Self-Harm: A Story
Tim Squirrell wants to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding the practice of self-harm (warning: this article contains subject matter that might prove traumatic to those with experience of self-harm or other mental health issues).
Warning: This article contains depictions of self harm which may be distressing to people who have experience of the issues raised within it.
Putting the phone down, I move to the sink. I pick up the packet of razor blades. I bought them from Boots along with a safety razor, because that way I could pretend that my primary intention was to trim my facial hair rather than to slash open my forearms. Either that or it was because I was worried about the looks I might get from the cashier if my only purchases were a meal deal and a packet of razor blades.
To be honest it was probably the former; I don’t think I’ve ventured away from the self checkouts for a good two years or so. It’s important to be able to pretend to yourself that you’re normal and your intentions are good; that the self-harming is just opportunistic and oh look how convenient some double-edged stainless steel razor blades I wonder how they could have got here because I certainly didn’t buy them with the intention of hurting myself!
It’s impossible to even talk about self harm, frankly, without being called out for glamourising it, unless you outright condemn it. A set of guidelines for publishing stories which contain mention of self harm says that you should refrain from even putting it in the heading of the article, lest you sensationalise the issue. It also says that you should never ever describe the act in anything more than general terms, because otherwise people are going to copy you. My editors were incredibly concerned that in writing about self harm I was going to encourage more people to take it up.
The problem is that prejudice is bred by ignorance, and if we never talk about self-harm in an honest and frank way then nothing is ever going to change. People will keep believing the tired old myths that it’s about attention, or manipulation, or trying to kill yourself, or to fit in with some kind of group. If we never talk about self harm in anything more than abstract, general terms then nobody is ever going to understand what it feels like to be in a position where it feels like an attractive option, like the only option, and they’re never going to understand how the way that we stigmatise self harm and the feelings which surround it only perpetuates the problem rather than doing anything to solve it. That’s why this article contains a graphic description of cutting and the feelings that surround it. It’s not meant to glamourise or encourage; it’s meant to put you in the shoes of someone who has done this so that maybe some people, a few people, or even just one person can begin to empathise rather than stigmatise, and we might have a chance of getting out of this toxic and pernicious silence.
Picking open the fiddly little packet, I pull out one of the blades, wrapped in waxed paper. I unwrap it carefully – wouldn’t want to accidentally cut myself just before I cut myself, that would be awful – and put the paper down for safe-keeping. I move back to the bed and sit down, staring at the fruits of my previous efforts. I swear when we were young cuts used to heal so quickly and never leave a mark. Now every mistake we make is tattooed onto us like the name of an ex.
Six slight indentations, vague discolorations in regular lines. Those were the first real ones. The first few times don’t really count, I barely drew blood. All I had was a penknife, blunt from years of abuse, and whilst my heart was in it there’s only so much you can do with tools like that unless you’re really out to maim yourself. The ones I’m looking at now bled like an anaemic on aspirin. I don’t know why. I did them with a needle I acquired from a practical one time, again pretending it was just for some other esoteric use – god knows what, I think some of the medics took one off of me and tried to use it to siphon alcohol into fruit for some initiation or something. I used the needle twice, maybe three times, then I threw it away when I promised myself that I wouldn’t self harm again. Not unless things were still this bad in a year’s time.
And yet here I am, a couple of months on, razor blade in hand. Distant promises don’t mean much when the pain in your mind is so urgent and so overwhelming. The pain is made worse by the fact that I can’t feel anything – not like I used to, anyway. The drugs took care of that. Or maybe it was the depression, who knows. I stopped being able to feel all that much – most of the time anyway – a while back.
To be honest that makes this easier. Part of the reason the cutting feels so necessary is just to feel something. It’s like you’ve been wrapped in cotton wool so you can no longer see or feel much of the outside world, but then your mind keeps hurting and now there’s nothing keeping you grounded and so you do the only thing you can think of and cut yourself open just so you can feel alive for a little while, watching the pretty red beads roll their way down your forearm. You don’t really feel that much pain when you do it – that comes the day afterwards. When it’s happening, you just feel this huge sense of relief, like you were a hosepipe about to burst and someone’s just turned the tap on.
For some people it’s not the feeling, though. Sometimes it’s about control. When all your life feels chaotic and utterly out of your hands, when everything seems like it’s going wrong and you can’t do anything about it and you wish you could but you can’t because you’re just one person and a stupid worthless one at that, you cut yourself or burn yourself or hit yourself or starve yourself or do whatever you do just to feel like you’re in control. Just for a little while. You dig the razor blade in and you can do whatever you like. You can keep it there as long as you like, go as deep as you like, do it as many times as you like. Nobody can stop you. It’s your body.
I’m told it’s not healthy. Sure. I concede. It’s not healthy. But then nor is drinking too much or eating too much or too little or working too hard or sleeping too much or too little or smoking or getting into fights in bars on a Friday night because you just can’t take any more of your dead end life and all it took was some fuck in a scoop-neck t-shirt looking at you in the wrong way at the wrong time to send you over the edge. None of these things are healthy. They’re all to some degree more socially acceptable than self harm, perhaps because they’re not so explicit about their self-destructive intent. Self harm leaves you with scars which show you at your weakest – the whole world can see that you’ve been there, hell, that you have weakness. We like to pretend that we’re all strong – or at least getting on with it – all of the time, and these little reminders that we’re not are too inconvenient to be acceptable.
So we stigmatise it. We say that self harm is one of the worst symptoms of depression or anxiety or any number of mental disorders. We say that it’s a cry for help, for attention. Bollocks is it. Most people I know who cut themselves do their level best to make sure nobody ever sees the marks. If someone is clearly wearing fresh cuts on their arms then maybe there’s an element of needing help or needing some form of attention. Even if this is the case, why stigmatise that? Why the vilification of any overt signs that someone is in pain? In a culture which is still nauseatingly obsessed with the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On and all its absurd permutations, it’s no wonder that people feel unable to verbalise their pain to others and instead turn to more visceral methods of getting their message across. To then rub salt in their wounds and tell them that their behaviour is pathological and attention-seeking adds insult to the overuse of metaphor.
In my room, I take the razor blade and I place it against my arm, two inches below the elbow. I dig the corner into the skin, and I draw it across. I move it down a quarter-inch and do it again, and again, and again. Soon there are six lines, and the blood wells up, and I watch it for a few seconds, the tension eased. I grab a tissue and blot the excess blood, then bury it deep in my bin so that the cleaner won’t see it.
For the next week, I wear long sleeves.
I haven’t self harmed since July. There have been times when I’ve wanted to or when it felt like a thing I should do, but I haven’t. This is an improvement. It’s addictive and it’s horrible but when you’re doing it it feels like the only thing that can actually help at all. It isn’t – or at least, it won’t always be. Maybe for now it feels like it, but there will come a day when it stops being something you have to do and starts being something you want to do, and then that want will diminish until it gets to the point where you can get by without it. It’s a tired and trite cliché to just say ‘it gets better’ without any why or wherefore, but it does. It gets better, and then it gets worse, and then it gets better again, sometimes for no reason at all. Life is better when you don’t have to self harm, and that’s worth holding out for.
If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, there are resources available to help. You can find some of them here:
The University also provides a counselling service available to all students. You can find out more here.