As it’s World Mental Health Day, I decided to take the opportunity to start talking about self-harm. Actually the reason I’m writing this in this moment, is to fight the urge to do it myself right now. I’d rather have a useful piece of writing by the end of the day, than another scar to remind me of what a failure I think I am. I’ll start with general information, which you might be able to find elsewhere also, but then I’d like to share my personal story with you. So here goes…
What Is Self-harm?
As it says, ‘self-harm’ is the deliberate infliction of harm upon oneself. It takes many forms, from cutting and burning, to punching, scratching, pulling one’s hair out, to overdosing without intent to die; and eating disorders as well as abusing drugs and alcohol can come under the umbrella of ‘self-harm’. It’s more to do with what the purpose of these actions is.
Self-harm is a coping strategy. Though not a constructive, healthy one, it is a way people have learnt to cope with the trauma of life. It works for them. I will never in my life recommend people use it as a coping strategy. I am not pro-self-harm. But I do understand why people do it. And whilst it doesn’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t done it, and sometimes doesn’t even make sense to the person doing it, it is a temporary solution to emotional turmoil. It works in that moment. If it didn’t work in that moment then people wouldn’t continue to do it.
However, I want to say early on, in case anyone is reading and contemplating picking something up to harm themselves with – DON’T DO IT. Chances are once you make that first cut, you won’t be able to stop. And your self-esteem will suffer for it for years to come. If you have the option of harming or not harming, always choose not harming. It is an addictive coping method, which I’ll talk about a bit more later on.
I hope to stop more people beginning to self-harm, but I also want to help those who already have started. I want you to know you’re not alone, there are other ways of coping, but also that despite what I said in my opening paragraph, harming yourself does NOT make you a failure. That is an unhealthy view to take of your actions, even if you do want to stop harming – which would be an ideal goal – the belief that you’re a failure for getting through things and coping in your own way, not only doesn’t make sense, but it also compounds the problem and makes you feel worse about yourself, therefore you harm more. So I want you to pause right now and tell yourself ‘I’m doing the best I can’. Every person in the world has a different way of coping with life – some smoke, some drink and use drugs, some sleep around, some spend loads of money, some are workaholics – we all cope in different ways, yet very often the only coping strategy that is so heavily judged and criticised is self-harm. It’s because it frightens people – they don’t understand why someone would wound their own body. It doesn’t make sense to them. But it makes sense to me. I know why you do it. And I know why I do it.
Why Do People Self-harm?
There are many, many reasons why someone would want to harm themselves. Here are just a few:
- To express their feelings, if they cannot put it into words.
- To put a stop to the overwhelming bombardment of emotions.
- To gain control of oneself.
- To punish oneself for perceived wrongs, mistakes and failings.
- To make an emotional wound caused by another, into something physical, and visible… real.
- To feel numb.
- To feel real and alive, like they exist.
- To distract oneself from traumatic experiences and memories.
- To have a physical wound which can then be cared for, more so than an emotional one can.
- To communicate feelings to others.
- To let out despair and suicidal feelings, without completing the act. A way to prevent suicide.
What Is A ‘Trigger’?
When people self-harm you’ll often hear the word ‘trigger’. A trigger is some environmental factor or experience, which could cause someone to harm themselves or create an urge in them to do so.
What Can Trigger Someone To Self-harm?
These are just some ideas of potential triggers for those who self-harm:
- Feeling humiliated by another.
- Feeling rejected, in whatever sense.
- Being criticised and judged, particularly when not in private.
- Seeing images of self-harm, seeing scars, cuts etc / hearing about someone else’s self-harm.
- Isolation and loneliness.
- Arguments and conflict.
- Anything reminding them of a past trauma, e.g. an accident, sexual/physical abuse etc.
- Not feeling ‘good enough’ or feeling like a failure.
- Feeling like a nuisance, a burden.
- Feeling ignored by, or invisible to those they love and care about.
- Being bullied.
- Unintentionally hurting someone or messing up something good.
- Being abandoned, neglected, forgotten.
- Feeling misunderstood.
- Anger – and the fear of one’s own anger.
- The loss of someone.
- Relationship issues.
- Stress or an overstimulation of emotions.
- Work pressures / school pressures.
- Money worries.
- Struggles with sexuality.
- Crying (will explain this in my personal story).
