Self Harm: More than just attention
NB: This article will contain graphic descriptions of self-harm, mental health problems and, very possibly, swearing. If you feel you will be negatively affected by reading this article, please be warned and please talk to someone or talk to a charity specifically made to help:
There’s a stigma around self-harm, one as almost as bad as depression, that people who self-harm are only doing it for attention. And I mostly agree, for the right reasons. But like many mental health issues, there a number of complicating factors and, simply put, everyone is different. Everyone’s past is different, stories are different, and their experiences are different. Simply labelling each person as an attention seeker is misguided and ignorant.
Self-harm, for me, was a personal thing, and I really hated anyone knowing that I did it, even though I know that I was screaming internally for help. I started seriously self-harming when I was 14, soon after my granddad died and I started to find sharp objects to start to cut myself with, little cuts at first and nothing too serious. This then progressed on and on, leading to bigger things to cut myself with and, as a result, bigger injuries. Looking back now though, I think I was self-harming long before I started using knives and scissors to scar myself.
As a kid, as explained previously in my A Gaming Life article, I suffered from quite an anger problem, leading to several incidents of arson, violence against myself and a large period of self-destructive behaviour that not only affected me, but others around me too. I regularly used to get myself into situations where I would end up getting hurt, or doing things to hurt myself: punching walls, telling the biggest bully in the school to “fuck off” knowing he’d paste me everywhere. These little elements of behaviour all add up for me, amounting to what I consider to be self-harm even before the cutting started.
Despite my problems, I’d never heard of cutting or any other form of self-harm prior to my first relationship with a girl. This girl went to the girls’ school next door, and was one of only a few alternative girls back then, as opposed to it being more “acceptable” now with rockers, goths and emos being everywhere. She also self-harmed, quite badly. Regularly she turned up to school with a bandage or a large plaster on her arms, having felt low enough to feel the need to cut the previous night. Much like everyone else who self-harms, she felt she had no-one to talk to and despite having many friends, felt alone in the world. This was an alien concept for me, and was quite shocked to learn that the cuts were self-inflicted. I remember being really upset that someone I cared for could hurt themselves that way.
I remember asking her why, and her answer was that it made her feel better. Whether it truly did, I don’t know to this day and I don’t speak to her anymore to find out, but I do know that one of her influences in doing it was Richey Edwards, a member of the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers who disappeared in February 1995, and has since been declared “presumed dead.”
Before his disappearance, Richey was one of first people who were in the media spotlight to talk openly and candidly about depression and self-harm, even notoriously carving “4 REAL” into his forearm when questioned by a journalist about the seriousness of his band. Despite needing medical attention and several stitches to the wound, I remember there being a passage about him that he made sure everyone else in the hospital waiting room was seen before him, very aware that his injury was self-inflicted and not requiring attention before those that deserved it. This stuck with me, but I’ll talk more about that later.
When my granddad passed away from several cancers, not long after I met this girl in school, and knowing she self-harmed and aware of Richey and the new world of self-harm, I felt very down and unable to talk to anybody about how I felt. My granddad was my role model, and despite him having his faults (later learned I might add), I looked up to him for being able to live through life with a disability (Polio), go to a scholarship school, work hard and have his own house. All things the rest of my family didn’t do or have.
Having passed my 11+ and got into a grammar school, I felt that I was following in his footsteps, and with a shine in his eye and a proud smile, I knew I’d done well in his eyes. When he went, I felt… lost. I felt like the only person in my life who actually gave a fuck was gone. Sitting alone in my room at 3am, unable to sleep, I felt a desire to hurt myself and not like I’d done previously. I wanted to feel pain. I wanted to know pain. I remember getting the compass I had in my school case and scoring my arm with it. Nothing too serious in comparison to others’ and to what I later did, but it was enough.
It was also enough to know that what I did, I didn’t want anyone finding out. Not even the girl whom I learned it from. And so, whenever I felt unable to cope or talk to anyone, I hurt myself with a range of objects: knives, broken CDs, glass I found in the street, scissors, a smashed mirror. Anything that I could use, I did.
I tried to keep it to myself for a good while, but a couple of months after I’d started, I remember getting digged by a mate in class and his punch opened a pretty big scab I had on my arm. Wearing a white shirt, you can guess what happened and my mate shit himself thinking he’d done it. I remember him telling the teacher I was hurt and I immediately started crying. Not because of pain, but because it was out. It was out I self-harmed, and it was out that I was weak, that I was “attention seeking”, that I was being a “goth”.
