I was horrified to learn last week that almost a quarter of 14 year old girls self harm or have self harmed. I’ve thought long and hard about writing this post as it’s such a misunderstood side of mental health and I’m also very conscious that writing about it is difficult because I don’t want to glamourise it or trigger something for someone. But it’s a side of my mental health that I have never really spoken about in great detail and one which I think needs more understanding and conversation.
I went through a period of self harming in my twenties when I was at my lowest ebb and the emotions, consequences and feelings it evoked were some of the most complicated I have ever had to deal with. To be in a position where you want to cause yourself physical pain to try and drown out the feelings in your head is not a pleasant one. And not one that should be taken lightly or trivialised.
Those months of self harming still haunt me now; the all encompassing anguish I felt, the visceral pain and sadness that was seemingly trapped in my head and my body. The only thing that helped relieve it for a nanosecond was cutting. The act of hurting myself and the physical pain acted as a moment’s rest bite and release from the torture inside my head. Because that’s something that unless you’ve been there you can’t imagine. The feeling of claustrophobia from your own mind and thoughts. The never ending conveyor belt of of pain and distress that no-one can see.
And this notion that it’s attention seeking is so misguided and ignorant. People do not wear their scars from self harm like a badge of honour; that’s why we go to extreme lengths to hide them, so no-one sees them and asks questions. And trust me when I tell you that most people’s reaction to seeing those scars aren’t all that considerate and tactful anyway. Society still doesn’t understand self harm and I can’t help but think it’s because it shows a brutal physicality to mental health struggles and is harder to ignore than someone saying they have anxiety or depression because it can be seen and once seen, can’t be unseen. It’s an act that doesn’t conform with the idea that you should just “put a brave face on it” or indeed to the idea that “you don’t look depressed”. It makes other people feel uncomfortable and more than anything, this is something most people can’t hack.
There’s still very much a sense that self harm is “emo” and the portrayals in the media don’t do much to help with this. How often have you watched a film or a show that depicts someone who self harms as someone who wears nothing but black, has a pale complexion and listens to My Chemical Romance on repeat? I recently watched the HBO series Sharp Objects and whilst I enjoyed it I was irked by their portrayal of Amy Adams’ character. Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, she’d had a traumatic childhood and turned to self harming. They have her dressed in black throughout with smudged eyeliner and a very unconvincing drink problem – a lazy characterisation I felt. It would have been a great opportunity to draw attention to self harming but show it in a more realistic manner i.e. move away from the outdated stereotypes associated with people who self harm.
The scars on my arms may have faded – but the memories of sitting on my bedroom floor, blood dripping down my arm, feeling like it was the only answer, haven’t. It will pain some people to read this, but I still think about doing it sometimes when I’m in the midst of a particularly bad episode and the world feels like it is caving in. And probably more tragic is the reason why I don’t – the reminder of a “friend” seeing my arms and proceeding to grab them and say “God you’re such an emo”. The embarrassment and hatred I felt in that moment has stayed with me, never have I felt so inadequate. And that’s what stops me – the fear of judgement from others.
I am 33 years old, I have a degree, a good job and I like to think a certain amount of intelligence and understanding around mental health. Yet here I am telling you that I still feel like self harming sometimes because life gets that shit. I don’t because of what other people might think. How on earth are 14 year old girls who aren’t equipped with the same insight and life experience, and have so much more pressure from peers, meant to deal with that?