It’s not that bad, really
The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have described myself as a ‘cutter’ or ‘self-mutilator’ or anything like that. It seemed like it would be an affectation. I mean, it’s just fingernails, toenails, the bottoms of my feet, the inside of my cheek. It’s just nail clippers, little scissors, maybe the odd razor blade, my own teeth and nails. Not like slashing at my wrists. I mean, shit, I’m not crazy. I’m not that crazy. Not really crazy. Right? I mean, not really. It’s bad, but it’s not bad enough, you know?
When did it start? I always liked to chew on things. I used to suck my thumb. I used to suck on my necklace but it was a crucifix and my mom said it looked sacrilegious. Sucking thumb to biting nails is not a big step. Biting nails is not that bad.
Sometimes they itch, though. They itch like the nail, the cuticle, the skin just needs to come off. I hate the little rough edges of my cuticles when my hands are dry, so I pick at them. From there it’s just a matter of finding new tools to pick with.
It’s amazing how much bleeding a fingertip can do. I am seven or eight when I get a wart on my right index finger, which I can’t show anyone because it’s my own fault for, well, removing the entire cuticle. It looks pretty gross, so I hide my fingers. In retrospect, it makes sense, I guess. That was the year my mom almost died and the first time my dad did something really awful and said it was my fault. A little kid can’t process that kind of thing, which is blindingly obvious now, but please believe me when I say that I simply did not put two and two together! The closest I’d come to realising any connection between what I was (not) feeling and the bleeding was ‘I guess I bite my nails when I get nervous.’ Hindsight is 20-20. I’d settle down in the evening, in the bathroom or in bed, and get my little nail clippers, or a long pin, wonderful sharp sewing scissors and have at it. Shove my implements under the cushions if someone came in the room.
The toe and foot thing began a little later, I think. I remember noticing the calluses on the bottoms of my toes — how satisfying to get rid of them! First there’s no sensation, but then the rough part is peeled away to reveal the raw pink tender dermis. Then the toenails: what a coup to remove the whole of the white part of my big toenail in one go, with the chewy connective tissue stuck on the end, and then the corner bleeds. I wanted to peel off all the hard, rough, insensitive parts, all the way down to the gristle. It hurt but it was gruesomely fascinating. Again, in retrospect, the metaphor is loud and clear enough to be embarrassing, but I swear I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I didn’t think anything, if you can believe that. I knew it was something to hide, but I made no connection between what I was doing to myself and my emotional state, not until much later. Maybe in high school it dawned on me. The toe cutting and the fingernail surgery were something completely divorced from everyday interpersonal life. I just didn’t get manicures. I said that ballet dancers just have ugly feet.
I remember the beginning of the lip biting and the inside of the cheek chewing, though. That was when I was maybe thirteen (was I so young? I didn’t feel that young) and I went to Disney World on a Fun Family Vacation with my dad’s family. I had read a book in which the main character bit her lip when she was puzzled about something, so I was giving that a try. (Around the same period I taught myself how to raise one eyebrow.) It stuck. It got more elaborate. After five days in Florida I was doing it all the time. Fingernails became an asset, then, because I had something to scrape the loose skin from the insides of my cheeks with. There are a lot of candid photos of m with my lips pursed up on the side of my face as I am chomping on a morsel of inner cheek. Blood in my mouth is also much easier to hide than blood on my hands. At the time I did not consciously link my extreme discomfort at being on Happy Holiday with my dad and step-mom, and playing Perky Teen Girl (perky is not a word that anyone would use to describe me, except ironically), and the new form of self-mutilation. However, I did have a glimmer that there might be some connection. I also, until seriously right this moment, would not have connected the anorexia that began in my sophomore year of high school to anything having to do with the huge fight (for lack of a better word) with my dad and step-mom that happened the summer before, coincident with breaking up with my first boyfriend.
