here goes absolutely nothing. read with caution if this has been an issue for you. If you need to speak to someone or are at immediate risk stop reading and contact lifeline at 131114
On last night’s 730 report a young woman, Nellie Worringham, discussed openly and candidly her battle with self harm. I watched, and found myself misunderstood no longer. In fact I was actually nodding in agreement with practically everything she said. This is my attempt to put into words what i’ve felt for so long to be completely shrouded in silence, shame and stigma. So readers, please take this as the opening of a dialogue. I want people to listen, sure, but to discuss this issue in their workplace home and sc hool – to make sure that sufferers are heard, understood and accepted as part of their communities
I honestly don’t remember the first time. It was somewhere around early adolescence, which I am told is typical. What I remember was needing an escape route for a myriad of feelings that began to well up inside me. I had just experienced what was to be the beginning of a long period of sexual abuse. It is absolutely no coincidernce in my opinion that trauma survivors make up an incredibly high number of those that self harm. Unfortunately I am part of the statistic. In fact, research has shown that the younger the survivor of trauma, the more likely they are to go on to exhibit self harming behaviour. For some of us it’s burning, for some of us it’s overdosing, for me it was and still is, cutting. Although not so much at its mercy anymore, self harm began as a way of dealing with post traumatic stress disorder. The rituals associated with self harm gave a soothing balm to my thoughts, order and control amongst disorder and chaos. The deeper it was, the more likely it was to actually be of assistance.
However, despite popular myths. I was never suicidal. Self harm fulfilled the purpose of staying alive. Unfortunately, Self harm is often conflated with suicide. Indeed, in some of the literature it is even referred to as “para suicide” yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is a way, a completely maladaptive and harmful way, but a way of processing and dealing with almost unbearable feelings. When I cut, I am really not thinking about the assaults that robbed me of my identity, of all the associated guilt, and mixed up fear, rage, and just horrible gut wrenching shame. I was focussing on the immediate pain, the blood and the sharp object in my hand. It distracted me from all of that. Temporarily of course Survivors of trauma often also experience intense episodes of depersonalization, of not feeling anything at all, at being trapped in a sense of non reality. Seeing physical evidence of my humanity allowed me to experience being human for the ten seconds it took me to commit the act. . My parents discovered the behaviour as a young teen and attempted to send me to every psychiatrist, pychologist and doctor they could think of in attempts to diagnose me, explain away my behaviour, and of course medicate it. No co incidence once again that i was first put on anti depressant medications when i was 15 and have been on them since then. The damage that’s done to my brain chemistry and psyche are a subject for another blog post altogether, but it warrants a mention. The overwhelming irony is not once was I asked to explain why i self harmed, which to me signified the fact that it really didn’t matter. it fuelled the cycle and reinforced in my mind that self harm was THE ONLY way of coping.
Years went by, and the lack of an ability to constructively deal with my feelings was compounded. I would go through periods of not self harming, to self harm crowding my thoughts. I’d submerge everything to the point where it came out in overwhelming bouts that were too hard to deal with so i’d self harm. Then i’d feel guilty and the cycle would continue. I never thought this was a normal reaction to abnormal events. I’d go to every length possible to hide what I was going through. Nellie Worringham talked about not wanting to seek medical help for wounds. I identified very strongly with this feeling. It is not untill now that I have found a doctor who will non judgmentally treat me, look at my wounds without contempt. In fact, we developed code words for if i didn’t feel comfortable telling her straight out but needed some assistance. She understands completely my lack of desire to attend the emergency room. When a sufferer seeks ER treatment the response is never sensitive. They are often met with a huge amount of disdain by professionals, unneccesarily institutionalized, or just plain ignored. The first time i injured myself bad enough to seek medical assistance, I was left with the wound for four hours, which was the standard window for suturing, given first aid, the number for crisis lines, and ten days worth of valium. The first psychiatrist I spoke to in my adult life diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder after 20 minutes worth of consultation, and refused to acknowledge the role trauma played in my attempts to cope via self harm.
It is a complete mystery to me why self harm is so misunderstood. It doesn’t take a great deal of time to sit with someone and ask them why they behave a certain way. Yet we continue to presuppose our ideas of why certain people do things, failing to acknowledge this only worsens the problem. It is surely more preventative than arbitrary stigmatizing labels.
These labels have not served me and they do not serve people like me. They speak to a system that disregards the distress, the horrible levels of violence and pain people endure to come to a point in their lives whereby self harm is the only option to preserve life. I often go to great lengths to disguise my scars. I am terrified of the nosey but generally well intentioned remarks. The looks over, the strange whispers, and just the out and out rudeness. What also bothers me is my more well intentioned friends saying ” just stop” or ” find another way”. What people must understand is that it isn’t that simple. I am engaged in the long slow process of unravelling what’s been done to me over years. There are times when there will be bumps in the road and i’m more likely to fall into old behaviour patterns, but that doesn’t mean I am “attention seeking” it means I am in need of help far beyond my capacity to verbalize.
The most important way to support a self harmer is to remain open and non judgemental. If you’re a psychiatrist, put away the DSM and listen to what accompanies the behaviour. Be prepared, whether you’re friend, lover, parent, spouse to sit with some awful stories, some extremely deep personal tragedies, some stuff you may even be implicated in yourself. No matter how confused you are by what you are seeing, it is just as important that you don’t let that confusion get in the way of providing support. I hate to say it, but my behaviour isn’t about you. I heard countless times growing up the idea that my behaviour was making people look bad, or was “hurting them” more than me.not helpful. Give the person before you your complete support, let them know that they can come to you. When i learned I was no longer going to be judged for my behaviour, my life was made a lot easier. I found out I could discuss without shame the things I had been going through.
slow baby stutter steps
But i’m emerging from an overwhelming shadow. with your help.