Stigma v Stigmata: dealing with self-harm *Trigger Warning*

Trigger warning: If you are a self-harmer, this may get you itching. This is the last thing I want. Talk to someone, even if it’s just yourself, but be kind. Practice mindfulness, meditate, self-soothe. Paint your nails, do your hair, listen to some good music, play video games. There are other, better ways to deal with things, you just need to find them. It may take you a while, but you will find them. You are already so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. You are not alone, no matter how lonely you may feel right now. And things will get better. Trust me. I have been where you are and I will no doubt find myself there again. It sucks, but the feeling will pass. All things are transient. We are never without hope. And we are never beyond help. Remember that, always.

What is self-harming?

I am a self-harmer and have been since I was 6 years old. It began with nail biting, hair chewing, scab picking and lip nibbling and culminated in the use (many years later) of scalpel blades, Stanley knives and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. I have been called stupid, silly, attention-seeking and just plain crazy. I am actually none of these things.

Before I begin my potentially lengthy tale, I feel it necessary to point out that I am in no way condoning, promoting or encouraging self-harm. I do not take pride in my behaviour. Nor do I feel shame for it. Everybody self-harms. It’s just that some use more socially acceptable forms than others. No-one gets to judge me for the methods I choose, not even me.

Now, I’m sure there are people reading this right now thinking “fuck right off, I don’t do that shit” and they probably think that’s the case. But let me ask you, do you smoke? Drink? Eat unhealthily? Work too hard? Have unprotected sex with random strangers? We all do things we know are bad for us, yet we do them anyway. We find comfort in the things we know we shouldn’t. Self-destruction is practically embedded in our genetic make-up. We constantly take risks in the hopes that we will gain more than we stand to lose. 

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

My childhood was relatively uneventful. At least from an exterior perspective. My parents were good people who taught us good values and did their best to bring me and my sister up to also be good people. Internally though, my life was a fucking mess. 

From a very early age, I suffered from inexplicably intense emotions, most of which I kept to myself. Even as a child I was seemingly well aware that my feelings were a little over-the-top compared to others’ and I didn’t want to be seen as weak and unable to handle life and the people in it. I was an infant for fuck’s sake and even then I was beating myself up for being an emotional wreck. They say that Borderline Personality Disorder doesn’t happen to kids. That it doesn’t present until your teens or even adulthood. I disagree. Because I’m pretty certain I have always been this way. I’ve had peaks and troughs but it’s always there, waiting for an opportunity, a moment of weakness, where it can again leap out screaming “surprise” and throwing acid at my brain.

The effect of stigma on my mental health.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself extremely fortunate, particularly where my mental health is concerned. For the most part, my condition is manageable and many have it far, far worse than I have to date. Despite the hellish depths that it has taken me to. And I can’t help but wonder if it was my lack of a diagnosis and my habit of internalising my issues that has allowed me to pass through life relatively unscathed compared to many suffering from the same condition. The stigma surrounding Borderline Personality Disorder in particular, is horrific and can lead to people being written off as attention-seekers and ‘psychos’ long before others have even scratched the surface of their being.

Manipulative, deceitful, psychotic, untreatable, these are just a few of the things I discovered when I was finally diagnosed at the grand old age of 36. All those movies about bunny-boiling, crazy stalker type bitches? They’re supposedly based on us. And they do us no fucking favours when it comes to actual real life. Because who wants to be around someone that’s probably going to cook the family pet if you don’t put out. 

What these films fail to address is what leads people to behave this way. It may make for good horror viewing but have you ever considered how hard it can be living it?

“I want to cut. I want to drag that glistening blade across my arms and see the pain ooze out from beneath it.
I want to sit in scalding water and scrub my flesh until it peels from my meat like a freshly stripped beast, hung up to cure. Until the horror that lies below terrorizes me no more.
I want to beat my fists against the walls until blood pours from my knuckles. Washing away sin and quenching anger. Hoping, pleading that this feeling  will end.
I want to shut myself away.
I want to tell the world to go away. To go fuck itself. To not come back until it can play nice.
I doubt it’d come back at all.”

Imagine feeling every emotion so intensely that it consumes your very being. Imagine loving someone so hard that you literally cannot entertain the thought of life without them. Imagine hating yourself so much that you want to peel the very skin from your face so that everyone can see just how disgusting you really are. It hurts. So much. Sometimes to the point that your brain can no longer take it and you just shut down, unable to feel a single solitary sensation. Like a robot powered down, operating on the most basic level, breathing but not making any real effort to inhale. Your heart pounding an almost imperceptible rhythm as if even your own body can’t be bothered with you anymore. A zombie, so starved of brain matter that all it can do is sit there and rot until its flesh falls away and its bones crumble to dust.

Dissociation can be both a blessing and a curse. At times, I will pray for it. Actively pray for it. And then, when it comes and I feel nothing, I will lay there, staring at the wall, wondering if I’ll ever feel again, wondering if there’s really any point in an existence without emotion. And I’ll want to end it. But even suicide seems too much of an effort.


Why I self-harm.

Self-harm, for me, can do one of two things. In a dissociative state, it can bring forth sensation and release me from the numbness. Remind me that I am capable of feeling and that these periods of nothingness are indeed transitory and merely my brain’s way of taking some much-needed time out.

In a highly emotional state, it will soothe me, give my internal pain an external form. I can see the hurt, see the blood sent to cleanse and heal, watch the scab form and the scars fade. Physical proof that my feelings exist, that they are no longer “all in my head”, that I was wounded once but now am healed. At least in theory. 

