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Sadly, I have been very suicidal in the past. However, I don’t think I’m ready to start talking about that just yet. Instead I’m going to talk about something that people with mental illness can start doing a lot, but is very hard to understand: self-harm.
Before I go in to detail, I want to warn you of two things: 1) you might find this distressing, as I will be blunt and 2) my experience is by no means an example of very bad self harm when compared to many others.
About a year ago now I had hit a real “rock bottom” in my life. I had all but given up on myself in many ways. I was already very depressed, and events going on in my life became too much for me to process. It sounds absurd to me now, but I actually saw self harm as a positive at the time: I really, really wanted to commit suicide in the frame of mind I was in and I thought self harm was a healthier way of dealing with how I felt. I guess there is some logic to it, but as I hope you’ll see, it’s a completely illogical state of mind.
Allow me to back track for a second. As far back (genuinely) as I can remember, I’ve really hated myself. I remember (and again, I think this is so sad when I look back on it now) when my Dad was driving me in to school once when I was little, I turned to him and said: “I really wish I was dead Dad. There’s nothing good about me. I shouldn’t be alive, should I?”. I was being very badly bullied at the time, and my parents assumed that I was reacting to this. They were concerned, but thought that by telling me to stand up for myself, I’d feel better. They were sadly wrong.
Anyway, back to a year ago. I was in a very, very dark place. I was drinking everyday, and drinking a lot. In my drunken stupors I would stumble about, cry and generally feel sorry for myself. I was very seldom seen outside of my room when I was in this state, though my friends knew something was wrong. Self-harm seemed like what I needed. I wanted to mark myself, to leave a constant reminder of what a failure I was.
The first time I tried to harm myself, I used a very sharp knife from the kitchen. For whatever reason, despite trying for about 5 minutes to break my skin, I couldn’t. This, at first deterred me from self-harm, as I thought It might be some sort of sign. After a short while though, I saw this as another one of my failures. Eventually, one day I found myself walking to Tesco. I was in this sort of mesmerized, daydream state… all I was concentrated on was buying some cheap razors. I picked up some cheap single-razors and went home.
When I got back to my room, I was sort of entranced. I took off my T-shirt and locked myself in the bathroom. It was late at night. By this point all that my mind was really capable of thinking was “you have to do something”. I spent a long time breaking the razor – taking off the plastic guards – in order to use it to cut myself. When it looked like it could do some damage, I felt this sense of relief. It was as if, in my head, everything felt so upsetting and miserable and out-of-control that the notion of being able to control something was a relief. I had given up on trying to do anything positive, because I was convinced that nothing positive could come out of anything I ever did. So I had decided to do something very destructive.
I just sat in silence, breathing very slowly, and dragged the razor along my upper arm. I don’t know whether I had chosen my upper arm for a reason – I suspect it was to be inconspicuous, but I’m not sure because in the state I was it was as if I went into auto-pilot. I just sat and stared at my arm as it started to bleed. I remember feeling like I had suddenly achieved something. I had control again. For this ridiculous moment, the world was simple. I was sat with blood dripping out of an incision I had made, and that seemed so simple that it was comforting. One of the things about razors is that the initial wound doesn’t really hurt. It might hurt the next day, but at the time it doesn’t hurt a lot at all.
I then started to think about what I was doing, and the conclusion I very quickly drew was that what was happening was what I deserved. There was no real logic behind it. It made no sense. But that didn’t matter. This was what I deserved, and I was getting what I deserved. But one cut was not enough.
I completed a few other cuts, and watched the blood drip from my arm. I must have found the sight of blood comforting, because each new cut was above the last – I think in the hope that I could watch the new stream of blood interact with the other ones. Eventually, I calmly decided that I’d done a few and that I was okay with this and that I needed to do a much deeper one. I dug the razor in much deeper this time. This was when I freaked out. I saw the blade imbedded in my skin and I had cut deep enough to watch the wound itself fill with blood before and reached the surface of my skin. I very quickly felt sick and I panicked. I know first aid so I started to treat the wound. I suddenly felt overwhelmed and like I’d screwed something up again – I became angry, because I felt like I’d ruined an achievement.
I subsequently felt like horrible. I couldn’t even make a success out of cutting myself. Maybe this sort of thinking lead to me becoming more suicidal… honestly, I’m not sure. The thing about self-harm that people need to understand is that it defies logic. Whether you create your own, twisted black hole of logic, or just go into a trance of sorts, you’ll find that many people who self-harm can’t offer you a good explanation as to why they’ve done it. It tends to bring relief at some point, but that’s about it.
There’s no point saying “why did you do that?” or “I don’t understand, explain to me why you hurt yourself” because in all probability there isn’t a logical answer. If you’re worried that someone you know might begin to self harm, please don’t waste time asking questions or being outraged or aggressive. Just do anything you can to prevent it. This includes expressing to this person that you’re worried about them – remind them that you care about them and don’t want to see them hurt themselves. Try and help the person to help themselves – offer to go with them to talk to or see a professional. Ask them if they should, for their own safety, surrender anything harmful. Don’t be aggressive about this, as it probably won’t help. And it goes without saying that if you’re really worried about someone, don’t wait around – treat it as an emergency and seek help as soon as possible from someone in authority, whether that’s your accommodation warden, the university security team, another house or flat mate or even the emergency services.
If on the other hand, you think you might be at risk of hurting yourself, tell someone. It might seem like the hardest and most embarrassing thing to do, but telling someone – from your family to someone you barely talk to, or even a health professional – is a good thing. It will help. And it encourages you to think about self-harm in a logical way. It will also help you to see that other people do not want you to hurt yourself, and it will begin to put you on a road to recovery.