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.