If It Doesn’t Scar, It Doesn’t Count
Only a handful of people have ever seen me naked: the doctor who delivered me, the caregivers who bathed me, the boyfriend who waited until our sixth date to even try to hold my hand. I actively avoid exposing myself if I can — I was that girl who claimed sanctuary in the bathroom stall of the locker room, wore rash guards over one-piece swimsuits, and pleaded with the masseuse to give her a shiatsu through a t-shirt. I’m not Mormon or anything, I’m just incredibly insecure.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of the vulnerability of being seen, of putting the imperfections of my body on exhibit and of losing the layer of protection afforded me by my baggy clothes. But, since admitting to Food Jail, I have been forced to contend with the discomfort of exposure on a daily basis. Every morning, after vitals are taken and before breakfast is served, I am summoned by a nurse to a private room where, between small talk and motivational interviewing, I am ordered to drop my pants and lift my shirt so my body can be scanned for fresh wounds.
These safety checks are a humiliating yet necessary evil for the self-harming client, a way for the wardens of Food Jail to keep tabs on any illicit behavior we might otherwise keep hidden beneath strategically layered clothing. It’s awkward as hell — I’ve never felt
more vulnerable than when my leggings are bunched at my ankles and my shirt is chicken-winged above my head, the nose of a trained professional inches away from my body as she surveys every inch for new cuts or bruises. I know, logically, that this morning routine is necessary for accountability — how else can my treatment team be sure I’m not secretly flaying or punching myself between meals? It’s a liability thing, too. Self-harmers tend to make insurance companies and facilities a little bit antsy; coverage typically doesn’t encompass self-inflicted injuries, and no one wants to bear the responsibility of blame if someone goes too far. On an emotional level, the shame of these checks is paralyzing. Despite attempts at discretion, it’s a small house, so of course everyone knows what’s going on behind the closed door. It makes me feel singled out, slightly patronized, and unbalanced. I constantly worry that the nurse and the other clients will judge me, look at me in horror or disgust and label me crazy.
My psychiatric rap sheet includes anorexia, depression, anxiety, and OCD, all of which are easier to explain than the habitual pull of the knife. When people ask me why I self-harm, I can only answer with a helpless shrug — how can I succinctly explain the topsy-turvy logic of how feeling bad really equates to feeling good? I never made an active decision to start hurting myself, rather, it was a consequence of low self-esteem, inherited depression, lack of control, and needing to be taken care of that first drew me to draw blood. Cutting played to my inherent masochism and seduced me with its instant gratification. My skin, a blade, and some pressure were all that was needed to find emotional release, a distraction that promised to take me away from the unpleasant realities of my life.
Fate has sketched me as chronically unhappy, desperately lonely, and prematurely demoralized. In my early twenties, I awoke each day to a hot and steaming cup of existential despair – what, exactly, was the point of anything? I had moved my entire life from the East coast to the West, had relative success for my age as a screenwriter, and had been able to pay my own rent and buy brand name toilet paper for some time now. I was living in the land of perpetual summer and palm trees, access to glamor and fame at my fingertips, and yet, I was still completely miserable. My ambition to write an Oscar-winning screenplay at an indecently young age prompted me to forfeit my relationships for career, so the only meaningful connection I had was with my computer. I had gathered a circle of friends who, in actuality, only saw me as a surrogate daughter who needed to be taken care of and I had distanced myself from my family of origin out of a belated attempt at differentiation. I was so miserable at my job that I would sit at my desk and slice my hands and arms between calls, pouring hand sanitizer on the cuts to maximize the pain. Besides purging my guts out into trashcans and coffee cups, it was the only thing that helped me to get through the day.
The with what didn’t matter — my years-long struggle with self-harm begot a craftiness that could bibbidi-bobbidi-boo just about anything into a weapon. It all started with paperclips, the gateway tool that evolved into shards of glass and box cutters and kitchen knives and everything in between. I found ways to hurt myself with the most innocent of things: credit cards, dental floss, plastic cups, and chopsticks. I’m not proud of this ingenuity, but I can’t argue that it hasn’t served a purpose. Self-harm offers me an unparalleled release of anxiety and in moments of extreme duress, it just works. The pain from a fresh cut or bruise triggers my brain to flood with those calm the fuck down chemicals that produce a temporary high and distract me from feeling my feelings. I have become addicted to that euphoria, which caused me to spin into a vicious cycle of anxiety, cut, feel better, rinse and repeat.
