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The Secret Life of Self-Injury — Where Does it Start?

Research shows self-injury is usually a private and secret act. It is not a clear indicator of any particular disorder or mental illness, although it can be linked to a number of them.

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

I am conscious as I write this that depictions of self-injury can trigger some people. If you think you may be triggered or distressed by a written depiction, stop reading now. Talk to someone you trust. See your doctor. Do not accept facile “one size fits all” explanations. Do not believe people who say that you are doing it only to get attention. Do not accept quick judgments or a sloppy, outdated or unprofessional diagnosis.

Everyone’s Story is Different

I can only write my own story and hope that it might help others. I have recorded my search for my first act of self-injury with the best words I have. Because the subject deserves it. This is not “Six Easy Steps to Cure Yourself of a Dangerous Habit.” This is not an inspirational story. Just an honest one.

I began an archaeology of myself, my memory a midden where I scrape away at the sediments of secrets and silence to find fragments of domestic waste.

If you had asked me a year ago, when did I start hitting myself, I would have said when I was 23. During a relationship breakup, alone in the shower, I beat my thighs until they bruised and my inner turmoil became bearable for a time. I told no one.

That was before I began an archaeology of myself, my memory a midden where I scrape away at the sediments of secrets and silence to find fragments of domestic waste.

I think I was fifteen. My mother was sitting naked on the staircase weeping and exhausted after an extended frantic rage of blows and screaming abuse.

I felt sick. “This is disgusting,” I said to my father as I helped him put her to bed.

“You can’t tell anyone about this.” Dad meant it as a command but it was a statement of fact. I couldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t have known what to say or where to start. There were already so many things that hurt and scared me, but they were apparently nothing to speak of, too ordinary for words. At what point was it necessary to command silence, when you have already been silent for so long?

My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. My jaw clamps down and my lower lip draws tight across my upper front teeth, so tight that my jaw aches and my teeth leave indentations behind my lower lip.

How Could You Tell What Was a Terrible Unspoken Secret and What Was Okay?

My mother yelling and cursing, slamming the front door so hard that the glass fell out and shattered on the kitchen floor when I was eleven; and driving the car up our steep gravel driveway so fast the wheels were spinning. That seemed bad but we made a joke of it. I looked down at the broken glass and said, “It looks like a jigsaw puzzle.” Dad smiled at me and he swept the glass away. He hadn’t hidden the car keys from her this time, but she came back. She always did.

I think I would have decided we had an unspeakable family secret long before my father did if only I could have figured out what I deserved and what I didn’t. He worked hard and his job took him away from home a lot.

And now when I would like to tell the story that wreaks havoc inside me, random images and feelings flicker in the empty spaces where my autobiographical memory might be. I can see her mouth close to mine screaming, flecks of foamy spit on her lips. I feel wet droplets hit my face.

My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. My jaw clamps down and my lower lip draws tight across my upper front teeth, so tight that my jaw aches and my teeth leave indentations behind my lower lip.

Little Pieces of Domestic Waste

My mother made matching drapes for the living room and kitchen. They were a complicated affair of several curtains each with a separate brown lining and wide strips of mustard and brown lace hanging over them. She made it my job to draw them at dusk. The first time I tried, the shouting started: “you haven’t done a proper job; it’s a mess; any fool could do it; just look at what you’ve done and do it again, properly!”

I had to do it again but I wasn’t sure what “properly” was. More attempts meant more shouting.

Every evening I drew those curtains with a sick feeling in my stomach and my heart raced. Did every curtain meet with no gaps? Both the linings and the lace? Were the gathers distributed in an even wave across all the windows. Had I done it right, were they straight enough? What detail had I missed? I was never sure.

I was rather like the curtains myself. I needed to be carefully arranged or I wouldn’t look right.

