I had a mostly happy childhood, where nothing especially bad ever happened to me. I didn’t show any particular signs of mental illness as a child, and the only blot on the landscape of my life was a terrible shyness which hit me at puberty.
The first time I self harmed was when I was fourteen, in response to a row with a friend at the time. Looking back, it wasn’t that big a deal, but to a fourteen year old with not that many friends, it felt like the worst thing ever to happen to me. I remember being angry, and punching a wall, and being called “mad” by said friend, and then, for reasons I cannot remember, I thought it would be a good idea to cut myself with a kitchen knife. I suspect I was trying for suicide, but I found that the action of self harming got rid of the desire to die.
I make it sound serious – it wasn’t. I self injured that time, and then not again until I was an adult. I didn’t know it was called self injury (we didn’t have the internet until later, when I had almost forgotten I had ever done that) and I didn’t have the desire to do it again. I probably would never have done it had I not become ill.
Everything went fairly normally from then, I moved house to London, went to a new school, and everything was fine. I grew less shy, which was excellent, and made friends without too much difficulty. The scars faded to almost nothing and I didn’t think about it. Then I went off to university, travelling to the other end of the country (I studied in Edinburgh). In retrospect, this was a terrible mistake. In my first year I was homesick and stuck with flatmates who I wasn’t that keen on. When I think about it my first self harming behaviour happened then – because I took up smoking in the hope that I would either die of it or get very ill, out of a self-destructive impulse (which is still how I feel about smoking, some of the time. It has been useful when I am depressed)
Second year I ended up with another set of flatmates who I didn’t like, and that was the first time I wound up on anti-depressants. One of my flatmates turned into a violent alcoholic, which was obviously not the ideal person to have share a flat with me! I remember one of my lecturers describing me as “mentally unstable and unfit to lead others” at the time, although I completely dismissed this.
All this was a bit unfortunate, but not too bad – it was my final year at university where I really hit problems. I became very depressed, and I started self injuring again. This time, it was a lot more serious. I cannot easily put into words how bad I was feeling. I felt absolutely desperate to not be in such pain, to escape the awful depression I was in. I saw a psychiatrist at the time, although I don’t think I took his advice (I know I didn’t take his pills for a long time, preferring to save them up and overdose on them). I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as I later found out, although I self harm only when depressed. My memories of times I have been depressed are hazy and confused, perhaps as a self-protective mechanism to stop me being ashamed of the way I behaved. I self harmed several times a day, cutting always on my left arm.
I remember waking up to sheets stiff with blood, although I never cut deeply enough to put myself at risk. I also remember sitting in a pub drinking, and realising that the movement had re-opened the wounds on my arm and the blood was flowing into my hand. I couldn’t seem to stop, couldn’t think of anything else that would dull the mental pain I was in.
My self injury was the reason I went to my doctor, and got referred to a psychiatrist. For me, then as now, it is when I self injure that I know that I am ill, that there is something wrong that I need help to sort out. I think that is why I am a bit ambivalent when people say that self injury is not about seeking attention. I certainly didn’t go around showing my wounds to people and demanding sympathy and their attention, but it, to me, speaks louder than if I simply say I am depressed. If I go to my psychiatrist and say “I am feeling depressed” there is always the chance that they will not take me seriously enough – I have been told that I show, on the outside, not that much of my distress. I know, though, that if I am ill enough to self harm, and I say I have been self injuring, then it acts like a signal to a doctor that I really am unwell, and that something needs to be done. I don’t, let me make clear, self harm for the doctor, I don’t hurt myself so that they will take me seriously, but I have always found that if I am ill enough to do it, then it seems easier for them to understand, more than me saying I am ill.
I somehow managed to get through my final exams, and with the release of pressure, and the fact that I finally started taking my medication, I began to feel better. I spent a year living where I do now, not doing very much, just recuperating from illness. Things were fine for a few years, but unfortunately I became depressed again. It was not as bad, not as uncontrolled as the first time, but this time I wound up in hospital (voluntarily). Again I had been self harming, and again that stopped when I felt better. Since then I have frequently self injured, always when depressed, and usually on my left arm, although I did hurt my right leg a few years back. I keep razor blades around, even now, in case I am overwhelmed by an urge. I also started burning myself with cigarettes.
I have not self harmed in a year now, and have only infrequently felt the urge to do so. I have been very well, and had almost convinced myself I need not worry about my illness until I took my first job in two years, and had to leave very quickly when the urges to self injure started getting intense. I wouldn’t say I am recovered, that I am cured, I take each day as it comes.
Self injury, for me, helps me cope. When I am feeling overwhelmed with depression, when I am feeling suicidal, it acts to release the pressure on me, it gives me peace. That is why it is so addictive – it is something I can do which, although it does not make me happy, gives me some relief from the pain in my head. I get a craving for it, when I am ill, like the craving for a cigarette. I tend to think that self injury is an addiction, or can be for some people, because I find it very hard to deny myself when I am down, and the urge comes on me. I know, and that knowledge grows clearer the longer it has been since I self harmed, that self injury is not the answer, it provides no long-term relief. I know that I should find another coping mechanism, but I do not know what that would be.
I am a Christian – I found my faith while at university, in that dark time. I know that I should look to God for peace, not a razor blade. I also know that God does not want me to hurt myself. I struggle with leaning on God rather than on my own resources, with being vulnerable with him, giving up the attempt to sort things out on my own and relying on him. That would also require me to accept his answer, even if I do not feel better, even if it takes time, to give up the action which has helped me cope and to depend on God in a much deeper way than I have ever done. I am a person who likes control, lack of control is one of the triggers for my illness, and to surrender my control to God seems a very frightening thing to me. It is something I am working on. I do not think self injury is a sin, as in a crime against God, but I do know that God wants me to stop, to not do it again, and that is something I am trying my best with.
It is hard to give up something you have come to rely on. If I could speak to my younger self I would say never to cut myself. I find it hard to not do it, when the urge comes, it has a hold on me that I really want to break. It helps, but it is harmful in many ways, and I wish I had never taken it up. Now I will face for the rest of my life having to live with lots of scars, and always thinking of what I will say if someone asks what they are. I will not live my life in long-sleeves all the time, so I have to face that. My one piece of advice to someone is not to do it, and if you have just started it do not carry on, because it will get a grip on you that is very hard to break. So that is my story, fairly typical I would say, apart from my age when I started self harming seriously – I understand most people start younger. I hope and pray that I will be able to resist doing it again.