There are many more possible triggers, or reasons someone might turn to self-harm. And later on I shall share with you my own triggers and reasons I have relied on harming myself.
Myths About Self-harm
- Self-harm is a suicide attempt.
This is generally not the case at all. True, sometimes those who harm themselves want the pain to stop, just as those who see ending their lives achieving that cessation of pain. And I myself have sometimes harmed myself, not caring if I live or die in that moment. But commonly, people use self-harm as a means of staying alive. They don’t want to die, they just want to survive something which doesn’t feel survivable. Self-harm is a way of getting through a moment, living to see another day, decreasing the intensity of emotional turmoil. A suicide attempt is a deliberate act, intending on ending one’s life. This generally is not the intention of those who harm themselves.
- Self-harmers are attention seekers.
Then answer me this…. why do they do it behind closed doors? Self-harm tends to be very secretive. Those who engage in it are often deeply ashamed of what they do, and hide their wounds and scars from others. Back at college I would wear long sleeves and cardigans during the hottest days of summer. When asked if I was hot, I would have to lie. I didn’t want anyone to know what I did. I still don’t like people to see my scars.
Some people might cut and not make such efforts to hide it. And some may want attention… but why should they then not receive it? Everyone needs and deserves attention. And if people who self-harm are not being given that attention freely by those in their lives, then surely THAT is what should be addressed, and criticised. A cry for help should not be ignored.
Most who self-harm do not want attention, far from it… they’re the ‘fade into the background’ sorts of people. They put on a brave, happy face in public, cry behind closed doors, harm in secret, and harbour regret and guilt, covering their scars and pretending nothing is wrong. And then someone will catch sight of a wound or scar, and suddenly they’re an ‘attention seeker’. It makes no sense. This is a myth caused by a lack of education on the subject. I hope this will change one day.
- Self-harm is a phase teenagers go through and will grow out of.
Sadly not the case. Self-harm can affect anyone, from any background. It affects children, adolescents, adults and the elderly. It doesn’t discriminate. Any race, religion, gender, sexuality or class will have many self-harmers among them. It isn’t a phase. And though skills can be learnt to cope in healthier ways, and stop self-harming, this isn’t always the way it goes. I believe I will ALWAYS be a ‘self-harmer’ or a ‘recovering self-harmer’ anyway. Just like an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic in recovery. There is always the capacity for someone to relapse… it was once a successful coping mechanism, and under stressful situations it is highly possible that someone could slip back into old patterns and ways of coping.
Some people don’t begin self-harming until their adult years. There is no textbook layout or timeline for self-harm. It can start at any age, and last for any amount of time.
- People who self-harm are crazy.
This isn’t true. Many people who self-harm are hard-working, intelligent, sensitive souls, who simply have a hard time dealing with emotions. This is their way of coping. It doesn’t mean they’re crazy, bad or should be avoided at all costs.
This myth has come about because people don’t understand how someone could take a blade to their own skin, or hurt themselves in any other way. As humans, when we don’t understand something, it makes us afraid and we believe these people can’t be sane! So we label them. It’s easier than taking the time to educate ourselves and understand the motives behind someone’s behaviour. People tend to judge those who are different from themselves. They often class people as stupid, crazy or wrong if they’re different… this is in an effort to reassure themselves there’s nothing wrong with them. But actually we all have our quirks and differences. We all have our flaws. Judging and labelling people like us is one of theirs.
- The severity of the wound indicates the severity of the problem.
This is an unhelpful and potentially dangerous belief to have. You might think someone’s wounds are superficial, therefore their suffering must be equally as superficial and trivial. This can lead people to harm themselves more severely in order to be worthy of the help they need. Very often self-harm will get worse as time goes by. When I first started it was little more than scratches. But as I changed methods and tools my wounds became bigger and deeper. It never felt ‘enough’. It’s a little like taking drugs (I’d imagine!)… you start out small, but eventually that has no effect… it doesn’t do the job… so you have to take more and more each time to achieve the same result. That’s how it often is with self-harm. Nowadays if I harm I say to myself ‘I don’t want a huge scar, and I don’t want to have to go for treatment’ – that stops me from harming too badly. But it definitely doesn’t mean my suffering is any less than it used to be, or any less than those who cut deeper than I do. I actually feel in much deeper distress nowadays than I did before. I just have more experience and don’t want to repeat those experiences, so I’ve learnt control, to some degree. The suffering is not reflected in the injury.
