Some parts of this story are triggering… only read it if you’re ready, and please leave if you feel triggered. Stay safe.
Sometimes I wish I could scream this story from the rooftops, or at least try to explain it to some people. At the same time, there’s a huge part of me that wants to cast off this part of the story like it was some phase or some stupid teenage thing that I did that doesn’t mean anything anymore, and never really meant anything even while it was happening. But that’s not how it was.
This is a story of who I was and how I came to self-injure. I want people to know how it was for me, and I want people who have similar stories to know that they are not alone. If I’m honest, I should say that what happened shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. But it never occurred to me that there was a danger in being a perfectionist until I started to fail my own expectations. So when I fell, I fell hard.
It started slowly, then quickly. It was like everything in my life was balanced so precariously that it just took one little thing to topple the house of cards. I was such a stereotypical overachieving child, so wrapped up in all the things that were expected of me that I allowed them to define me, so that when I started… slipping… I lost parts of myself. I failed in one thing, and then another. The delicate balance that kept all my juggling knives in the air was disrupted, and I felt like I was losing everything that mattered.
I woke up one particularly bad morning feeling as if I would rather have died in my sleep than to have woken up to feel the things that I was feeling. That morning was such a period of despairing that it’s difficult to find the words to adequately describe it. I wanted, badly, to cry, and wash away the emotion, but I was so far gone that I couldn’t make the tears come. If I could have willed myself to death that morning, I would have. I hated myself and I wanted to hurt her. In my desperation, I reached for the scissors on the desk next to my bed, and ten minutes later I’d made my first cut. As I pulled at my skin with the dull scissors, and watched the small drops of blood leak out, I felt a sense of detachment, and, surprisingly, calm.
After that, I managed to get up. Go through the motions of eating, sleeping, etc. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was as if a set of doors had been opened. The cut itself was miniscule, really. But the next time I got upset, I cut again… and again… and again. At the beginning it was a way of punishing myself, forcing myself to mark my failures, so that I would never forget that I needed to do better, to be better. I had not planned to become a ‘cutter’ — I did not intend to continue to fail, or feel so badly about myself and fall into that dark emotional abyss.
I began to slip emotionally… I would get upset out of proportion to the circumstances. Every little criticism became a blow, and I took it as an indication of what a terrible person I was. The slightest thing would set me off. I knew I was overreacting — no normal, well-adjusted person would react to some side comment or some innocent question asked by a classmate, a even sign on the wall that somehow related to whatever it was that was bothering me that day would do it, for Heaven’s sake! But I’d developed this completely irrational hair-trigger emotional response. I would cut because everything reminded me that I was a horrible person, everything and everyone seem to be telling me that I was a failure, and idiot, a totally useless waste of air.
Other times I would feel nothing at all. I began to feel numb and shocky. It was like my mind had been encased in wool, nothing that happened could penetrate that fuzzy, foggy feeling. I wasn’t even alive inside my own body…like a car without a driver. I don’t know how else to describe it, it’s like everything that defined you — your interests, emotions, thoughts, feelings — were taken out and all that was left was your body and the basic instructions like how to walk from class to class and say ‘you-fine-how-are-you’ should someone chance to notice you even though you felt completely absent and invisible. I could process that something should be sad, or funny, or annoying, but there was a gap between knowing that I should feel something and actually feeling it that I couldn’t bridge. I just wasn’t present inside my own body; it was like watching my own life through someone else’s eyes. Maybe I figured that if I wasn’t there, nothing could hurt me.
Sometimes I couldn’t stand this disorientating numbness, though, and every once in a while, I’d wake up from the dream and scold myself for wandering about in a daze when I was such a failure… my God, what was I doing, couldn’t I see that I was a fucking moron, how could I sink so low and then pretend, even to myself, that everything was okay? How could I be such a bad person and not even feel bad about it? You see, I knew that I should feel miserable, and I wanted to feel it. I wanted to feel every iota of failure that was happening, I deserved to be hurt because I was such an awful person, such a miserable failure all around, and I didn’t deserve any such safety of numbness. So I cut. I cut to feel the misery that I deserved. If I couldn’t feel hurt emotionally, I could do it physically… I needed to fix the disconnect between what I should have felt and what I did. And I cut to remind myself that I could, in fact, feel pain.
