Content/Trigger Warning: Self-Harm/Injury
Whilst mental health awareness is increasing – with the spotlight on issues such as depression and suicide – I often find that self-harm is ignored or massively misunderstood. Whether it’s TV, cinema or documentaries, there is very little said about self-harm.
I have battled with a history of self-harm for roughly 15 years. It’s surprising for me to write that, as I haven’t really thought about the length of time before… A few years ago, I willfully disclosed this to my personal therapist, realising that if I wasn’t fully open, they couldn’t hope to truly help me. They explained that it could be argued that self-harm is similar to an addiction.
I was stunned. I had never heard of it described in such a way. As a teenager, I had certainly become addicted to it, but without anyone explaining it to me, I never truly understood why I always needed to hurt myself.
At a young age I became terrified of school. At one stage it was because it was all new to me (going from primary school to a high school without any of my peers was terrifying). This was where my social anxiety began. I used to tell my parents that I was too sick for school, and I can’t remember how it started, but I used to start retching in the bathroom to the point that I would be sick. This was not about body image. This was all about hiding away from the world. Since that time, whenever I get a little bit anxious, the nausea and need to be sick can become overwhelming.
By the end of high school, I was being severely bullied by 80% of my class (no, that is not an exaggeration) – and by extension a large proportion of my cohort. Again, I began to make myself too ill to go to school. Even to this day I don’t think my parents are aware of this. I think talking about it to them would open too many wounds. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but it was the only escape I had.
By the time I was 14, I was an expert at making myself throw up at will (I’m not proud of that…) but I’d reached a new issue. As a teenager, I felt unable to talk to my family about things, and being home didn’t make me feel any better. That is when I discovered cutting. I didn’t do it for attention, and I hated that some of my peers knew what I was doing. Cutting helped. In that moment, I felt in control, and felt something when before I had felt numb. Looking back now, I realise that I had been depressed for a long time. I don’t think my current mental health is a separate issue. I think I just managed for a long time.
In that moment I felt in control,
and felt something when before
I had felt numb.
I was scared at what I was doing. I thought my parents would be angry with me if they found out. But I couldn’t stop. I was becoming addicted very quickly. I eventually told some of my close friends as a way of asking for help – without actually saying the words “help me”. Instead, what happened was that the rumour mill churned, and soon, most of my peers knew what I was doing. I was labelled an ‘emo‘ at school. An ‘attention seeker‘. It was all a ‘phase‘, where I wore bright pink and black and harmed myself. Very few of my peers understood what I was doing. One of my friends even accused me of copying her, because I was jealous of the attention she got. I had once thought of her as my best friend, and this hurt greatly, making the situation worse.
Did any of that help? No. The labels, the names and the rumours simply made me hurt more. The harm continued for quite some time, and eventually I found a way to stop. Holding ice until it burned. It was painful, and probably not safe, but I eventually stopped the cutting, and finally felt strong enough to tell my family.
I think it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. Admitting what I had done for a long time to those who loved me. For a long time afterwards they were worried about me. If I was angry or upset, they wouldn’t leave me alone (even if that was what I needed) because they were scared. Rightly so.
My depression can put me back into the frame of mind that I want to hurt myself. I’m scared of this. I don’t want to do it. But at the same time, I do. It’s that addiction. I ‘know’ it ‘works’ to alleviate some of my emotional pain, but the disappointment that will affect my loved ones and myself is what often holds me at bay.
I hope that one day, self harm will no longer be seen as such a taboo subject. As a society, we need to stamp out the ’emo’ labels, and actually work on helping those who are affected by this very real mental health illness and addiction. It is a difficult cycle to break that involves a lot of shame and more needs to be done to raise awareness.
In my own experience, I often found that self-harm and being suicidal (or having suicidal ideation) were confused. You can self-harm without wanting to attempt suicide, and vice versa. There are probably many more myths that I haven’t recognised. Something I want this post to do is to open up a discussion. If you have a question, you can comment or email me. I hope that by opening a discussion the stigmas and myths can dissipate.