Trigger warning: this post talks about cutting and self harm
This is probably the most difficult subject to talk about, but that might be why it’s the most important to talk about in order to fight the stigma of living with mental illness. That’s the theory I’m working from, anyway, because that way the pain of talking about it publicly has a purpose.
I have used cutting and other forms of self harm such as bruising myself and using diabetes as a weapon – binge eating without giving insulin, or even eating normally and purposefully not giving extra insulin – since I was a teenager. As a teen I was not allowed to ask for help when I needed it, so I would cut myself – usually on my face – to show people I needed help. I stopped doing this until I was in my early thirties.
I was in a toxic marriage and needed help but wasn’t getting it, so I started cutting again. The urges surprised me since they were so strong and I haven’t felt them since I was a kid. All of my pain in my marriage was invisible, so the cuts, the blood, the scars were all proof that I was in pain. It was outside of my head, which was a relief.
My marriage ended and I started cutting again. My life was suddenly in chaos. I lost everything: my house, my family (in laws), my job, my car (totaled it), my jobs (lost two in a row), my dog (liver failure), I almost lost my dad to complications of surgery, and I was trying to survive on my own in an upside down world. My depression was spiraling downward at an alarming rate, and I started cutting again. I dug into my legs with a sterile needle (always sterile, I don’t want to do damage, I just want the pain) as a way to gain a sense of control.
If I cut I bleed. If I bleed there’s pain. Cause, effect. Very straightforward. Absolutely nothing in my life was straightforward, I was in control of nothing, none of the causes had effects that made any sense. Surgery is supposed to heal, not try to kill. Working hard is supposed to give you job security, not take it away. Dogs are supposed to live forever. But I know exactly what happens when I put a needle on my skin. This year when my marriage ended and I lost everything was what led me to my second ever psych-hospital experience, but I will go into that story more another time.
I had a counselor recently whose response to me talking about my cutting was, “Most people grow out of these urges eventually. Almost no one continues to cut after age 30.” Yeah, well first of all, you’re talking to one of us over 30, so check your facts. Second of all, that’s not true at all, there are many adults who self harm. But people over 30, this arbitrary age when life is supposed to magically get better, don’t feel like they’re allowed to talk about it. I told this counselor, “I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me. Do you think I’m doing something wrong?” She said no, I was doing nothing wrong, I was just using an old coping mechanism. She said the urges should be getting fewer and further between. I said they’re not, they’re more frequent and getting stronger. And I know I’m not the only one. I’m not an anomaly of her inaccurate statistic.
There are many many many adults who hurt themselves in secret, suffering in a very painful silence. There’s an Instagram account I follow that is called Faces of Fortitude: “This project lays a foundation of healing thru portraits of those affected by Suicide & Mental illness.” A photographer takes pictures of people who have survived depression, suicide attempts, trauma, and self harm, and tells their story in the caption. There are amazing stories and powerful photos, and it is inspiring to read. In one of the stories the person advised against tattooing over or hiding your self harm scars, but advised wearing them proudly because they are reminders of what you survived and of how far you’ve come.
I respect this sentiment, and if it were anything but self-inflicted scars I would agree. But I still have times when my own scars can be triggers for me to want to hurt myself. I have gotten several tattoos that cover my scars, and I did it because I wanted to turn something painful into something beautiful. That is what I would rather look at than scars, reminders, of painful moments. When I have the urges to hurt myself, they are difficult to shake. The pain is actually what brings me relief. Totally intuitive, right?? So when I see the scars, the memory of the pain makes me want to cut again. It’s all complicated.
Cutting and self harm are complicated. We don’t do it for attention. We do it because the pain, the blood, the bruises, the scars give us something that we need so desperately that we have to hurt ourselves in order to get it. Maybe it’s validation we need, or a way to ease our depressive thoughts without trying to kill ourselves, or maybe we need to get the pain out of our heads and into the outside world. Whatever our reasons are, we don’t have to be teens. We are mature, fully functioning adults with hidden pain that we don’t know how to express otherwise.
When you see us in the wild, don’t judge us. Just know we are in pain, or at one time we were in pain. You can understand and relate to that. That’s all it is, so I wish it didn’t have to be a secret. Thank you for letting me share a little bit about my experience.