Warning: This post may be triggering for those struggling with self-injury (SI), actively or recovering.
When I was 15, I started cutting myself. I would steal straight pins from my mother’s sewing kit, the plastic-tipped kind the come in a variety of colors. She kept dozens in a tomato-shaped cushion beside her bed, and I knew she wouldn’t notice if a few were missing, especially since she hadn’t hand-sewn anything since I was in grade school. With the pins in hand, I would scurry back to my bedroom and sit, cross-legged, on my cranberry-colored floor, listening to Marilyn Manson, Linkin Park, or Papa Roach (the ultimate in angsty teen music ala 1999).
The first time I cut myself I dragged the sharpened tip across my ankle like I was coloring in a book. I wanted to stay within the lines, to keep it clean—well, clean-ish—and easily hidden. I dragged the pin back and forth and back and forth until my skin went white and then red. The whole time I felt nothing but when I stopped the wound burned, my skin screamed, and I could breath.
As time went on the cutting got worse, not only in depth but in frequency. I changed tools several times. I used scissors, push-pins, sewing needles, kitchen knifes, and even my own nails. I cut at home and in school and soon the scars moved from my legs to my left arm and, eventually, my left wrist. But no one knew; I hid my scars with patterned socks, long sleeves, and a navy blue Scünci (which permanently lived on my left wrist instead of wrapped around my dirty blonde hair).
Looking back on nearly six years of self-injury I don’t know which question is harder to answer: Why I cut or why I stopped, though think I understand the former better. The latter seems like a fluke.
I cut myself to…
- Feel – Anyone who has suffered or is suffering from depression knows what I mean when I say this. Depression is isolating and paralyzing. At times, depression isn’t about pain or sadness; in fact, it isn’t about anything at all. It is void of feelings, and when I turned to cutting, I was empty and numb and desperate for a sign that I was alive. Blood was that “sign,” as was the searing pain that followed.
- Heal – Strange as it may sound, for a time cutting was healing. It didn’t solve my problems—contrarily, it added to them—but for a moment, a fleeting moment, cutting would give me an outlet and “life” because when I wasn’t numb (see above). Inside, I was in more pain than most can ever possibly explain. It wasn’t like a migraine or pinched nerve, it was a dull, full-body ache. Cutting allowed me to channel all of this pain into something, to control it, and to let it go.
- Deal with the shame of self-harm – I know, I know, I cut myself to deal with the shame and guilt of cutting myself. Hindsight has revealed the irony of this statement and act to me, but when you are in the midst of an obsessive behavior logic like this doesn’t apply. Besides, I though, what was one more wound.
- Have scars – Plain and simple: I wanted visual proof of an invisible foe. I wanted to have something tangible, a “real problem” that wasn’t all in my head.
I cut myself because I could.
I stopped cutting because…
- My cutting hurt other people – As the years went on, many of my friends were affected by my “habit,” though no one more-so than my boyfriend/now husband. Some were inadvertently affected, as I avoided them, part out of fear of rejection and part out of a fear of being “found out.” Those that did know wanted to help me stop. Their suggestions to seek help were well-meaning and on more occasions than I would like to admit my boyfriend found me cleaning fresh wounds or trying to create new ones. He wanted nothing more but to save me from myself, and I wanted nothing more than to let him, but I couldn’t let him because he couldn’t do anything.
- It doesn’t fix the problem – In the short-term self-injury may help (or seem to help) stifle the depression. It may dull the mental pain or, as I mentioned, make you feel alive. But when the incident is done, and the cut is covered with clothes and scar tissue, the problem still exists. The reason you cut yourself, or turned to cutting, remains.
- I could – It may seem ironic that this statement makes its way onto both my “why I cut” and “why I stopped” list but what can I say: I’m a control freak. But seriously, this comes down to control (for me). For years I was under the delusion that cutting was my way of controlling my depression but I eventually realized I was out of control and cutting was controlling me—impacting my every thought, decision, and behavior. I knew I wanted more, and my desire to regain control was a major motivation.
I feel lucky. I never cut deep enough to injure tendons or muscle or require stitches. I never got an infection and never landed myself in the hospital. But that is because I am lucky. Nothing else.
Self-injury is dangerous, no matter what benefits you think you might/are yielding from it. It is a slippery slope and you will lose your footing quickly. (I started cutting when I was a sophomore in high school and continued well through college. I never planned to continue. I wanted to stop.)
If you cut or self-harm, you can get support and referrals by calling the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line in the U.S. at (800) 366-8288.