Emotional pain is confusing and imprecise — it hurts like hell and there’s no way to plaster a Band-Aid on shadowy concepts like heartbreak, rage, and depression. Anyone who has been through a breakup, a death, or Los Angeles traffic knows there are no resources bought at a drugstore that can alleviate the distress. Physical pain, on the other hand, is easy to figure out — I can see the injury, understand it as a source of pain, and throw some first aid on it to make myself feel better. It’s a simple way to deceive my brain into thinking I’m solving my problems instead of just actively avoiding them. And, in a batshit way, hurting myself enabled me to take care of myself. If I am bruised, bleeding, or broken, I can ice, bandage, or wrap my wound. I can give to myself the nurturance and love I so desperately desire.
The sad truth is, I have never felt more powerful than when I am nursing a fresh cut or bruise. Even though I am damaging my body, I feel like I am finally in control of something. Hurting myself enables me to temporarily wake up from the pervasive numbness of depression, and the instant gratification of seeing my own blood reminds me that I am still alive. Injuring myself has been, paradoxically, a decision to preserve my life. It has allowed me to expose what lies beneath and provided me an opportunity to
heal. Now, as I twitch my way through mandated withdrawal, I find myself craving the flood of dopamine my brain pumps out to compensate for the pain; it really is a dependency commensurate with a crack addiction, in both the temporary high and the collusion towards self-destruction.
By its very nature, self-harm is an isolating behavior. Those of us who engage will most often do absolutely anything to hide our injuries — we hone our powers of deception with silver-tongued lies so well-crafted we begin to fool ourselves into thinking it’s not that big of a deal. Social prejudices increase the shame many of us feel – external sources chastise us for being stupid and weak and narcissistic for succumbing to self-mutilation. But the impetus behind picking up a blade can’t be reduced to one straightforward reason. I’ve cut to relieve tension, stop dissociation, communicate internal pain, punish myself, punish others, stay grounded, compensate for pre-existing shame and guilt, confirm I’m really alive, deaden my feelings, hurt myself before others can hurt me and, sometimes, out of sheer boredom.
But for over a month now, by virtue of house arrest and confiscated sharps, I have abstained from self-harm. The cuts with which I arrived at residential have itched their way to healed and my bruises have faded from purple to green to gone. This is the longest I’ve managed without self-harming in years. I’d almost forgotten what my skin looked like in its natural state — honey blush and smooth as a baby’s bottom.
Abstinence is great and all, but the scars that remain can still be a trigger for humiliation. If we step back for a second and look at how we, as a society, perpetuate the shame cycle of self-harm,
we’ll realize how ingrained it is in our culture. First, we have to wrap our heads around how we, collectively, conceptualize violence, which we can all agree is a physical act intended to hurt, damage, or kill, right? In our society, violence is endemic. It’s everywhere from Law & Order reruns to road rage to Black Friday beatdowns. And our prototype for violence is largely other- directed, implying a perpetrator and a victim. But what happens when the two are one and the same? Self-harm is, at its core, a violent act (sometimes premeditated, sometimes maniacal, always savage). Yet conceptualizing it as explicit violence seems to be a hard pill to swallow. When we can distinguish between perp and vic, we can then look for motive or circumstance or context to give reason to the subsequent act. But from a layman’s POV, self-directed violence just doesn’t make sense.
Evolution programmed all organisms, from the slimy gastropod to the extant hominid, to avoid pain; it’s an adaptive trait designed to increase the likelihood of survival. But self- harmers say fuck that and deliberately hurt themselves — instead of running from, they run towards pain. Adding to the conundrum, women are four times more likely to self-harm than men. Known as the gentle sex, women are not supposed to have any tendencies towards aggression or violence, and if they do, it’s considered a violation of our collective cultural archetype of the ideal woman. You know, sugar and spice and everything nice? That’s bullshit. We get pissed off just as easily as Joe Shmoe, and not only at our time of the month. Sports, while a socially acceptable outlet to sop up some female aggression, just don’t cut it (pun intended) for self- harmers, who would rather score themselves than score a goal. But because we are made to believe that engaging in violence makes us abominations, we are shamed into secreting our behaviors and hiding our scars.
