I was intending to share something for national self-harm awareness day this year (March 1st) but completely forgot about the date until around 11pm that night. But just because it isn’t self-harm awareness day doesn’t mean we can’t still talk about it.
Self-harm. Where to even begin. It would be far too conceited for me to start with my experience with self-harm, so I’ll start with some statistics. It is thought that up to 1 in 5 adolescents in the UK self-harm, but that’s barely the tip of the iceberg – only an estimated 15% ever present to clinical services such as A&E and CAMHS. So what about the other 85%? The ones afraid to seek help due to stigma, fear of judgement, or even because they don’t realise their behaviours are self-harm – these young people are the reason why it is so important to continue the conversation.
This is a topic that is intensely personal to me – I myself have been self-harming for what must be around 4 years now, but more on that later. What I found most striking over the past few years was just how common self-harm actually is. Discounting patients that I met in the unit, nearly all of my friends have deliberately hurt themselves at some point during the time I’ve known them. These are people from all walks of life, all situations – popular, talented, clever, beautiful people, who have been in so much anguish that they felt the need to inflict pain onto themselves. Self-harmers aren’t obvious, we are chameleons of the social world who live a double life, harming and hiding, keeping people at bay.
For those that have never had experience with self-harm (and I hope you never do), the most likely response is “Why? Why does my friend/child/sibling etc. do this to themselves?”. Stigma answers these questions with accusations and dismissals: ‘wanting attention’, ‘a cry for help’, ‘a phase’ – I cannot emphasise this enough – there is not, nor will there ever be a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Everyone has different reasons for self-harming and these are all equally valid and important, whether it be family issues or a fall-out between friends. It isn’t about the severity of the self-harm, but the pain that causes it.
As I cannot possibly speak for anyone else who has self-harmed, I will talk about myself. I’ll put a TRIGGER WARNING right here as I’ll be discussing potentially upsetting/graphic subjects.
If someone told 13-year-old me that, in a few years, her self-harm would get so out of control that stitches and infections become a part of everyday life, she would just laugh and deny that there was even an issue. But here I am, almost discharged after 9 months as an inpatient, still wrapped up in the vicious cycle that has only worsened over time. It’s startling to see how self-harm has taken over my life, so much so that I cannot imagine a life without it, nor am I even willing to try and ‘recover’ from it. I’m constantly surprised by others’ reactions to my arms and wounds – I’m so used to it that I forget that it isn’t a normal thing to do, for it has become so to me. I’ve had stitches so many times that I’ve learned by heart how to do it from watching the doctors, I’ve had surgery to remove foreign objects, x-Rays to check for broken bones, courses of antibiotics, nerve damage – I’ve been told that even plastic surgery would do little to reduce my scarring.
The world of self-harm is an extremely lonely and cold place to be in. Even though the statistics show a worryingly large number of young people self-harming, I cannot count the number of times when I’ve heard somebody mention how alone they felt. The stigma attached only serves to put another four padlocks and an iron rod between the self-harmer and the rest of the world where labels such as ‘attention seeking’ are thrown around so often. It’s no wonder that so many people slip through the net – for years, only a couple of my closest friends knew about my self-harm and to this day it’s still a subject that I avoid as much as possible. But these things need to be talked about, not buried further under shame and fear.
It’s taken me a long time to start to understand the reasons why I hurt myself, some of which are easier to talk about, others not so much. One of the hardest parts for me was learning to be honest with myself, being able to come to terms with the fact that being ‘attention-seeking’, if that really was the case, wasn’t so despicable. Up until then, I was too afraid to even think these thoughts, afraid of what I (or somehow, others) would find out.
So why do I personally self-harm? To most people these reasons may seem bizarre or ridiculous, but I encourage you to try and see past your personal biases and consider them as sensitively as you can – self-harm is self-harm, no matter how ‘important’ the reason seems to you.
1. It gives me a sense of control. I’m conscious of my word choice here, as I’m aware that this will probably come across as pretty disturbing. Being able to cause a significant amount of damage makes me feel powerful, that no matter how many things are crumbling around me, that I’ll always be able to harm myself.
2. As a punishment. This is pretty self-explanatory, and I’ve heard similar stories from other self-harmers I know. Often stemming from feelings of self-loathing and guilt, we punish ourselves to try and make up for mistakes, even if from an outside point of view we have done nothing wrong. Sometimes, for me, simply being alive is reason to punish myself – showing that there is no real logical explanation. Everybody experiences things differently.
3. Because I can. This may sound the most odd, but illustrates how self-harm can become such an endless cycle. When I first started self-harming it was in moments of distress, perhaps only once or twice a month. Now, it has become a regular occurrence, sometimes multiple times a day and often without a reason. All because it becomes a habit, an addiction, as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Hopefully these help to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions around self-harm, and allow you to better understand your friend/child/sibling. Most importantly, if someone you know is suffering with self-harm, don’t try and counsel them in reasons why they “need to stop”, berate them with lines such as “think about your family/future/wearing t-shirts” because from experience it only makes things worse. Just be there for them, give them an ear and a shoulder to cry on, but don’t be surprised if they would rather not talk about it.