It’s something I’ve been struggling with for over ten years now. Self-injury is possibly the biggest mental health taboo we face; it is something that is hard to talk about and hard to define.
I first hurt myself intentionally when I was 13. I still have faint scars on my wrist from using a safety pin to scrape the skin. Over the years I ‘progressed’ (so the wrong word…) to using scissors, then craft knifes. For me, it is a ritual behaviour that I know I can trust to make me feel better – for a little while at least.
The pattern for me in the past has been to make a few shallow-ish cuts. It was all about the ritual; it was almost a mindfulness exercise in focus and being present. I think that’s why I’ve found it hard to stop. It was always a way to escape unruly emotions and anxieties – and I always fought the urge for as long as possible before giving in.
My latest self-harm has been different. Instead of riding out the urges I acted impulsively; I didn’t turn to any healthy coping skills before acting on the need to injure. Different also, in that I used a kitchen knife. Very out of the ordinary for me. I wound up at the minor injuries unit needing to be glued – the first time in my history that I’ve sought professional treatment for a self-harm wound.
I wish I knew what was going through my mind when I did it. Maybe that would hold some answers for me. In truth, I didn’t even feel it – seriously depersonalised in the act. It is quite scary to think how bad it could have been.
It is hard to explain the motives behind self-injurious behaviour; partly because it’s not the same for everyone. For some it is about dealing with physical pain to lessen emotional pain. For some it is about taking control. It could be due to depression, or mania, or psychosis, or personality disorder. Myriad reasons and myriad methods combine to make it a tricky topic to talk about.
I would love to say there’s a magic reply to use when someone is self-harming. There are a lot of methods out there to help lessen the need to hurt oneself. The Butterfly Project is a nice one; instead of hurting, the person draws a butterfly onto their skin. There’s a tumblr page for the project where people can share their butterflies. Other ideas include snapping an elastic band against the skin, or holding an ice cube. One of my psychiatric nurses told me about one of her service users who froze the knife in water; the idea was that by the time she’d managed to defrost it and get to the knife, the urge had passed.
One of my coping strategies is ‘Just one more song’; I put on a playlist and tell myself that I have to listen to one song before I act. Once that song is over, I tell myself again ‘just one more song’ and listen to the next track. And so it continues until the playlist is finished and I realise that I don’t feel the urge quite so badly. It usually works; it certainly lessens the emotional distress of being in such a bad head-space.
I am hoping that this last incident isn’t going to set a precedent for a new type of self-harm for me. I think my awareness of how dangerously I acted is giving me some protection from repeating the behaviour. The truth is, I wish I could be rid of the need to do it; until I ‘get over’ it I’ll just have to keep trying to use other coping skills.