down to the floor for my binder. In my frustration, I whipped my binder out of my backpack and I flipped it around over my arm. One of the miniature red staples that I had punched into the cover caught the skin on my arm and tore a nasty cut through it. It hurt for a brief moment, but then I paused.
I stared at the torn skin as it grew puffy and red. Drops of blood slowly began to make their way to the surface of my skin.
I felt myself settle into the pain.
Instinctually, I took a deep breath.
My mind seemed to clear.
I was hurt, but I was okay.
A distinct sense of calm and comfort slipped over me.
Those good feelings were undeniable, and I wanted to feel them again. I wondered what it would be like if I hurt myself on purpose. It would hurt! And that’s, gross! On the other hand, I was genuinely disturbed by my thoughts.
I don’t remember when I first made the leap to intentionally hurt myself, or why. I do know that when I did, I used one of those red staples from the front of my binder. The good feelings came back.
After that, I figured to take a razor out of a pencil sharpener. Eventually I stole a sharper blade from my art class.
As my habit grew, I got worried about people finding out. To avoid having my injuries noticed, I got creative with where I hurt myself and how.
I discovered that rubber bands create temporary welts on the skin. Blades and safety pins heated up in the flame of a candle burn well. Fists make bruises in places people won’t notice. And on. And on.
While people who self-injure often worry about someone finding out (and so carefully hide our injuries), on the other hand there may be this fear of nobody ever finding out. How long can this really go on? I think I’m going crazy… I need help. Feeling that there’s nowhere safe to reveal our injuries and our experiences causes isolation. That’s really the last thing any of us needs.
When someone begins to let their injuries be revealed, they’re often labeled as “attention-seeking”. My response to that has always been: what’s wrong with seeking attention? It’s interesting to note that some synonyms for “attention” are: consideration, courtesy, care, absorption, study, regard, civility, service, and respect. Again: what is wrong with seeking attention, if that is what you need? I can hopefully make my point clearer by pointing out some antonyms for “attention”: disregard, neglect, ignorance. If these antonyms are what someone who self-injures for “attention” has been experiencing, I would say they and their burdens are due for as much attention as they need.
Of course there are better ways to ask for what you need and want. Of course there are. But let’s realize that maybe these people have tried other ways to no avail or simply have a great amount of trouble figuring out how to ask for help. These aren’t things we are all taught how to do when we’re growing up. Some parents are neglectful and careless. Some people have experienced abuse. We aren’t all given the same tools to start with. So let’s get past that. Let’s realize that this IS an unhealthy thing. People who are okay don’t do this and people who do it need understanding. So finally, someone is reaching out for what they need. Help. Care. How dare anyone shame them for that.
In my world, nowadays, on the rare occasion that I injure, I know that I am making a decision to do something which will give me temporary relief. For the moment, injuring will give me some space to feel okay, until things are okay. And they will be. I know that. However, knowing something at an intellectual level can be different from knowing it deeply and personally to where it has a solid impact on your perspective.
I also “know” that I should let myself actually feel what I’m feeling, with all of its discomfort. It’s okay to feel negative emotions. I have to remind myself of that. It is when those emotions are overwhelming to the point where something inside me seems to “shut-down” that self-injury comes into the picture. At this time, I need to “trigger” myself “up” again. In fact, there are 3 distinct psychological states that I’ve noticed trigger my self-injury. I’ll explain in detail.
The first struggle comes when I’ve dissociated. I’m not doing well emotionally, as in, what I’m feeling is too intense or confusing for me to feel like I can easily cope. That’s my weak place. That’s when I find myself anxiously digging through things to find a way to injure. At this time, nothing feels real. Not my body. Not my mind. Not my surroundings or my emotions. I am dissociated. I know I’m alive, but I don’t feel alive at all. I am going through the motions in surroundings that are only props in a movie scene and some part of the real me has been stationed inside a mechanical body. I am sitting inside looking out through the body’s eyes, simply watching myself. I am in a bad dream, and I am aware of it. I know that the only way to get out is to jolt myself awake somehow. But this is real life, not a dream. I can’t jump out a window or down a flight of stairs to wake myself up. I need something else. Pain.
