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How I Answer the Questions People Have About My Self-Harm

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.

Author’s noteSelf-harm is a complex issue that is different for each individual. The following is my experience only and will not be the same for everyone.

I know a lot of people are curious about self-harm, why people do it, what it feels like and a whole host of other questions. I know people have wanted to ask me more about my personal self-harm and have been too scared to ask (Yes, I can see you looking and I can tell you have questions). So I’m going to try explain as best I can about my self-harm and try and answer any common questions people may have.

The first time I ever harmed myself, I was 16 years old. I don’t even know exactly why I did it, or at least I don’t remember why I did it. It wasn’t a “serious” injury — it barely even left a mark. I think I did it because I wanted help with feelings I couldn’t explain, yet at the same time I didn’t want anyone to know. I went to great lengths to hide what I had done from other students, my teachers and my family. There were a lot of conflicting arguments going around in my head that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Gradually my self-harm increased. Slowly the wounds got worse. I still I wasn’t sure exactly why I was doing it. All I knew is that it made me feel better for a brief moment. So why does inflicting injury upon oneself sometimes make someone feel better? I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t. But for me, it does. I can’t explain it.

I think the hardest part for people to wrap their heads around is that when I self-harm, most of the time it doesn’t hurt in the moment (though after it does). For me it isn’t about the pain, it’s about seeing the blood. I know how messed up that sounds and I can’t explain it any more than just saying it’s soothing to me. It reminds me that I’m real, that this life is real and what I’m experiencing is real. My reasons for self-harm vary, and there is never just one reason I do it. Sometimes I self-harm when I’m feeling highly anxious and I need the calming effect. Sometimes I self-harm when I’m really upset about something and need something else to focus on. Sometimes I self-harm when I start zoning out, feel like I’m there but I’m not there, and I need grounding. Sometimes, I don’t have any reason for doing it at all and that’s the hardest one to deal with. I have learned that self-harm can become addictive and even when you don’t want to do it, sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.

Although cutting is my main form of self-harm, it also takes other forms from time to time. Burning, scratching and banging to cause bruising. I’m also a bit of a compulsive picker. My wounds can take a while to heal because I pick at them. I’ve found the best way to stop this is to make sure they are completely covered until they are just about healed. If I can’t see it, I’m less likely to pick at it.

Unless I voluntarily give up my tools for self-harm, please do not try and forcibly take them off me, because I will go and find more. If I do voluntarily give up my tools, it doesn’t always mean I won’t go and find more. What it means is at that moment I’m fighting the urge to self-harm and am doing my best to stop it by removing access to my methods. It takes a lot for me to do this.

I’ve learned wound care is important. Keeping the wound clean is important to prevent infection and further complications, which let’s face it, we just don’t need on top of other things we are dealing with. As I mentioned before, keeping a wound covered is important for me even if it’s not strictly necessary, as it stops me picking and reopening cuts.

The best thing I can do though is avoid self-harm and I attempt to do this through distraction techniques. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I keep a list of things I can try first. Some of the things on my list are:

1. Going for a walk

2. Adult coloring books

3. iPad games and puzzles

4. Writing

5. Photography

6. Housework (boring I know)

7. Sitting outside in the sun

8. Netflix

I started self-harming at 16 and have struggled on and off since. At my worst, I can be self-harming every day. At best, there are months or even years in between episodes. As it’s been over 15 years of dealing with self-harm, you can imagine I now have quite a collection of scars, the majority of which are on my arms.

I use to hide my scars with long sleeves, but in the summer time that can get quite hot. I don’t do that anymore. I wear what’s comfortable now and try to ignore the stares and not worry about what other people think. It took me a long time to get to a place where I was feeling OK to do that. It doesn’t mean I like my scars, it just means I have accepted them. They are a part of me as much as my eye color is. Remember, it is OK to cover up though if you do not feel comfortable yet. Sometimes it can be easier than dealing with the stares and insensitive remarks some people will make. Some people will wear long sleeves, some will wear makeup and some will even consult a plastic surgeon. Whether to cover up or not is a personal choice and there is no right or wrong answer. The important thing is to get help when you are struggling.

Sometimes people will have questions about my scars and want to know what happened. What I tell people depends on the audience. I usually try and be truthful though. For adults, I might tell them that they are self-inflicted and that I was going though rough time, or I might brush it off and change the subject. Most people don’t push the issue if you do that. For children, it’s different and it depends on the age of the child and your relationship with them. Kids are not shy about saying what’s on their mind and asking rather direct questions. I did some research on the best way of approaching this issue with children and this is the best explanation I have come up with. I tell them when some people get sick, they might get a cough or a rash, when I get sick, I get these marks on my arm. Usually that’s enough to satisfy them and they move on to something else.

I feel like my scars tell a story. My story. It’s a story of a battle with myself. A battle with the conflicting and often irrational thoughts in my head that I struggle to gain control over. I might have war wounds, but I’m still here to tell you about it, so it’s a battle I’m winning. It’s a battle I intend to keep on winning, even through the bad days, as I fight for better days ahead.

I think it’s also important to recognize that self-harm can affect anyone from the young to the old, from the unemployed to highly skilled professionals, male or female. It doesn’t care who you are or what social class you fit into. I believe no one is immune and it can happen to anyone. It is nothing to be ashamed of and is definitely something you can get help for. The best place to start would be to visit your doctor and consult a psychologist.

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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Unsplash photo via Brooke Cagle.