(Warning: this post contains detailed discussion of self-harm.)
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~ William Shakespeare
I decided to write this because almost everything that I’ve seen about self harm in the media and online discusses it as being almost exclusively an issue for young people, primarily teenagers. The only acknowledgment that I’ve seen that people in older age groups also self harm has been in the context of discussing long-term self-injury where a problem that begins in adolescence continues well into adulthood, largely due to a lack of or inappropriate treatment early on.
I’ve been told that this is an inaccurate representation of the age demographics of self-injurers. But I have no way of ascertaining whether this is true or not. I was told this by doctors, but not by doctors who treat people who self harm, or who specialise in any way in mental health. For all I know they could have just been saying it to make me feel better.
Either way, when I came to look for resources, or information, or blogs, or anything really, that specifically related to people who started harming themselves later on into adulthood I couldn’t really find anything. And while I’m quite happy to accept that this might be because people like me are rare, I struggle to believe that I’m a total anomaly. So I thought I’d write about my own experiences in the hope that anyone who’s sitting at home performing the same Google searches as I’ve done over the last few weeks might stumble across it, and, even if they don’t find it particularly useful, at least feel like they aren’t completely alone.
If you’re one of the few people reading this who actually know me you might want to go away and find something else to do right about now because this isn’t pretty.
I spent most of my teens and twenties drinking too much, spending too much, sleeping too little, and being too reckless, but it didn’t occur to me to deliberately and outright hurt myself until two years ago, when I was twenty-eight.
One evening, when I was already aware that I wasn’t very well, I was chopping some onions, or peppers, or, I don’t know, some vegetable, and I suddenly decided, for no reason that I can remember, to see what it would be like to slice the knife into my forearm.
The experience was underwhelming.
I was surprised to find that my skin was harder to cut into than I’d imagined that it would be. And I felt a bit silly. And I stuck a plaster over the bit that was bleeding. And that was about it really.
When one of the cuts healed it left a small, barely noticeable scar behind.
A few weeks later when I was feeling numb and depressed I scratched at the skin on my arm with something – I really can’t remember what now, although I’ve a vague feeling that it might have been something that came with a Domino’s delivery – until it bled. Again, I couldn’t explain why, it just seemed like something worth doing at the time; and again it didn’t really have any sort of effect on me. I healed up just fine that time.
The third time I cut myself was a few months later, but this time I thought I scared myself out of this form of experimenting for good.
I was having a really bad week. My PTSD symptoms were really affecting me really badly, I’d just started legal action against my employer for discriminating against me due to my PTSD, and I had a mounting feeling that I just wasn’t coping. Then late one night I managed to smash my tagine and the frustration felt like the last straw of what I could cope with. I picked up one of the broken pieces and kept hacking at my leg with it. I still only gave myself superficial injuries but this time I ended up with an ambulance being sent out for me.
See, when I was feeling overwhelmingly crazy I was meant to ring the crisis team to talk to someone who could help me to sort out my crazy brain; but I was in a bit of a state and I couldn’t find their number. So I called the NHS Direct line instead and asked for them to transfer me through to the crisis team – something that they’d done for me without any fuss before. However, this time I got through to somebody who didn’t seem to have much of an idea of what they were doing, and so, despite the fact that explained many times that I hadn’t and wasn’t going to give myself a serious injury, I just wanted to speak to a mental health worker, I was sent an ambulance instead.
In fairness, the ambulance people were great; they filled me in on some things that should have been happening with my treatment that nobody had ever even mentioned to me before, and they rang and lectured the mental health team for me and got those things but in place. It was just that I felt completely ridiculous at having wasted their time as an emergency service being sent out primarily to look at some relatively pretty minor injuries.
So after that I didn’t even think about hurting myself again, and eventually I got better.
Until around Christmas time last year. When I got sick again. Mental health sick.
In the middle of December I had a back spasm or something which meant that I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t move properly for about a week. I had codeine and ibuprofen for the pain.
A week later I overdosed on the remaining codeine. Not a fatal overdose. I threw the remaining tablets out of the window and onto the roof of the kitchen extension half way threw because I’d suddenly become worried that if I died from taking the painkillers Dr Housemate might get into trouble for letting a crazy person be in his house at the same time as a dangerous amount of opioids.
Two weeks after that I started self harming properly. Because I was still suicidal.
