March 1, 2013

On Quitting Self-Harm

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I don’t think I’ve ever written about this anywhere. It’s possible I’ve never talked about it publicly. It’s not exactly a party topic.

When I was in the eighth grade, I started cutting up my arms with razor blades. I needed an outlet for the pain I felt, for my depression and anxiety. I did not like myself at all and I wanted how I felt inside to be reflected on my skin. Like most mental health issues in the mainstream, self-harm is swept under the rug because it is misunderstood, scary, “too real,” weird, “selfish,” and an array of other dismissive adjectives. People don’t get that you’re not necessarily trying to kill yourself, and they associate it with the goth girls who hang in front of Hot Topic at the mall or with Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted” or worse, they think it’s a teenage pastime and not a serious problem.

Today is global Self Injury Awareness Day. For me, awareness means knowing that other people have suffered and more importantly, gotten better. Sometimes I really don’t want to talk about something personal, but I remember that others might still be struggling and I feel terrible Jewish guilt and obligation to speak to them if I can. I haven’t thought about my own self-harming past in a long while. I don’t particularly like talking about it, which may seem odd for someone who regularly talks about her life in a public forum. But one of the most important parts of helping someone who is hurting themselves is showing them they are not fighting a battle by themselves and that they are not a “freak.” So I’m going to remove the stigma for a second. I used to self-harm. I used to cut up my stomach, my arms, and my ankles. And now I don’t anymore.

Mostly, I felt ignored and alone. One time my mom saw some of the cuts and she asked me what they were from. I panicked and told her I had cut my arm repeatedly on a sharp edge in the shower, which was a flimsy excuse. That afternoon, my dad shaved down the sides of the shower with power tools so I wouldn’t “accidentally” cut myself again. I felt a mixture of happiness that they weren’t going to call me out and disappointment that they weren’t going to call me out. Part of me really wanted someone to see this was a cry for help. The other part didn’t think she could handle the embarrassment.

I always felt a weird collab of shame and pride about my cuts. I felt gleeful to be getting away with something, to have something to hide from the adults I already felt didn’t care about or understand me. I felt proud of manifesting the difference between myself and the other children. I thought the scars made me seem deep and scary, so I’d be left alone. But I was also ashamed. I was a good kid. I got good grades. I played sports. How could I also be a cutter? How could I secretly be so messed up? What was wrong with me?

I stopped a year later when another girl, a friend of mine, began cutting too. At school, by our outdoor lockers, she showed me her arms. “I figured you do it and it helps you, so it might help me,” she said. I was furious. I started to cry. I told her I could do this but that she shouldn’t start. She shouldn’t want to be like me. She didn’t want to go down this road. She was surprised that I was so sad for her, when I treated my own self-injury like it was nothing to be worried about.

That’s when I realized I couldn’t hurt myself anymore. It wasn’t getting to the root of my problems. I wasn’t going to get better. It was hard. I did it alone. I never told my parents and I never saw a shrink. I just decided to toss out all my razors cold turkey, and over the years, I’ve certainly thought about going back to it. But I have never even gotten close. Even right now, my mental health situation isn’t perfect. I don’t know if it’ll ever be. I take meds. I see doctors. I do yoga. I try to help myself long-term rather than picking up another sharp object.

And every day I don’t is a good day. TC Mark

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