A tornado of emotions: The impact of self-harm
22 November 2018 07:54
This article may be triggering for some readers.
The year is 2010 and I’m sat in my English class. It’s probably warm, because the sleeves of my school jumper are rolled up past my elbows. This shouldn’t matter, but it does to me. I’d forgotten about the angry red cuts slicing through the smooth porcelain of my inner arm, now flashing like a warning beacon to everyone around me. I usually wouldn’t forget. Usually, I was careful, making sure my sleeves were pulled down, hiding any evidence of the pain I inflicted upon myself.
There was no way I could ever completely forget that the cuts were there. They were a constant presence in my subconscious, part of a game of hide and seek that I played against the world. But this must have been a momentary lapse in judgment. It’s easy to forget how those familiar marks must look so much more alarming on someone else, when you’re not used to them littering your own skin.
My best friend noticed, and she asked me what they were. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember her expression, a cocktail of anger and concern, and the way she physically pointed her finger towards me from a few rows away. I also know that her reaction must have been loud enough for our classmates to hear, because I can still feel the hot burning shame that prickled over my body to this day. I was paralysed with panic as my brain scrambled for a feasible excuse to explain away the cuts. Anything to prevent people knowing I harmed myself.
15-year-old kids aren’t stupid. They know what self-harm looks like. What kids, and often adults, don’t know is how to react when they notice someone doing it. My high school friend was not malicious. She only wanted to help, but she didn’t have the language nor understanding to do so effectively, without alienating me further. Now I’m 22 and, whilst the conversation around mental health has improved, I still find that people don’t know how to approach the subject with me.
It’s hardly surprising, when you consider the context in which people often learn about self-harm. When I started cutting myself, I would cringe as people made jokes about ‘slitting their wrists’. I felt like the brunt of the joke. When I was growing up, self-harm was something to laugh at, to judge. It was something that ‘emo’ kids did. It was the Tumblr of black and white self-harm photos that I trawled through, trying to understand what I was doing, and why, in some strange way, I kind of liked hurting myself – needed it, almost.
In a society that either glamourised or stigmatised self-harm, I couldn’t see any possibility of having positive conversations about my feelings and why I did what I did. Instead, I slipped into shameful secrecy, under the pretense of self-preservation. This was extremely isolating. And yet, it’s likely that most young people have either self-harmed or know somebody who has; an estimated 110,000 children aged 14 in the UK have engaged in this behaviour.
The first time I self-harmed, I tried to cut myself with a blunt kitchen knife. I have vivid memories of standing in my parent’s kitchen, frantically searching through the cutlery door for a knife sharp enough to slice through my skin. I don’t know where the idea came from. I was about 15 and was putting myself under a lot of pressure for exams, struggling with my self-image, self-worth, friendships and relationship drama; an amalgamation of the growing pains of being a teenage girl.
At first, I wasn’t very good at it, or at least that’s what I told myself. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do it ‘properly’. To intentionally hurt yourself, you have to subtract self-worth and add a spiteful, negative inner monologue. The result is a scary desire to punish yourself for imaginary crimes. This can become intensely overwhelming. It slams into me with unrelenting ferocity, smashing through the frantic thoughts circling my brain. There’s no tangible logic to the compulsion, but it feels like there is at that moment. Amongst the all-consuming distress, the anger, the sadness, all you know is that you need to hurt yourself. And you know it will help.
After that time in my parent’s kitchen, I fell into a cycle of self-harming. I’d cut myself, then care for the wounds, keeping them clean. Then the itching would come as they healed. Then I’d want to do it again. The time between episodes varied greatly. What sticks in my mind more than anything else is how people react when they find out.
Sat outside a pub, getting food with family, my nan caught sight of my inner arm, looked up at me with worry swimming in her eyes, and asked me what it was. I brushed it off, like I always did, making up some bullshit excuse that neither of us believed.
My boyfriend at the time was one of the only people I spoke to about it. It was pointless trying to hide it from him, when I couldn’t conceal my skin. He made me promise to stop and would check whether I had any new scars. This was humiliating. I hated it. But it was what I needed.
Simply showing you care goes such a long way. Anger, accusation and probing questions don’t. You don’t want to feel like you’re on trial. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to help people who are suffering, but I wish that people knew how helpful a kind, listening ear can be.
It can be hard to understand why someone would harm themselves, and it’s upsetting to know that a person you really care about is doing it. I’m aware of that. I’ve seen it in the concerned eyes of my friends, the tears they’ve shed when I’ve finally opened up to them. I’ve also felt that concern and confusion myself, when friends have admitted to it. It’s for this reason that I don’t hold anything against people who have upset me in the past, trying to help but missing the mark. It’s hard to find the right words of comfort when you can’t peer inside a person’s brain to unravel the mysteries of their mind and truly understand their pain.
