Continuing our series on less commonly discussed mental health issues, Jonny Smart reflects on his experiences with self-harm
Content warning: This article contains in-depth discussion of self-harm and suicide.
It’s four in the morning and I’m watching my reflection in the mirror, fumbling around the dimly lit bathroom in an effort to simultaneously clean out a cut and apply a large plaster while avoiding dripping blood all over the floor. After what seems like an age, I eventually succeed in stopping the bleeding and slowly, despondently, drag myself back through to my bed, trying to hide the already intense pangs of shame, disgust and remorse under the weight of my duvet and in the darkness of my room.
It’s been over a year since I’ve self-injured with a knife or a razorblade and I’ve decided that it’s important and worthwhile to articulate some of my own experiences of self-harming.
Last April I was still cutting myself, taking short, punctuated gasps of breath as my fingers gently traced painful lines across and into the skin of my upper thigh with a razor blade. I’d watch entranced as the blood lazily trickled, and sometimes swiftly streamed, down the entire length of my leg. Already experiencing the ephemeral sensations of excitement and release sliding back down into feelings of guilt and revulsion, I’d begin repeating the by now almost ritualistic performance of stemming the flow of blood, cleaning the wounds and dressing, bandaging and hiding away the cuts.
By the time I was done, I’d have lurched into even more pronounced feelings of overwhelming and crushing self-loathing, worthlessness and regret. Fearful of social rejection and public castigation, I would cover up my injuries, desperately hoping that the cuts wouldn’t become infected and would avoid leaving obvious scars.
Self-harming and the urge to engage in self-harm aren't actually uncommon. A number of recent studies estimate that the annual rates of self-injury amongst adolescents and young adults in Britain lie somewhere between 15% and 30%. Of course, it’s hard to actually quantify the number of people intentionally harming or injuring themselves because large numbers of people will seek to keep their behaviour secret, fearing the repercussions of admitting they’re engaging in a frequently misunderstood, and still highly stigmatised, behaviour.
While self-harming often takes the form of cutting, burning or ingesting non-lethal amounts of toxic substances, it can manifest itself in a wide range of behaviours seeking to purposefully hurt yourself. Despite the narrative pushed by insensitive and sensationalist media reports, adults and children of any age and gender can engage in forms of self-harm. It can often be misunderstood or mischaracterised, frequently labelled as something people do for attention or taken as clear evidence that someone is suicidal. Although it is true that self-harm can be a sign that someone is dealing with suicidal thoughts, and often does represent an entirely valid mechanism of communicating a desperate need for support and attention, it can also simply be a secretive coping mechanism when struggling to deal with a variety of experiences of mental illnesses, trauma and abuse.
In my own experiences, self-harming has been a desperate, isolating and unhealthy form of coping that has emerged when I’ve really not been coping at all. For me, it’s been a symptom of an illness and of a struggle, a desperate and sometimes wildly impulsive attempt to even briefly escape from the crushing weight of the pain, panic, misery and hopelessness I was experiencing. Drowning under what felt like ceaseless violent waves of chronic despair, guilt, insecurity, worthlessness and exhaustion, I would momentarily seek to distract myself from these suffocating feelings, experiencing an all too brief sense of release. I was hurting so badly that physically injuring myself perversely seemed to temporarily make things better.
For an incredibly brief amount of time, self-harming would allow me to experience a pain that I could actually control, or at least felt like I had some degree of control over. It appeared to provide me with the means to console and pity myself during a period in which I was struggling to summon any feelings of positivity, love or kindness towards myself. The sudden powerful rush of endorphins when I cut would fleetingly transport me out of the grim milieu of misery, numbness and acute apathy that I felt was my existence, violently puncturing the unspeakable and unutterable longing to no longer exist and rupturing the seemingly unshakeable belief that everything was already broken in my life.
Of course, this didn’t last for long, and I would soon be lurching back into an isolating existence I felt I had no control over, accompanied by a new, fresh layer of pain, horror and guilt. The occasional romanticised depictions of self-harm in films and TV shows generally don't depict either the immediate disgust that would follow my own use of self-injury as a coping mechanism, or the grim realities of having to swiftly try and clean up and hide the mess I’d caused.
Even though I’m still struggling with my mental health, I’m intensely fortunate and grateful that I’m no longer cutting. As time has passed, I have been able to gradually distance myself from engaging in behaviours of self-injury, working on developing healthier coping mechanisms that enable me to comfort myself and to feel self-compassion and self-kindness when I’m at my lowest and most fragile and becoming far more aware of ways to avoid specific triggers likely to increase the risk of experiencing the urge to self-injure.
I’ve also been incredibly lucky that I managed to avoid becoming addicted to self-harming, meaning that I was able to break the pattern of behaviour and move away from self-injuring without the need for serious intervention. Additionally, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have avoided having to confront how best to deal with any serious permanent scarring. I have also been immensely fortunate that the people I confided in at the time, and have opened up to subsequently, chose to react with sympathy, kindness and understanding, helping me to understand that wrestling with the urge to self-harm did not define me as a person, but was rather just further evidence that I was really struggling.
We’re faced with a heightening mental health crisis, with a real absence in funding for the diverse range of resources, services and facilities necessary to help enable people to stabilise and manage their own mental health. Consequently, it seems more vital than ever that people who feel able to choose to share their own experiences surrounding different kinds of mental health problems, in the hope of both normalising conversations and dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and to increase awareness, understanding and compassion towards those relying on self-harm as a coping mechanism.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article you can contact the University Counselling and Psychological Services for information and support:
0141 330 4528