Thus, an ever bigger period of low points in my teenage years: knowing all of the people whom I’d considered friends now saw me as a freak, as someone who was dangerous; counsellors and teachers concerned that I was suicidal and looking to encroach in my life as often as they could; pathetic attempts from my mum that she felt the same and she felt suicidal but she didn’t do it and I shouldn’t either.
I was referred to a youth counsellor, taking time out of school — the school that my granddad had been proud I’d gotten into, which made me feel worse— and seeing this counsellor who frankly shouldn’t have been in the job, demanding to know when I did it, why I did it and if I couldn’t answer her, I was attention seeking, looking for pity from friends and family. This I remember being profusely angry at, and although she was partially right — I was asking for help, I just didn’t realise it — I remember telling her fuck off and fuck her dog or something like that, and I won’t be coming back. Sadly, the school forced me to keep going.
I remember going to one session, and her offering this bit of advice after a particularly difficult session:
“Well, if you can’t stop doing it just make sure you use a clean blade.”
Although many will be surprised and quite shocked to hear that, as I was when I heard her say it, I remember clinging to that sentence every time I wanted to self-harm. I remember stocking up on swabs and bandages, butterfly stitches from first aid kits and antiseptic wipes for cleaning whatever I wanted to use. It became a ritual, a habit, and one that probably saved my life a few times.
It was suggested to me that I should use paint or draw where I would normally self-harm with red ink or paint, and that by seeing the red in the usual place, that my mind was be convinced of the action and feel relief. I also remember telling her to shove the paint brush up her arse in the next session after I told her that it didn’t work and when she tried to insinuate that I was looking for excuses to be difficult.
The thing she couldn’t grasp, and one that I did very quickly, was that I enjoyed the pain. I enjoyed the punishing of myself, of the opening of my arm to see the blood flow as a reminder that I was fucking low-life scumbag who let everyone down. That I was useless, and that I was born for nothing but shit in my life and I deserved to be hurt.
Now, a lot of people will say, “Well, what the fuck have you got to be depressed for?” For all wants and purposes, I had a roof over my head, three meals a day and both parents alive, even if I didn’t see one of them most of the time because the pub was his family. Looking back now, I was angry and depressed for my reasons and my reasons alone, which were:
- Jobless parents living in a council house and never having any money. Sure, I had clothes and I got Christmas presents, but I also had to do with one pair of school shoes for the year, and if I needed a new rugby kit, I was told to raid the lost property as opposed to being bought a new one like everyone else. In a grammar school, this matters.
- Being bullied in school and the neighbourhood, because I was different. Despite being a grammar school, the pupils and teachers seemed very elitist and with me being a council estate lad, I immediately wasn’t in their circle, and on the opposite side, because I went to a good school, I was bullied in the neighbourhood for not going to the same comprehensive as everyone else.
- Low self-esteem because of the previous two, and because of a “low esteem” family where self-loathing was a past-time. Low self-image is rife in my family, and being brought up with, “I’m ugly, no wonder your dad walked out on me. I’m fat and no good for anything,” will most definitely rub off.
- A heavy handed duo for parents, whose attitude was ‘hit first, ask questions later’ when it came to punishments. If anything was done in the house or school, forget a clip round the ear. My parents were brought up with the cane and other punishments in school and their reasoning was, “it did us no harm, so why not?” So regular beatings were common at home, and sometimes for the smallest reasons.
Sure, they might not be as “real” as reasons such as abuse, severe bullying, gender/sexuality issues, but they were very real to me. And I felt self-harm was the only way to stop the pain I was feeling, by creating pain. I think it was a control thing, where I was hurting and by me creating the pain, I could control the hurting I felt.
Throughout all of this, and despite many people trying, I refused to talk about it, and it became worse and worse. Small cuts became big ones. Big ones became gashes. Gashes became ever-wider, almost certainly needing stitches had I have gone to the hospital. But like Richey, I felt that by going to the hospital, I’d be taking genuine time up from people who needed it more or had better things to do than to patch up a psycho who cut himself.
I didn’t talk to anyone, not through insecurity or not wanting to share, but from the burden of other people feeling what I felt, and also a sense of wanting to protect them. I was acutely aware that I’d started after seeing someone I care about do it, and was aware that I might ‘inspire’ someone else, which I eventually did unbeknownst to me.
I self-harmed for a good few years, getting ever worse until, I remember, coming to a point where it started going from just self-harm to dangerously playing with my life. At one point, I dragged a piece of glass across my face because a girl had dumped me, and thought myself as ugly so I decided to cut my face to make sure that I was ugly. If she didn’t want me, no one else could. I was starting to play a very dangerous game of cat and mouse, with my life on the line. The tipping point for me was one that could have gotten in me in a lot of trouble, or worse.