Strangely enough, cutting seemed to bring me down from a complete freak-out as well, I’d get so emotionally strung out from school or a friend or a teacher saying something insensitive, or someone making a cutting remark about my clothing, or whatever, really. It’s like something that builds up inside your head until it literally feels like it’s going to explode if you don’t do something to release the pressure. Sometimes I could talk myself down…and other times, I’d cut, and like the first time… it was like a reset switch had been pressed, and I could breathe again. It was like that whether I cut to make myself fully feel hurt or if I cut because I was so wound up. It had become a way of coping… and I know that’s cliché, you’ll find it anything you ever read about cutting — that’s it’s a way of coping with emotions you either don’t know how, or can’t, express in another way. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have other ways, but nothing that would bring me down (up? back?) so quickly. Nothing else worked so fast.
It was kind of a way of controlling how I felt… my entire life became controlling how I felt! Just so that I could still… go through the routine of ‘normal life.’ Oh, but it was so tiring… to stay even minimally functional, my mind was going all the time, either telling myself how badly I felt or trying to tell myself that I could get through this. Even as I was fighting to stay ‘normal’ I wished feverently that I could have the courage to do something rash and land me in an institution… if for nothing more than momentary reprieve from having to hold myself together. I wanted desperately to stop this pointless, fruitless and absolutely fucking meaningless existence… because it seemed absolutely insane to me, to be expending all my energy going through the motions of a life that I hated. The only way I got through those times was to live minute by minute; to think of all the bleak days ahead was terrifying.
I felt as if everything in my life was out of control, not a single fricking thing was right with my life, not a single thing was mine. It was as if I was a passenger on the ship of my life, and I could do nothing about the storm that raged around it. My body was my last holding. When I held a razor in my hand, I had a momentary sense of control and direction. The blows were mine to strike, my body mine to abuse, and no one could gainsay my right to it. Maybe I feared that I’d lost myself, and the cutting was a way of… marking what was mine, asserting control over it. I felt also a sense of defiance, like everything had been taken from me, but I would have this last thing.
The combination of emotional instability and the seeming lack of response drove me underground when it came to my so-called friends. Oh, I know that they tried… but they didn’t understand. I knew it was unreasonable — I was doing everything in my power to pretend I was okay, so how could I blame them for not seeing what was happening? How could I rage at them in my mind for doing exactly what I was trying to have them do? Oh, but I hated them for not understanding! They were right there, when I was hurting, and they couldn’t comfort me; they were right there, I was falling apart in front of their eyes, and they could scarcely see it. Surrounded by friends, yet I felt alone. I needed something from them so badly, but it was something I couldn’t define or ask for.
It was the fear that nobody would understand, or that they’d only give me false reassurances that I didn’t need or want, or the pity that would have been a greater insult than anything else. How could they understand — I know that I wouldn’t have fully understood it if I hadn’t had to experience it. Oh, I would sometimes say, I’m not doing well, I feel tired and miserable. But I couldn’t say, I feel so bad, I’m cutting myself and I often wish that I’d wouldn’t wake up the next morning, or, better yet, had never been born. It was extremely frustrating… to say to someone ‘I feel like shot, I’m a complete screw-up and want to die’ and to be told ‘oh, it’ll be okay, and you’re NOT a failure.’ Mostly I didn’t have the energy, to get into the fight about whether or not I was screwed, so I didn’t say anything. I mean, there’s something 1984 to be told that you’re not feeling the things that you’re feeling, and it’s utterly insane to be told ‘it’s not that bad’ or to be asked ‘is it really that bad?’ when you’re so emotionally whacked out that you’re controlling it by cutting yourself with a razor blade and thinking about suicide every day.