I was incredibly depressed. I was having panic attacks fifty percent of the times that I attempted to go outside. And I really, really wanted to slit my wrists.
I tried cutting my arm instead to see whether doing some lesser harm might make me feel better.
At first I cut myself with a kitchen knife, then I realised that it was easier and more effective to use a blade that I broke out of a disposable razor.
And it worked. At least a bit. For a while.
Watching the blood and mopping it up made me feel calmer. There’s a scientific explanation for that. Something to do with the release of adrenaline and dopamine in the brain in response to the injury. But I’m not here to explain that.
At first I didn’t cut myself deeply, and I only made a few cuts at a time. But as I got used to it, and as I became more unwell and more in need of relief from the feelings produced by my illness the cutting became more frequent, I’d make more and more cuts at a time and the injuries have become longer and deeper. Because as crazy as I imagine it sounds to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, the more it bleeds the better it makes me feel.
It’s gives me a nice, calm still feeling that I think is more than slightly addicting.
Obviously I can see that it isn’t a practical long-term solution to anything, but it’s the only thing that I’ve been able to find that gives me a space where I don’t feel like I need to put a permanent end to the craziness of my brain.
I’ve become organised about it. I kept my cutting to my upper arm so there’s less risk that anyone might see; until I ran out of room and moved on to the top of my thigh. I’m trying to avoid needing stitches so that the marks left by my cutting don’t become to obvious, but I can see already that I’m going to have some unpretty scarring.
It is quite shocking when I catch sight of myself in the mirror – between the wounds and the steri-strips holding them together I look a bit like a walking tally chart. It’s a sign that I spend far to much time on Netflix that I remind myself of the thumbnail for the US version of The Killing, which has been in our list of ‘Top Picks’ since we watched the Danish version.
I have an extensive at home first aid kit, and I’ve dressed my injuries so well that my GP assumed that I’d got a pro to do it.
Because everything I’d ever heard about self-harm had been in relation to adolescents I felt silly at first to have started cutting myself as an older adult woman. But I’ve been doing it for weeks now and I’m pretty much past it.
I know I ought to stop. My GP, and my CPN, and my social worker have advised me to stop; or to hurt myself more safely using elastic bands. But I don’t want to. In fact people telling me to stop makes me want to do it all the more.
I think that’s a control thing.
Intellectually I know that hurting myself is a dumb thing to do, that I ought to find a better way to deal with my emotions/illness/problem/suicidal tendencies/whatever. But then I keep coming back to the fact that I don’t have one. And that for the time being this is doing just fine. And that I don’t really care what happens to me. And that it doesn’t actually hurt me; at least not while I’m doing it. It gets a bit tender while it starts to heal, and I don’t like it if anyone pokes me in the arm.
Yeah, they mis-named it when they labelled it as self-harm. The person it actually hurts is the person that I live with.
I do feel genuinely bad about what I’m doing to him.
I didn’t know what I was doing at first. When we first talked about it he’d been drinking. And he just rambled on about adrenaline and noradrenaline, and said that I couldn’t scare him because he’d seen loads of people with way worse self harm than me, and that this wasn’t a thing.
Then about fortnight ago, after he’d had some more to drink, he told me that every time he sees that I’ve cut myself again it makes him feel like he’s failed me and that he isn’t doing enough to help me.
And I don’t what that. The amount that he’s done to help me has been simply amazing, the last thing that I want to do is hurt him.
So I tried stopping. It was really, really hard, but I lasted over a week.
Then yesterday I had an absolutely epic melt down where I felt like I was quite literally losing control of my mind, and ended up cutting myself as the only way I could think of to bring myself back down to something approaching sanity. To remind myself that I was real and that I was still alive. I was also hoping for the calming effect that usually comes from the bleeding. It didn’t go exactly according to plan. This was the first time that I’ve needed to go to the minor injuries unit to ask someone else to sort out what I’d done to myself – hardly a soothing experience.
And for reasons that still aren’t clear to me the hospital insisted on calling my housemate, as he’s listed as my next of kin.
And I feel like we’re back to square one again.
I apologise if this post has been somewhat rambling. This is a subject on which I struggle to arrange my thoughts into any kind of coherent narrative. Then again if all I’ve managed to do is to make myself sound like a crazy person, then maybe that’s what it is that I need to put across. I’m just hopeful of the possibility that sharing my experience might prove helpful to somebody because I think that if I’d found anything similar to this post it would have been helpful to me.