No stranger to fighting and wanting cause as much trouble as possible, I remember facing up to this lad who was part of a gang who used to roam around Liverpool city centre on a weekend. The gang was black and mixed race, and we’d coined them the ‘Somalians’. Whether or not they were, I don’t know and it was ignorance to just call them that, but it wasn’t as if you could just walk up to them ask them so we just stuck with the name.
One afternoon, after a particularly spectacular falling out with another girl, I remember this lad threatening a friend of mine with a flick knife. Whether he would have done something or it was just a threat, I really don’t know. What I do know was that I had started carrying a Stanley knife a couple of months previously, meticulously cleaned and oiled and always ready for whenever I needed to cut. Upon seeing this lad threaten my friend, I ran over to him and started up in his face saying that if he threatened my friend, he threatened me too. Of course, he started threatening me with the same knife and I got mine out too, and it wasn’t a Crocodile Dundee moment either, which I knew. Instead of threatening him with it, I asked him what he’d do with his own knife, and asked him, “Could do you do this?”, and proceeded to hack the shit out of my own arm. My Richey moment had happened. I had crossed the line from self-harm to psychosis. In a rage and a self-destructive moment, I had opened my arm up into pieces of which I’m still hurting from now.
For me, I still feel sick and I physically shake when remembering that episode and writing about it, knowing that any number of things could have happened. I could have hit a vein and bled out. I could have been arrested for carrying a knife in public without good reason. I could have antagonised the lad I was threatening and he could have stabbed with his own knife. Like I said, anything could have happened and I am forever thankful that none of them did.
The lad ran, with a look of fear in his eyes that he’d come across a complete psycho. It’s one thing to stab someone else clearly, but to stab yourself… “You’re fucked in the head,” I remember him saying. Maybe he was right? Either way, I knew I was in shit. My life was changing there and then and I needed to control it. I needed to stop the blood, and stop the self-harm, otherwise the next episode like that would have killed me, like this one had very nearly did, in one or way or another.
The fear alone was reason enough to make me realise that it couldn’t go on any further. I was used to a certain amount of blood, of soaking towels and bandages until it finally stopped and it could finally heal. I wasn’t used to this. My arm went numb. My hand went cold. I could see the blood pulsing out. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t enjoyable. This was scary. This was death, staring me in the face daring me to do it again, see how I fare next time.
And still, I didn’t go to the hospital or a drop in. I risked contamination to the wound and infection by not going to get professional help in fixing me up, but I still felt that I didn’t deserve their help. I’d done this to myself, and I’d be the one to fix it. I remember having to pinch my skin together until my fingers went numb and I felt the surrounding skin harden and then wrap my arm with gauze and bandages that I’d stolen from Tesco. I remember thinking that getting caught for stealing was going to be the last of my problems if this didn’t stop, that I was going to die on the way home.
I was 18 years old. I had gotten my first tattoo a few weeks previously, which part of the cut had gone into. I remember being pissed off that I’d have to have it retouched. I was 18 years old, and I was aware that if this carried on, I wouldn’t see 19.
Surprisingly enough, the fear was what stopped it for me, at least the actual act of it anyway. I still wanted to. Holy fuck, I wanted to. I used to imagine picking at the eventual scab of the wound and thinking just rip it off and let it bleed. I didn’t, because the fear over-rode that impulse. I stopped carrying the knife and stripped my room of anything I knew I could cut with. I didn’t quite get to padded cell standards, but my room became a safe-zone where I knew if I kept it clean, I couldn’t give in to temptation.
At roughly the same time, I remember staying over at my friend’s university apartment in Liverpool city centre, and one of our mutual friends had left a copy of Bizarre, an alternative magazine with fetish stories and articles, alt girls, tattoos and the darker side of humanity. In this issue, it was a self-harm special, with letters and stories sent in by readers and self-harmers. The majority of the letters were common fare that I’d read before on the internet or heard from in counselling sessions, and as interesting as they were, I couldn’t connect with their stories. Except for one.
There was this one girl who forever haunts my thoughts when it comes to self-harm. She told her story of being raped at a young age by her father, for which he went to jail for, and she thought her life was on the mend. She was then gang-raped by a group of men, organised by her uncle, the brother of her father. After living through these ordeals, she had the very same feelings that a lot of self-harmers have about themselves: the worthlessness, the pain, and the self-torture that you’re not worth it and you deserve all the shit that happens. She self-harmed from a young age and steadily got worse. An eery parity was forming between how her cutting was evolving to the way mine was. Different stories, same outcomes. Until the next section, which is still difficult for me to recall fully as it still shocks me to the core even now.
