I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. I feel almost guilty for saying it – as if I’m admitting to having a morbid curiosity in an inappropriate and forbidden subject. But that’s simply indicative, I think, of the fact that it’s hard to escape the feeling that self-harm is a taboo subject, even within the mental health community, and amongst those for whom it is very much a part of life.
I remember one occasion, soon after a fellow BPD blogger and I started corresponding outside the context of blog-posts, when we hesitantly started to explore the subject of self-harm in our messages, and to ask each other questions. It was clear that we were interested in the other person’s self-harm – how, where, why – but at the same time felt uncomfortable and guilty for being so curious. But it was also clear that we both felt a profound sense of relief (and almost of liberation and excitement) at being able to talk about this so personal of subjects, with someone else who really understood, and didn’t judge. Our ‘morbid curiosity’ was born simply out of a desire to know that we were not alone, that we were accepted and acceptable, and to try and understand more about what self-harm meant to each of us, and what it means to others.
Many of those who self-harm feel a sense of guilt, shame or self-loathing at doing so. Those feelings can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle in which more self-harm is used to try and cope with the intense negative feelings about one-self, associated with the act of self-harming. These negative feelings can be compounded by fears about how others might react to, or perceive, the behaviour, and the fact that self-harming carries a great deal of stigma within our society.
I am very thankful that I do not personally suffer a sense of guilt or shame at my self-harm, and I feel a huge sense of compassion for those who do. I do understand the cycle of negative feelings leading to more self-harm, although in my own case, these tend to be feelings of immense frustration and failure when self-harm ‘doesn’t work’ in adequately dealing with the feelings it was meant to address. I also understand the fear of stigma and lack of understanding from others, and this was brought home to me in a powerful way by the reaction of a friend of mine, when I admitted to her that I am an active self-harmer. Her shock, shocked me. The fact that, on the basis of this one revelation, she felt that she no longer knew me (although indeed, she didn’t) – shocked me. I still find it hard to fully understand others’ reactions to self-harm. I’m not in any way advocating self-harm, or trying to undermine the immense and courageous efforts of those who struggle daily to stay free of it. It’s just that, although it sounds somewhat bizarre, for me personally it felt like such a logical way to cope with pain. It still does.
However, I know, even if I cannot fully understand, that self-harm does indeed elicit strong reactions from others, and that those reactions are often based on fear, ignorance, and misconceptions. And my own experience of that ignorance and misconceptions, in the context of a supposedly ‘safe’ therapeutic environment, has given me a strong desire to write about self-harm, and to try, in my own small way, to address those views, and to help others understand.
And not just those ‘on the outside’, but those who self-harm as well. My own understanding of ‘my hobby’ (as a very accepting friend of mine describes it) has been greatly helped by reading both personal experiences and research studies of self-harm. Although I don’t feel great guilt at self-harming, perhaps it is testament to my innate perfectionism and my sensitivity to invalidation, that I have felt very troubled, in the past, by the sense that I wasn’t ‘doing it right’. That if my self-harming didn’t fit a particular stereotype, then it wasn’t ‘real’ self-harming at all (and therefore, by implication, neither was my pain, or my diagnosis, real). Reading about others’ diverse experiences of self-harm has helped me to feel less alone, and to really appreciate that self-harm means different things to different people, and different things to the same person, at different times.
I want to write about the misconceptions. About the view that self-harm is a ‘young person’s phenomenon’; that it is manipulative or attention-seeking; that it is a failed suicide attempt. About the view that self-harm is always impulsive; that the pain inflicted is proportional to the pain felt; and that one can simply ‘choose to stop’ self-harming.
I want to write about the motivations. About the need for comfort and control; the desire to punish, either oneself or others; the desire to either feel more, or to feel (or think) less, or nothing at all; the ‘silent scream’ or cry for help. About the experience of wanting to ‘make the inner, outer’, and to give mental distress a physical form; the habitual nature of self-harm and how it can become part of one’s identity; and the fear of not self-harming, which can lead to pre-emptively self-harming in order to cope with upcoming, rather than present, stresses.
But for the moment, I just want to say this.
I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. And for the sake of the thousands of those who suffer, in one way or another, and who use self-harm to both express and cope with that suffering – I hope that you do too.