For Anyone Trying to Understand the 'Why' Behind 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.

I’ve written a lot about my struggle with mental illness. I’ve written about anxiety, depression, and the many things that accompany them. But there’s one thing that I’ve left out: my past with self-harm.

For me, and maybe many others, self-harm is one of the hardest parts of mental illness to be open about. I worked so hard to hide all of my injuries — I guarded them carefully and kept them as my most protected secret. So even now, being self-harm free for months, it’s hard to stop hiding that part of my past. In my opinion, self-harm is one of the most misunderstood, confusing and difficult parts of mental illness. It’s really hard to understand, and can be even harder to explain.

I’ve overcome my battle with self-harm, but even though it’s in the past, the memories and reminders are still very much in the present. Now, when I look down at the scars that remain, I feel filled with regret. I look at the ugly lines and think, “Why? Why would I do that?” And I’m sure other people, if they recognize my scars as self-inflicted, wonder the same thing. So I’m going to take you back in time, so maybe then both you and I can begin to understand the “why” behind self-harm.

I was fifteen. I felt like everything in my life was slipping out of control. I was facing depression for the first time but didn’t have a word for it, and I was too terrified of what was happening in my mind to tell anyone. I had so much pain bundled up inside of me — I needed a way to get it out. I was desperate. So I took it out on my wrists and wore long sleeves for months.

It started out small — just a few cuts here and there. But soon, I became addicted. Self-harm became my coping mechanism. And I couldn’t stop. My deepening depression caused so much turmoil in my mind that cutting became my means of escape. Physical pain brought me out of my mental pain for a moment, and I clung to that. Something made me find comfort in hurting myself and then nursing myself back to health.

Eventually, after a lot of therapy and many relapses, I was able to find positive coping skills to replace that negative one. Things got better. I try not to be ashamed of my past, of my scars. I try to do what my therapist says and look at my scars as symbols of healing. But sometimes I simply can’t manage to be that positive. Many times, I look down at my bare arms and feel a tidal wave of shame and regret for the ugly markings that cover my skin. The cuts were a temporary distraction from my problems — but that temporary distraction is now etched permanently into my skin.

When I was first admitted into a hospital, where I would spend a month in treatment for my depression, the nurse who did my entrance exam saw the fresh cuts on my arm spelling out the word “worthless.” She looked down at them and said, “Oh, honey, that’s the opposite of what you are.” As I stumbled down the rocky road of recovery, I tried to remember her words — they were one of the things that helped me overcome my self-harm addiction. Now that self-harm is in my past, I try to remember that I am more than the scars that are left behind.

If you are reading this and wondering why anyone would hurt themselves on purpose, if you are trying to wrap your mind around the idea of self-harm, and if you simply cannot understand, please listen: because neither can I. It seems impossible to completely understand such a complex issue. It’s so hard to explain the “why” behind self-harm. Everyone’s story is different, and it’s always so much more than just a “why.”

I can’t make you understand self-harm. I can’t make it easy to talk about. All I can ask of you is this: please don’t judge. Don’t judge the people who have to wear long sleeves in the summer. Don’t judge the people with scars. Because those people are warriors. Those people are fighting back against mental illness. Recovery is a rocky road, so instead of judging, please help them along.

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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Thinkstock photo via PongsakornJun

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