Trigger warning for vivid descriptions of self-harm
I think perhaps self-harm is something that never leaves your blood. I no longer think of myself as someone who self-harms; it’s been a long time since I took apart a razor and longer – years – since I took one to my flesh. And yet as I sit here, my cuticles are ragged from tearing at them with my teeth in times of anxiety, I can see the ghosts of tooth marks on my arm where, months ago now, I bit myself so hard I almost drew blood. And it isn’t so long at all since the last time I let myself be overtaken by impotent rage and pummelled myself with my fists.
I have a cut on my hand just now, which was an accident. But feeling the pain as I press on it, and watching the miraculous day-to-day knitting together of flesh, makes me remember how very, very good it can feel to open up your own skin. It makes me remember the pain which can be controlled, second to second. It makes me remember my flesh crying tears of blood. The subsequent empty numbness and shame which is somehow so much better than the feeling that my very veins will explode with the rage and pain boiling inside them.
Sometimes there is nowhere else for pain to go. Sometimes pain has to become real before it can dissipate. When I used to cut myself, when I bite myself, hit myself, it’s a loss of control. And yet at the same time it’s making something manageable. It’s taking a feeling that I can’t articulate or push away and it’s making it into something concrete, a singular moment of pain that I can understand. I suppose it isn’t healthy, and it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t feel that urge. It’s something you’re not supposed to talk about. The marks can be hard to hide, but you have to try and hide them because people will ask. And the truth isn’t the right answer. When people ask about my old scars on my thighs, I usually simply tell them, “Those are old.” It’s not an answer but it is, and usually they leave it at that. It’s easier when it’s something you used to do. There is no good explanation that doesn’t cause concern and embarrassment all round when someone asks about current injuries. “Oh that? I got angry one day and I bit myself till I bruised.” No one knows what to say to that, and I don’t want to put them in that position. And I know how mad it sounds when I say the words out loud.
Physical pain can be understood and dealt with right away, right in that moment where it happens. Emotional pain can spring up all over again, months and years after whatever caused it in the first place, and you can’t control it. When you cut yourself or bite yourself, it hurts exactly as much as you want it to. The purity of it is gorgeous, cause and effect of pain that can be managed there and then. When you have that pain to focus on, it isn’t confusing and multifaceted and incomprehensible. It is right there. It is real. Sometimes you just need to feel something you can understand.
Just the other day, I stopped myself from biting myself in anger and upset. My arm was at my lips, my mouth was open, and I stopped myself. I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel that pain, that instant moment of release. I wanted my anger to be channelled into something and I knew that, for a moment, it would help. What stopped me wasn’t a desire not to hurt myself, but the thought of the bruises that take so long to fade, and the toothmarks for which there is no adequate explanation. It wasn’t out of resistance to my own weakness that I stopped myself; it was out of embarrassment at being thought weak by others. People don’t talk about this very often. It is the preserve of the angsty teenager, the young person who can’t handle their emotions. Adults don’t lose control like that.
But we do. It is over ten years since the first time I remember hurting myself in anger. I remember vividly the boiling urge, sitting at the computer in my mum’s dining room, and running my long fingernails down my neck, hard. I remember the claw marks and wearing polo necks in June. I remember getting better at hiding it. Because the shame I feel of the fresh marks is still the same now as when I was 14. The way I feel right before I do it is still the same as when I was 14.
I hurt myself a lot less now than when I was a teenager, but the way it feels has never really changed. The boiling, burning desire; the momentary bliss; the ensuing shame. I am someone who can experience pain in a positive way as well. When I have enjoyed being tattooed, or play-piercing, or some kinky sex, it has never been about self-loathing or anger, but about the sensuous experience of controlled pain, and for me that is totally separate from the urges I can experience to hurt myself. Those are things I have done in a healthy state of mind, and not snap losses of control. I entered into them freely, to feel and experience them in a joyful way. When I hurt myself in anger or sadness, it is a totally different thing. There can be a tendency to conflate enjoying some kind of pain with the desire to self-harm, but that isn’t true for me and I suspect it isn’t for many other people as well. The pain of self-harm is almost incidental – it is a lot more about the emotional release. The pain is a tool to control my emotions, not the goal in itself.
I know that this is rambling and perhaps it seems self-indulgent. But I hope that someone reads it and recognises themselves, and feels less alone.
– a 25-year-old woman