There was a lot of tweets in my feed today about self injury and it’s consequences. I was going to write about the recent suicide that ripped apart the country music scene, but to me self injury is much more personal and much less talked about. My experience with this particular issue was a long journey, and occasionally continues to be difficult. The thing that most people don’t understand about self-mutilation is the distinct separation of this act and threats of suicide. Some people have this manifest as an eating disorder, there are people who burn themselves, people that cut themselves, even people that manipulate their appearance in a way that constitutes self injury.
To start this difficult topic the definition of self-mutilation seems to be a simple one: to inflict wounds on one’s own body. The problem happens with the interpretation of this definition. If a person slits their wrist, where is that mutilation and when does it become a suicide attempt? Where is the line between diet obsession and self-destruction? How do tattoos, piercings, or plastic surgery fit in this definition? What about drugs and alcohol, do they fit in this picture?
As someone who continues to struggle with urges to cut, my definition is a little more specific. Someone who does something that damages themselves physically or emotionally, knowingly or unknowingly, participates in self-mutilation. This includes drug and alcohol addicts, people who obsess over food to the point where they are malnourished, as well as any sort of damage to the skin, permanent or not. Plastic surgery, tattoos, and piercings all count in this definition under specific conditions. I’ve known people to replace cutting with the thrill of someone modifying their body with needles. The problem ends up being one of addiction. This is why self-mutilation can actually happen with no other mental illness. It’s become a fad, and once someone begins it turns into a coping mechanism. Before long you can no longer function in life without this coping mechanism, it takes over everything else in your coping arsenal.
I started cutting when I read a book called Crosses by Shelley Steohr. In the book the girls cut, they drink, they crush up Tylenol and overdose, and my 15 year old brain was desperate to latch on to anything that might feel good. I read the book probably 20 times through my teen years and all I can remember is how the girls did nothing but get in trouble. For some reason this resonated with me so I did the one thing in the book that I felt I wouldn’t get in trouble for, cutting. I started with sewing needles on my face. I would slide the needle across my forehead down the side of my face and across my chin. Looking back on the situation it was likely a desperate cry for someone to notice how much pain I was experiencing inside. At first it hurt, but before long that hurt was the only thing that made the inside hurt less. I move on from my face to my arm when people didn’t care. Even then my teachers at school would simply tell me that it looked infected, “perhaps you should clean that, Steph”. Eventually I asked for help, it took a really long time to recognize that my red scars weren’t attractive. Years, actually. I was hauled into the office of my college and treated like a lowlife. They insisted on therapy, and I signed a piece of paper stating they had access to all of my therapy records relating to my recovery. If I screwed up I would get kicked out of school. I know better now, and I would have fought them. The truth is that I did need help. The red marks were not sexy. They were an external vision of the pain I felt on the inside. Even now I fight the urge to cut on a fairly regular basis. I started cutting at 15, the last time I cut was a year ago, the last episode of cutting (falling off the wagon, if you will) was two years ago. I know people who have 20 or 30 tattoos because every time they feel sad the rush of a tattoo makes them feel better. There’s people that feel they don’t deserve better than to damage themselves, through words or actions. That makes me really sad, because there is better out there. The possibility for recovery exists, other coping mechanisms are not only healthier, but more effective. Honestly, I’m still working at getting to those coping mechanisms, but I do know that I will get there. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a matter of finding the right support system.
It gets better. You just have to be willing to do the work.