When I Started Self-Harming Again
When I was 16 I started cutting myself. I was in the early stages of an eating disorder and I discovered one night that by cutting, I experienced a brief reprieve from the incessant food thoughts that had quickly dominated my life. I begin cutting myself nearly daily to cope. Within a few months I was regularly hiding an arm full of cuts, burns and bruises under seasonally inappropriate long sleeves.
When my friends found out, they told a teacher, who told the school counselor, who called my parents. I got into therapy, but I still self-injured. What mostly stopped my cutting was when I started dating a high school boyfriend. Revealing fresh cuts to him — to anyone really — was so painful and shameful that it outweighed the brief reprieve cutting gave me. The last time I ever cut was when I was 21 years old, during my personal rock bottom of meth addiction and general total life downfall.
In the years since, I’ve tattooed over many of my visible scars. I’ve gotten a couple social work degrees and now work as a professional in the domestic violence field. I’m married with two daughters and two dogs. I own a house and, by all accounts, am happy, together and successful.
Until last year, when I found myself cutting again.
This feels like a terrible thing I did, and perhaps a more terrible thing to talk about. The truth is, it happened a few times. My life had spiraled again to a somewhat out-of-control place. I was struggling mightily with a severe mental health crisis and the slow swing of medication changes that often go alongside such struggles.
Lest my falling be in vain, I’d like to share with you some things I’ve learned from my most recent foray into self-injury:
1. Desire and action are different things.
When I had a depressive break last year, all the dark thoughts of my teenage years came flooding back for the first time since I’d turned 21, gotten sober and found out I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. I turned toward the light then, turned my life around, and never looked back. Until I was 31 and my past caught up with me. I struggled with suicidal urges and was appalled the desire to cut followed me around like a long-lost frenemy. I learned I could want to cut and not act on those urges. I held out for six months.
2. Medication works really well for me.
During a hospitalization in the psych ward, I was prescribed Lithium and immediately saw my self-injurious thoughts dissipate. Months later, when I briefly went off the medication, they returned with a vengeance. This was the first time I cut in 10 years.
3. Cutting scares the shit out of people.
I had a friend in grad school who confided in me she had cut herself after years of abstaining. Her disclosure rocked me to my core — I couldn’t imagine anything so bad it would drive this person I loved so dearly to injure herself so intentionally and severely. When I cut, I returned to that place of shock and fear — I imagined others thinking of me like I thought of her. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t even tell my husband.
4. Cutting is the coping behavior that has filled me with the most shame.
I’ve done a lot of questionable things. I was a meth addict. I’ve been an off-and-on bulimic for half my life. But cutting is the hardest to talk about. Cutting brings up the most questions about attention-seeking behavior, or overall sanity, or indications of suicidality. I’ve talked about all of these things in my time — and pieces of the way all of them have affected my life in the last year — but not about cutting. I’ve only told my medical and mental health providers and — eventually — my husband and a small handful of friends. For the girl who seems to talk about everything, I haven’t found the forum yet to talk about this.
5. Cutting doesn’t make you “crazy.”
I cut myself and went to work. I cut myself and parented my kids. I cut myself and had sex with my husband. I cut myself with no intention of killing myself — in fact, no desire to die at all. I cut myself because I didn’t know what to do, but I wanted to be OK. I cut myself to make my life better, not worse. I cut myself because I was, in fact, quite sane and utilizing what was the best coping skill available to me at the time. I wholeheartedly believe that. Maybe I have to.
6. Scars scar.
This may be the most obvious statement ever. I’ve lived with scars over much of my body for half my life now. I know people see them, but people never say anything. The only time I can remember being asked about them was when an uncle made a comment at Thanksgiving about my “playing in the blackberry bushes.” I was rocking years old scars at that point. It’s always been my prerogative not to hide them. But I see them every day. They remind me. They sadden me. I know if I could go back and undo any moments, it would be those. I didn’t understand at 16 how long life was (I’d guess at 32 I still don’t) or how permanent scars were. It pains me immensely to know I’ve recently added to the scars on my body, and increased the reminders of pain and strain and turmoil that live on the skin I’m in.
7. I’d rather cut myself than kill myself.
If those are my choices (and I’m not saying this is the case for every person who cuts) I know which one I’d rather go with. No question.
8. Silence festers.
I actually go into middle and high schools now and talk to youth about identifying and responding to mental health concerns using my own personal mental health story. I talk about cutting in my teen years. I don’t talk about cutting in the past year, actually in the past six months. I don’t talk about it because it’s not appropriate or helpful. But that doesn’t mean being silent doesn’t kill me a little. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel a tug to tell the whole story, to break down any lingering facades of perfection or shit eternally gotten together. That is why I’ve written this today. This is a safe space for my experience, my life, my essence. This truth is mine to be spoken, and it demands to be so.
9. I am lovable even if I am scarred.
I am lovable even if I am unable to always access kindness for myself. I am lovable even if I am indignant. I am lovable even if my truth is painful. I am lovable even if my actions are scary. I am lovable even when I am bleeding. I am lovable even if I’ve failed. I am lovable no matter what is or isn’t present on my skin. I am lovable. So are you.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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