Emotional pain can be very hard to deal with. If you walk into a door or someone punches you, chances are you’ll have a bruise, maybe even a broken bone, a visible injury that others can see and, in turn, respond to. There are valid treatments for such things, a poultice, painkillers, cream, sympathy and understanding. Here is my wound, please kiss it better. 

Emotional turmoil has no such remedy.

People will tell you to “suck it up”, they’ll tell you shit happens and it’s not worth getting in a state about. And no matter how hard you try and explain that it’s just not that easy, sooner or later they’ll tire of listening to your tirade and go find something better to do with their time. 

People have consistently let me down in my most troubled times. I don’t blame them. Being faced with someone in a full-on Borderline meltdown is not a pretty sight. It can seem to many that we just don’t want to help ourselves, that we want to sit and wallow in a pit of self-pity, that we’re actually enjoying our perpetual misery and that we don’t give a flying fuck who we take down with us. I can assure you, this isn’t the case. We want you to save us, we want you to be the one that finally rescues us from our self. But we know you won’t be. And we suspect that we’re not worth it anyway. Because sooner or later, no matter how hard you try and keep us from that pit, you’ll find us right back there again. 

Pain, on the other hand, pain has never let me down. Pain is real. Pain is reliable. Pain is a reminder that I exist, that what I feel is real. Pain assures me that I am alive at a time where I need that assurance the most. The sting of the blade brings with it a promise of better days, because when you’re sat at the very bottom, there’s nowhere else to go but up. The flow of blood proof that I am in fact human and that, in some ways at least, I am very much in control of this vessel that carries my soul.

Medically, pain makes sense.

When your body experiences damage, your brain releases endorphins. Painkillers. Things to make you happy. They have even been likened to Morphine. They’re that fucking good. So, you tell me again how ‘stupid’ self-harm really is.

As I said at the beginning, I am in no way condoning or promoting self-harm. For someone to feel so utterly lost and alone that they feel the need to cause themselves actual physical damage in an attempt to bring about relief is saddening in itself. But the stigma and judgement that comes hand in hand with such practices makes it even harder for those of us that have reached that point to get help. 

There have been many times I have cut because I’ve felt hurt or angered by someone. I’m not proud to admit it but at times there can be a lot of spite involved. “This is how much you’ve hurt me, this is what you’ve driven me to.” But then, when the haze of hate has left me and I’m sat crying over what I’ve done, the last thing I want is for that person to know they were to blame. Because the fact that I have difficulty regulating my emotions is really no-one’s fault and in reality, if they weren’t the one holding the knife, they really weren’t the one to force your hand either. 

Like an addiction.

Other times when I’ve cut I worry that my loved ones will blame themselves regardless of whether they have hurt me or not. That they have failed me on some level. That they should have been there to stop me. When the fact of the matter is, if I feel the need to cut, I will cut, regardless of how hard you try to hold me back. I will find a way. Like a junkie out to find a fix. Exactly like a junkie trying to find a fix.

Remember the Morphine comment? I wasn’t kidding. This shit is addictive as fuck. Because it works. And when you’re in that state, familiarity breeds content.

And every time, without exception, I’ve waited for someone to notice and to ask if I’m ok, to see if there’s anything they can do, to offer support and understanding, to realise that this is how low I’ve fallen and that I’m having trouble picking myself up. 

Wanting help but receiving judgement.

But no. There’s judgement, guilt-tripping, the feeling that everyone thinks you’re just out to get attention. Rarely support and never understanding. “What are you, fucking emo?” Well, yes, actually. Did my floppy fringe and excessive use of wrist bands give me away? For the record, the hair is to hide my face because a) if I don’t want to look at myself, I’m not gonna force it on other people and b) it makes it much easier to avoid eye contact. Also, I couldn’t be bothered to brush my hair today. Deal with it. And the wristbands? They’re a lot more subtle than bandages and I can’t deal with you questioning how my cat managed to scratch me in such uniform lines. And all that jazz.

Imagine how much easier it would be for people to ask for help if others made more of an effort to understand why we resort to such measures instead of just calling us ‘fucking stupid’ and taking our blades away. You think we won’t find another way? You think we won’t be even more desperate to now since you’ve made it perfectly clear we’re not worthy of better options? Stop judging. Stop trying to control what we can’t and help us find a better way. Stop writing our actions off as teen angst gone awry and do your fucking research before telling us our way is the wrong way because, for some of us, we have yet to find the right way.

[Image: Jennifer ]

Instead of judging, be a friend.

And that doesn’t by any means imply that we won’t. Most of us will. But we won’t find shit if you blind us with shame perpetuated by stigma. If you know someone who self-harms, don’t question their sanity, question their motives. Ask them what they gain from it, ask how they feel before, during and after. Make an effort to see why they resort to self-destruction and maybe in doing so you’ll help them to find a less destructive way to deal with what’s going on inside. Because chances are, they’ve been looking a long time and this is the furthest they’ve got. Stuck in a rut carved deep by a blade that was there for them when no-one else was. And maybe showing them that self-harm is not their only friend will lead to them finding new, less harmful ones. Friends that don’t make them hate themselves and that encourage them to air their feelings instead of internalising them, no matter how unpleasant they may be.

There have been many, many times in my life that the blades have called to me far louder than any other friend. Make sure that you’re the one calling loudest and maybe we’ll stop listening quite so hard to the steel that sings so sweetly amidst the hate that fills our heads.

And remember, above all else, that if someone is making a cry for help, maybe it’s time someone helped them.