She became so depressed and down, but not suicidal, that she became fixated on taking something out of her, something that was causing all the shit in her life. She identified this as a tendon in her arm, that she could see through the skin. In the weeks previous to her final act, she bought, designed and built a wooden box and painted it red, and padded the inside of the box with cushions, similar to how a coffin is made. In her final moments of clarity, she remembers cutting into her arm, cutting a trench of skin and muscle out and taking the tendon from her arm and placing it inside the box. She doesn’t remember anything from that moment on, only waking up days later in a secure psychiatric ward with a hole in her arm and her family shocked that she attempted to take her own life.
I remember reading that taking her own life was never the intention nor the desired outcome for her self-harm, as with many other self-harmers. She wanted a way to deal with the pain she felt and, in her circumstance, wanted to remove the bad from her. I remember crying and sitting there, broken by this girl’s plight. It made me ashamed that I felt that my life was hard to cope with, that I had it bad. I realised that there are many, many people out there worse off than I am. I sincerely hope that that girl is still out there now, getting the help she needs and living a happy life.
As for me, I haven’t self-harmed since that day, over 10 years ago now. You could take my smoking for a number of those years in between as a form of self-harm, but seeing as I’ve quit that for nearly 7 years now, I see myself clean from self-harm in both cutting and destroying my body from the inside out.
I’ve had my share of difficulties that have been even worse than what I dealt with as a teenager, and haven’t succumbed to the temptation. I’ve been there, sitting with a knife against my skin, pressing into it until goes white — as recently as last night — but I haven’t undone the hard work of 10 years and I hope to stay that way for the remainder of my life.
As pointed out, my plea and story can be viewed by some as a cry for attention, for a cry for help off anybody that wasn’t a hypocrite, a liar or a fraud, and they may be right. I was calling for help but, for me, the self-harm wasn’t about the attention. The anger and the trouble making was, sure, but me cutting was my way of dealing with things. My way of dealing with the way some hit the bottle or drugs, or sleeping around. The way I saw it was that if I didn’t hurt myself, I’d hurt someone else. Someone I cared about, which would only make me feel worse, so I chose what I thought was the lesser of two evils.
The majority of cases I’ve read about via the internet, Bizarre, and personal conversations with people, are people needing and wanting help but are unsure of how to ask for it. Many are trapped in their lives, and the people they should be able to speak to are often the cause of the problems. This creates a paradox where they feel only worse from the situation, and thus the problem gets deeper.
Sometimes, it’s attention wanting to be drawn to the issues in their life that they can’t deal with. Sometimes, it’s attention being drawn to a cry, a scream, a whimper for help through a multitude of reasons: abuse, addiction, confusion… any number of reasons really. These are genuine reasons, and people who are suffering shouldn’t be made to be put down for screaming for help when they genuinely need it.
What I don’t agree with is self-harming for attention and pity, and making people that care about them to worry about them unnecessarily. This is wrong and these people should really take a look at their own life to sit down and think about the effect they’re having on other people. I’ve known people like this, and still do, and these people are the ones who do nothing to help the stigma around self-harm, much like how anyone who has a low day to say they’re depressed don’t help the stigma with real depression.
There is a very real stigma out there over self-harm, and that is depressing in itself. Too many people pass judgement on something they don’t, and possibly never will, understand and instead they add to the ignorance with comments like the attention, like self-harmers are freaks and so on.
Self-harming is a mental illness. It took me long time to realise that it was, and I struggled with the term at first, but once I understood that it was an illness, and that illnesses can get better, then my outlook changed completely on the matter. I, very fortunately, helped myself out of it by scaring myself so deeply — backed up by the girl in the article — that I didn’t want to self-harm again but there many thousands of people out there that haven’t got the help they want and desperately need.
If you, or anybody you know, need help please do not hesitate to call someone to speak about it. Many services are anonymous and no details are recorded to protect your identity* and all are fully trained to be able to talk to and advise a range of mental health issues.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to a voice on the phone or internet, try talking to friends or family. Sometimes the smallest voice says the loudest words, and the littlest things can help a lot more than you think.
Written as part of Geek Mental Health Week, “a week-long series articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web, about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer and those who care for us” organised by Andrew Clarke and several other web heads.