- Self-harmers could stop if they wanted to.
It’s not that simple. Some people have used self-harm for years and years. It becomes a built-in coping mechanism. Very often life is cruel to those who turn to self-harm. Without that improving it is hard to break the cycle.
Many people, when they discover a loved one self-harms, asks them to promise never to do it again. But this is counteractive because very often it’s not a promise that can be kept, and when they ultimately ‘fail’ at keeping it, they feel worse about themselves and feel they’re going to lose the other person. Making someone promise not to self-harm again only adds extra pressure to the sufferer. It takes away their coping mechanism, without them having been given an alternative. Some would say ‘next time you feel like harming yourself, give me a call instead’… but sometimes self-harmers need more than that. They need a strategy that works for them, individual to their needs.
By the time someone discovers a loved one self-harms, it’s quite likely they’ve been harming for months or even years. It is unreasonable to expect that to change overnight. What they need is support, understanding, patience and unconditional love, while they try and overcome their emotions.
- Self-harm is manipulative.
It may seem that way, but that is purely because of the emotions it stirs up in you. When you see someone’s wounds, you may feel shock, fear, anger, sadness, or most of all… guilt. You might feel to blame for it, or that perhaps you should’ve noticed, and could’ve stopped it. These are YOUR emotions, and have little to do with someone’s self-harm. But because you feel guilty for the self-harm, you might think that that was the aim of the self-harmer, to make you feel guilty – and in that way you’d see it as manipulative. But when someone self-harms they are doing it to cope with their own emotions… they’re not thinking about your emotions. They’re not doing it to provoke some emotional reaction from you. Most often it is kept secret. How can that ever be viewed as ‘manipulative’? Just because you’ve found out about it, it doesn’t mean it’s manipulative. It wasn’t manipulative all the time you didn’t know about it. Labelling it as such will only force the problem back into secretive territory. People need to be encouraged to share their story, without being accused of something so polar opposite to the intent.
These are just some of the misconceptions about self-harm, and I may return to this in a future post.
I’m going to be focusing on self-harm on this blog for a while, so I’ll try and give ideas of how to try and stop, for those affected. But this is an introduction to it, to try and inform those who haven’t had experiences of it themselves. Now I’ll share some of my story…
*Trigger Warning* – Read with caution.
I was 16 when I first started self-harming. It was a stressful time – I’d finished school and had just started college. I put a lot of pressure on myself and had high expectations for myself. There had been some incident surrounding the school certificate evening in the Autumn, involving the head of year. I took a pair of scissors to my yearbook and scratched at her face. Then I turned them on myself.
That was the biggest mistake of my life. That was the beginning of something I was to struggle with for the next fifteen years, thus far.
I don’t recall everything, as college was a traumatic time for me. My mental health was some of the worst it’s ever been. I struggled through. And I’ve mainly blocked a lot of it out now. I don’t remember the names of people in my classes, of teachers, or much from that time or prior to it really. I think I’ve repressed a lot of my memories.
I would spend lunchtimes hiding away in the toilets in the library block, cutting at my arm with the scissors I carried everywhere with me. I don’t know now what my reasons were back then. I know I was severely depressed and anxious. I do have a memory of being in one class and being picked on to answer a question – I had known the answers to other people’s questions but didn’t know mine, and I felt embarrassed and shown up in front of everyone, so during the break in the double session I went to the toilets and harmed myself. It was a way of punishing myself for not being good enough. It allowed me to go back and carry on. Another time, in a different class, I got a bad test result, and I actually sat there in the class, harming myself under the desk. Thankfully nobody saw me. They were really dark times. I wasn’t very well at all.
In my second year at college I went to see the college counsellor. And after several sessions I asked ‘If someone told you they were hurting themselves what would you do?’ He was the first person I ever told about it. I had managed to keep it hidden from my family for 12-18 months, by wearing long sleeves, and a strategically placed watch at times. The counsellor helped encourage me to tell my family. I told my mum. That was the hardest moment of my life. I still remember that. But for me it was a good thing. I’m fortunate that I have a supportive family, who researched to see how they could help me. My mum told the rest of the family, and though they were shocked and upset by it, they’ve never said a word to me about it since, and I know they love me regardless. I know some people aren’t so lucky with their families.
