My self-harming started in high school. I had a friend who self-harmed a lot and she told me about how much better it made her feel. Nothing else was helping me combat my depression, so I thought I would give it a try. And you know what? It worked.
I’ve seen people argue that self-harm doesn’t help and that you’re just making things worse. But the reason so many people do it, and keep on doing it, is because it helps create a visual link to an otherwise invisible pain deep inside. It sounds like I am promoting self-harm, but I’m not. I’m just telling the truth of how it is. Even though it works by taking your mind of it for a brief amount of time, ultimately self-harm is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
I’ve always pictured depression as a weed – you can prune off the leaves at the top, and for a time things are better and more calm. Eventually, though, it always grows back. Usually, it comes back a lot worse. Only once the entire weed, including its roots, is killed or taken away can you find a sense of peace. Self-harm is like taking off the top of the weed. It’s an instant relief, but it’s only going to come back and keep getting worse.
It took me six years to realise this. When I started self-harming, I didn’t do it often; just once or twice a year when things got bad. Throughout college I managed to stop myself for a time and it was only when I went to university that I started again. In my first year of university I faced a lot of challenges that I didn’t cope with very well.
I hated my course, and then hated the course I swapped to. I had no idea what I wanted to do in my life. I eventually swapped a third time to creative writing – deciding to do something I enjoyed instead of something that would lead to me getting me a job at the end of it.
Me and my girlfriend at the time broke up, then got back together, and then broke up again. It was stressful both times but the second time was particularly bad because I knew it was for good. That brought on this massive sense of loneliness, not just from no longer being in a relationship, but also due to the fact I had moved away from home months before.
To add to all this, my grandad died towards the end of the year. I wasn’t very close to him so when he passed away I was sad, but it wasn’t a huge loss to me. The distressing thing was that I felt guilty for not spending more time with him, because that’s why we weren’t close.
This isn’t a complete list of what was going on for me at the time, but I’m trying to illustrate another misconception – that people self-harm over little things; that they’re just being “emos” and that they need to get over it.
The reality is, at least for me, that lots of minor and major things build up over time. Then, because I felt that I had no one to talk to – and even if I could talk to someone, I just physically couldn’t get the words to come out – I had to express my sadness in another way. Take this invisible wound and make it real.
In the summer, in between my first and second year of university, I went to America for two months to work at a summer camp. This gave me a chance to escape my previous troubles, position myself in a new place with new people, and concentrate on myself and my job for two months. I loved this experience and when I came back I felt refreshed and happier. Then, in my second year of university I met a girl and made some new friends. Things were great, and so during my second and third year at university I managed to stop self-harming.
But just before I moved onto my fourth and final year at university, my girlfriend and I broke up. It was another big blow, and even though I had matured emotionally over the past couple of years, it still knocked me down. At my lowest point, I reconnected with my friend from high school who was still self-harming. It brought all this emotion back and I started self-harming again.
Things all came to a head when my friend tried to kill herself twice. Both times I had to break into her flat and call an ambulance. It was a harrowing time, and this brings me to yet another misconception about self-harming: that people who self-harm want to die.
Don’t get me wrong; some people who self-harm may well want to die. But not everyone does. And even for those who do, things are not that simple.
Self-harmers who are suicidal don’t start off that way. I will illustrate this point by going back to my weed analogy. Imagine a garden with a single weed in it. You take the top off the weed a couple of times, but it keeps growing back. Then, suddenly, you find that a second weed has sprouted up next to the first one. So, you pull the leaves off these two a couple of times, but it doesn’t solve the problem. More and more weeds keep sprouting up amongst the grass – and suddenly the garden is overrun. Once the garden is overrun, there only seems to be one way out.
Seeing my friend lying there in her room – pills surrounding her the first time, and razor blades the next – it triggered something in me. I needed help. I needed to get rid of the root causes of my problems, speak to someone, and do something before it was me in the hospital bed.
So I made some choices – I needed to get certain people out of my life who were negative influences on me. I tried my best for my high school friend, but ultimately she was bad for me and I was bad for her. We fed off each other and unwittingly encouraged each other’s self-harming behaviour. In the end I called her mum and explained what my friend was going through. My friend left university and came home.
I’ve not heard from her since, directly. But I’ve heard from friends of friends that she is now doing okay. I feel no shame for severing ties with her, though. We just weren’t good for each other. If you’re reading this and you know someone who is self-harming or you, yourself, are self-harming, consider the company that you or they are keeping. A change in environment can go a long way to helping the mind.
I also needed help for myself. Being at university meant I had access to 10 sessions of counselling for free. I could have got counselling through my GP and the NHS, but I didn’t want this to be on my medical record in case it affected anything in the future (this may well have been an unfounded fear, but that was how I felt at the time). So, I decided to go to the university therapist.
Therapy was a strange thing to go through. For me it was just as cliché as the films make it out to be – with the therapist asking me, “How does that make you feel?” etc. But in the end, it really helped. I found I was telling the therapist about things I didn’t even know I was upset about, but once I opened up about them I realised that these things had been eating away at me like a cancer. 10 sessions may not seem like a lot but it worked – since then I haven’t self-harmed again. I’ve thought about it – I constantly think about it – but I know now that there are much better ways to help visualise an internal pain.
My personal outlet of choice is creative writing. As I mentioned above, self-harm just helps make the invisible pain visible. Writing does this too, but instead of cuts and blood, or bruised knuckles from punching things, you have words on a page. You don’t have to keep what you write – it’s even cathartic to not keep the writing. Burn it. Delete it. Shred it. It feels great.
I opt to keep my creative writing nowadays though – people are always saying that we should write about what we know, and this cathartic writing is some of my best work. Writing as form of therapy gives you a voice.
You are not alone. You don’t have to be voiceless.