And what’s worse was to be told about all the wonderful things in my life. That, of course, shut me up, because… well, what could I say to that? Nobody knew better than I how good it was to be me. I wasn’t blind to my fortune, it wasn’t that I didn’t know that I was better off than the children in Africa (to use another cliché) or a bum on the street, it just didn’t jive with the misery I felt. And, fuck, I’d have been the first person to say that it didn’t make sense and that I shouldn’t feel like shit. But did you really think that telling me that I had it all was going to help?
It’s an understatement to say that it made me furious and evermore frustrated. I mean, it just showed me how far away they all were — How could they possibly have understood how shitty I felt if they thought that it could be fixed by reminding me that I was privileged to be young, healthy, and educated? How could anyone understand how far gone I was if they thought they could call me back this way? I didn’t need to be told it was unreasonable to feel this way, I already knew that my emotions were out of whack. And to a certain extent, I could complain about the usual things — school, parents, boys, work, etc… but there was no way in hell that I was going to tell them about the cutting. If nobody understood that I was unhappy in a way that stupid things like a trip to the mall couldn’t fix, how the hell were they going to understand why I deliberately attacked my body with a razor? I wouldn’t have said before that I had trouble expressing myself or talking to people about how I felt…but what I felt was so overwhelming that I was immobilized by it. And in any case, there were few I could have told that would have understood. I’m being unfair, because I know that I shut myself out, and it’d be wrong to not mention the single friend that I was lucky enough to have who tried to follow me through my unhappiness, but even then she could only go so far.
Sometimes I felt like I was screaming at the top of my lungs, in inexplicable anguish and pain and anxiety, and I couldn’t call attention to it because I didn’t feel like I had any right to feel this way. I couldn’t even properly explain what it was that I felt, all the words and expletives in the English language weren’t enough to capture the nightmare going on in my head. It was only the pain of the fresh slices on my limbs that gave voice to the anger, the frustration, the fear and the anguish. I was turning pain that I couldn’t point to, identify or even adequately describe into pain that could be seen, felt, and understood. I was alchemizing this mess of overwhelming and confusing emotion into a simple line or pattern drawn with a straight razor.
And in all of this, there was so much guilt — I never felt as if I were entitled to any of this so-called pain — I turned what I felt into blood streaks across my limbs because I had no business complaining about anything. If I wasn’t doing well in school it was because I wasn’t studying hard enough, if I screwed up another violin recital, it was because I wasn’t practicing hard enough. If I felt friendless it was because I was ignoring my friends, if I argued with my parents it was usually something I’d done. I felt worse and worse about… well, everything. About myself, about my grades, about my ability to act normal and to be a good daughter, friend, student, to be a good person, all in all. I became incredibly self-absorbed and added that to my list of sins — I could think about nothing but how terrible I felt and how badly I was doing in all aspects of my life, and just — what a huge mistake I was.
It was inconceivable that I, a girl who had never been abused, who had never suffered hunger or poverty or even the distress of unsupportive parents, who was, by all accounts, blessed — with relatively good health, many opportunities, and parents and friends who, inexplicably, loved her, should often feel as if I had nothing. I mean, what was wrong with me, that I could not appreciate that I had all of these things, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t appreciate and be thankful for having people that cared about my happiness and the opportunity and freedom to pursue that? Frick, what was I doing, wallowing in misery when there was life out there to be explored and opportunities that need to be pursued? What kind of miscreant was I? How dare I feel these things! How dare I be so selfish and demanding and ungrateful? Who did I think I was, anyway?!
And I was so angry, at the same time. Here I had done all of the things that I was told to do, I’d always done my homework, always come home before curfew, always been agreeable to my parents, like, fuck, I’d jumped through every damn hoop that was put in front of me, and I’d done it all without flinching in the least. I’d embraced this ideal as the person I should be. And so what? It was all a fucking lie. The myth was that if you behave like a good girl, if you do all these things, then you end up happy and successful, and it was all a lie. The myth was that if you believe in something, you could achieve it. And it wasn’t true. All my life I’d been lied to.
