Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Incense, alcohol, and the birth of escapism

I said I'd write more about self-harm, so here we go. Don't ever say I didn't warn you - my honesty is sometimes a gift, but often a blunt instrument. 

The term 'self-harm' is a bit of a misnomer actually. For me at least, it was a way to avoid harm - it was more self-care. I imagine around 70% of people reading this will have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about (or they think they don't) and the remaining 30% will completely identify with this nugget of truth. So, I'll start at the beginning and I'll make an attempt to explain how such a dichotomy exists. 

At 14 I had my first run in with it; at 34 I can still see the tiny round scar on my left wrist. I was in my bedroom, it was 1994 and I'd spent an entire night meticulously plastering the walls with every single picture of Kurt Cobain I could lay my hands on. I'd even bought somebody else's bad photos from a gig I never went to - you could do that by post then, by responding to adverts in music magazines. I remember vaguely that I was angry about something, which was a fairly common occurrence for me given that I was a teenager. Days of bullying sometimes got too much and when I came home to a level of expectation I felt I couldn't satisfy, I had a tendency to feel trapped in a life I couldn't control. This particular evening was not in any way different, but it just so happened that as I was holding a smoking joss stick (one of those incense sticks you light and then blow out), I wondered what it would feel like to put it on my skin, so without really thinking about it longer than that one moment, I pressed the glowing tip into my wrist. As I did, I felt a stinging pain as you might imagine, and then smelt that unpleasant burning flesh smell. Needless to say it wasn't a very positive experience, but somehow I felt calmer afterwards. This was the first of many very similar moments.

I didn't do anything like that again for a few years. What I did do, however, was watch someone very close to me do it, day in, day out, whilst I stood by feeling helpless and completely ineffectual. Perhaps that makes what happened later on worse - because I knew how much it hurt to see someone you love destroying themselves in reaction to something that wasn't their fault at all. But self-harm takes many guises, and even though deliberate physical injury on the outside didn't start happening until later, I found other ways to quash those painful moments. 

It was around this time that I first experienced what I now know was a panic attack. I'd developed a fear of going to bed at night, which in hindsight may have been as a direct result of bullying - going to bed meant that getting up and going to school was the next thing that I had to do, and so I developed nausea every time I lay down in my bed. I spent many nights sleeping on the bathroom floor after retching violently for several hours, and eventually my mum dragged me to see the family doctor, who prescribed what I now know was an anti-psychotic. I was living life in a fantasy world where I was a tiny person living inside a human-sized vehicle, looking out through eye holes and driving my body around from inside the control room in my brain. That way, I was invincible. I had vivid dreams that people at school reacted to me in exactly the way I wanted them to - including boys. I often daydreamed during lessons, and in my last year there I became fixated on one particular boy who I'd seen at the choir I went to in the school holidays. He attended the sixth form college attached to my school and I often saw him playing pool through the window of the portakabin that housed the student common room whilst I was in art lessons. I was besotted, but he was 16 so I knew I didn't have a chance of even speaking to him. As a feminist looking back can't help but wince at the level of importance I'd placed on this boy. I have an amazing imagination though, so the world I'd fabricated inside my mind felt more real than my actual life, and it was there I sheltered myself.

I began stealing alcohol from my parents' booze cabinet in my last year at school. My house was right opposite my secondary school, which was both a convenience and a nightmare. Once we were in year 11 and allowed to leave school during breaks, my circle of friends and I would go back to my house to smoke cannabis and mess around. I never quite knew if I'd even have a friendship group if I hadn't've had a house to offer as a refuge. I never felt like part of that group, as desperate as I was to be accepted. I'd pour spirits in a glass and add squash neat to take the taste away, before necking it. I don't recall any of the others doing that. 

By the time I was 16 I started going to the pub a few doors down from my house and drinking every night, despite being under age. Rural Somerset wasn't somewhere that checked identification, and I still don't know if my parents knew. For them, the final straw was when they left me in charge of my younger step-siblings one evening, and I drank a bottle of whiskey whilst waiting for my friends to arrive. After they'd stopped me dancing in the garden in pyjamas, they had to put me to bed before my parents arrived home, and I'd given myself alcohol poisoning. I spent the following day (a Saturday, when I attended a morning music club) puking my guts up in front of younger children. My mum dragged me back to the GP and I was subsequently forced to attend alcohol counselling with a wrinkly prune of a woman, who had tar-stained skin and a croaky smoker's voice. She would smoke, I would smoke, and I don't remember much else, other than drinking a pint of Ouzo the weekend after the whiskey babysitting debacle.
Around this time I'd also started smoking tobacco. The first cigarette I ever smoked was a disgusting herbal variety meant as a healthy alternative to normal cigarettes, which was a harsh and nauseating experience, but one I had convinced myself I needed to have. I would hide around the side of the house with my step sister in my dressing gown after my mum had left for work (but before we had to be at schoo) smoking these horrific herbal fags and coughing and wheezing. 

It didn't take long to graduate on to tobacco and from there on to cannabis. Of course I'm not for one minute suggesting that this is a logical and expected progression. The irony was that a few years earlier I'd chastised my mum after catching her smoking in the school staff room. I'd been convinced that both parents would get cancer and die, yet here I was forcing myself to learn to smoke. It's there the self-harm instinct becomes more obvious. This is how it all began.





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