Cutting & Self-Harm: The Stigma & The Aftermath
Over the last week I have received multiple emails from women who have described themselves as “previous self-harmers”. One of the emails dealt with that issue specifically — the writer is covered in scars & burns & wanted my advice on how to deal with it. She said,
“The problem is that I still feel like I am unable to truly embrace myself, because my body is covered in scars. I still carry a lot of shame. I feel a lot of anxiety about how other people will react to my scars, as I know that to the majority of people, self-injury is unfathomable. It is incredibly distressful because I feel like self-injury is not a part of who I am anymore, and I want to be able to embrace myself completely.”
You wrote to the right girl, because I used to cut myself too.
It’s strange, because I, like you, sometimes feel like I’m being judged for something I no longer am, & something I no longer do. In fact, I don’t identify with the version of me who used to do that at all. I remember how I felt & what I was thinking, but I feel so distant from it. The old cliché is true: it’s like watching a movie in my mind. So I wanted to talk about this subject, which can be really uncomfortable to talk about, even for me, who will happily write about masturbation! Sometimes it seems like self-harm is the last taboo. No one really wants to discuss it, which is why we have to.
I live by the adage, “Go big or go home.” My first piercings were not my ears, but my nipples. My first tattoo wasn’t a butterfly on my ass, it was a half-sleeve. (You get the idea.) So the first time I spoke about self-harm in public was not on my blog or on Twitter. No. It was at Carnegie Mellon University, during my TED talk, to 500 anonymous strangers. Now that that video has been released, I thought it was time to talk about it a little more…
I started cutting myself when I was about 13 years old. I was a happy, outgoing, confident kid, but all that seemed to change overnight. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I refused to wear colour, & I spent my time reading books like American Psycho, Lost Souls & Exquisite Corpse. I was obsessed with serial killers & the Manson family. I can look back at it now & laugh, but at the time, I was in a really dark place. I was extremely unhappy, & further to the point, I was furious. I was so angry about life that I remember feeling on the verge of a nervous breakdown for some time.
I wasn’t just angry, I was also depressed, & my emotions would swing back & forth between rage & sadness, constantly, all the time. I didn’t know how to deal with what I was feeling, so one night, I took a craft knife & pressed it into my leg. It didn’t go very deep but it left a scar that I still have today. What it also did was provide me with an adrenaline rush that then lulled me into a sense of calm, which made my crazy feelings go away. For a while, anyway. When you’re an impulsive, troubled teenager with a sense of infallibility & you find something that works to make your bad feelings go away, you stick to it, without any thought of the consequences.
I guess I didn’t know then that the scars would remain for the rest of my life. Maybe I thought they’d go away with time, but probably not — I was incapable of thinking about the long-term repercussions of any decisions I made. I actually thought my scars looked cool, & I remember trying to make them as long as possible. I also carved a couple of choice words into my leg, which, thank god, didn’t scar. I’m pretty sure I thought all of this made me seem more interesting, in the same way that, years later, I thought not eating made me seem mysterious & beautiful & sad — all that tragic girl shit that we’re fed, & that we buy into with ease.
I never thought to use Vitamin E oil on my scars, which is probably part of why my left arm still looks totally gnarly. I edit it in pictures, mostly because I don’t want to have to answer any questions about it, but also because I don’t want anyone — especially a young impressionable girl — looking at it & thinking it’s cool, or that I would encourage it. Writing about it is different, because it gives it context. A photo is too easy to misinterpret.
Cutting myself became my coping mechanism, my way of dealing with the torrent of emotions I was feeling. Sometimes it was a way of letting out my rage, & sometimes it was a way of feeling sensation — I would often have these episodes where I felt like I was submerged underwater, feelings of dissociation & a kind of weird numbness.
One day the school nurse saw my arm, called my parents & told them I was trying to kill myself. I wasn’t, but my parents freaked out & sent me to a psychologist. I started seeing this woman every week — I don’t even remember her name — & it was a complete waste of time. I was obsessed with the way she would put bright red lipstick ALL the way around her mouth, like the Joker, & I couldn’t take her seriously. She had no useful suggestions, & I had absolutely no interest in talking to her about my issues. Mostly I saw it as a way of getting out of school early.
One of the weirdest things about this time of my life is that everyone who was close to me was self-harming too, in exactly the same way. I had two boyfriends who did it — one of whom carved my name into his arm, aieeeee! — & my best friends did it too. I don’t know whether we were subconsciously encouraging each other, if it was “a goth thing”, or if self-harm is just way, way more common than we know.
This went on for 5 years. I eventually stopped self-harming when, one night, I accidentally used a really, really sharp blade. I (finally!) realised that if I kept going down this route, I was going to do myself some serious damage. That incident left a major scar on my arm, which is 3 inches long & half an inch thick. To say it’s grotesque is an understatement. Even today, it’s distinctively silvery-white & raised — & I did that over ten years ago.
