Self-harm is so much more complex than attention seeking
Trigger warning: This blog discusses personal experiences of self-harm.
Disclaimer: While this blog shares personal accounts of self-harm, I in no way condone self-harm and it has not served me in any positive way. The experiences discussed happened in the distant past and are not currently ongoing.
My first introduction to self-harm was Thirteen, an 18-rated film about two wayward teenage girls. I was thirteen years old and, having learned that my group of girlfriends had spoken cruelly about me behind my back, I decided to give cutting a shot.
While anyone is capable of self-harm, it’s an act commonly associated with teenagers; and though there are myriad reasons for choosing to do so, it’s commonly brushed off as attention-seeking. What we aren’t asking is: why does this person need attention? What do they hope to gain, and how does it help them?
I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), a disorder of mood which means my emotions feel like they’re cranked up to a 100. Find my previous blog published on InSPIre the Mind on my experiences of having BPD, here. A minor event can have a catastrophic effect on my day, leaving me with what feels like emotional whiplash. Self-harm is something I have used in an attempt to calm myself. Sometimes, that self-harm looks like depriving myself of medication for my mental health (another topic that I have covered in more detail in a previous blog).
I hid my wounds with sweatbands and stacked bracelets before gradually moving on to my stomach. Already obsessed with my waistline and confident no one would see that part of my body, I remember the searing pain during PE lessons as dozens of tiny wounds burst open, arms stretched towards the netball hoop.
The wounds were a protective blanket, a reminder that no matter how much the world hurt me, no one could hurt me like I could hurt myself. I was consumed by the agony inside my head but for a few moments a cold numbness enveloped me as my emotional pain fell by the wayside.
The nature of BPD means a heightened mood can last only hours. Even at my worst, I often reasoned that stitches and scars were a permanent response to a temporary mood, and so minor wounds which quickly healed became my go-to. I didn’t want to be haunted weeks after the now-forgotten catastrophe had passed. Of course, my methods escalated.
My teen years were characterised by sharp household objects being locked inside Dad’s briefcase; I was careful not to stain my white school polo shirt, and there was always an excuse when I was inevitably caught. I remember the intense shame of Mum bursting in on me in a changing room. My parents despaired.
I was marched to counselors and therapists, one of whom suggested alternate methods of release: snapping an elastic band against my wrist, grasping an ice cube, scribbling over my arms in red marker… I reluctantly gave the ice cube a chance, and while I could imagine how the burning sensation might prove satisfying for some, I craved those little bubbles of blood. No method would have worked because I lacked any desire to stop.
I felt certain I wasn’t causing myself any real harm. I never did anything I couldn’t come back from, I reasoned. But was I in a state of mind to evaluate what I couldn’t come back from?
As my despair increased, my self-harm escalated along with my ability to think critically. It makes sense that I may have reached a point where I’d cause serious physical damage, or worse.
Aged 17, I acquired a 24-year-old boyfriend, a salesman who’d first flirted with me as I browsed CDs.
Weeks into our relationship, on discovering my secret, he’d said, ‘If you’re going to cut yourself, at least do it properly,’ before asking if he could cut me while being intimate. I wish I could tell that vulnerable 17 year old girl to run. Despite refusing his request, I wondered how this boy who said he loved me could bear to hurt me. I came to believe I was worthless and deserving of pain, which brings me to my next point.
Another hallmark of BPD is feeling like a “bad” person. You see, these moods are a lot to handle, and sometimes I don’t handle them the best. My anger can be like dropping a lit match onto a puddle of petrol and watching as it burns everything to the ground. I am left with an all-consuming shame.
Taking this into account, to me it made sense that my reasons for self-harm would evolve to include punishment; every time a loved one forgave me, I saw it as my duty to punish myself since they wouldn’t. Hurting myself made me feel able to live with myself.
Having managed to access a short stint of therapy over the pandemic, I’m now able to challenge this deeply ingrained belief that I deserve pain.
While in days gone by I looked at my scars with affection, today they’re more likely to plunge me back into a past I would rather forget; when a mood can pass as quickly as a tornado, it becomes an exercise in picking through the rubble instead of rebuilding the house. A long-term solution to a short-term catastrophe.
I still self-harm but can at least acknowledge it will not serve me in any positive way. Sometimes I’m even able to resist. The pain never lasts; if I’m brave enough to ride the wave, it soon subsides, and I’m always grateful I didn’t act in the moment.
Distraction helps; I ask friends if we can talk awhile, forbidding myself from feeling bad, because if the roles were reversed I’d welcome the chance to take on a little of their pain.
And though it’s difficult to remember in the depths of despair, I try to use a mindfulness exercise I learned in therapy. The next time you’re in a heightened state of stress, notice what you’re experiencing through any or all of the senses. How many sounds can you hear? Is there one bird outside your window or several having a conversation? Practice when you’re happy.
At 30 years old, I can now accept that by hurting myself as punishment — for the human mistakes we all make — I’m reinforcing the damaging belief that I don’t deserve happiness.
And guess what? I do.
If you are struggling and in need of support, below are a few helpful organisations which provide both resources and direct help: distrACT - App which provides information and advice about self-harm. nhs.uk/apps-library/distract Harmless - User-led organisation that supports people who self-harm, and their friends and family. harmless.org.uk LifeSIGNS - User-led self-harm guidance and support network. lifesigns.org.uk The Mix - Support and advice for under 25s, including a helpline, crisis messenger service and webchat. 0808 808 4994 85258 (crisis messenger service, text THEMIX) themix.org.uk Samaritans 116 123 (freephone) email@example.com Freepost SAMARITANS LETTERS samaritans.org