When I think of my serious self-harming days, it feels all jumbled – I don’t remember what happened when… all I know is there came a day where I changed to a sharper tool (I won’t ever say what, as I think it’s very dangerous to give ideas to people like that). That was a huge mistake. It deepened the damage, and deepened the addiction.
One night I cut too deep, and was seeing things I shouldn’t have been seeing. This is very dangerous as it increases your chances of infection and blood loss. I didn’t even think about things like that in those days, but being more medically educated nowadays I’m aware I could so easily have got sepsis and died unintentionally. Admitting to my parents that I needed help with it was so incredibly hard to do. I felt ashamed. I had let them down. I was abusing the body they gave me and I felt so terrible. They took me to the walk-in-centre, and the nurses had a look at it. They were surprisingly nice about it – I had heard horror stories of how health workers treat those who harm themselves. They seemed concerned and caring. They thoroughly cleaned it and steri-stripped it.
That is the one and only time I’ve sought help for my wounds. I never wanted to experience that again, or put my family through it again. Sadly it didn’t mean I stopped harming… I just didn’t seek help. I invested in some steri-strips for home use, as well as dressings. This in itself became a bad thing – buying self-harm treatment stuff for if / when I self-harmed… it showed a hint of premeditation. But I guess it could also be viewed as being prepared, being safe, which is important.
My reasons for self-harming were mainly to punish myself for not being good enough, pretty enough, thin enough (though I was actually too thin), clever enough, and for making mistakes. I thought I was a bad person and deserved the pain. In those days I didn’t think ahead to the scars… I didn’t think I would be left with them for the rest of my life.
As time went on, my reasons for harming would increase. Sometimes I’d just miss it. I’d feel like something was missing, and in my worst times I felt that was it. I know now what was and still is missing…. love. It’s always been lacking in my life.
Harming myself was a way of expressing on the outside what I was feeling on the inside. I had emotional wounds so extensive that if they all showed on the outside, you wouldn’t even recognise me… I’d probably die from the wounds. But that’s the thing with emotional wounds – nobody knows you have them, or how severe they truly are. And they don’t heal like physical wounds do. Physical wounds hurt for a time, scab over and scar. We carry on once they’re healed. Emotional wounds never scab, nor really scar. They do leave a scar, but they can easily reopen at the slightest word, thought or memory. In a way my cutting was a way of having an actual wound to tend to. It expressed my inner pain, I could see it and treat it. I could be kind to myself as well as seeing the wound heal. The trouble is when the wound heals and the scar fades, the feelings are still there on the inside. It serves as a reminder of what I felt when I did it. It doesn’t solve the problem in the long-term.
Hurting myself was sometimes a way of having a break from intense confusing emotions. I often didn’t know which emotions I was experiencing. I couldn’t put a name to it. It felt like a jumbled ball of wool, and I couldn’t find the end… the answer. I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling, and my mind would race. I just needed a sense of calm and to stop the chaos. So I’d cut. It would focus me on the physical pain. I’d be calmed by the blood. It felt symbolic, like I was letting out the poison in my mind… the noise in my head.. and the pain in my heart. I would be focused on the wound and treating it. It would allow me to then get back to whatever I had to do that day.
It would also link in with tears. Sometimes I’d feel upset but be unable to cry… harming myself could sometimes cause me to cry. But opposite to that, whenever I’ve cried uncontrollably, and needed to get a grip, self-harm has stopped me crying. It’s related again to stopping the emotions in their tracks.
At other times I’ve experienced ‘episodes’, where I lose control of my words and my body, to some degree. It usually happens when I experience an acute case of anger or frustration. I’ll shout, swear, punch walls, slam doors, and it usually ends with me running off, because I don’t want to inflict that on anyone… I hate anger and detest it in myself, so I don’t want people to see me like that. So I run off, usually in tears, lock myself away and if I don’t collapse on the floor in tears until exhaustion, I’ll pick up something and harm myself as a way of ‘snapping myself out of it’, and regaining composure and control. It’s almost a way of grounding myself because I fear where I’m heading. It isn’t healthy, for whatever reason you do it. But there are quite ‘logical’ reasons why people do harm themselves… even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. In our heads it makes total sense.
