Trigger warning: graphic imagery, self-injury
I cut twice. The first time was in November after a stressful day at work and a lecture from my mom that just barely tipped me over the edge. The second time was a relapse the following January.
In our day and age, pain and forms of self-torture are often romanticized, like love-stories in TV shows. But that’s not truthfully how it is. People who have idealized physically harmful behavior aren’t seeing it for what it truly is, comparatively like those with eating disorders, who have convinced themselves that reality is only solvable by doing things that are far more dangerous than they think.
My reality hit me seconds after my deed was done, because, by letting that needle break my skin, I’d broken promises to the people I loved, too. Friends who had experience with self-harm had made me swear that I would not make their same mistakes, no matter how depressing my life became. It was because of this that instant shame overcame me after I did it. And with shaking fingers and what I felt was necessary loneliness stabbing my gut, I’d resorted to my diary to confess what I had done.
My shame was too great for me to bring myself to tell any person for a while. But my desperation for help and some sort of closure forced me to eventually tell a friend—who I hadn’t made a promise to—who I thought could help me with his own experience.
There is something to be said about the bond that is instantly created between two people, even two strangers, who have both self-harmed. It means the pain they both have felt is deep enough to warrant a physical need to cope, and it gives them a hell of a lot in common. So the bond I developed with Jared when I told him what I’d done was instant. And as a regretful self-harmer, he opened up and told me this:
It’s not worth it.
It’s not worth the released tension, or the untrue feeling that you’ve done something to help your situation, or the scars you get to deal with for the rest of your life. It’s not worth the few seconds afterward that you feel relaxed, and it’s definitely not worth the Euphoria.
And I agree. It’s not worth any of the reasons why people do it. Let’s continue them here.
4) To Experience Temporary Euphoria
I have spoken to people who have cut themselves repeatedly, to the point of nearly fainting, who do so for the euphoric feelings their body experiences through endorphins in order to compensate for the pain. Our bodies are created, like animals, to survive. It’s programmed into us as an instinct to avoid pain and death. I’m not denying the 800,000 people who commit suicide every single year. Our consciousness can certainly override our sub-consciousness. My point is that even when we consciously make the decision to hurt ourselves, our bodies are constantly making efforts to heal themselves again.
Whenever I cut myself, my body never failed to close the wounds and eventually heal them so well that anyone closely examining my leg now will not find them. Whenever I was in pain, my body always released endorphins—whether I knew it or not—to help relieve it. Pain, in and of itself, is just my body’s nerves signaling to my brain that something is wrong. It is this reason that I am convinced God wants us to nurture and take care of ourselves not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
The euphoria people may hurt themselves to experience are their body’s feel-good endorphins. Our bodies produce and release endorphins during things like sex, exercise, when we have reason to be happy, and to shield the pain our nerves feel when we’re physically hurt. This side-effect is particularly dangerous to experience because it can become addictive in a similar way to drugs. Our bodies are always learning, one way being to tolerate certain substances they encounter which make them react. So the euphoric feelings someone once experienced from cutting themselves a little will not return unless they cut themselves more. Pretty soon, in order to reach that same original high, people are practicing incredibly horrendous things that—aside from causing pain—can be life-threatening, such as cutting until one has lost so much blood that they faint.
Other forms of self-harm include hitting, bruising, scratching, burning skin with hot objects or fire, freezing skin with ice, breaking bones, cutting off circulation to parts of the body, and others.
5) To Release Tension
I never cut for euphoria. A needle just can’t do that. But it did release tension for me. It made me feel like all the things bottled within of me could be emptied out by opening up my insides. I’m sure the tension release seems even greater with deeper wounds and stronger pain. It’s a strong metaphor that I actually believed, despite my experience in debate; that the abstract could be released by physically creating a way for it to get out.
But the truth is that the only thing released is blood. The tension hasn’t been permanently solved. Ignored, maybe, but not solved. You can’t ignore issues and expect them to go away. That’s like getting a headache from dehydration and taking an aspirin for it, then being surprised when the headache returns after the aspirin wears off. Our bodies feel pain, just like our emotions do, and both work to tell us something needs to be fixed. However, the solution is not to erase the symptoms. What prompted the symptom was the real problem: lack of water or a hurtful word. The only way to fix either is to drink water or get an apology.