The second struggle is more difficult to talk about. It’s not something I’ve spent much time reflecting on. Basically, it comes from a place of being intensely aggravate by extreme feelings of helplessness or hurt, and a perceived lack of care. I often feel like I don’t care for myself very much at these times. By hurting myself, I am “punishing” myself, I suppose, for being so weak. It’s a very sort of immature reaction because it’s a reaction that is purely fear-based. When I self-injure while in this state, I do it very consciously. I weigh my options and I make a decision. Usually somewhere in that decision-making process, the words “I don’t care” go through my mind. This is the most common source of my self-injury.
The third mental ‘place’ from which I injure – and I think this may be more difficult for people to understand, even self-injurers – is from a need for comfort. Sometimes I get a yearning in my gut to feel the unique sense of comfort that injuring can produce. All it may take is feeling a certain sort of still sadness, and I will quietly, carefully, calmly, pick up a razor and slowly cut or burn myself in order to feel the chemical hug my brain sends out to envelop my body in a warm, soothing endorphin high. Even thinking about it right now is sending tingles down my arms. It is a twisted sort of self-soothing.
I can say all of this, and yet it’s still hard for me to figure out my self-injury. I can tell you what leads up to me doing it, and how I do it, and how it makes me feel. But the “why”? “Why did you start hurting yourself?” It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time? I don’t know. Maybe if you want to know what it’s all about, you should try taking a sharp razor to your forearm a few times, or pressing a burning hot piece of metal into your skin. Feel that?
It’s not all about the pain and the stronger-than-morphine natural painkillers, though. There’s a strong psychological element as well. A lot of injurers have small “rituals” they perform around the actual act, even if it’s as simple as assuming a particular position. There’s feeling of the cold razor between your fingers. The sound of metal slicing through skin. The smell of iron after the wound has opened. It all becomes familiar.
Then, your injuries are something you carry with you at all times, in a very literal sense. The high after cutting may not last very long, but there’s a whole psychological and emotional process involved in cleaning yourself up, nursing your wounds, going to bed and waking up with days old or even weeks old wounds, hiding them at the start of each day, and throughout the day. You feel them rub against your clothing. You accidentally bump them on an object or a person and feel a little pain shoot through your body. Sometimes this sudden jolt is welcome, and other times if you’re having an alright day, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of where you’ve been, and where you’re bound to end up again.
When things unfolded around my self-injury, it was all a very surprising accident. After a series of events that occurred between friends, their families, and school employees, everything burst into light. I was sitting in math class my freshman year of high school when I was called to the front office to meet with a counselor. I knew what it was about, but I hoped I was wrong. As I got up from my seat I glanced to my best friend who was in the class with me. She looked knowing and sad, and then looked away.
In the counselor’s office I was all at once accused of being a depressed, suicidal anorexic. Maybe I was depressed. But for the most part I did not feel suicidal, and I most certainly was not anorexic.
News of me self-injuring was spread throughout the entire family by my single mother. People who hardly knew me suddenly knew about this very personal and private aspect of my existence. I felt uncomfortably exposed and betrayed. I also tried to understand that my single mother was scared and worried, and needed support, too.
My mom took me to a counselor at a clinic by our library. I refused to speak with the counselor. She was demanding and I felt uncomfortable in her office. She wore strange clothes and had a bright-peppy voice that didn’t match her stern face at all. She was simply not the person to inspire me to open up and do the soul-searching necessary to move through myself.