When I was eighteen, though, I started to have an idea that there was something going on with the biting and the cutting that might have some psychological significance. I went to my step-cousin’s graduation party with my dad’s family and while I was there I started to have this strong urge to dig sharp things — the corner of a book, I think, was how it started — into the pad of my right index finger. My step-cousin is my age but a year behind me in school; she was (is?) a skinny, blonde, athletic (cheerleader, seriously, as well as basketball); she wore not just eyeliner but foundation and powder and used hair curlers. (No one in the nerd cohort of my school did these things — clearly I was in the nerd cohort, but this was not a bad thing in my high school, honestly. I had friends even some love interests who were all very smart and interesting people, and I was certainly not as miserable as I thought I was at the time.) And she was having this big graduation party with all her family coming in, even her biological father and stepmother, and there was supreme pinkness and perkiness all around. Which underscored the lack of these things from my high school graduation. My mom had a party for me in the yard, but I don’t think my dad even so much as suggested a family party with his side for me, and they certainly didn’t show up at my mom’s house. But I had to play Happy Families, lest I embarrass anyone by acknowledging the disparity, and that was the first time I was aware of a new injurious behaviour having an external driving force. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was another huge blowout between my dad and step-mom and I later that year (we’re still not on speaking terms). I remember thinking, around Thanksgiving of that year when the summer’s tensions at last came to a boil, ‘Well, if he thinks I’m going to eat now, he’s crazy.’ I remember banging my wrists on the railings going up to my dorm room because a bruise at least felt like something.
Since then the eating thing and the cutting thing have waxed and waned at different times. I moved to Boston after college and didn’t know many people, boyfriend was in another country, and I used to spend a lot of time by myself in the bookstore, ‘savaging’ my index finger. I would peel at my toes when I was writing something, such as grad school applications, and kept (keep) a stash of nail clippers around the house for evening sessions while I read or watch TV. I am biting the insides of my mouth right now. My lab work means that I have access to razor blades and scalpel blades. I have made interesting ‘artwork’ of dots of blood on napkins that I used to blot my nicked fingers, in particular thumbs. I stick to cuticle picking these days, when I do it, because I like having fingernails. I have been able to quit at different times — calm times, happy times, secure times. But during the stressful times I imagine my arms are sliced open and pouring blood. I imagine my belly is torn open and my guts are hanging out. I wish I looked this way so it would be obvious how I was feeling; instead just these little fussy finger pricks and torn soles. (Pardon the pun.)
Then I got involved with a man whose arms, shoulders, and torso are lined with thin little scars, and I knew what they were right away. But even after we talked about what they were, it took me a long time to tell him about my little habits. They’re not as bad. He understands. I’d kill him if he cut himself again. I was intrigued, though. He took it farther than I had, although I had been doing it a lot longer. Part of me still protests that it is not the same thing at all, though. Part of me sneers, ‘dilettante.’
Until last week. I looked at my forearm, the soft underside. It felt itchy, like it wanted to be scratched. So I scratched it, gingerly, with a clean scalpel blade. Just a tiny bit. I can hardly see the marks. You see, I had to go home and have a Conversation with the ex-boyfriend, and I felt pretty shitty. There’s a sea change happening in my life in regards to Serious Relationships, Complications, Hurting People I Love, Making Commitments… and being so distracted by all this stuff I’ve been shit at work. Emboldened, abandoned, and struggling with inertia yesterday, I did it again, more forcefully. I had just been doing my usual thing with the scalpel blade in the bathroom, the fingernails and toes, got rid of the cuticles cleanly and some nice deep cuts where they don’t show, peeling nicely. Then three parallel scratches, each longer than the next, running alongside the big blue vein. I didn’t even think I’d done anything until the blood was spotting my lab coat and the scratches got puffy and sore. I felt sick about it but I liked looking at it, like I’d really done something, like I had physical proof of my internal conflicts — something to remember, something to do the feeling for me. I am twenty-six, so I am much more self-aware now. The scary thing is how easy it was, how simple, how addictive, like the first hit of heroine (I imagine). You think it would be hard but it’s not, it’s ridiculously satisfying and not unenjoyable.
I wanted to call my wronged sort-of-ex-boyfriend last night and come clean and ask for his help — I don t want to do it again, I can stop, it was just once, you know, to try it out. I saw him today and he saw the cuts and asked what happened and I said, ‘Oh I just scraped it,’ and almost started giggling. So, we’ll see.
But seriously, it’s not a big deal and I’m actually fine.