But we can help to alter this reality, to remove the shroud of mystery and stigma that surrounds self-harm. We can do so by opening up a healthy dialogue, creating a world where people feel able to speak up about the war raging in their head, the mental pain that’s difficult to put into words. And then, people will have a fighting chance to understand and to help.
People self-harm for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s brain works differently, and no two people experience mental health exactly the same. For me, cutting myself acts as a release.
You know how, sometimes, movies show a dam bursting, destroying whatever lies below? That’s what it’s like, to cut your skin. A dam slowly filling with water. The pressure builds, and the walls begin creaking under the strain, but the water keeps coming. It doesn’t stop, until, eventually, the concrete cracks, water bursting out. The dam feels able to breathe again, but it comes at a cost of utter destruction.
It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense to you. You don’t necessarily need to understand why someone hurts themselves to help them. How would you treat a friend who told you they had a cold? You wouldn’t obsess over what they did to catch the cold, you would simply offer them tea, medicine, a blanket, tissues and Netflix suggestions. You’d ask them how you can help, if there is anything they need. You’d treat them with sympathy and care. That’s really all it takes to make someone feel less alone.
I wish I could say that I managed to curb my self-harm habit because of some mental breakthrough. But, in reality, my main motivation to stop came from not wanting anyone else to ask me about them. I was sick of making excuses and hiding away.
I’ve never had an honest conversation about why I do it with anyone, whether they’re a trained therapist or not. Talking to mental health professionals, in my experience, has been an exercise in box ticking: ‘How often do you do it? What do you use? Is there a risk of you killing yourself – or someone else?’ It’s hard to talk about when I’m facing a human and not a keyboard. So, if anyone ever builds up the confidence to try to explain their pain to you, please listen.
It’s not done for attention. That’s a cliché understanding of self-harm that has the potential to isolate those who need help. When I hurt myself, I’m not even thinking about other people. I’m thinking about how disappointed I am in myself. And when I get carried away in the rush of emotions, tears streaming down my face as blood trickles down my arms and legs, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to feel self-conscious, how I’ll have to be careful when I wear shorts, how I’ll have to cross my arms over my legs when I’m going to the toilet with a female friend at a party, or turn the lights off when I’m having sex.
These thoughts come directly after, when I come out of the almost trance like state of self-hatred and look at the resulting damage. That’s when I think about how I’ll have to explain away the scrape on my ankle, and how I’m glad it’s winter so I can easily stay covered in jumpers. Fresh scars are incriminating, and you grow protective and ashamed of them. I never want people to see them. This is the sad truth. I am learning not to be ashamed of my scars, to recognise them as a part of me – as ugly as that part is. It’s hard, but I’m getting there.
We shouldn’t have to hide our scars or feel embarrassed by them, because they’re not a dirty secret. Mental illness is often invisible and that makes it easier for some people to dismiss it and simply tell people to cheer up, implying that it’s their own fault they feel that way. But sometimes, mental illness manifests in visible ways: rapid weight gain or loss, violent teary outbursts over seemingly insignificant things, drug addiction, psychotic episodes, and self-harm scars. This makes people uncomfortable, because it can’t be denied anymore. It shouldn’t have to get to this point for people to take other humans seriously when they say, ‘I’m feeling shitty’.
Often, when we talk about self-harm, the conversation can be dramatised. It conjures up images of pools of blood in the bathroom, huge brown bandages wrapped tightly around wrists, emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Whilst this isn’t fiction, it isn’t always the reality. Sometimes, self-harm is much quieter, more discrete. It’s not an attempt to end my life, it’s an attempt to cope with the one I’m living. People can self-harm and never need treatment for it. People can self-harm and never actually cut themselves, instead turning to drugs, alcohol, casual sex, skin picking or burning.
Self-harm requires a shift in a state of mind, and that’s what I want people to understand. Picture the tornado of negative emotions that tears through me before I hurt myself. As the storm rages, it seems like self-harm really is the answer, the only way to escape the mental torture. But it isn’t. I deserve to treat myself with more compassion. Everyone does.
So, if you struggle with self-harm or thoughts about hurting yourself, please know that there is always another option. There are other ways to work through intense emotions. When things get too much, I let the words tumble out of my mind and onto the paper, releasing the stream of consciousness that has been incessantly rattling around inside me. Putting my abstract feelings into tangible words helps me separate them from me, sending them into the atmosphere with each stroke of the pen. Cycling helps too. The anger dissipates with each pedal, propelling me forward mentally and physically. What works for me might not work for you, but something will.
If you know someone who self-harms, be kind, be calm, be sensitive. Push too hard and you’ll come up against a brick wall, hastily built in defense. It’s not your responsibility to make them stop and you should never feel that it is. But you can help to make them feel less alone. You can love them unconditionally. And, maybe, that love can shatter the self-hatred that causes them to pick up a blade again.