And anyway, she only wanted facts. “Have you been sexually abused?” Fuck you, lady. You don’t even know me, I remember thinking in my 14-year-old angst. Who do you think you are?! Maybe you should start by explaining what’s going on here. That’s what I wanted: explanations. Like when a surgeon briefs you on what you can expect before, during, and after a major surgery. I had never been in counselling before. I had no idea what was going on and the continued lack of guidance in my life glaring me so forcefully in the face upset me even more. What am I doing here, you ask? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! What kind of fucking person wants to sit with people all day while they talk about their shitty problems? I wanted to ask the questions. So I did. I asked her just that.
She gave me too much information. I learned her whole life story, parts of which I can recount to this day. By the time she was done talking I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and ready for a nap. I wanted to cry. But I kept a hard face and let her be angry at me while I sat there and refused to respond to her openness in kind. She wasn’t really being open, anyway. Anyone can tell you shit that’s happened in their life. It’s what underneath that matters. Shit happens to everybody. So what?
Shortly after all of this, I settled into an intense relationship with someone who also injured. We had met a year earlier, but by now I was 15. And here was someone whose situation seemed more fucked up than I felt. I found that leaning in with another person through their issues, their injury, their emotional, psychological, and mental pain gave me a sense of empowerment in my own life. A sense of purpose. A reason to fight my own struggle. Set an example, Olivia. How can you expect he put forth the effort to not injure if you still do it yourself?
The big down side to this was that he set me up on a pedestal from the start. I could feel what my place was in his life, and no matter how many times I thought about turning around and walking away, I never did. I stayed for years. Eventually resentments built up on both our sides to the point of boiling over into abuse and neglect. We developed a very unhealthy dynamic that ultimately seemed to mirror some of the things we originally were seeking solace from when we met – both in regards to the people around us and ourselves. Still, we cared for each other deeply.
Years later, when I was 22, he finally pulled the pedestal out from beneath me. The subsequent fall was a strange and extremely painful experience of relief. Of course I’ll miss you. But I’m so . . . happy. I’m so happy this is all over.
None of that worked anyway, of course. He stopped injuring a few years into us knowing each other, but I am yet to go an entire year without it. Other friends who were working through their own addictions with drugs or alcohol were more helpful: “Just because you did this again doesn’t make you an injurer again. You don’t have to accept that label as part of your identity anymore. You can accept that this happened, you slipped up, and continue to move forward.” I was startled by the simplicity and effectiveness of this kind of thinking. I started to find out what it meant to be healthy.
I’ve used the word “addiction” here several times now. I just want to explain what that means to me and why I feel that word is appropriate to use.
During the most intense period of my struggle with self-injury, I carried my razor with me everywhere. My life and nearly everything in it revolved around the need I often felt to cause myself physical pain. Like a smoker forced to work a long and stressful shift without a smoke break, I got antsy about the next moment I’d have with my razor, or a safety pin, or a flame and metal, or a rubber band, or scissors, or my fists. When the opportunity came, I would sometimes sit for long hours at a time engaging in self-injurious behaviors.
I hid my injuries like my life depended on it – and I was sure that it did. This was all for nobody but me. Like most self-injurers, I knew that any discovery of what I was doing would be followed by efforts to stop it. Admittedly, occasionally a part of me did I want that. But as much as I sometimes wanted to quit, I could not imagine what it would be like to deal with life without it. I could not imagine people understanding (and not the self-injury – it was never about the SI, it was about what I was feeling and perceiving myself to be going through). I could not imagine anyone truly helping and I did not want them to take away the one thing that made me feel okay... for what? I am okay! How could it get better than this?
And after my mother found out I was injuring and after the failed attempts at therapy, after everyone kind of assumed I was doing alright and the excitement of rushing in towards someone with a problem that you feel compelled to help had all settled, I continued to injure but relocated my injuries almost exclusively to my upper thighs. This would go well for me.
I was injuring on practically a daily basis when the realization hit me one day that I was having trouble experiencing any emotion at all without hurting myself.
I can’t recall exactly what the good news was, but I remember my family received some very exciting and happy news. And all I wanted to do was hurt myself.
