I can close my eyes and easily recall the first time I purposely cut myself. It was almost 13 years ago, and I was standing at the bathroom sink of my one-bedroom apartment. The light was too bright, and I was worried about my tears smearing the black mascara I had just finished applying. I kept looking at the image in the mirror. My life was wonderful—a loving family, great friends, medical school, and the path to following my dream. Who was this sad shell of a person staring back at me?!
I remember holding the red scissor handle and watching the sharp, silver blade slice into my left forearm. Not deep, but enough for the blood to begin to trickle out. The release of tension was almost immediate. I felt like I had been holding my breath for months and could finally exhale. I cut again and again. Three deliberate cuts. Three thin red lines.
I look down at my arm today and see those faded scars, reminders of that first night so many years ago. And I think of the things I wish I had been able to believe back then. If you also struggle with self-injury, these words are for you.
There is nothing wrong with YOU.
You may be in the throes of a major depressive episode or having terrible anxiety or going through a breakup or grieving a death or just trying to make it through this incredibly weird and difficult year. There is likely something wrong, but there is nothing inherently wrong with you and who you are as a person.
I remember sitting in my therapist’s office a few years ago after my most recent episode of cutting, sobbing and practically yelling at her, “But what is wrong with me?!!”
I desperately wanted there to be some sort of medical or scientific explanation as to why I was doing this to myself. This wasn’t logical and simply didn’t make sense to me. What I want you to know is that just because you have done this thing, you are not a bad/selfish/crazy/unloveable person. Your actions do not define YOU.
You need to tell someone.
I understand how difficult this will be. How the cutting is done in the late-night hours when no one else is around. How you make sure your kids are at school or your husband is at work or your roommate is gone for the weekend. How you make sure any evidence of your actions can be covered by faded blue jeans or a fuzzy sweatshirt. I get the desire to keep your secret, to keep those feelings of guilt and shame and anger to yourself. But only when it is brought into the light can you start to take away its power.
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Self-injury is an incredibly effective coping mechanism for those of us who do it, and by keeping it to ourselves, we allow it to continue to be an option. Telling someone helps take that option away. It allows us to get help and find safer, healthier coping mechanisms, even if that seems like the very last thing we want to do.
It will not always feel like this.
That overwhelming tension that only seems to be relieved by the visceral act of inflicting pain, that emptiness that feels like it has found its way to your very core . . . these will subside. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually your mind will not immediately turn to self-harm as a way to get through the day. Or perhaps it will, but you will have the strength to abstain. That cliched adage “this too shall pass” is actually true, no matter how impossible or annoying that seems right now.
Mental illness is a disease.
It is a medical problem, just as heart disease and diabetes are medical problems. There are a myriad of causes of mental illness and a myriad of manifestations of symptoms. The good news is that there are also many options for treatment and ways to get help.
You are not the only one doing this.
Let me say that again. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE DOING THIS.
I recall one particularly bright and sunny Monday morning waiting for the biweekly meeting of my moms’ group to begin. I stood at the back of the room with a piping hot cup of coffee in my hands and fresh, tender cuts on my leg. As I looked around, I was greeted by all these cute and smiling moms, and I thought to myself there was absolutely no way anyone there was doing what I was. But I was also a cute and smiling mom that morning.
We stuff our pain and our shame so deep, and then paste on a smile and hope the world doesn’t notice we are drowning inside. It is difficult for me to talk about my cutting with my therapist, a medical and mental health professional trained to listen, let alone my family and friends who have a difficult time understanding or relating to my experiences. It has taken me years to be able to share my story with others. You are not alone, it is just that no one else is talking about it either.
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-injury, www.helpguide.org is a good place to start. You can also call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line at 1-800-366-8288 (800-DONTCUT) or text TWLOHA to 741-741 and a trained crisis counselor will receive the text and respond quickly.