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When People View Those Who Self-Harm as the 'Other'

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Yesterday, I read an article that kind of annoyed me. In fact, it really annoyed me. It was about self-harm, and in my opinion, it added to the already existing stigma associated with self-harm and those who use it as a coping mechanism. It talked a lot about the fear mental health professionals have about growing numbers of people self-harming, teenagers using the internet to compare self-harm methods and injuries, and it talked about methods of self-harm in a graphic nature without any trigger warnings. So I decided to write something that wouldn’t so much alienate people who self-harm and identify them as people others should be afraid of — but instead maybe encourage a little compassion for them.

Self-harm… Stereotypes may suggest it is something that is common for young girls to do, something “attention-seekers” do, something “emo” kids do, something fueled by internet forums and sites like Tumblr. You must listen to a certain genre of music and act a certain way. In all these ways, people who self-harm seem to be referred to as the “other”; it couldn’t possibly be something someone you know might use as a coping mechanism, or something you yourself might ever use as a coping mechanism. But the fact of the matter is there are people who self-harm all around you. They are successful people, regular people just like you or me. I say this as I am one of those people.

I am someone who has battled on and off with self-harm since I was 18 (I’m now 32). This may sound like a long time, and you’re right, it is. It feels like a lifetime, and I suppose it is… It’s my lifetime, and looking back, it has been a long, difficult journey. But it has shaped me into the person I have become today. It has made me a stronger person, and it has taught me to rise again after every fall.

For me, self-harm began as a way of expressing my hatred for my body and for myself. I hadn’t read about self-harm online, I didn’t have friends who engaged in self-harm, and I never displayed my scars to others. Instead, self-harm was something that was private to me. It was something I was extremely ashamed of, and something that terrified me. I had a complete love-hate relationship with it. At times, I felt I needed to self-harm in order to survive. I believed it was the only way I could release some of the internal pain I was going through. Like a pressure cooker, I felt it allowed me to “control” or release some of the pain and hurt I had bottled up inside. If I hadn’t self-harmed at these times, I truly believed I would have exploded with one almighty bang. That would be it forever. No return.

Then, there were the times when self-harm was my mortal enemy and something I hated with a passion. It was and still is something that has taken so much away from me. Relationships with friends and family, many nights in when everyone else was enjoying themselves out, and summers covered head to toe with clothes despite the sun’s rays. As my depression got worse over the years, so did my self-harm. Sometimes I would manage months at a time free from self-harm, only to fall off the wagon and be back to square one. The longest I have ever gone free from self-harm has been two and a half years, which takes me up to recently. Unfortunately, in recent months self-harm has become part of my life again, which I’m extremely disappointed and ashamed about. The fact that I self-harm is not something I am proud of. It does not mean I’m an “attention-seeker.” In fact, it means quite the opposite — it is something that is private to me and is a secret I hide from almost everyone I know.

The problem with self-harm is it is something that can be almost impossible to understand unless you have experienced it yourself. It can be hard to understand why anyone would willingly inflict pain on themselves, but can you imagine how much emotional pain a person must be in if inflicting physical pain is the only thing that helps? So how can we tackle something like self-harm? Personally, I think it all comes down to compassion. I know if I had more compassion for myself, I might not feel the need to hurt myself, to inflict pain on myself or to treat myself with such hate. I know if people had more compassion towards mental illness, I probably wouldn’t feel so ashamed every time I went through another bad spell. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel the need to internalize it, to keep it a secret, to feel so ashamed that I cannot “cope” with life when everyone else seems to handle it all with such ease.

I know the reason why many people shy away from self-harm is often because they’re scared. I believe this goes for those health professionals who seem to be terrified by self-harm. There is so much to learn about self-harm, and I believe it comes down to compassion. If someone you know is self-harming, instead of reacting with horror, try to react with compassion. That person may need you to love them at a time when they are unable to love themselves. Don’t judge them; just accept them for who they are. Self-harm might be a part of their life for now, but it doesn’t always have to be.

Whether you self-harm or know someone who self-harms, have patience. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. You cannot rush the healing process, but you can definitely help it along. There may be many slip-ups along the way — but don’t ever give up. And finally, I write this as much for myself as for anyone else — don’t give up. You deserve to be happy, and one day you may look back at this part of your life and smile to yourself, because it has made you who you are, and you are a stronger, wiser person because of it.

Image via Thinkstock.

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

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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Originally published: December 20, 2016
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