The first time I cut myself, it was over something very trivial. I was 16 and in the midst of my GCSE exams. I was stressed out over some inane subject and had had an argument with my mother. I was feeling caged, out of control and overwhelmed. I reached for the stanley knife I had been using for my art prep work and made three superficial cuts on the inside of my left arm. Relief came quickly as the small, bright beads of blood rose to the surface of my skin. I buzzed with adrenaline and the sight of my own blood, drawn by my own hand, had my complete mesmerised attention. That buzz was for me one of the key appeals to cutting myself: that for those few seconds I could think of nothing else, that my mind was taken over by feelings of relief, control and contentment. Any stress, self-loathing or depression I might have been dealing with in the hours beforehand was washed away – albeit very temporarily. As, in a few moments, I would return to feeling just as anxious and depressed, and now guilty about the cutting as well.
I cut myself for four years, with increasing intensity and frequency as time went on. It went from being a last resort stress reliever to something I clung onto to survive the day. I managed to keep it under wraps for two years, and I mean that literally. No swimming in bikinis for me, no shorts, no dresses. I often had to wear long sleeve shirts and jumpers in 35 degree weather as I had fresh wounds on my arm. Yet for a long time no one even suspected, and I liked it that way. (This goes against one of the main myths around self-harm: that self-harmers are attention seekers. Quite the opposite: I completely stressed out when I was found out – something that had been my secret method of calming myself was now being looked at with disgust and horror. People panicked, thinking that I was at risk of suicide. I felt even more of a freak, even more repulsed with myself and my behaviour.)
Why people willingly hurt themselves is something that outsiders struggle to understand. I myself still don’t completely understand it. From the outside, I didn’t look like someone who had any reason to self-harm. I was raised in a big, bustling family and had been protected and sheltered and loved all my life. My cutting had nothing to do with how the outside world had treated me, but instead everything to do with how I felt about myself. I was brimming with self-loathing, and was inexplicably disgusted with who I was.
I can’t explain it any better than I did in my diary that I kept during my first year of university:
‘I have such self-hatred towards my body, my personality and my lack of self-discipline. I feel fat and useless. I don’t care about clean clothes or shaving my legs. I am at my happiest when I am sleeping under the covers and don’t have to look at my any part of my body. Self hatred so strong that I feel nauseous when I think about myself.’
‘Cutting has become my only outlet for my stress, self-hatred and guilt. I can’t control how much I eat, what others think of me (or for that matter, what I feel about myself) but I can control the cutting and it makes me feel a little better. Often its the worst when I can’t cry and so have to express my emotions using a knife instead.’
‘I now have scars on my arms, hips, thighs, knees and calves, as well as my ankles. Some will fade, some are set for life. I thought I had it under control. But last term was awful. The one night I came home drunk and broken and slashed myself on my lower leg five times. I wasn’t in control of it anymore: the rage was in control of me. Two weeks ago I did the same thing, except this time I cut myself so deeply that I needed stitches. Except I was too scared to wake anyone up to tell them. So I bandaged it up as best as I could and slept with my leg elevated. Two weeks and two days later and it still hasn’t properly formed a scab.’ (I still have this two inches long, one inch wide, angry scar on my lower leg)
‘I have zero tolerance for my own behaviour. If I overeat or slack off studying or don’t tidy my room I have such a guilt trip that I feel sick. I don’t know whether it’s a form of self-punishment but I get an urge to cut. I don’t ever manage to change my behaviour – but if I can cut myself I can deal with having to live with myself.’
‘All of this depression seems to overwhelm me when I’m in my room alone. Most of the time when I’m with my friends I am genuinely happy, if only for the distraction. Yet even when I’ve had the coolest conversation or a giggly girly night I will still sometimes hit rock bottom when I go back to my room and try to go to sleep. I’ll lie in my bed and shake because I can’t take being in my body anymore.’
Re-reading these extracts I hardly recognise myself. I sound like a self-involved whiny teenager. That was a large part of my self-harm – I felt guilty for feeling so depressed and so depressed with guilt! I knew full well that I had nothing to be depressed about: I had been born into a loving family, had everything I needed materially, had a fantastic set of friends and was a well-liked, intelligent woman. But I couldn’t help it, I was utterly wrapped up in my own self-hatred and was thus also selfish, self-involved and very often, a self-pitying pain to be around. After almost four years of self-harm I had broken my mothers’ heart, worried my little sister, hurt my friends and destroyed my first proper relationship. My father came to my university on a rescue mission to book me into counselling. I was diagnosed with high levels of anxiety which were contributing towards clinical depression.
To cut (no pun intended) a long story short, I underwent therapy alongside anti-depressant medication and within a miraculously short period of time I had stopped cutting. I have never relapsed, and no longer have any urge whatsoever to harm myself in any way. I am now in control of my emotions and refuse to hand them back the control over my life they once had. I also have a much higher regard for myself – in fact I really quite like myself. My scars have faded, apart from the odd one or two that will never go away. But that’s ok, I actually like having a physical reminder of my emotional pain and how I have conquered it: its like having part of my life story literally etched on my body.