[trigger warning: self-harm]
What you’re about to read contains details about something I have only ever told four people: my mother, my roommate, my therapist, and one of my closest friends. It’s even harder to tell people I have never met and likely never will, but if my sharing of this information educates or helps someone else perhaps dealing with something similar, it will be 1,000% worth it. Therefore, I invite you to have an open mind and keep reading.
Cutting oneself is an action that falls into the self-harm category. It can be done on any body part covered by flesh – which pretty much includes the entire surface of the body – and it is an action performed by someone who is hurting, often in the most extreme emotional and/or psychological way. It is most often associated with the use of a tool such as a knife, scissors, or a razor to achieve the breaking of the skin. This leaves a cut, hence the name of the act, “cutting.” There are tribes in Africa whose members ritually mark their bodies in a similar process called “scarification” in order to mark certain events in their lives or communicate complex messages to those who view them. In other societies, particularly first-world countries, cutting is not a commonly accepted practice and has become associated with mental strife although the reasons behind why people cut themselves are much more varied than being simply labelled as a reaction to this strife. Furthermore, the spectrum of what can be called cutting is broader than most think. Trying to classify cutting is like trying to classify the case of each individual who has a cutting experience – nearly impossible – yet society still insists on it. Anything outside of the “normative” range is considered abnormal and therefore “non-normative”, but these classifications are redundant. Motivations, emotions, state of mental well-being, environment, tools, everything that intersects with that act makes each extremely different.
This is my experience.
I cut myself for a year and a half (on and off) with my own two hands, and I cut for control. I had and still have issues with control in my life; I don’t like unexpected changes and I like to have a say in what’s happening to me, more than most people. When someone throws me off or I can’t make a decision about what’s happening to me, I feel out of control.
Control was the main reason I cut.
I had a horrible roommate in residence who made my life hell with emotional abuse, a close family member who went out of their way to challenge me and make me feel worthless when nobody was there to defend me, and a boss who caused me to have heat stroke at work when they asked me to do more than I was capable of time after time, all at different points over the approximately 18 months that I engaged in cutting. I felt more out of control than I had ever before in my life than ever before. It started one day after my roommate had made me feel particularly bad (I was yelled at for having the heat on in November) and I was trying not to cry in my room, all I could feel was the overwhelming desire to be in control of something, anything. So, I turned my left forearm so that the inside faced up, and dug my nails into it until I bled. I was shaking uncontrollably with the strain of trying to reign in my emotions before I did this, and as soon as I did and felt the pain yet recognized the sensation as one I could control, I became eerily calm.
This became my go-to method of dealing with these confrontations. When they subsided, the cutting did too. I hid the little crescent moon shapes that my nails left on my arms as they faded from bruised and purple to a pale silvery white, then disappearing all together, over and over. Only once did someone notice, and I was able to brush it off as scratching myself by accident. Easy. During this time, I recognized that this was not normal behavior but continued to engage in it because it gave me a sense of relief.
I didn’t exactly make the connection between control and my desire to cut until much later. It sounds simple, but it took me a year and a half to realize this was why I was harming myself, and that’s when I found the strength to tell someone.
The first person I told was my mother. As the oldest child of three and a stereotypical over-achiever, it was very hard to admit that I was far from perfect especially to someone I looked up to so much. She was wonderful and thanked me for sharing with her, told me she loved me, and encouraged me to find something else to replace the cutting. Her support helped me to realize that there are healthier ways to deal with feeling “out of control” and I eventually exchanged cutting for a combination of yoga, music, and writing.
Every time I revealed it to someone I trusted, I felt a part of the shame that my cutting had caused me to feel dissolve a little, and it helped me to stop. Once it did, though, I repressed a lot of my memories of those bad times and those acts of violence against myself. I didn’t elaborate on it with my therapist, who I went to for grief counselling. It made the other three people I told after my mother uncomfortable to continue to talk about it, so it was easier to just push all of it aside and minimize it as some juvenile coping mechanism that I had outgrown. It wasn’t actually “cutting” as it was normally thought of; it seemed silly to have done it the way I did, in a non-normative way. Sometimes I even thought of myself as a coward for not being able to properly cut myself. I also developed the tendency to think that it had happened to someone else, a past Madeline. All of this bounces around my head whenever something reminds me of that time even now.
Writing this article and telling all of you re-opened that old wound and has made me remember and re-think everything that happened with respect to my self-harm episodes. It was terrible and it shouldn’t have been something I dealt with alone for two years. I shouldn’t keep telling myself all of those hateful or reductionist things I listed above. Writing this article holds me accountable for what happened; it reminds me that it did in fact happen and this is important.
Do not minimize it, separate yourself from it, or put yourself down because of it. We are never able to escape from our experiences because they cannot be undone and they forever change us. What we can do is recognize, accept, and grow from it. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can choose our reactions. I implore you to not push it away because it will only leave you with a lingering bad feeling.
Also remember that “normal” or “normative” is a social construct. Just because something happens to you or you do something that isn’t the “norm”, whether it be as innocent as the way you dress or as difficult as self-harm, doesn’t mean that it is any less important or serious. Talk to someone you love and/or trust.
There is always someone out there who will listen.
[ Contributed by Madeline S.]