6) To Feel Something When Everything Else is Numb
Some people are in so much pain that they switch it off. I did this once when I was overwhelmed with stress and worry, and for the following month I was completely apathetic. In some ways it was really relieving; I wasn’t afraid of failure, I wasn’t afraid of loss, I didn’t care about homework or my grades, and I didn’t have to face reality. But, for many reasons, I knew it wasn’t something I could permanently do. This is because when you shut off emotions…you can’t feel any. Sure, you don’t feel impacted by sadness or anger, but you also can’t feel happy. There’s no joy or appreciation for life in the world of apathy. An artist I listen to during this phase of life who ended up speaking truth to me through his songs was Relient K.
During this numb phase—which I realize now was selfish and unhealthy,—rather than containing my emotion within me, it was like I pushed all of the emotions outside of my metaphorical door, gave them a number, and told them to wait in line for when I wanted to deal with them. When my numb phase was over, it wasn’t because I opened that door. Rather, it was an ugly, painful situation caused by the weight behind that door. It broke down and all of the emotions came pouring back into me, and I was virtually forced to deal with everything at once. Going numb doesn’t solve the problem. It’s a form of procrastination.
People who suffer from this numbness are sometimes so used to it that they’re unable to switch their emotions back on. In this instance, while it was never the case for me, people may cut to feel something physically, quite often in desperation to regain emotions or to convince themselves they’re still functional and human.
7) To Punish Themselves
In the case that people do not self-harm to experience euphoria, they may do so to discipline or punish themselves for making mistakes. A perfectionist personality might be prone to this sort of practice. In some cases, those with eating disorders may use self-harm to punish themselves for not meeting certain eating standards, or for binging.
In more drastic cases, people who have had a violent upbringing or who experience corporal punishment may self-harm to punish themselves for things others have punished them for, to relive past experiences, or may even believe that punishment is self-improving. I believe these cases are rarer, and the average self-harmer should NOT be accused of self-harming as an act of violence linked to mental disturbance.
8) To Get Affection from Otherwise Neglectful Sources
This is where it gets complicated, because this is one of the more common assumptions people make about self-harm.
“Oh, they’re just trying to get attention.”
This is true and untrue at the same time. True for certain reasons; untrue because those reasons aren’t the ones people assume.
Fact: everyone is designed to need affection to grow as people. It’s nurturing. Our health depends on it. And in order to bestow affection upon anyone, attention is necessary.
The title of this series was chosen for very good reason. People sometimes lament that nobody cares about anyone until they commit suicide. Only then do people seem to understand the gravity of that person’s outcry and suddenly regret their neglect. It’s often the same for those who self-harm. I would cry and be visibly depressed, but my mom never reacted until she saw my scars.
In the same way, while this was never a reason why I cut, some people may get incentive to hurt themselves to make a statement to those around them. This statement, albeit selfish-seeming to others, is sometimes one of the only things the self-harmer feels will get them the attention and care that they need from those who are otherwise neglectful.
I want to touch on something that bothers me about people who think those who self-harm are “self-centered attention whores” and the like.
We already discussed how it’s a fact that people need affection, and affection is retrieved through attention. I don’t think that people forget that affection is good. Instead, what it seems simply overlook is the fact that some people do not get the affection they need. They’re not “attention-whores”. They’re not given attention at all. These people are just trying to compensate for their lack of love! Therefore, I don’t believe it’s anybody’s business to pass judgment on them for their methods of survival.
I was not seeking attention by self-harming. If I was, I would’ve cut my wrists, not my upper thigh. I was actually being strategic when I cut a body part that I knew would be hidden so that I could get away with it without ever being caught.
This became a problem when—two weeks after I’d initially self-harmed—I experienced incredible back-pain and was admitted to the hospital. I’d never been a patient in a hospital before; not since I was a baby in the delivery room. I didn’t think about my scars until I sat before a nurse and answered questions—my dad standing loyally next to me—about whether I was sexually active (“no”) or if I’d had thoughts about death (“no”) or if I’d ever self-harmed (resounding “no”). There was no way I was admitting to that in front of my dad, much less allowing that to be put on my medical record.
I might have been reckless, but I wasn’t also stupid.
Thankfully my doctor allowed me to keep my pants on when I changed into those ugly frocks you have to wear. My scars weren’t discovered and condemned. At least, they weren’t yet.
To be continued.