Everyone was standing around in our living room smiling and being joyful. As I stood with them I found myself putting far too much effort into trying to get into the happy mood. My mind was racing and all I could think about was getting to my bedroom so I could injure. But I was in a good mood. I was happy. I was excited!
I stood there and realized what was happening. I realized that this wasn’t right. Disturbed by my own fucked up through process, I wanted to injure even more. So I did. I slipped away into my room and injured.
And I really realized there was a serious problem. I was addicted to self-injury.
Cornell University’s Research Center website has an article which explains it like this:
The addiction theory suggest that self-injurious acts may solicit involvement of the endogenous opioid system (EOS) which regulates both pain perception and levels of endogenous endorphins which occur as a result of injury (Winchel & Stanley, 1991). The activation of this system can lead to an increased sense of comfort or integration, at least for a short period of time. Repeated activation of the EOS can cause a tolerance effect: Over time those who self-injure may feel less pain while injuring. Overestimation of the EOS can then lead to actual withdrawal symptoms which in turn lead to more self-injurious behavior.
Quitting self-injuring, like I said at the beginning of this essay, seemed upon first consideration. Rather, I easily pictured myself decades down the road having a family of my own and a career, living a “normal” life – all while still injuring. I imagined self-injury would simply always be a part of my life. And I liked that idea, mostly.
It’s past a decade later and yes, it is still a part of my life. Not a huge part like it once was or how I imagined, but it is here.
And to be honest, I still get anxious and protective when I think of never injuring again from this day forward. The thought of having that coping mechanism, as maladaptive as it may be, completely taken out of my life as an option forever is frightening.
Overall, I’m doing okay. While I am yet to go a year and it’s still something I sometimes struggle with, I accept the fact that once in a while it’s something I’ll feel compelled to do. I don’t deny that or push it away. And I’ll either do it, or I won’t. I can move through the urge, or I can succumb to it and afterwards continue moving forward.
I am sure that one day I will be fully equipped with healthy coping mechanisms and this will never happen again. It’s been a very, very long road, but I persist with working on it and continue making progress. When I think back to what was going on in my life during the worst days of dealing with an addiction like this, I think of how much more painful and “worse” shit I’ve been through since then. Shit that I’ve found the strength to deal with without hurting myself. That’s something I can smile about. I think back to the saying we had at a support-group I used to frequent: “Improvement, not perfection.”
But how did I get here, again? Fast forward a few years later, past my family finding out and then everyone losing interest in helping, and we will conveniently skim right by a bunch of junk that led me further and further down into a dark place, and we finally burst into a beautiful, sunny valley where I finally become healthy and recovered! Or, rather, I was ready to start taking baby steps in that direction.
At first I wasn’t sure how to do what I needed to do to get better. The aggravation about this caused a sense of defeat which sparked a handful of emotional break-downs. At times I sincerely feared that I was losing my mind and I would live out the rest of a short life in a mental hospital.
Eventually I realized that these things could occur, these break-downs and emotional disturbances, and the world wouldn’t end, my life wouldn’t end, and things would even get better for a while, I started to learn to sway with the ebb and flow of life. My favorite recording artist wrote in a song: what doesn’t bend, breaks. I started learning to bend.
As I discussed earlier, I had already found therapy unhelpful. I wasn’t interested in it at first and by the time I did feel interested, I didn’t know where the resources were. A couple times in high school I even considered voluntarily going to the counselor’s office to talk to someone about getting help. For one reason or another I never got up the courage. Luckily I had my own strong will, a best friend who always had a listening ear, and my journals. So I went it alone.
To start, I figured I should try shifting my focus in life. I learned to focus on myself, not other people. Because I am only responsible for me, not my family or friends. I started learning to concentrate on my own feelings, needs, and desires. I learned that I have some choice about what I engage with in life and how. The “how” is the really important part. I had to learn to cry.
