I’m an ‘out’ sufferer of fluctuating mental health. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, pretty much. But perhaps the reason I was outed was because my illness was very visible at times.
Back in 1999, I was in my last teenage year, in a terrible roller coaster of a relationship with someone with fairly serious problems of his own, and having turned down four perfectly good university places to work in a sheepskin slipper shop that nobody ever came to – apart from the occasional American tourist, who would ask me if ‘Do you know Karen? she’s from England too’. I often fantasised about putting dog shit through my boss’s letter box. When I first cut myself, I did it in a haze of anger; after a huge row, I’d thrown a pint glass against a wall in rage and it didn’t break. It didn’t break when I threw it for the second or third times either. So I took a small serrated fruit knife, and I sawed my hand until I made it bleed. I completely forgot that people might see my hands. I just wanted to release the red mist of frustration at my inability to have any control over my life. Having made about ten cuts up both hands and fingers, I realised not only did I look ridiculous, but this was the best I’d felt in a long time. It was as if all my pain was flooding away through these holes in my flesh. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
After this initial dalliance, I soon worked out that in order to be allowed to continue this tawdry affair, I’d have to be slightly more devious about it. Just as with all illicit hookups, I could only get away with it if it remained a secret, so I duly bandaged my hand and resolved to choose less obvious places to leak feelings from. I’m right handed, so my left arm began to get the brunt of my new habit. Soon the fruit knife wasn’t doing the job – it was time to get serious. I stole a razor blade used for cutting film from a friend, and opened up (excuse the pun…) a whole new world.
As you may be able to imagine, things got rather out of hand rather quickly following this change of weapon. I call it a weapon because I used it as such; sometimes over twenty times a day. I won’t go into the details, but I should say that at the time, this all seemed perfectly normal to me, I was beyond rational thought by that point. I even did it at work. And then I got found out.
Once my family knew, it was easy enough to stop bothering to hide from everyone; I would go out to the pub with a group of long-suffering friends wearing short sleeves and sporting still-bleeding wounds. It would be a bit of an understatement to say it made them feel uncomfortable. In my head I was somehow becoming proud that I could survive physical pain.
Once I’d moved to London and thought my cutting days were behind me, I realised that forgetting it wasn’t going to be quite that easy. I’d chosen to mark myself permanently, and not in a very socially acceptable way. One year I went to Reading festival and was buying bottled water in a shop in the town, when the shop owner behind the counter began laughing and shouting “Did you try to kill yourself?! Come here Barbara and look at this! She tried to kill herself!” In front of a shop full of shocked customers. I’m ashamed to admit I actually paid him for the water instead of pouring it over his stupid head. A similarly vile doughnut stall owner in Camden (I mean, Camden? Really?) decided that attempting (and succeeding) to publicly humiliate a customer would be the best way to sell more doughnuts. Parents pulled their offspring away from me in supermarkets, and nobody sat next to me on the tube, even if there were no other free seats.
It was then I made the decision to again mark myself permanently, and still in a not-very-socially-acceptable way. But my Grandad had tattoos, and I’d been told that plastic surgery wasn’t available on the NHS. I have two full sleeves, and the day we started them, a very trusted friend and I, signalled the end of my cutting.
Nowadays I still catch strangers (and friends) glancing at scars that aren’t covered and see a familiar flicker of shock on their faces. In 2006 an occupational health doctor assessing me for a job I’d been in for 6 months saw my stripey stomach and judged me incapable of work forever. More about her later. I still try to avoid the inevitable revelation “I did it myself” when someone asks me how I got them. Once in a blue moon some idiot will actually ask me if I had an accident with a lawn mower. I’ll let them think that if they seem like they might not understand how it really happened.
Some may say that people who get tattooed are just self harming in a less obvious way. Well, ok – but instead of horror, I now see curiosity or admiration of art on people’s faces. I’ve never had a single negative comment. Back when tattoos weren’t so much part of popular culture as they now are, pensioners often stopped me in the street to tell me how lovely they thought they were.
Self-harmers have a tendency to be in competition with each other; if you’re not as scarred, then you obviously didn’t suffer enough. Of course this is ridiculous, but it’s part of the deal. Once you’ve forgotten why it started in the first place, why you got relief from it, how much you tried to hide it, you begin to wear it like a badge of honour. But there’s no honour in feeling you have no choice but to injure yourself just to feel. There’s nothing brave about it either. It’s just another symptom of much deeper pain. And pain can’t be compared between people – it’s relative.
Of course self harm exists in many different forms – drug taking, drinking, smoking, eating disorders, promiscuity; risk taking of all kinds. As humans we all feel that rush of adrenaline when we do something we shouldn’t, and we’re all subject to the unspoken rules of society that stipulate which of these risks are ok, and which are not. I’ve replaced cutting with multiple other risky behaviours (that’s a part of my disorder), but ones that don’t raise eyebrows. You have to wonder who’s really ill sometimes.