It wasn’t too much of a shock or huge surprise when, after my boyfriend/ future husband/ one and only love of my life announced he didn’t want to see me again (ever again), I was in my room, searching frantically for the closest, sharpest object I could find. I should have been prepared for this moment, with tools at the ready, but alas, there I was, rummaging through drawers, trying not to wake anyone.
Ah, a safety pin! Not ideal, but in an emergency, it would do just fine. Only a few scratches. No, wait, my heart is exceptionally broken, maybe more than a few. Maybe ten. Seventeen sounds good. Like my age. OK, that’s better.
Before I even knew there was such a thing as the self-injury epidemic, I was part of it. It started late one January night (as most things do) when I was a junior in high school and hysterical, not sure why I couldn’t stop crying, but very sure that jabbing my fingertips with a sewing needle was just the way to do it. At the time, I didn’t realize there was a name for my peculiar behavior, just that it calmed me down. A few months later, when dad wouldn’t speak to me in the car ride to school, I found myself biting my hand until it bruised. His coldness was as mysterious to me as was my reaction. But I didn’t let myself think that hard. It wasn’t until the summer of that year, when I was standing calmly in the kitchen, pressing the back of my arm against the inside of the oven door, that I thought I might have a problem. Six months later my heart was breaking, and there I was, frantic and hysterical, scratching desperately at my arms. With my own hot blood racing down into the palm of my hand, it was hard to deny what I had been ignoring for the past year: I was, indeed, a “self-injurer”.
Whenever I lost my mind, I found a certain calm in losing blood. My blood. Once I had progressed to actually cutting myself, I stuck to that practice, save the once or twice when I went back to the oven. Cutting was much easier to conceal, and less prone to infection than burning. So I made it mine. I built my life around my ups, my downs, and my bandages. I was among the 2 or 3 percent of Americans who find solace in drawing lines on their skin with razorblades. I was one of the “troubled teens” who hides her bandaged arms from her mother under a sweatshirt in summertime. I was the angsty cliché who hears more frustrated sighs than an infant who won’t give up diapers. And I was addicted.
Once I finally mustered the courage to roll up my sleeves and get the release I’d been craving, I couldn’t stop. I was creeping away every day after school, every night before bed. One night, during a rehearsal, I was being fitted for a costume, and with each inch that the tape measure was let out around my waist, the image of a steely razor blade sinking into my skin formed sharper and sharper in my head. I stood there in agony until, finally, I tore through the dressing room and through the backstage door, where I ransacked the tool room, panting and praying for something sharp with which I could relate. Before I had the time to succeed, I heard my name echoing through the speakers: “Kiley? Kiley, we need you for soundcheck! Does anyone know where Kiley is?” Annoyed and unfulfilled, I adjusted my sleeves and huffed onstage. Cutting was my drug, and I treated it as such. If I felt like I needed to slash at myself, it was the only thing my brain would process. Hunger? No. Sleep? No. All I could think about was the fact that somewhere on my body, a 3-inch space of skin was itching for me to hurt it. It was as if my nerve endings were actually calling to me to bring the razor down upon them like some divine kiss from a very malicious god.
What people don’t understand is that I’m not a sadist. Believe it or not, I’m not even a masochist! I don’t revel in a stubbed toe. I don’t become aroused by a baseball to the head. And I certainly don’t want to get the razor out at a party and start drawing the blood of my friends. The pull of self-injury lies in its prefix: Self. It’s about control. It’s about total simulated power over your nervous system. It’s about hijacking your adrenaline and turning sad or empty into a rush. I hurt myself, usually, for two very extreme reasons: Either I was hysterical, or I was devoid of any emotion at all.
If I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t breathe because I couldn’t stop crying, all I had to do was pull open my dresser drawer and reach for the little matchbox that held my razors. Utility blades, I found, worked best. My technique depended on why I was doing it. If I was out of control and shaking, I cut fast, and in great quantity; at least ten lines on each arm, always straight, always symmetrical. The controlled violence and tangible results were a relief from the frustration and anger that propelled me. But if I was simply flat and empty, it was much more gratifying to take my time with the blade, sometimes even writing words or drawing pictures on the smooth soft underbelly of my arms, my thighs, or my stomach. Watching my blood seep out in streaks was a bright red reminder that my heart was still beating. Those moments saved my life.
And yet, I continued to hide it; I continued to feel shame for what I was doing. I could barely even admit it to people who were going through the same thing. When my best friend was rushed to the emergency room after a cutting session went too deep, I realized it wasn’t fair of me not to make some kind of effort to get healthy. I couldn’t just walk her to the door for counseling and wave goodbye; I’d cleaned up her blood from the kitchen floor and explained to her parents and paramedics why she was cutting her arms. It was time to start cleaning up my own blood. So, with much reluctance and exertion, I met Mr. Pearsons, the school social worker, so we could discuss my situation confidentially.
It turned out there were a few others going to him for the same problem; oddly enough, friends of mine; so we started a group therapy session, in addition to our private weekly meetings. But it was such an embarrassing subject that it was a joke, all of us sitting around in a circle, unable to make eye contact with even each other, let alone Mr. Pearsons. Like a ring of red-faced toddlers being scolded for pulling our shorts down at recess. He told us that, per school policy, he would not need to inform our parents of our meetings, or of their nature; however, should we display signs of being in danger, he had the right to call home. Of course, this simply meant that I didn’t tell him, or anyone, about the last time I swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills before carving deep trenches dangerously close to my wrist.
I couldn’t let my parents find out. Dad would never forgive me and mum would never forgive herself. Of all the self-inflicted pain and deep depression I was going through, nothing could be worse than my own sweet mother’s heart breaking because the little girl she used to tuck into bed was now tucking herself in with razor blades and bandages. So when my mother spotted the marks on my arm one night as I was going to bed, I was sure that the god I didn’t believe in had finally cast that lightning bolt straight through the ceiling. She grabbed at my wrist and pushed up my sleeve, the tears already coming. “Why?” she half-sobbed. “Why?” It was all she could say, and all she needed to. I cried so hard that night, it took twenty slashes on each forearm just to fall asleep.
After a year and a half of “and how does that make you feel?,” the only thing that made me put the razors away was a boy; he didn’t like my habit and scared me into stopping. Eventually, I got used to fighting the urge, so now, alone and kicking my depression, I’ve taken up new methods of avoiding scars. I smoke a cigarette, I play loud music, I bully my friends into spending time with me. I am nineteen and it has been six months since a razor blade has seen my skin, and though each day is one more battle in the war against myself, I feel like I’m winning. Next time I lose something, I hope it’s a long-sleeved t-shirt.