Unfortunately, the end of my obsession with knives didn’t signify the start of self-love. I moved 600km away & swiftly developed an eating disorder, which controlled my life until I was 22 years old. Discovering EFT was when my radical self love journey began, but that’s a story for another time.
When I asked people on Twitter about their experiences with self-injury & dealing with scars, the response was massive. Tweets & emails rolled in, from women who had stopped self-harming years ago, to women who thought about doing it from time to time. Some of the people who wrote were still harming themselves as a coping mechanism.
There was less shame around the experience than I was expecting, though there was a bit. Most of the anxiety was around how other people might view their scars (“My thought pattern is something like ‘If they know what they are from, then they also know I’ve been mentally ill and they may think that I’m still mentally ill'”), or not wanting to make someone else uncomfortable (“What if I ever had kids, how would I explain these very obvious scars?”). I think a lot of this comes from a lack of self-acceptance. It is immensely freeing to be able to look at our old behaviour or actions with a sense of compassion & empathy, rather than embarrassment or anxiety. I think M.F. had it totally right when she wrote to me & said, “I frequently wish there was something I could do to get rid of them so I didn’t have a constant reminder of such a dark time in my life. However, this is more of a reminder that I may just have some more work to do around acceptance.”
The majority of women who wrote in were not embarrassed by the remnants from their days of self-harm, but instead saw their scars as an integral part of who they are; part of the journey towards loving themselves entirely. In fact, some women were almost proud of their scars, choosing to view them as proof that they could overcome something horrendous & go on to not only survive, but thrive.
Some women had covered their scars with tattoos, or planned to: a way of making something beautiful out of an unhappy past. I have to admit that tattooing used to tick some of the same boxes for me as self-harm used to.
“I used to self-harm or self-injure (cut) almost daily for almost four years. I kind of grew out of it (plus a few years of intensive psychotherapy), and once I was old enough to be tattooed, I found that it was a better endorphin rush anyway. Being tattooed now fulfills much of the same function for me, both in term of the way it makes me feel and the ultimate goal of the action.
I now realise that I used SI as a means of asserting a feeling of control over my body, when I felt like I have very little control over it, or other parts of my life. Ultimately, isn’t that what a lot of body modification is all about? Tattoos of course, are more productive because you end up with something that adorns your skin, but I wear my scars like a badge of honour. SI was an addiction for me, and I beat it!” (L.J.)
One girl wrote in to say that even though she self-harmed for five years, she wasn’t left with any scars — & that sometimes made other people, particularly people who did have scars, think that she never “really” self-injured, or that she clearly “didn’t suffer enough”. This is total crap: pain is pain, & no matter where you fall on the scale, it is real to you. Plenty of people with eating disorders don’t resemble a “thinspiration” picture, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem.
A few people spoke about how pissed it made them when others insinuated they’d just done it to “get attention”. I had to laugh when one girl wrote to say, “If it’s only the attention you want, you can wear a funny hat or something!” I love it! How true. It’s unfortunate that there is so much stigma around self-harm, & that it’s often seen as being an attention-seeking behaviour. I have to say, though, that I have only ever encountered that kind of attitude in people who are almost entirely devoid of empathy! (As always, the best way to deal with hurtful or hateful comments is simply to rise above & live your life the best way you know how!)
“I realised something during my teenage years that a lot of people disagree with – in the end, you’ve only got yourself. But I don’t see it as being a lonely or anti social or pessimistic or ending up living in a house full of cats! I see it as… At the end of the day, you can get all the therapy in the world and you can take all the medicines and treatments in the world but if you don’t want to even see the resolution, you won’t get anywhere. YOU have to make yourself better. It’s hard, I know. It’s real fucking hard. But nothing is EVER as bad as it seems, I promise every single person that. YOU have the power to control your thoughts and your dreams and your wishes and your life.” (S.B.)
I have to say a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to write & share their extremely personal stories with me. That takes guts, & I’m honoured that you would entrust me with this very private part of your lives. So thank you.
Someone told me recently that I could get plastic surgery on my arm to get rid of the scars. “I’m sure that would just make it worse,” I replied. “No, they can do amazing things these days,” they said.
I thought about it for about 5 seconds, but really, I have no interest in hiding or getting rid of my scars. To me, it is not worth the money or the hassle. I don’t feel that they affect my life at all. When I look at them, there is no emotional register. My scars may not be beautiful, but they mark the passage of time; they are a very physical record of how much my life has changed, & how much I have evolved.
