By: Rebecca Boardman
Who are we – those of us who hurt ourselves? What faces do we wear? Do you see us peering out of the bars of the windows of psychiatric units, or walking into the train tunnels when we hear the whistle of an incoming car? Do we walk around with eternal clouds over our heads like cartoon characters, wrapped in blankets of despair? Is this how you project yourself to those around you?
Chances are, you don’t. I would venture to bet that most people think you are fine. That you are better than fine. That you have it all together, and are bold and charming. I would place money that you wear an ordinary face in all the ordinary places. And that when you hurt your flesh in private, when you see the blood or feel the pain (or the lack of it), it is yours and yours alone. I am you. You are me.
Who am I? Probably older than you think. It seems that cutting and self-harm are being focused on by doctors and researchers as a problem of the young or adolescent population. But that’s probably because people like me are much better at hiding. We have this down. After thirty years of recurrent self harm, I have appearances down pat. Visit me and you will see a successful mother and wife, an artist, musician, accountant, and animal advocate who has does the work of ten people. I’m stronger than anyone you will know, having endured more physical pain than a dozen average folks experience in their lifetimes. A veteran of over twenty surgeries; I’m smart, game, talented, and have a circle of friends who adore me. And I live my life focused on family – making sure my children have all they could possibly need to grow mentally and physically healthy and happy.
But its a fake.
I’m a fake.
Underneath, I am just like you. I am terrified to be alone with myself, so I cram my life with activity – a constant barrage of work and family and art and don’t-ever-stop-for-one-second or the demons will come out. Inside, there is a hole that sucks in all the good in my life and spits out the poison of self-hate and disgust, and constantly beckons with the seductive lure of suicide. Sound familiar? Let me get more detailed. When the mindfulness, the stillness, the quiet, nature, my family, and all the things I use as tools to help myself fail – my blood never fails. Oh, I know the anguish of it. How can anyone, ever, possibly understand that the tearing of my skin, the flow of my blood, the pain itself (if I even feel it) is an anodyne for despair? I don’t understand it myself. But I know it has to stop. That self-harm is NOT the answer. And that I don’t just hurt myself. I see it in the eyes of those I love – my husband, my children, my friends. I hear it in my children’s voices when they ask me about my scars and bruises and cuts, and know my son is getting old enough to not buy my hasty excuses. I feel panic when I see a cut on my daughters arm and when I ask her how it happened, she proudly says she doesn’t know. Oh yes, I taste the bitterness of my own poison.
Self-harm is as powerful as any drug. And ultimately, it can cost your life. Whether it is an accident, or suicide because you just can’t stand the hurt you’re causing others, self-harm is as dangerous as heroin, as addictive as cocaine, and as destructive as crack.
I would imagine most of us have been through the grinder. In my case, I had the self-harm winning lottery ticket: alcoholic dad, mentally ill mother, and a bi-polar family that could go from perfect love to murderous acts of violence between breakfast and brunch. Add to that bullying so awful it ended in a knee injury that has caused a lifetime of corrective surgeries (18 at last count); sexual molestation by neighbors and friends, and abandonment at age 17; then rape. Yes, I would say I ran the gambit. I discovered early that pain alone could be relied on. That abandonment was the price of love. And that inside, there was nothing worth loving. Any of that sound familiar to you? I am betting it does.
Yet here we are, back again, at who are we? We self-harmers? I think most of us don’t know – but we are trying. More than anything else in our lives, we are trying to find an answer to that riddle. We try to find it by being what others need and want – but that still leaves us looking. And so far, all we can find is pain. I would guess most of us want the pain to stop, and be replaced by love.
Therapy can mean many things – but for us, a good therapist who knows about self-harm is a lifeline. To have someone who will not condone it, but not turn away from us, is the most important thing we can find. Someone who is not our friend, not our lover, not our family. Someone who can listen and witness and give a voice to the pain inside so we don’t have to wear it on our skin. Someone who will SEE us, and teach us we CAN BE SEEN. Really. Seen. And that what is seen is ok – perhaps even beautiful. To wrap words around the darkness, to let someone into the hidden rooms, to have a fellow human soul that is also on life’s journey walk awhile with us – these things work. They help hit the pause button long enough for you to put down the blade, to see the scars, and remember not to add to them. That you aren’t just hurting yourself. You are hurting those you love.
I am better. It is slow. Sometimes I want to quit. Sometimes I want to be dead because this is just such exhausting work. But most of the time, I am alive. I see. I feel. I love. There is such beauty in the world. It is not all pain. My children are living examples that the chain of abuse and despair can be broken. I see in them a foundation and self-knowing I never had and that somehow – miraculously – I have been able to provide. I see my husband of twenty years and know he is still here – and that somehow – he loves me. If these people, who I value more than my own life, see such good in me – I must find it with them. I am more than my scars.
So look in the mirror, fellow self-harmer. Do you see yourself? I do. I see you. I see myself.
You are more than your pain.