There were a million reasons to cut. To make myself feel better, to make myself feel worse, to make myself feel, period. Because I deserved to be hurt, because I was a terrible person, because I was a failure in life in and every sense of the word. Because nobody understood me. Because I fricking could! And it was the only thing it seemed that I could do in the mess of my life… in a sense, my response to everything that had happened. Every time I looked for more information, every time I read more personal stories, I found more reasons. I found myself reflected in the blogs, in clinical descriptions of self-injury… the first few times, it scared the shit out of me to see parts of myself in people that were in much deeper than I was or ever wanted to be. But my perception of who I was so tenuous that I began to wonder if I hadn’t made up reasons to cut based on what I’d read… adding another layer of confusion and frustration.
I feel as if I need to clarify what people who SI already know — cutting wasn’t an attempt at suicide — I wanted to hurt myself, yes. I wanted to make my skin weep and bleed, yes. I was angry, and I felt like there was no way out, and I wanted badly for it to end, but I never cut with the intention of ending my life. Oh, I did think about it, and I did wonder at what would happen if I had the guts to take the razor to the wrist and push it a little further. But I was lucky enough to never have wondered hard enough to actually find out. I myself don’t think I was ever truly suicidal — I thought about it… a lot. I thought about it in the my-life-sucks kind of way, in the, if-only-life-could-just-get-out-of-this-life kind of way. I had the ideation, but no plan, no timeframe, and no tools. I was lucky… suicide only takes a minute of thought and a minute of follow-through. I was lucky enough that even in that fog, I never cut deeper.
When I had first started to cut, I was horrified at the stories that I read posted on the Internet — personal web pages, forums and the like. I swore to myself that I wasn’t like that, and that I’d never be like that. I would never cut deeply enough to be taken to a hospital; I would NOT live my life out in the fog of depression, fear, and the instruments to wound my body. Many cuts later, I realized that it’d become a part of my life, but the fear that the pain and cutting would become an addiction stayed with me, because the vast majority of the stories I read told of the struggle with self-harm.
Cutting started out as a way of punishing myself, and then a way of controlling how I felt… sometimes bringing myself out of that disoriented, misty numbness, sometimes bringing me down from that overwhelming peak of emotion that I couldn’t stand to feel. A way of asserting control over my skin, if I couldn’t control my life or my mind, a way of defying everything else, a way of rebelling other than the cliché Goth clothing, tattooing or piercing. Maybe I never embraced the cutting fully, partly because I was aware enough to realize the reasons for why I did it, partly because I could sense it getting out of control. It seemed to grow and take on a life of its own. I would get an urge to slice through my skin again, imagine the strange sensation of the razor on my skin before I felt the pain, and then the sharp cut, and the warm blood flowing through the wound, and the pain out with it. I would sometimes want it the way an addict would want a fix…I sensed how addictive it could be.
For someone who has never cut, or who has never understood what it means to feel so desperate you would do anything to make the pain end, hurting yourself seems like such a repulsive, unnatural thing to do. The only way I can think of to explain the why is to give a scenario: Imagine that you felt the worst pain that you’d ever felt in your life, imagine you felt as if you were trapped, suffocating, choking to death, gasping for air, dying, being tortured. And then know that you could end it by taking a razor and drawing it across your arm or leg. That you could substitute that awful choking feeling for a straight, clean cut. Oh, I know it doesn’t work for other people, but imagine that there was something else that would, then. Something that could instantly take that away. It’s easy for someone to tell you to stop, but when there’s something that works so well, something that will actually get you through the moment, even if only temporarily, how could you not get addicted to it?
I cut for more than a year. Whenever I felt as if it were too much, I locked myself in my room with the hydrogen peroxide, a handful of Kleenex, band-aids and my razor or whatever sharp object I could find. I needed relief instantly; I needed it to buy the time, to keep myself going. But it grew, and began to take on a life of its own, I became more afraid… I lived in fear of someone finding out. I worried about getting sick, and winding up in a hospital, naked and vulnerable, with my scars for the world to see. I never showed off my scars, I was convinced that if anyone found out, I’d be carted away by the men in white coats and that I’d never be able to live a normal life again.