I had a wayward ear set at a jaunty angle that didn’t match the other, inherited from my father’s side of the family. I remember my mother taping it down at night. The tape stuck to my hair and hurt when she peeled it off in the morning. At some point she realised it wouldn’t work and stopped. I tried to tape it myself. I really wanted a pretty ear.

My mother disliked the large upper front incisors that grew in after my baby teeth. She took me to the dentist, but he said orthodontics would serve no purpose; indeed, all my teeth were fitting together very well. So she went home and schooled me day-by-day to hide those large upper front teeth by pulling my lower lip tight across them. Even today it is my default facial expression and I hate to show my teeth when I smile.

I remember sitting in front of the hairdresser’s mirror for the first time. My mother pulled back the hair from my forehead, saying “that forehead doesn’t look right.” The hairdresser murmured that it wasn’t that bad.

“She has to have a fringe,” said my mother. Managing my smile, and draping my hair to hide my large forehead and wayward ear, I was rather like the curtains myself. I needed to be carefully arranged or I wouldn’t look right.

“Pull your stomach in,” and my bone-thin mother sewed the waistband on my skirt so tight it left red lines around my waist. By high school I wasn’t eating much. I felt sick most school mornings and even a slice of toast seemed to stick in my throat. I threw away my lunch most days. I often ate dinner with enthusiasm after eating nothing all day; but that became harder when my mother decided to turn even dinnertime into a nightmare.

One evening I bravely sat down to dinner dressed up and ready to go out with friends later. I say bravely, because I wasn’t wearing makeup.

The dinner table was the perfect place for casual cruelty. I was a teenager plagued by acne and rashes that I could not stop scratching and picking. One evening I bravely sat down to dinner dressed up to go out with friends later. I say bravely, because I wasn’t wearing makeup.

“Oh Lina, your skin is such a mess.” She professed surprise when I burst into tears; and then she painted me over with a thick foundation, powder, eye shadow, mascara and lipstick. “I never had even a pimple at your age.”

“Your mother’s only trying to help,” said my father.

Over time, my mother’s slippery mixture of cruelty and kindness coalesced into ever more explosive and unpredictable fury.

A towering rage might start at two or three in the morning. Or begin with a carefully planned campaign of spite over dinner. I knew it was planned because I heard her practising her lines in the kitchen while she was cooking.

Sometimes the accusations were bizarre: “I know what you did at two a.m. on the 15th of December 1979. You don’t remember but I know. I’m going to tell everyone about the terrible things you did.” We would try to remember what happened on that day. My brother and I didn’t know. Neither did my father. She would escalate from surreal conspiracy to horribly real screaming and would attack my father with blows and kicks. The kitchen drawer was her armoury.

Once she smashed up the dining set that had been a wedding present, glassware, ceramic dishes, and her grandmother’s paper-thin china tea cups. She said they were gifts from people she could no longer trust. She used an axe. I was terrified.

How Did This Stay a Secret in a Suburban Neighbourhood?

By saying nothing.

I remember weeping, bereft, and alone in my room. I forget why my mother was angry but I know I desperately wanted her to be kind.

You might think that my habit of self-injury would have started in my teenage years, as my mother’s violence and unpredictability escalated. But it was earlier.

At about the age of eight, I began to get heavy nosebleeds. They were frequent and difficult to stop. My mother was training to be a nurse before she fell pregnant with me. She was proud of her training. Whenever I had a nosebleed, she was efficient, calm, and kind.

I remember weeping, bereft, and alone in my room. I forget why my mother was angry but I know I desperately wanted her to be kind. So I punched myself in the nose until it bled.

Even now, when I remember the blood-soaked hankies and cotton wool, or my blood dripping into a bucket and the taste of blood at the back of my throat, my fear and loneliness drift away. I feel calm. I feel more than calm; I feel euphoric. I feel loved.

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Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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Lina Neild Robinson

Lina Neild Robinson

I live with possums, pythons, geckos, frogs, spiders, my elderly cat, and Complex PTSD. Words are my passion. linaneild@gmail.com

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