Warning: this post could be triggering to those who self-harm. Read at your own risk.
I’ve always had trouble expressing my emotions. And that isn’t anyone’s fault – I wasn’t ever encouraged to hold back my tears or to never show how I felt. My family is emotion-positive. We are affectionate and congratulate each other when we’re happy and successful. We give each other hugs and support when we’re sad. Some members of my family cry at commercials, touching greeting cards, and sad movies. So it wasn’t my family – it’s me. I am uncomfortable with my emotions. That’s probably the first time I’ve admitted it out loud.
The issue is, when you can’t cry, or you won’t cry, or you think crying is a form of weakness that lets other people win, the emotions have to go somewhere. And so you look for ways to allow yourself permission to feel. For me, and for many others, that took the form of self-harm. If you can feel pain, you have a reason to cry. Permission granted.
Many people say that the first time they self-harmed was when they were teenagers. They got hold of a knife, or a razor-blade, or something, and made that first cut. I wasn’t a teenager. I was a child, probably around the age of nine. And I didn’t use a razor-blade, or a knife, or anything like that. I used my fingers and scratched open a raw place on my arm. From then on, I didn’t stop, because I’d found a release for the emotions that I somehow didn’t allow myself to express, but I couldn’t stop feeling.
I was an anxious child, and I’m an anxious adult. Panic attacks were a regular part of my life until I learned how to control those overwhelming, drowning feelings of catastrophe. Self-harming brought a methodical, calming antidote to those horrifying white nights of trembling and staring at the ceiling, begging my heart to stop racing and my mind to stop panicking. When I was bullied in elementary school, self-harming brought a sense of control and calm to an otherwise lonely, scary existence in the schoolyard. And there was an element of attention to it – of having people look at my cuts and scratches and show concern. But that wasn’t the main reason, and one of the biggest myths about people who self-harm is that they want attention and that they should be ignored.
They shouldn’t be.
When I was a teenager, self-harming was a way to let out emotions that I was afraid to feel. I was in a constant battle with myself for control – and the cuts, first made by my fingernails, then by my Swiss Army knife – allowed me to calm down, to feel pain. Each cut felt like a blessed release from holding myself in, holding my true emotions in. I exploded, too, at my parents and sister. I caused a lot of strife through my teenage years as an angry, depressed, panicky teen with absolutely no understanding of why these emotions were taking over my life. I felt “bad”. I felt “wrong”. And self-harming became a way to punish myself as well as provide release – to deliver the sharp sting of pain to wake myself up from rages and tantrums that in my rational mind, were as ridiculous as they probably appeared.
Self-harming isn’t about attention. Not really. It’s about release and control. It’s a methodical process. One cut in the fleshy part of your arm. Another in the smooth skin of your thigh. It’s a way of letting the inner cuts and bruises out – a way of letting your pain show. No matter what the pain is, no matter if you can rationalize it or not, the mind calms when the blood flows. It’s why people get tattoos (and a reason why I got mine – that story is here). It’s why they purposefully scar themselves. In a way, it’s like art – it’s a way to express yourself in a secret way that only you understand.
And it’s an addiction, because once you start, it’s very hard to stop. Much like alcoholics take a drink when stressed, or smokers look forward to those first drags after a long day, self-harm is exciting. Not only that, it’s certainly dangerous. One slip of the knife can spell disaster. One wrong burn of the cigarette can leave an unsightly scar that you’ll be explaining away for the rest of your life. But it’s almost euphoric in its way, and the stress relief, for me, was better than any other method.
The problem with self-harm is that it becomes a crutch. It becomes a way to feel without learning to feel. And in the end, self-harm isn’t teaching you to get more comfortable with your emotions. It’s teaching you to ignore them in favour of a physical release that is in no way healthy. I went through years of therapy and learned logically how to deal with emotions that I had been ignoring and pushing back in my brain, but it was my decision, in the end, to stop self-harming. It was my decision to throw out the knife, to cover up my scars. I remember the last cut I ever made, and I remember it with pride.
I don’t cry any more easily than I did. I still have issues expressing some emotions. I would rather get angry at you than let you see how you’ve hurt me. I would rather never cry again than let anyone see me in my most vulnerable state. I still work on giving myself permission to feel, permission to cry. I still struggle with the idea that crying means that the other person has won.
And I still fantasize about the way the blood flows and the knife cuts. I probably always will. The difference is, I’ve learned that permission to feel pain means any kind of pain. If I hurt inside, it’s okay to deal with those emotions head-on. It doesn’t make me weak. It doesn’t mean someone else has won. It simply means that today, I’m feeling fragile, and I need to take better care of myself.
If you know or suspect someone is self-harming, the worst thing you can do is write it off as “attention-seeking” and ignore them, or belittle them. People who self-harm are doing it for their own reasons, but it’s rarely for attention. The best thing you can do is to offer yourself as a person they can talk to. Ignoring people who are crying out for help, in any way, leads to more drastic measures because they feel like no one cares about them.
I no longer self-harm. I no longer feel subconscious about the scars I bear on my arms and hands. I don’t wear them with pride, but I wear them to remember. It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be human.
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