After the initial euphoria of an episode of cutting faded, I felt it replaced by a wave of fear that I was sinking deeper and deeper into that emotional abyss that I would soon not be able to find my way out of. I felt like I was getting closer and closer to the horror stories I read about the others that cut. I didn’t want that, I needed to stop and I suspected that I needed to do it soon. One night, like so many others, I lay in bed tossing and turning, wishing that I could just get the hell away from myself, unable to stop my mind from beating itself up. I tried various things to calm down, and nothing worked. Finally, in frustration and anger, I grabbed the razor again. Fifteen minutes later, I had fresh wounds and a fresh sense of horror at what I was doing to myself. I sensed completely how easily I could drown in this sea of pain and blood, how easily I could lose control of this, and what semblance of life I had left. I spoke of an emotional abyss, and that night, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall over at the slightest push. I said that I’d never thought that I was ‘seriously’ suicidal, but that night, I saw clearly how the depression and anxiety and the poor coping skills I was relying on (the cutting) could end. I felt so out of control it was terrifying, and there was nothing to make it feel better anymore, because it was now the cutting I was afraid of.
In the end, it was this fear of losing control completely that made me stop. In a sense I was lucky… that the guilt of cutting and the fear of someone finding out started to overtake the relief that I got from it. I felt the shame and guilt of cutting — it seems acceptable for someone to take it out on a punching bag, or to cry to a friend all night, but it doesn’t seem acceptable for someone to take a razor or x-acto to their arms or legs. My classmates would never have understood, my parents would never have forgiven themselves. I guess, that night, I saw how much more I stood to lose — any semblance of normality, what tenuous hold that I, surprisingly, still had on the shreds of my life… and I saw the anger, fear and rejection that I would have coming to me if people found out… the stigma of a mental illness. I stopped.
I realized that what mattered was moving on, that I didn’t have to be attached to my past and my mistakes. I always did know that there were other ways of expressing myself, and I tried to rely more on those… talking to someone, journaling, taking a walk, taking deep breaths, listening to music, praying and the like. I wish I could say that that night was the last time I’d cut. It wasn’t. I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy, because it really wasn’t. In the months after I stopped I was challenged again and again, and sometimes I wanted to cut, badly. I squeezed my fists into balls, I felt tension in all the muscles of my body, I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands so hard I sometimes left bruises, I stayed up crying, gasping, choking, into all hours of the night… but I stopped… I chose to wait it out… and I thought that if I could chose to cut, I can choose not to. I decided that I didn’t need to be trapped by anything that happened to me, and I didn’t need to be trapped by my own fears or expectations, either. I didn’t need to beat myself up.
I knew that the cutting was starting to contribute to my continued deterioration, that it only made me feel worse about myself and reinforced the idea that I was a failure… I’d constantly thought that I was a failure and that the past needed atonement, and God, it was hard to stop thinking that way. I fought it while I was cutting, and I fought it harder when I decided that I needed to stop, and still it overtook me sometimes. It was a tough fight… and I wish I could say that I won, once and for all, but it wasn’t that simple… and I suppose it never is. On bad days I feel like I’m fighting still, and some things will trigger me and it will feel as if it was only yesterday that I felt like I was suffocating to death with misery. But I did stop, and most days… I feel as if I could tolerate myself.
When I first started cutting, I did it as a way of marking myself, showing the world that this was real… I think for me, this was always the biggest part — acknowledging and transforming my pain into something that could be seen. When I continued, I felt like I was using it to define me, as if I’d become addicted to the cutting, and this person had replaced who I used to be. What scares me about stopping is that in some ways it seems to deny that it ever happened… as if, without the scars, I wouldn’t have any way of proving that I had gone through this experience. Because, you see… I still haven’t told anyone. I was very good at hiding or explaining away my scars the few times people saw them. Perhaps some people suspected that something was seriously wrong, but I don’t think anyone knew, and in any case, nobody called me on it. It’s been a few years since I stopped, and all but the deepest scars have faded. Sometimes I think that in another couple years, they will all fade, and then nobody would ever know my secret. Maybe I wrote this story because I needed to tell someone… just to prove that it happened…
Please… know that you’re not alone and that you can stop. I remember the times when I didn’t think that I could ever move on, and now when I look back I’m astonished at the progress I’ve made… I wouldn’t have thought it possible.