No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to explain to you the intricacy of a razor. I don’t really want to, either. I figured out myself one night how to take it apart, how to free the blades, and it’s my secret. Its marks on my skin are also my secrets: the deep, linear slices from days I was just angry, a little lopsided from days I couldn’t stop shaking. Those were the beginning days, though. I got better with time, carving words into my skin, words I hoped to never forget. My destiny, my pain, the new version of myself. Words that my body needed to know and remember, words that somehow made sense in my head but that I needed to extend to my body to fill in for the disconnect. Not for the world to see, but for me to know that they really are a part of me. I crave the throbbing pulsation right after the pain dies down and my skin realizes the tear. Yet another one through the layers that I carved over and over again. The beautiful colors of variations in skin healing …
Then there were the lies. The accidents. They started off as cat scratches. They became biking accidents, falls while I was hiking in forests with extended, sharp tree branches. Every cut itched. It itched through the plaster I’d hunted for hours through my house to find. It had to be perfect. The dark clothes and red towels so the stains wouldn’t be as noticeable.
All this lying was so worth it though. Worth it for the slow tearing of the razor through my skin. It wasn’t always a razor; sometimes I got creative, using a sharper kitchen knife my father had banged down on the table one night he was angry. That was a deep one.
I remember the time, day and cause of my deepest cuts. I remember not being able to deal with the guilt my parents instilled in me, the anger at all those who left me a torn excuse of a person. Why could I never be enough? I sliced through my skin, instinctively pressing my palm over the cut. Why was I such a horrible person? I sliced again. Why am I such a mess? Again.
And I always remember the looks. From people on the street who look at me disapprovingly or with teary eyes and a worried gaze, as if I’m a shattered doll — broken, and dead inside. Most of all though, the looks from health care providers, when I go in with the flu and they look at my arms, eyes widening in shock that I’m not under 24/7 supervision. Yeah bitch, I fucking cut, I’m fucking good at it and it doesn’t hurt. I’m not afraid.
I’m not afraid to talk about it now either though. I’ll even flip the question and ask you, why don’t you cut? It will give you control, feeling in numbness, power over your own body, thrill… There are days when I want to show off my scars, healed or not, to the world. Look, I’m strong! I can live through pain. I’m a mess but I’m owning it. Back the fuck off.
But I really am a mess. I know that. And owning it doesn’t take any of the pain away. So, for the most part, I just hide. Not just my scars, but myself. Under layers of clothes to protect them and layers of blankets to protect me. I just lie there, in the darkness, until I’m completely numb. Until tears start pouring down my face and I pick up the razor again. Just another girl who cuts.
Why do people self-harm?
There isn’t a straightforward answer to this. Everyone has different reasons, each usually very personal to the individual. Most people talk about releasing pain or tension, wanting to gain control over a situation, wanting to feel in the numbness, or feeling extremely guilty and wanting to punish themselves.
It’s so easy to think of self-harm as something taboo and unsettling, and not look into it any further. Hopefully, a slightly better understanding of it can help remove some of the stigma. What a lot of people don’t know is that self-harm is an addictive behavior, a safety net for an individual to disappear into. Self-harm works just like alcohol and drugs do, the difference being that it’s not a socially acceptable activity, so is not viewed in the same way by others. Whether it’s in the form of a release or a need to gain control or feel in the numbness, the immediacy with which self-harm eases some forms of pain is comforting to some.
The idea of self-harm as a safety net can help others understand why individuals turn to it as a coping mechanism. Why does it help? In a state of numbness or disconnect from emotions, states that are quite common in depression, it can be very hard to understand feelings or respond genuinely to situations. There seems to be a mask over conscious awareness and a sense of detachment, all of which can lead to either the uncontrollable overflow of feelings or just numbness: things happen, but there’s an inability to feel them as they are happening. Along with this comes possibly anxiety and overwhelming guilt or shame. This doesn’t all need to be happening simultaneously. Even one of these is a reason for someone to find a form of release.
A feeling of safety, control, grounding in all the mess is a very strong temporary relief, exactly what the individual is looking for. This is the exact purpose self-harm serves. But this doesn’t last for long. Soon, it becomes a scary addiction, an unavoidable impulse. It also becomes a constant battle to hide the self-harm from others. The scars, burns and scratches are there, often in quite visible places. They can be a constant reminder and something that others find very hard to look away from. It is then very easy for the individual to just take up the identity of a cutter, crawling deeper into self-harming behaviors.
How to approach a friend who is self-harming?
It’s very scary. Frustrating. You’re worried about your friend, terrified about what to say and how to say it because it’s something that seems so foreign to you, something you’re not sure they want to talk about. I know that it’s terrifying to approach someone, especially when you’re not sure if they’re self-harming, and it can be scary to be approached. I did it all wrong the first time I asked my friend about it. I pointed her scars out to her when the two of us were hanging out and asked “What are those?”. I had no bad intentions, but I was too outright about it, distancing myself from the situation and her pain. I didn’t realize that my inability to word it as “self-harm”, as her cutting, told her that I couldn’t understand – that if I wasn’t able to even say the words or acknowledge the situation, how could she ever explain it to me? I took out all my fear and frustration, anxiety and concern in an aggressive way that was only meant to show her how much I loved her. But those were my own issues to deal with, things I needed to process alone before talking to her about her own pain.
A lot of people want to keep their self-harm secret mainly because of shame. Feeling shame and embarrassment for hating themselves so much, for feeling so damaged, hurt, empty, angry, alone. Shame for not being able to deal with whatever life is throwing at them, for feeling weak and ugly, especially inside. Adding to this, the fear that no one who will understand, or fear of constant confrontation from those who don’t understand. Secrecy and guilt can lead to emotionally closing in, isolation, feeling worthless and essentially magnifying what originally led them to self-harm. And so it becomes a cycle.
A lot of people don’t like to talk about their self-harm but if it’s someone close to you and they do want to talk, it’s a conversation they are unlikely to start. So talk to them. Not to fix the problem, but to tell them that you care about them, that you’re concerned, that you are there for them if they ever want to talk. That’s all you need to do; you’d be surprised how much power something as simple as that has. Even if they don’t want to talk to you about it, they’ll know you take them seriously and that you care. They need to know you won’t judge them. That you won’t see them as a person defined by their scars or treat them differently because of it. That you will care for them and about them for the person they are and not for the person their pain makes them. You don’t need to understand why, how, where, or when. You just need them to know that to you they are a person, a friend, the person they love, not “that girl I know who cuts.”
- Counseling and Psychological Services at Gannett (CAPS)
“Confidential Counseling with professionals”
- Let’s Talk at Gannet
“Easy access to informal, confidential consultations with counselors from Gannett Health Services. Walk in Hours at sites around campus”
- Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service (EARS)
“Ears counselors, fellow students, will confidentially help you explore aspects of your issue, your options and possible solutions”
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
“Support and information around mental illness”
Zoe is a sophomore in arts and sciences. She does Public Relations for Cornell Minds Matter and is really interested in mental health awareness around campus. Read My Mind appears alternate Fridays this semester. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or just to talk!