Self-Harm and Seeking Attention

For a long time, I tried to hide my self-harm scars. Luckily my arms are fairly hairy, so they aren’t quite as obvious as they might otherwise be. My upper arm is considerably more noticeable (the deepest scars are there), but I generally don’t wear sleeveless shirts. In fact, I used to wear long-sleeves throughout the year, which in the heat and humidity of a New Jersey summer can be pretty miserable.

I would hide my scars in the same way that I would hide the cuts themselves, back when I was actively self-harming. It was a compulsion, an addiction, and it came with questions from anyone who saw the marks. I didn’t want to talk to people, I didn’t want to interact, and I certainly didn’t want the false sympathy and blank stares from people who didn’t, and couldn’t, understand.

I don’t worry as much about it anymore; it’s been over fifteen years since I last cut myself. The scars are as healed as they’ll ever be, and what’s left (dozens of raised, deep ones; hundreds of smaller lines) are a permanent reminder of what I used to feel, and who I used to be. I’ve come to terms with it, and I no longer care what people think. In fact, as I’ve started moving into a realm where as an author of books about depression I need to more actively talk about these subjects, I find it actually helps bring light to a condition that needs desperately to be talked about more frequently.

But not everyone is like that. I know people who tattoo over their self-harm scars. I know people who simply cover them year-round. And I know people, of course, who still actively hurt themselves. And what I’ve found is that, for the most part, those who hurt themselves do it in secret. They do it surreptitiously. They do it with the hope that no one will ever find out.

I bring this up because there is a common misconception about self-harm that it is, at its root, an attention-seeking device. That the people who do it are subconsciously crying out for help, trying to get people to pay attention to them, and doing it in all the wrong ways. I actually think most of us self-harm for a very different reason.

I was never interested in attention. I never wanted people to see my cuts. I was happy if I made it through a day and no one spoke to me, or even saw me. Instead, I cut for a singular, simple reason: I needed to see blood. There was a compulsion in watching the pure white flesh beneath my skin split open, well with blood, and trickle down my arm. It was, to me, aesthetically pleasing, and felt good to watch.

Believe it or not, I didn’t particularly enjoy the pain. The pain was something to be endured for the sake of seeing the blood. After I cut, after I saw the blood, my anxiety would be reduced. My stress would be relieved. I could settle down in the comfort of my bed and sleep, pass from the world, and forget I ever existed.

Now of course, there are people who also cut for the pain. For the sensation, to relieve the numbing nothingness that is depression. Physical harm, of course, releases numerous hormones and chemicals throughout the brain and body, many of which are pain-relievers. This in itself can be an addiction. The sense of peace that comes from self-harm may easily be attributed to this.

There are people who cut because it gives them control. Too often we feel like the world around us is beyond our control, beyond our ability to influence, and hurting ourselves is something we are in control of.

And often, we can’t help it. Because it is an addiction. It becomes a compulsion, something you can’t help and can’t control. They do it day after day because, like smoking or alcohol, you simply have to.

There are also people who self-harm in other ways. Cutting is common, but there are people who burn, who scratch, who bang their head against the wall and throw themselves down stairs.

And none of this is to seek attention. Sure – there might be people who do it subconsciously because they’re not getting the attention they need from the people they need it from, but honestly, I think this falls into the minority. Most of us hurt ourselves because we want to, for ourselves. Because we have to. Because there simply isn’t any other way to cope.

Lastly, it’s also important to recognize that self-harm and suicide are not the same thing. The vast, vast majority of people who self-harm have little to no interest in actually killing themselves. Whilst I have had suicidal moments in my life, the cutting was never correlated with it. And I never cut to die.

So for all of you who self-harm, know that there are people in the world who understand. There are those of us who truly know what it’s like, and why you do it. And we understand you might not be looking for attention, or wanting to kill yourself. I can’t say I condone self-harm – I think it’s important to seek help if you can’t control it – but I understand it.

And you aren’t alone.


31 Replies to “Self-Harm and Seeking Attention”

  1. One of my daughters is bipolar and a cutter. My biggest fear is that she will accidentally do permanent damage. For example, last year she got very upset and cut her wrists. She said that she wasn’t actively trying to commit suicide, but didn’t care if that happened.
    She and I have talked about the cutting and, while I know I can’t truly understand the impulse, I understand her motivation in doing it.

    1. I understand the concern of permanent damage, and that it can be accidental. Probably the most important thing here is that you and your daughter are able to communicate about it. I could never do that with my parents, and it probably led to much worse harm than I might have otherwise ended up with. In the end, so long are you are there for her, you don’t have to necessarily stop her – but let her know that when the impulse does come, there is always the option to go to you without repercussion or judgement, but just to know someone is there.

      1. Thank you for being so open about this very difficult subject. It’s extremely difficult for someone who doesn’t do it to understand. In your post, you open a door for dialogue to begin. That’s important.

      2. Of course. I always strive to help not just those who suffer to know they’re not alone, but to help their loved ones understand a little more about what it’s like. I might not always be successful, but it’s important that both sides be able to talk to each other.

  2. It really takes guts to convert mental pain into physical trauma.My beautiful scar reminds my inner battles and struggles that I have been through,I hurt my self when I was 16….I was really young and vulnerable when I did that but now I don’t feel ashamed in fact I acknowledged my innocence and converted it into my strength… I am content and happy with myself😊😇Thank you so much for sharing…..kudos to your writing ✍🏻 👍🏼👏🏻

    1. I’m glad to hear you made it through, and have found a way to find strength from what so many consider a weakness. We’re all a culmination of our lives up until this point, and you wouldn’t be where or who you are today had you not gone through that difficult time.

