Warning: I aim to talk about my experiences with honesty. This post may trigger an adverse reaction. If this post begins to upset you, I advise that you stop reading it immediately. By writing about the issues in this post I aim to break down the stereotypes and stigmatising ideas that can be associated with self harm/ self injury. If you feel that you are in need of immediate help, please speak to someone ASAP.
Self-harm is not about "attention seeking". That horrible idea is hurtful and far from the truth (not to mention a dangerous assumption to make). There are many reasons someone might self-harm, and if you're one of the people who dismisses self harm and injury as "attention seeking" STOP. Educate yourself. Your attitude towards mental illness is hurting people. Come back when you've grown up.
There are so many potential triggers for self harm - abuse, eating disorders, rape, bullying, loss, trauma - but attention seeking (at least in the sense of attention seeking to boost your own self worth) is definitely not one of them. More often than not, those who self harm are feeling vulnerable, they are not driven by attention.
We all make assumptions and judgments on everything in life, especially things we don't understand. As someone who has self harmed, I'm going to see it differently to someone who hasn't. The one thing I can assure you of though, is that the last thing I wanted was to draw attention to it.
When I say "self harm" do you assume "cutting" by the way?
So many people assume cutting. But self-harm manifests itself in so many different ways. Each person's experience with self harm is real ONLY to them and there is a good chance that they will never be able to explain it enough that you will understand.
My first memory of self harm is only a 20 second one. I can't even pinpoint it in my timeline to be honest, but I'd guess I was about 5 or 6. I was making a late night expedition to the toilet, and as I did so I could hear hushed voices from the adjacent bathroom. I knew it was my parents and, being little and very needy, I tottered in.
"Go to bed, Anneli." Dad said, in his strict voice, gently pushing me back towards the hallway.
"What's wrong with Mummy?" I asked. She was crying.
"I fell in a bush." She sniffed.
I remember feeling bewildered. There were blood covered towels pressed to her arms. Mascara and pain all over her face. I must have gone back to bed. I didn't know what I was seeing at the time. Of course, I do now.
My childhood was a happy one, but there was definitely an undercurrent there. A dark elephant in the room, that I couldn't see in the first place, let alone talk about. As a teenager I became aware that mum was cutting. It was a gradual growing awareness and, although I didn't understand it, I accepted it wholly.
In time I grew accustomed to my mum's scars, I used to kiss them and affectionately refer to the bigger ones as caterpillars. It was my way of showing her that she was beautiful. Scarred or not. I remember that I would always feel incredibly protective over my mum whenever I would catch a stranger glancing at her arms, internally daring them to make a comment so I could let my anger fly - but to my knowledge no one ever did.
It was hard. I was trying to grow up. I was trying to fit into this world that I didn't feel was right for me, because I felt like it was a place that would never accept my kind and complicated mum. I was always waiting for her next attempt to leave it behind. The pressure mounted, and I soon found myself alone in my room in the dark. Unable to express myself. Hardened to things I should never have been hardened to. Disconnected from other kids my age.
My veins felt like they were on fire. Like my blood was actually boiling. There seemed to be very little justice in this world. I didn't know how I was ever going to become a fully fledged part of it, or if I even wanted to. I'd seen my mum go from appointment to appointment to suicide attempt and back to appointment, trying desperately to get the help that she needed. Only to be turned away time and time again. I had watched her invest so much emotion and love and energy into the people around her, only to be used and rejected.
I was 13 and experiencing more complex emotions and situations than many adults. This world with all its hate and all its judgment was going to drive my mum away again. It was going to take her from me. There was nothing I could do to stop it and I hated myself for it. All I could see was weakness, cowardice and hesitation. So I cut.
For all of 30 seconds, I felt release and power. I felt like I had taken back control. The physical feeling of dragging a blade across my skin had provided a temporary relief from the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. I felt satisfaction in watching the blood drip down my arm. I felt like I had learned something about my mum.
Of course, the feeling of relief was quickly replaced with one of horror. I had to clean up, I had to hide my blood stained clothes, I had to wear long sleeves for a couple of weeks (the cuts weren't deep). I couldn't talk to the two people I trusted the most (my parents) about it, so instead I tried to talk to my friends. Some of them thought it was attention seeking. Some of them thought it was cool. Neither reaction was what I was really craving, so I didn't bother talking about it again.
I never took to regular cutting. I mostly got on with my life and forgot it had ever happened. But that need for release remained, and it would often rear its head in times of deep pain and result in temporary relapses - periods of 1-2 weeks of self harm that would be forgotten almost as quickly as they appeared.
It certainly wasn't a form of attention seeking. It was very private and totally personal to me. It was specific to my circumstances. Specific to my life. It was something that I thought of as a coping mechanism, but really was just another problem that I had inadvertently added to the difficulties I was living with at the time.
More often than not, people who self harm/ have self harmed will go out of their way to hide this from you. They don't seek help, because they feel they are beyond it. It can be a form of punishment or self expression. It can also be a sign that they are battling suicidal thoughts. To dismiss self harm as "attention seeking" is an incredibly dangerous move.
Because people who self harm might have given up on helping themselves, it is often up to their closest friends and family to notice that they are self harming and to help them get help.
Here are some of the things to look out for:
- Unexplained cuts or bruises (usually on wrists, arms, thighs or chest)
- Burns (often cigarette burns)
- Signs of pinching or scratching themselves
- Becoming withdrawn or not engaging with others
- Lack of motivation
- Sudden low moods
- Changes in eating patterns, such as periods of starvation or binge eating (this in itself is a form of self harm)
- Low self esteem - blaming themselves for problems, or feeling they aren't good enough
- Signs they have been pulling out their hair
- Staying covered, even in very hot weather
- Signs of alcohol or drug misuse
- Expressing suicidal thoughts
- Lacking in energy or appearing tired
- Not taking care of themselves
If you do think that someone you know may be self harming, please approach the subject with care, caution and understanding. There is a strong chance that this person is feeling vulnerable, alone and afraid. They may be experiencing something that is difficult to talk about and that you might find difficult to understand. While you should urge them to seek help, it is important that you respect their ability to make this decision for themselves. Offer support, not instruction. They are hurting, but they are human.
You don't have to be able to solve someone's problems to be there for them. A lot of the time, knowing that someone is there to talk can be a big help.
There's nothing glamorous or worthwhile in self harm. But then again, if the people who were injuring themselves did so for your attention, why would they go to such great lengths to hide it from you?
We need to start looking after each other better and more.
If someone has opened up to you about suicide, you should always take it seriously, no matter how matter of fact or off the cuff their remark may have seemed. Chances are, they are tentatively trying to open up a dialogue with you. You can contact a charity such as the Samaritans on behalf of a loved one. Remember though, if you think someone you know is in immediate danger you should contact the emergency services.