Self harm is something many living with mental illness have experienced, and yet it remains something people are squeamish about, that they reject, that they shame us for.

Hope’s #MadCovidDiaries Tuesday 21.5.2020

TW: Self Harm

Because it’s been the heinously platitudinous Mental Health Awareness Week this week, and inspired by @mugamnesty’s recent blog on psychosis, I’ve decided to write this diary about self harm. Self harm is something many living with mental illness have experienced, and yet it remains something people are squeamish about, that they reject, that they shame us for.

Got a glimpse of you

Looking sad but true

Looking cheap and unsatisfied

It’s a cheap melodrama

But baby I’m a big self-harmer

            — Courtney Love, unnamed song, featured in documentary The Return of Courtney Love (2006)

I started self-harming when I was eleven, or that’s what I tell people. When I was a toddler and young child I would pick all the skin off my lips and collect the blood on tissue or bits of paper and hide them under my pillow. I’d take them out at night and stare at them, fascinated. That’s probably where it started for me. It was a bit of a revelation when I went to secondary school and found out some of the older kids were cutting themselves with razor blades, that you could do this kind of stuff to yourself on purpose and you didn’t have to pretend it was just an itch or a habit like picking your lips too hard. To me it seemed courageous, heroic even, to crystallize all that pain into coherent, communicative shapes, drawn into your body forever, and then the hiding it seemed exciting, something that must inevitably be put up with as a consequence of having such a transgressive talent.

These kinds of proto-teenagery thoughts never went away. When I realised that this fascination with cutting myself was intersecting with suffocating loneliness I tried to ignore it, to keep living in that euphoric secrecy of self-harm, but it became unpredictable and ultimately fed my developing mental illness, where I have manic periods of hyperproductivity and euphoria, but also times where I am frozen in panic and pain. The mania is sometimes instigated by self harm, but sometimes not. Self harm is neither a cause or a consequence, it’s all mixed up and in between.

At my school there were a lot of lonely kids. We used self harm to communicate with one another, to share and signal that we understood. It became how I made friends, friends who cared for me and understood me like I’d never known before. We all supposed it was a bad thing to do, and we were bullied and shamed for it, but it took the loneliness away, and to me it became sacred. Scarring myself encapsulated an act of intimacy with someone I might not even know yet, someone I might grow to love, something I have to keep secret until I’m sure. Sex never felt so lovely like that.

So it’s thirteen years after I first cut myself and I’m still lusting after it. I did not grow out of it, as some people would say. I think about it like I think about writing, painting, creating art. I think about it like I think about cigarettes, having stopped smoking (for good, I hope) around two years ago. And after I’ve done it I’m never sure what I was looking for, until the wanting comes around again.

When I hate myself, it’s a bit easier to get a hold of. All that idolised slipperiness isn’t there. Instead it’s just me and my body and I want to punish it. A recurring fantasy that I haven’t yet succumbed to is cutting up my face. It coalesced from the anger and hurt I felt towards people who have abused me and bullied me, a vengeance enacted by expressing what they’d done to the inside of me. I would use the stigma and shame of self harm against them by putting it on my face, where they couldn’t look away, where I wouldn’t be able to hide it so well. Because I grew up internalising all of my rage and grief, this was the only kind of vengeance I could think of, that didn’t have to disagree that I was horror and nothingness. The kind I understood.

Imagine how these ideas of mine would be different if no one had to hide their self harm.

A good therapist once told me that when trauma happens in childhood, the childhood response is preserved, and those feelings become kind of ‘stuck’ in time. I think there are some problems with this, and it’s not always true. But in some ways it’s happened with self harm, for me. I still feel enchanted by these childhood ideas I had about it, the need it fulfilled in my loneliness. Imagine if we had somehow been given a different way to show our pain to each other. Imagine if it didn’t have to be a secret. This whole world of enchantment that I am trapped in, that I have come to accept I will probably always be trapped in, wouldn’t exist without the confines of that shame.

And I might regret writing this whole thing tomorrow, and then I might be proud of it the day after that, because the oscillations between understandings are like that with self harm. I suppose it’s like a change in mood, but a very local one, from one way of thinking to another. I might find this whole idea that self harm for me got idolised through this culture of secrecy and care preposterous in a few hours— and if I’d written about this on a different day, or at a different time of day, I have no idea how it would have turned out, because I often can’t even grip my feelings about self harm long enough to wonder how temporary they might be. There isn’t a tense that allows writing like that. And I do believe myself at the time I feel these things— it’s just that years of trying to make it stay still and exasperating therapists because I say one thing about self harm and then another over and over again— like dipping your hands in a fast-moving river, knowing you’re holding the water, but it is lost and replaced all the time with slightly altered versions of itself. And when you take your hands away, you’re holding onto nothing, only a silvery residue of something you once thought you knew.

Yes, it’s been worse during the pandemic. Worse than usual, after all these years and experience dealing with it, but probably not worse than it was when I was younger. But it might get like that again. I won’t know until it happens.

I put the Courtney Love lyric in because it’s a rare explicit pop culture reference to self harm, and Courtney Love herself has been shamed and ignored when experiencing horribly difficult things. The documentary is really good and is on YouTube.

Picture: near where I grew up, on the train, December 2019.

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