My Journey With Self-Harm, and How I've Replaced It With Tattoos

Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

Self-harm as a topic is mostly unspoken of, and it’s when we do not talk about things that stigma arises, which then brings us into an inevitable, sticky cycle of continuing not to talk about them further because of the unspeakable shame the stigma brings with it. But that’s what makes it so important to continue talking about it anyway. So here I am, openly and honestly talking.

I’m Shannon and I am a recovered self-harmer.

It has taken me four days of typing, deleting and re-typing to eventually tar my screen with that sentence. My post isn’t even yet published and I can feel my skin turning scarlet. The thing is, all it takes is a glance at any part of my body to give away my “secret,” yet saying the words still takes all the courage I possess.

Unless you’ve experienced self-harm, you will most likely have no idea of the mindset that leads a person to inflict such traumatic pain on themselves. The truth is that each self-harmer will injure themselves for a very different purpose. For many of us, that purpose may take a long time to be understood. In fact, it has taken a good nine years of continuous, increasingly graphic self-injury, leaving me with a body decorated in battle wounds, to understand it myself.

I cannot remember the first time I decided it would be a good idea to hurt myself. But I do now finally understand the two most significant reasons why.

As an individual with both depression and emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), also known as borderline personality disorder (BPD), I am often plagued with emotional pain for unknown reasons. In a matter of seconds, life can become entirely overwhelming as my emotions drown me. I can watch others going about their everyday lives whilst I am trapped in my own fear. Unbearable pain suffocates me; I can feel it in every part of my body, engulfing me like quicksand. I feel paralyzed from head to toe. Even shallow breathing becomes too much to tolerate. It hurts. Everything hurts.

Now, everybody experiences emotional pain at some point in their lives whether it be as a result of bereavement or breakdown of relationships. Emotional pain in response to an event can be really fucking awful, but emotional pain in response to absolutely no plausible trigger is in my experience a million times more distressing. My body’s automatic reaction to pain is to find a cause. Find a cause and I can cope because with a reason comes a resolution. As a result, since being a young child, my pain threshold to physical pain has always been really high. Fall off the top of a tall climbing frame? I’d pick myself back up, brush myself off and continue with my day without even a whimper. I know what hurts so I can let go. But throw unexplainable, unimaginable volumes of emotional pain at me and my body shuts down. I need a cause or I stop functioning. Stop tolerating.

That is what self-harm provided me with. This emotional trauma is transferred into physical pain and thus I can tolerate it again. I have a reason to hurt, making the pain easier to accept and to fix. But the issue here lies in the fact that such transference is only temporary so as the physical wounds heal, the emotional wounds do not and this is what feeds the vicious cycle in hurting myself over and over again, each time to a graver degree.

The second purpose that my self-injurious behaviors provided is a sense of control over my body. As it is now publicly accepted, restrictive eating disorders such as the one I am diagnosed with are often triggered by an overwhelming desire to take control in a world where so much is unpredictable. For me, as I went through puberty, my body went through changes I could not control and I lost that sense of belonging. So whilst governing my weight allowed me to take back some control of my body, as my self-injury became more severe in an attempt to cause more physical pain, I also found that the scarring, as a result, satisfied my desire to take control. So long as my body was covered in marks I had self-illustrated, it belonged to me again and this provided me with a strange, incomprehensible sense of relief. I know this sounds bizarre considering I have previously described the energy and bravery it takes to display my scars to the world, but add this imbalance to the already existing emotional distress and cue the vicious cycle of confusion and further self-injury.
Although I still struggle with intrusive thoughts to harm myself on a regular basis, having insight into the cognition behind these thoughts allows me to be strong in beating the behavior.

floral tattoos covering self-harm scars

Instead of decorating my body with scars, I have learned to instead decorate it with artwork created by an incredibly talented artist, allowing me to own my body in a less harmful way. By no means am I attempting to remove my scars, because I strongly believe that they are proof that although I may have lost a few battles, I won the ultimate war. However, what I do aim to do is become more comfortable with them and all they represent. I cannot wait to go on holiday this year and for the first time be able to believe that passers-by are staring at my arms and legs for the captivating artwork tattooed on them, and not purely in judgment at my scars.

Overcoming self-harm has not been an easy process and I will not punish myself if I have slip ups along the way. Every journey has its potholes, but already I am so proud of how much I have achieved.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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