Confessions of a Self-Harming Adult
Article updated July 15, 2019
I am an adult who self-harms. In today’s climate of awareness and compassion, I believe self-harm remains one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized facets of mental health. I started at the ripe age of 20, but the media would rather you believe I started at 13 as a result of peer pressure, or an ever-increasing fad amongst a group of kids who dressed exclusively in black. They would like you to believe I got the idea from TV shows and gothic music.
I write this now to explain that self-harm is not a passing trend, and that it is not at all a modern occurrence.
You don’t need to know the ins and outs of my childhood and personal life. People who self-harm come from all walks of life and each person’s experience is as unique at their own fingerprint. There is not a single, clearly defined reason why people turn to self-harm. Instead there are a multitude of feelings and desires and experiences. I can’t offer simplicity, or tell you I have the remedy to overcome self-harm. I will however, take you on a walkthrough of my very first cut, and beyond that I hope to spread a little understanding and most of all compassion.
I was in my second year of university. A friend of mine had been on holiday in Spain and brought me home an ornate flick knife as a present. It was lying on the floor between my mirror and bed. I was struggling with depression and acute feeling of worthlessness. One night I logged off my computer and went up to my bedroom. Everyone in the household was already fast asleep as it was late. I started to feel like I was only person alive in the entire world. As I undressed I caught sight of myself in the mirror and felt such a deep rush of repulsion and disgust. I saw the knife lying there and without putting my nightdress on, I went to the knife, knelt in front of the mirror and dragged the blade across my upper left arm. I felt immediately better. I had been punished. I wrapped a pile of toilet tissue around it, put on my nightdress and went to bed.
I am now 30 years old. I went on hiding cuts, moving from my upper arm to hips, inner thighs, breasts and genitals. I never made shallow cuts and when I eventually had to seek medical help for the cuts, the doctor told me that judging by the scars every one of my hundreds of cuts could have used stitches. My worst episode ended in 37 stitches. I have been hospitalized three times in a psych ward and diagnosed with major depressive disorder and other mental health problems. I have been fighting self-harm for a long time now. I even managed to stop for periods of time, but have always ended up going back to it. I have also attempted suicide several times.
One of the worst things about this struggle is the misunderstanding and fear it generates in others, particularly loved ones who are terrified that every cut is a suicide attempt. This really is not so. Most cutting episodes achieve something for the person who cuts. They may feel punished, relieved, settled, more alive and alert, more able to carry on. Some get by doing very little amounts of damage and others, like me, do a great deal of damage.
I am a qualified high school teacher and have taught in schools in various parts of the world. I achieved all this while being a secret self-harmer. In that time, I have been privy to a lot of conversations surrounding young students who engage in self-harm. They are called attention-seekers and often berated for following a popular fad. I even went to a training session for teachers on mental health. I was 21 years old at the time. The provider of the course asked us to think of reasons why people self-harm. I put my hand up and said, “To feel a sense of control when their lives feel out of control.” She told me I was wrong and moved on to the next hand.
I spent some time writing that lady a letter explaining that teachers are humans, too. I told her that not all people who self-harm fit into the narrow box she was telling us they did. I gave her the note at the end of the session, but was too ashamed and embarrassed to talk to her face-to-face. I was also terrified that if my peers or tutors found out I was someone who self-harmed, I would be deemed unfit to work with children. One colleague told me one of the students I had inherited from him was just an “attention-seeker” with cuts all up and down her arms. He told me this in earshot of the girl.
Later, I approached her and said I was always available to listen to her, and I gave her the names of some websites I found particularly useful and supportive, filled with distraction techniques and articles about stopping, getting help and how to tend wounds. I let her know she wasn’t a freak, and that help was available.
The common accusation of attention seeking is worrying. Some people who self-harm are seeking attention. But what kind of world do we live in when we shrug off the fact that a person feels they must literally attack themselves in order to be noticed and ultimately helped, and instead offer them more judgment and hostility?
I keep being told I might “grow out” of my cutting. I was also told I’d grow out of my severe menstruation problems, having started menstruation at 9 years old. I’m still waiting for that. (Maybe they meant menopause!) When I’m told that, I feel disparaged and patronized. The worst thing that happens is when religious people attempt to “save me.” I once was stitched by a nurse in an emergency department who preached the whole time she was working about finding Jesus, and how he would stop me from doing this. She had no idea she was feeding into my feelings of worthlessness, guilt and shame. At one point she turned to my partner and asked, “Do you do this as well?”
Twenty minutes later she was still talking, “I don’t understand this. I mean, you never used to see things like this in my job.”
I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I didn’t have the energy to tell her that self-harm is actually ancient. That it was sometimes practiced amongst monks and priests. That there is talk of it in ancient literature and history. Or even that some animal species engage in it. I just lay back and reminded myself of a conversation I’d had several years before with an elderly relative who told me gay people didn’t exist in her day and inwardly rolled my eyes.
I do wish I had been able to talk to her properly and ask her if she told people with other illnesses they just needed to find Jesus.
Alas I cannot go back, but I do intend to go forward.
I am an adult who self-harms. I am trying my best to overcome it between medication for my disorders and a lot of therapy. Things are becoming easier the harder I work on it. I need a lot of support and less judgment. People who self-harm come from every walk of life, every gender, every race, every sexuality, every economic, religious and social background.
And never forget, of course, every age.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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