*Warning- this post may contain triggers*
I was 17, sat in English class, when my best friend shouted across the classroom “Have you been cutting yourself?”.
Embarrassed, I had fumbled to roll my sleeves down and mumbled a nonchalant response that even I couldn’t hear over my beating heart. I had been self-harming sporadically for a year or so, but I had never gotten good at thinking up excuses for the marks.
Around the same time, I was sat in a pub garden when my Nan shot a concerned look at my inner forearm and asked me what it was. Again, I passed it off with a unconvincing excuse and carried on as if nothing had been said.
Years later, at university, a friend noticed my faded scars and made a joke.
The fact is, there’s such a stigma around self-harm, and it stops people from asking for help.
The stigma is two-fold. There’s a lot of shame surrounding self-harm, and people are horrified at the prospect of someone cutting, burning, or scratching themselves.
Also, self-harm can be very hard to understand, which makes the alienation of suffers even stronger.
I’m very open about the fact that I was once anorexic. I have shared the story of my battle with the eating disorder online, multiple times, and have no qualms about people knowing.
In fact, I want people to know. I believe the best way to challenge stigma around mental health disorders is to talk about them, so I hope that my story resonates with somebody and helps them on their way to getting better.
But when it comes to talking about my history of self-harm, I am repulsed at the thought.
It makes me feel physically sick to imagine people knowing that I used to cut my skin. I imagine how people would judge me, perhaps think I’m a freak for hurting myself, and probably feel quite sick themselves once they knew.
However, what we forget is that self-harm is often simply a physical response to emotional pain, and a way of dealing with distressing feelings or situations.
When we think about self-harm, it’s very much focused on cutting. Yet substance abuse is also self-harm. My eating disorder itself was a form of self-harm; as starving my body damaged it physically.
Despite general assumptions, people usually don’t harm themselves for attention.
When I began to self-harm it was out of pure desperation for a way to release these overwhelming emotions. It then became a regular release and coping mechanism for my low mood and anxiety. But it was always in private. I did my best to hide the scars, and I was terrified of people seeing them. I have never been and never will be proud of my scars, but I am proud that I stopped.
Again, I don’t expect everyone to understand self-harm. For someone who has never been through it, the thought of deliberating harming yourself can seem alien.
All too often, people assume that people who harm themselves are suicidal, but this wasn’t the reason for me, and isn’t for many others. Also, it is easy to understand that people deal with emotional distress in different ways.
It also becomes trivialised, and is often mocked. I have all too often heard these phrases said ‘jokingly’:
“It makes me want to slit my wrists”
“Go home and cut yourself.”
And I have to hide my grimace. Such jokes convince me that self-harm isn’t taken seriously enough.
Now, my scars have healed and all but disappeared. I managed to stop cutting when I decided I couldn’t deal with anyone else bringing up the red marks on my arm. I am proud that I had a tattoo on my inner forearm, the place where I took my emotions out on myself most often, to remind me that I won’t let it get that bad again.
This shaming paralyses people who self-harm- it stops them from asking for help out of fear of reprisal and what the label of self-harm signifies. It’s really time we took self-harm seriously.