Serial self-harmers have an amazing capacity for creativity. The stories we tell to explain away our injuries are Pulitzer-worthy. I ran into barbed wire, I dove into the mosh pit at a Stevie Nicks concert, I’m exploring an interest in S&M. I’ve spun so many tales of accidents and whoopsies that my friends must think I am the clumsiest person alive. I explained away a magnificent black eye with I was elbowed by a drunken asshole in a bar (when I had actually smashed my face with a one liter glass bottle of sparkling water) and a six-inch cut on my upper arm with I ran into a cactus (when I really had dug into my skin with a corkscrew). But my friends are not dumb — I’m sure they suspected something was up, but people believe what they want to believe, and it was much easier for them to accept the bullshit I fed them than to question where my cuts and bruises really came from. I think their silent acceptance encouraged me to slice deeper and punch harder — I didn’t have the words to express my pain or ask for help, and I wanted them to genuinely inquire what the fuck happened? But no one ever did.
Pre-residential, you would be forgiven for thinking I were a victim of domestic abuse. I was battered, physically and emotionally, and felt stuck in an abusive relationship that I was too afraid to end. After years of self-directed insults, shame, and beatings, I had become convinced of my worthlessness. A pattern of cognitive distortions kept me imprisoned in the relationship with myself and I became hopeless of ever finding a way out. Emotional numbness became a shield and I detached from
everything around me, retreating further inward and depending entirely upon the abusive voice in my head for my survival. It was backwards and fucked up, but it gave me a sense of my place in an otherwise chaotic world. Through extensive therapy (I wish there were frequent flier miles for this), I’ve started the process of bringing myself to trial, prosecuting that critical voice in my head that led me to brutalize my body, and seeking justice for the little girl hiding inside.
But old habits die hard, right? Right now, hidden between the pages of my tattered copy of The Bell Jar, wrapped in a sweatshirt and stuffed under my twin bed in the room I share with a single mom, is a shank I made out of the obnoxiously upbeat thinking of you card my sister sent me in the mail. It’s small, fitting nicely into the palm of my hand, and formidable, sharp enough to carve a flank steak or cut off those annoying loops on the insides of my shirts. It only took me ten minutes to make, as crafting blades out of paper is some Martha Stewart-level shit that I’m both incredibly proud and incredibly ashamed of having mastered. Give me anything from a crumpled receipt to a pizza box and I can origami up a paper crane, a buttonhole flower, or a nine-inch Bowie knife. It’s tucked away out of sight, but not entirely out of mind; while I’ve so far managed not to butcher myself with it between meals, I can’t deny its siren call.
But thanks to this daily strip-search, I know there is no way I would be able to hide a cut from the nurse if I did decide to use it. A full-on inquisition would be launched and I would have to explain the what, the where, the how, and the why. The shame of being caught would overshadow the temporary relief of cutting and I’ve gained enough awareness into my psyche to know that at the end of the day, it wouldn’t do anything.
Self-harm is a short-term solution that effectively keeps me stuck in the same dark place of depression, anxiety, and despair. Like an alcoholic or a drug addict, I can postpone reality by engaging in a negative behavior, but that just lets whatever I’m avoiding come back twice as strong to bite me in the ass. The physical wounds are nothing compared to the emotional ones my self-hatred has carved on my soul, and by continuing to self- mutilate, I am only reaffirming the belief that I’m worthless, thus making it impossible to heal. Plus, engaging would be grounds for expulsion from residential treatment, which has a zero-tolerance policy for self-harm. As much as I am loath to admit it, Food Jail is beginning to feel like home. I’m surrounded by women who understand me, who hug me and love me, and who are walking this crooked path towards recovery with me. I don’t need to hurt myself to get their attention. By virtue of being me, I already have it.
I know I need to be willing to let go of self-harm as a way to cope with distress. I have to be able to feel the shitstorm of anger and sadness and fear and shame and not reach for a blade. I’m not ashamed of my scars. I have compassion for the girl who felt so unloved and unwanted that the only way she could find relief from her mental pain was to make it physical. But what would happen if I advocated for myself and punched with my words instead of my fists, asked for help instead of Neosporin?
I guess there’s only one way to find out.