  3. I think this is important. People either don’t want to talk about mental illness at all, or they tend to trivialize it. In my experience, self-harm was never about attention. I didn’t think anybody cared at all so how would that even make sense? For me, it became about control. It felt like the one pain in my life that I could CHOOSE to feel or avoid. Some days that was everything. I just needed to feel a little control in all of the chaos. Thanks for your post and shining a light on this.

    1. You’re welcome. It’s an aspect of mental illness that many people can’t quite grasp – something they can’t imagine wanting to do. And you’re right; control is an important aspect of this. I was given very little freedom as a teenager, and in the midst of depression and general growing up, it was one thing I could do that no one could take away from me. I still struggle with people trying to control me to this day; it’s one of the few things that can really make me lash out. I hope you found your control, and that it can give you some measure of comfort.

  4. Thanks for posting, you made so many great points here. I appreciate you taking time to educate me on this

    1. You’re more than welcome. If I can help even one person understand a little more what such devastating depression can be like, I’ll consider it worth writing!

  5. Sadly, I first read about “cutters” in a fiction called “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn.

    In my culture, talking about “depression” is taboo-enough, so no wonder that in my growing up years, I never got to read/hear about this issue. Here, mental health stigma gets swept under the rug quickly.

    Thank you for educating me about it as well. I learned so much.

    1. You’re more than welcome! It always saddens me to hear about mindsets that dismiss mental health in general. While a lot of sadness and depression can come from the culture around you, it is also down to faulty brain chemistry – which is universal. Where you grow up doesn’t change this, and people across the world need to be able to speak more openly about these issues. I’m glad you found out about it, even if only through reading. Books can be powerful educational tools.

  6. Thank you for your courage in sharing this. It helped me understand it better. I have a friend who is currently struggling with this and I’ve passed your post along to her. Thank you

    1. You’re welcome, of course! If I can help you understand it even just a little more, then it was worth writing. I hope your friend can find the strength and help she needs.

      1. Thank you, I hope so too!

  7. Thank you for bringing this up. While I’m not a cutter, I self-harmed in the past by punching myself in the head for making “stupid” mistakes. I agree that self harming is not attention seeking but a cry for help.

    1. Self-harm comes in many forms, for many different reasons. I’ve known people who burn themselves, or put out cigarettes on their skin. I once read that Princess Diana used to throw herself down the stairs. It can be really difficult to even understand why you’re doing it yourself, never mind for those around you. In the end, it’s important to try and be self-aware enough to see that it is a coping mechanism, a desperate plea for help when no one’s listening.

  8. It’s awesome that you’ve gone 15 years! I find it very frustrating when friends that don’t understand talk about self-harm being an attention ploy. Most often, you have no idea who is doing it. Thanks for your bravery in talking about it. Those are battle scars. Don’t be ashamed of them now because you fought and are winning.

    1. Thank you. It’s been long enough now that it doesn’t feel right to think about doing it again, and my mental health issues have mutated and changed enough that I don’t think it would be an effective coping mechanism for me anymore anyway. But I’ll never be rid of the scars, and it’ll always be a reminder of who I used to be, and that I could always return there if I’m not careful.

  9. Very well said. Even in the midst of mental health awareness self harm remains one of those topics that people seem reluctant to discuss.
    So much misinformation and stigma still exist. It takes voices like this to bring these topics out of the darkness and let others know they are not alone and should not be ashamed.
    My daughter has been harm free for a year now and could not always hide her cuts and scars. I was always a bit amazed at the people who believed it was for attention, as I was saddened by the people who viewed her as less because of her scars.
    She isn’t ashamed any more and that is a wonderfully freeing thing, one I wish for all those who struggle.

    1. Thank you. I’m glad your daughter has found a way to cope with her mental health difficulties without injuring herself, but yes – there will always be people who won’t understand, and might think less of her for it. Those are the people who need educating the most, if only they’ll listen – but sadly, too many people already have their minds made up. I wish you and her all the best of luck.

  10. Thank you for this! <3 I chose to tattoo a purple semi-colon with a black outline It's for "my story is not over" & "she writes love on her arms". That was about 4-5 years ago.

    1. Wonderful! I’ve always appreciated the project semicolon movement, and have often contemplated getting one myself. As it is, I reference it in my book, 22 Scars – sections are divided by a stylized semicolon.

      1. That’s awesome! It means a lot to me & it was before the big boom of semi-colon tats but I love the boom because people are opening up about their mental illnesses. & it always starts a convo when someone doesn’t know what it stands for & asks me.

    1. Of course! Suicide usually stems from a sense of despair – an absolute certainty that nothing will ever get better. Self-harm really has nothing to do with this; it’s much more to do with coping with overwhelming sensations of misery, sadness, numbness, etc.

  11. Our reasons sound very similar. I’ve never heard anyone else say they didn’t like the pain. I didn’t either. I used scar patches to reduce the appearance of the ones on my forearms because I was getting so many looks. But I have too many scars to do that with all of them. It’s always stressful when I date someone new and have to explain

    1. It’s hard to hide in the end, simply because you end up with so many scars. It’s also hard to find people who understand, or aren’t put off by it. But you’re never alone. There’s always someone out there who shares, and who understands. Thank you!

  12. This is an amazing piece of writing, I think you’ve helped clear up a lot of misconceptions about self harm. I’ve tried to explain to people many, many times, it’s not about the attention it brings, it’s the action of doing it, the sensations, the emotions. It’s really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been through it.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Thank you, and you’re welcome! It’s always so hard for others to understand, to truly empathize. At the end of the day, we can only process what’s in our world, and self-harm can be so far outside that it just doesn’t process. The reasons are unfathomable, and so people assume it’s for reasons they do understand. It takes dialogue, explanations and listening on both sides to fully comprehend.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.