'It's been a year since I last cut'by The Listener
An anonymous blogger tells of her battle with self-harm.
I admired the woman who asked me this recently, because it’s the first time in three years that someone outside my immediate family has mentioned the scars just below my elbow. When I explained that I had been addicted to self-harm, she asked if it had, at least in part, been a cry for attention. What followed was an important conversation that I wish I could have with everyone who notices my scars; but as most simply look away, embarrassed, I thought I might write down my thoughts.
I was diagnosed with depression in October 2013, but self-harm began for me before that. The scars of those first shallow cuts have long since faded, but for me, the following year is defined by self-harm. I was living alone, an alcoholic, on mind-numbing antidepressants and struggling on what would be a years-long road to recovery.
As my mother said, what depression took from me most was resilience. My coping mechanisms, aside from alcohol, were non-existent. The everyday inconveniences of life, which to the healthy mind are simply waves lapping against the bow, were to me enormous swells threatening to overturn my rickety, leaking dinghy. Whenever something happened that I couldn’t cope with – anything from a lower-than-expected grade on a university assignment to a comment from a friend that I perceived as unfriendly – I would turn to self-harm.
Self-harm was never a cry for attention. My friends, family and co-workers knew I had depression and tried to help as best they could. My motivations for self-harm were multifaceted and complex. It’s been nearly three years since that period of my life and just over a year since I last cut, and I’m only now starting to understand why.
Depression is like a vacuum. Before I went on antidepressants, I was constantly sad; while on them, I felt nothing. The news that I had won the lottery or that my parents had died in a car crash would have produced an identical emotional response: none whatsoever.
At first, the numbness of the medication was a welcome relief. But within a few months, I not only couldn’t feel anything but had forgotten what it was like to feel anything. Watching my friends experience joy, sadness, excitement, anxiety was simply confusing. I could simulate emotions and tried to do so in the correct manner, but nothing penetrated the crushing black abyss where those complex feelings that separate us from animals used to be.
The one exception to this was self-harm. When a particularly large wave rocked my storm-tossed boat or when the aching numbness became too much to bear, self-harm would jolt me out of it. Even in the depths of that illness, that sickness of the mind that is depression, the basic survival instincts are still present in the brain.
As I drew the blade across my arm and watched the skin split open, whatever had been possessing my mind was gone – replaced with the adrenaline and panic of the body under attack – and a sickening ritual developed. I still remember something resembling excitement as I prepared my bandages, laying them out next to my blade on the desk. Like the heroin addict filling his needle, self-harm became my addiction.
Self-harm wasn’t only a means of feeling something – anything. I also used it for punishment. I’ve always been hard on myself, holding myself to impossibly high standards, and what had in better times been frustration when I didn’t meet those standards turned to harming myself when I was depressed.
I didn’t slow down during my illness – that year I was studying full-time, working part-time, interning at a magazine and co-hosting a radio show. If I slipped up in one of these pursuits, people understood and forgave me, but I could not forgive myself. I would throw hateful words like vitriol at myself in the mirror: “Look at you, you’re worthless. What the f--- is wrong with you, getting a C on your essay? You’re the stupidest person on the entire f---ing planet. You don’t deserve to live. Everyone hates you. F--- you, f--- you, f--- you.”
In this state, I thought it the biggest injustice in the world that no one was punishing me for my failure. I deserved death but would settle for white-hot, slicing, brutal pain and scars I would carry forever.
That year, after I came off antidepressants, I felt emotion twice – five seconds apiece, a couple of months apart. As I learnt how to feel again and began on my road to recovery, the self-harm became less and less frequent. Those events that were to others lapping waves were still to me large swells, but over time the swells got smaller. In the years that followed, self-harm for the purpose of feeling something, anything, stopped; self-harm as punishment continued, but the length of time between incidents grew as I learnt how to forgive myself.
Most of the scars on my arm have changed from red to white now; only the deepest still have colour, and they too will fade in a few years. A couple of years ago, my father suggested I get a skin graft to cover them up, but I never considered it. They’re a part of me, a daily reminder of what I went through and of where I want to go. Heart defects, cancer – many illnesses leave scars. My scars, caused by a sickness of the mind rather than a sickness of the body, are no different.
I began blogging about all this in 2014, that year of numbness and sickness and blades. I intended to keep writing, but as happens with most blogs, I eventually ran out of motivation. I’m glad I can reprise it now, from a different city and a different state of mind, looking back on those awful times with perspective. I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone, but I wouldn’t change it, either. Depression, self-harm, addiction – these experiences have made me who I am. And I wouldn’t want to change who I am for anything.
Where to get help with mental health
Need to talk?: free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or email email@example.com
Healthline: 0800 611 116
This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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