I’ve only had a few people say anything to me about my scars. A girl I worked with once asked how I got them, & I was 18 & uncomfortable discussing it, so I told her I had a crazy cat. I genuinely believe she actually had no idea what she was looking at. Everyone else has been more along the lines of, “What’s up with that?” & I have no trouble telling them I used to be an angsty teenager. It’s the truth, & I don’t worry about how people will perceive that. If they judge me for something I did when I was a teenager, then they’re extremely short-sighted. Maybe you could choose to see it as a good way of weeding out small-minded people!
The other thing I’ve noticed is that the less self-conscious I am about them, the less other people notice them at all. Or maybe, the less self-conscious I am, the less I notice other people looking. Either way works for me!
Life is about choices. You can choose to be embarrassed or ashamed of your past, or you can choose to accept it & move forward. I have chosen to see my scars as part of my journey towards something beautiful.
Forgive yourself for the choices you’ve made. We all do the best we can with what we know at the time.
Here are some quotes from celebrities who used to self-harm. By posting them here, I’m not trying to glamorise self-injury — I’m attempting to demonstrate that it’s quite normal, & also that it can be overcome. All of the people quoted below have since moved on from this behaviour, except Marilyn Manson (I think). Self-injury doesn’t have to be your only way of dealing with stresses, & these people are proof!
“My body is a journal in a way. It’s like what sailors used to do, where every tattoo meant something, a specific time in your life when you make a mark on yourself, whether you do it yourself with a knife or with a professional tattoo artist.” (Johnny Depp)
Johnny Depp said that in 1993. In an interview in 2001, he said he had moved forward; that even though he still had dark places within himself, he feels closer to the light today than ever before.
“Some people go shopping — I cut myself.” (Angelina Jolie)
That quote is from 1995, & Angelina Jolie has since talked about how opening up about her self-harming past has helped others. She also spoke to ABC News about how adopting her son, Maddox, seemed to take away any urges to self-injure.
“I think that’s all a form of wanting to let go, of wanting to get out… It’s not something easily described or understood.” (Marilyn Manson)
Mazza (as I like to call him!) had 450 scars at the time of the publication of his book, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. He said he was still self-harming as recently as 2009 — but whether that’s true or just part of his persona is another story entirely!
“I wouldn’t say that cutting was pleasurable, but there is a sense of euphoria that follows cutting yourself. The quick pinch of pain & the sight of blood snaps you back to the surface & you start to appreciate being alive… I’m speaking out because I feel this problem is getting worse for some kids. I’m not an expert on this, but you have to talk to someone. I’ve seen kids with cigarette burns on their arms or gashes on their legs. It kills me, but hopefully my coming forward can help a little.” (Shirley Manson)
“You have so much pain inside yourself that you try & hurt yourself on the outside because you want help.” (Princess Diana)
Princess Diana married into royalty, & found out the night before the wedding that her fiancé — Prince Charles — was in love with another woman. Princess Diana felt so out of control of her own life that she would throw herself down stairs or into glass cabinets. She died in a car crash in 1997, as she & her boyfriend tried to evade paparazzi.
“When I was younger, I did self-mutilate. I’d be upset, so I’d do it, & it would calm me down. It’s a horrible way to feel better. But there are two parts of your brain — one that really wants to destroy the other. & sometimes the idea of self-destruction is very romantic. I got over that.” (Christina Ricci)
Christina Ricci also struggled with an eating disorder, but in 2008 said that she was learning how to turn her past experiences into positives, & making an effort to find out who she was.
Self-harm is very common. It’s estimated that 13% of 15 & 16 year old girls in Britain will engage in this behaviour, so if this is something that you’re doing, or have done in the past, you’re not a freak or a weirdo. There are, however, other ways of dealing with your emotions that have more positive, lasting effects.
People who self-harm are not usually seeking to end their own life; it has been suggested instead that they are using self-harm as a coping mechanism to relieve emotional pain or discomfort or as an attempt to communicate distress. (Source)
Help Guide has lots of information about why we self-injure, & how to avoid it. There’s a whole forum dedicated to self-harm at The Site. There’s some good info at Mind, & telephone numbers for people in the U.K. Here are some ideas for explaining old scars. This book — Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding & Ending Self-Injury — is brilliant. Teen Help has some statistics & ideas on how to help your child who self-injures.
Please know that if self-harm or self-injury is something you’re dealing with right now, there are other ways of releasing your anger or fear & regaining that feeling of control in your life. EFT is an incredible option, & there are lots of other ways. Even if you feel embarrassed about it, you might find that you feel better if you tell someone else what you’re going through. It can also be extremely helpful to identify what your triggers are. What kind of events cause you to want to self-harm? Once you know what they are, you can work to either avoid them, eliminate them, or deal with them in a different way.
You are strong & beautiful & you can get through this!
Gorgeous collages by Tiphanie Brooke / Antigirl.