I never really cried before. I was taught as a child (an unintentional lesson, as so many of our parent’s most impactful lessons are) that crying was bad. I was taught that I shouldn’t cry and that if I do I am to hide it. To this day, my mother will tell me “don’t cry”. “Don’t cry” can be understood as “don’t feel”, especially when all you feel is that you want to cry. Not feeling is what I had learned to do, and what I still do a lot of the time even when I’d genuinely like to feel.
But crying is okay! Feeling is okay! People need to cry and feel the whole range of human emotion. Chemically, it is helpful to cry. Sometimes we cry out of joy, intense pleasure, or excitement. Other times it is out of deep pain, confusion, aggravation, or fear.
I found that in my case crying is the best substitute for injuring. It is distinct from injuring in one particular, major way: once the crying is over and I’m feeling comforted and okay, I try to take time to think about what is going on. I have to make a real effort to dig and find the emotions and feelings that I learned to hide and push away, and crying gets me to a point where I can start that digging. Writing is a tremendous aid in this process of uncovering. Crying helps to open the doors so that this process can take place. For me, self-injury almost never opens the same doors to self-analysis and understanding that crying does.
I also learned to give myself a little space. There is no “right” way to feel about something. If I’m feeling shitty, fine. Feel shitty. Feel sad. Feel angry. Feel reclusive. Feel alone. I don’t let people tell me anymore not to be sad or not to cry or not to get angry. But I AM sad! I AM crying! If it makes you sad that I’m sad, then by golly let’s be sad humans together but don’t tell me not to be sad!
As far as external sources of comfort, it’s nice when you get this from people and sometimes that is truly what we need, but you also have to know how to be your own source. When that outside source is not there and you’re all you have, you can’t just crumble into a heap and not deal with life. At least not for too long. Life pushes on, and we must too. For some people, their belief in some kind of God helps with this. That’s great, for them, but I don’t believe in those things.
Shit happens. It happens because you were born, and you are a living thing, and there is nothing in the universe that is going to protect you or any other living thing from the natural chaos in the whole goddamn universe. Somehow I find comfort in that. So while I’m spinning around on this planet, I have to make the conscious decision to make life what I would like it to be. And I think I have decided I just want it to be real. It’s not always going to go ideal, but I am also learning to keep idealizations in check.
I found that I struggle with a perpetual anticipation of the other shoe falling. I’m learning not to anticipate with such anxiety when the next dip in my moods, relationships, or life as a whole will occur. Too often I have felt completely helpless and without control over what is happening to and around me. The best way to feel okay about what is happening is simply to let things be what they are, and let people be who they are. Accept that you have no control over those things. You only control you. So what are you going to do, anyway? You have options. They might be tough or painful or difficult or uncomfortable, but they’re there. And they are healthy. Healthier than hurting yourself.
Life needs balance. While I know this, I get anxious when faced with extremely complex and often confusing life situations. The unknown is frightening. I’m convinced there’s something genetically-linked to this in humans. But these fears and feelings are all just part of the human experience. At the end of the day, my mind is my only true domain, and I have to own what’s happening there, with gentleness.
As far as my story goes, I think that’s as much as I care to share at this point.
This struggle can’t really be written about with full justice in one brief essay like this. The inner workings of someone’s mind, made up of a lifetime of personal history, psychological development, and individual personality, would take volumes to explore. We all perceive things differently, have different natural reactions to situations, and have been equipped with unique coping tools. We each learn unique lessons about what sorts of results we might expect to get when employing different emotional and psychological resources we have, because each person has had different challenges to face and different circumstances they were standing in. I think that how each of these dynamics plays out in a person’s life has some play in determining whether or not self-injury becomes a part of their life. I am still not sure if I can say “why” I started injuring, and honestly I don’t think there is one single answer. A lot of self-injurers have experienced abuse or harm from others at some point in their life – but honestly, what person hasn’t? And is that “why” we injure? I don’t think so. I think it is actually pretty simple: people self-injure because it makes them feel better. That’s all.