5 Alternatives to Cutting: An Insider’s Perspective

This list is representative of my personal experience and is by no means exhaustive. The point is that there are many ways other than self-harm to meet your emotional needs, and it is most certainly possible to achieve a state of mind in which you no longer have to fend off destructive thoughts every ten seconds. Regular psychologist visits have helped me immensely, and I strongly suggest that anyone dealing with a recurrent desire to self-harm- be it cutting or some other means- take advantage of the wisdom and knowledge of qualified professionals. It is a long and difficult journey, but you are completely and indisputably worth it.

Yes, this is my back.

1. Tattoos/piercings

Now hear me out. I’m not advocating slapping on the latest butterfly design every time you have a bad day, and I wouldn’t recommend them to just anyone. But serial cutters have a kind of mental release associated with pain- searing, incisive, invasive pain- that can only be achieved when the body is actually experiencing it. That said, there’s a reason this isn’t a list of one. Self-harm is recurring and pervasive because it sates multiple needs for a suffering individual. It takes a multi-faceted approach and a lot of self-scrutiny to recognize what those needs are for yourself, and to learn how to meet them in different ways. My tattoos are just one piece of the story my skin tells, and my skin is just one piece of the story that is me. As my mental health has improved over the years, I’ve found that even when I do slip up and cut I simply don’t have the same capacity for self-violence that I once did. My default mode of function has been fundamentally altered for the better.

2. Haircuts

When I was fourteen I locked myself in the bathroom and took the kitchen scissors to my then elbow-length tresses. The result was an awkward few inches of disconcerted curls that only barely managed to suffice after my mother dragged me to the hairdresser to ‘fix’ it. And while my method may not appeal to most, the resulting jolt was enough of an emotional shift to delay my marked descent into regular self-harm. Hair is symbolic, and cutting it symbolizes myriad things to different people. Whether inadvertent or not, letting it grow is but one means to carry the past around with you. I’m not promoting pixie cuts as the only way to live in the moment. God knows only a blessed few can pull them off. I currently have long hair again, and for the most part I enjoy it. But sometimes when I feel like I’m going crazy I fantasize about lopping it all off, and it wouldn’t be an uninformed mistake if I did.

3. Travel

This is a tricky one, and I recognize that it’s unfeasible for a lot of people, financially or otherwise. When I hopped on a Greyhound bus destined for New York at age fifteen I had only four hundred dollars to my name, and I surely would have been homeless within a couple of weeks if my father hadn’t intercepted me in the Chicago station. That is not the kind of travel I am talking about. What I am talking about is the kind of trips I took as I got older- studying in Central America and Israel, backpacking in Argentina, and Mexico, and Morocco, and India… I am convinced that travel is one of the few things in life that can never be a waste of time. At the very least you come out of it having experienced a different part of the world and increased your capacity for scrappiness. Travel forces you to be where you are, to pay attention, to engage in the novelty of your surroundings, to feel alive. We can’t all head off to Timbuktu every time we’re feeling tense. And it shouldn’t be that easy either, otherwise you’re simply running away from your reality. But you can take a walk somewhere you’ve never been, or a drive down the coast, or spend a night in a nearby destination of choice. There are ways to take advantage of the gifts of travel without having to drop a thousand dollars on a plane ticket.

4. Strategic distraction

Sometimes all you have is the right now, and right now you want to cut. Terribly. You’ve already inked your entire body and shaved your head so you can’t get a job, otherwise you’d follow advice number three. So what do you do? You get through that moment. That hour. That night. If you can put yourself in the company of caring people, or at least get a friend or a family member on the phone, by all means do. But sometimes your roommates are out of town and your mom’s not picking up and your hamster’s run off and you’re just so goddamn alone. Pick up a piece of ice. I wish I could take credit for this one, but I learned it in rehab, so there you go. Recognize where it is in your body that you’re feeling the emotional pain that’s driving you toward that razor. Now squeeze the ice in both hands as tightly as you can, and as you remember to breathe, feel the source of pain transition from your head or your heart or your stomach to your freezing hands. Stay there as long as you need to. Get a new piece of ice if you need to. Scream if you need to. Fuck it.

5. Weed

For practical (and developmental) reasons this shouldn’t be your first resort. Personally, it’s not a ‘resort’ I use at all. But for those without substance abuse problems complicating their treatment, a little medicinal marijuana now and then can significantly reduce anxiety and often provide other benefits as well. For those without legal access, the stress and potential consequences of obtaining it could very likely negate those benefits. And while I won’t judge you, society probably will.