Things that have triggered me include:
- Other people’s anger / conflict
- Being made to feel stupid or selfish
- Being forgotten or ignored repeatedly
- Being criticised publicly and humiliated
- Rejection – not just romantic, but by family and friends too
- Seeing cuts and scratches on others
- Someone discussing their recent self-harm with me
- Feeling powerless and like I don’t have a say
- Getting things wrong or accidentally offending someone
- Feeling abandoned
- Being blamed for things I didn’t do
- Memories of how people treated me in the past
- The thought of how unattractive I am and how nobody will ever love me
- Knowing I’m being lied to and fobbed off
- Telling people I love them and never hearing it back
- Being stood up
- Seeing everyone else happy and successful, and comparing myself – feeling like a failure
That’s just some of them. I could tell you specifics of times I’ve harmed and why I did, but it’s not that important. What matters is that the points above are pretty much the story of my life. This year has been an incredibly difficult and painful year, for many reasons. It has brought up the past, made me fear for the future, and made the present unbearable. My self-esteem has plummeted, and I often feel a burden, nuisance… I feel rejected constantly, criticised, ignored, powerless, useless, ugly, stupid, abandoned and neglected, and like a failure.
I’ve had times in the past where I’ve been able to stop harming for periods of time. Several years ago I joined an online support forum and noticed lots of people trying to quit. They’d post how long it had been since they last harmed. This inspired me to stop. But I’d make it only a few days, then cut again. Sometimes I’d make it three weeks, even five months at one point but then I’d slip up. And it would hit me hard – I’d feel like a failure again and had to start over. It wasn’t helping me. In the end I realised I was trying so hard to quit, that it made me focus too much on self-harm. I turned my mind to other things and gradually I went longer times without harming – I never knew exactly how long it had been.
When I started I would harm every day / every other day. This became a weekly thing, a monthly thing. In more recent times I may have been able to go a year harming maybe only two or three times. But this year has been a challenge… one I’ve had to cope with alone. And I’m afraid to say I have relapsed quite a lot this year. I don’t see it as the ‘end of the world’ now though. It’s just a part of who I am. I would like to not do it, but it will either take life improving drastically, people treating me better, or therapy, to help me do that.
I used to have therapy. I did two courses of DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), which I shall cover in a future post. And that was the start of a big improvement in my self-harm reduction. It gave me other options. It helped me identify what I was feeling, and that it usually starts with a thought. So it’s catching that thought early enough, and challenging it in order to stop emotions taking hold. It also teaches you not to block your emotions, nor to hold on to them, but to just let them happen. They come and go like waves, if you let them. I could do with revisiting it actually and relearning my skills!
The trouble I have is one thought becomes many. I don’t catch it soon enough and before I know it, I have an emotional reaction to the thought, think of something else from that, which triggers off a memory about all the times I felt a certain way… it grows and grows like a snowball, gaining momentum and it never ends well. Whenever I self-harm it is usually as a result of snowballing thoughts – it’s about many things, not just one. I need to learn to see things as individual situations, and deal with one thing at a time. I hope to improve on this in the coming months and years.
I no longer detest my scars. Sure, I wish I didn’t have them, particularly the ones on my leg, from when I went back to secretly harming before. There are some pretty bad ones and they freak me out, and I worry they’d freak a potential partner out too. But since that’s not a priority to me at this point in time I don’t have to worry about it so much. My arm’s nearly always on show now. You can see the white lines on my arm. But probably only if you know what you’re looking for. I feel uncomfortable if I feel someone may have seen them. But I don’t feel ashamed as such…. we all have a past, this is mine. They’re my marks to show I survived things which could have killed me. They’re not a sign of weakness, but of strength and endurance. I’m still here fighting. And I am more than my scars.
Self-harm is something I accept I will struggle with my whole life. I’m only just beginning to be honest about it, and I hope those in my life will still accept me just the same. It doesn’t change who I am as a person. And I hope to find someone one day who will love and accept me – emotions, scars and all.
I will be talking more about self-harm in general, but also sharing more of my story as I go along. I just wanted to share some information for World Mental Health Day, and as I’ve been meaning to write about self-harm, I thought what better opportunity!
I hope you can gain some insight from this post, or identify with some of it. And if you’re struggling yourself, don’t despair – though I’m in a bad patch myself at the moment, I’m fully accepting that life can get better and you can lead a happy, healthy life, free from the clutches of self-harm. I will be blogging about that at a later date. In the meantime I encourage you to share your story – you never know who you might inspire to change.
All my best wishes until next time.