Note: This post is, naturally, going to talk about acts of self-harm in detail, and also refers briefly to suicidal ideation and surviving abuse. You can feel free to give this one a miss, and at the weekend I’ll be posting something sexier and less commonly triggering, so watch this space!
The first time I can remember hurting myself on purpose, I was five years old.
I didn’t jump straight to sharp objects. There was a misunderstanding, and I was upset, and whilst I was alone in my room I bit into my own wrist with such sustained ferocity that I left two perfect little crescents, indents of my baby teeth in my flesh. Of course, my mum noticed and was horrified, and I learned quickly that people did not like it when I hurt myself.
This did not stop me.
I have a collection of fuzzy memories from that age onward of hurting myself in various creative ways. I would give myself friction burns by running a belt back and forth over the back of my neck, where my long hair would cover the raw, reddened skin. I would scratch and scratch and scratch the same spot on my arm until it was too sore to even touch. I would pick at everything – spots, scabs, dry skin – and sometimes, when I was really upset, I would still bite myself until my jaw hurt.
When I was thirteen, I progressed to a pair of sewing scissors. These hurt instantly, drew blood instantly and had me breathing a sigh of relief instantly, but they also robbed me of plausible deniability. The wounds couldn’t have been anything other than self-harm. It was only a matter of time until somebody found out.
And they did, of course, and it was a whole Thing that I won’t go into here, and I started having counselling and also having sharp objects confiscated and hidden from me. Counselling was hard for me to engage with in a lot of ways (at 13, I knew they could break confidentiality if they were worried for my safety, so I had to self-censor a lot, and I didn’t hugely trust adults in any setting), but I hit a major roadblock that I still haven’t quite overcome: I couldn’t see why I needed to stop self-harming.
I was a smart kid whose mum had thoroughly instilled in them a sense of autonomy. I knew all the risks of cutting myself: I could misjudge it and catch a vein; the wounds could become infected; I would have scars forever. But, even at 13, I weighed it up and felt very strongly that cutting myself was safer than not doing so. I know that the first time I recorded a suicidal thought, I was 10, but it’s very probable I felt that way a lot earlier and just didn’t write it down in my Groovy Chick diary. At 13, self-harm was a pressure release valve that kept me alive from day to day.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve only become more perplexed about why, exactly, I shouldn’t harm myself. I’ve come to understand that it isn’t a constructive coping mechanism and doesn’t address the problems at hand, but most of the problems at hand have been so vast and complicated that I simply couldn’t address them. Being told to treat the root cause of my distress was not helpful when I was a teenage victim of domestic abuse, and it continues to be unhelpful now that I’m a traumatised adult with super fucky brain chemistry. And I was watching other people, in media and in real life, engage in equally non-constructive coping behaviours like drinking, self-isolation or bullying the autistic kid in their class for not knowing what a Pandora bracelet was (ahem. Not that I was the autistic kid in this example, or anything). And nowadays, I’m doing therapy, I’m practising self-care, but that doesn’t negate the need for self-harm all of the time.
I want to be very clear here: I am not advocating for anybody to take up self-harm, nor to continue doing it when they very much want to stop. Lots of people hate the fact that they self-harm, and I fully support any choices they make to quit and find alternative coping strategies. (I will lowkey judge people who recommend the rubber band method, though – the one where you wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it against your skin whenever you have the urge to self-harm. You’re still reinforcing the connection between emotional distress and physical pain, you’re not addressing the root problems, and it’s not even a terribly effective method of harm reduction because most self-harmers find it so lacking that they end up relapsing anyway.) However, few people understand my frustration about the ways self-harm is addressed, so I want to articulate it. And I want other people in similar positions to feel less alone and weird.
The thing about self-harm is that it’s kind of… viscerally upsetting to other people. Like I mentioned in my post about blood and kink, we’re instinctively shocked by wounds and bleeding, and I think people are even more perturbed when you’ve caused those things on purpose. It also externalises your emotional pain, so your wounds are confronting the people who care about you with the reality that you’re suffering, and that’s hard for people. My mum sometimes tells me, “I’m not upset that you’ve self-harmed, but I’m upset that you were that distressed.” My mum is better at separating these two factors than most other people on the planet.
Joining the BDSM community only added to my confusion. People were supported in doing all sorts of viscerally upsetting things, like needle play and being beaten, as long as they were making informed, risk-aware decisions. I felt even more indignant about the way people responded to self-harm – I was making informed, risk-aware decisions! About my body, which everybody told me was mine to control!
I have no idea what makes BDSM “okay” and self-harm “not okay”. Maybe it’s the lack of another party’s involvement. Maybe it’s that one is motivated by pleasure and another is motivated by emotional pain (although, if I’m being real, people do use BDSM to address emotional pain, and I, for one, derive some degree of pleasure from self-harm). Maybe it’s just that we talk so much about autonomy and consent when it comes to sex and kink, but relatively little about those things in other contexts. Whatever it is, it still escapes me.
I self-harm a lot less than I did as a teen. (I used to bring my trusty sewing scissors to school every day. This was very reckless of me, since I did not also bring disinfectant. Also, I would not recommend pulling your tights back up as soon as you’re done mopping blood off your thighs – they stick.) That’s not because I’ve come to see that self-harm is Bad and other coping mechanisms are Good; it’s simply because I’m not quite as acutely distressed quite as often as I was then, thanks to being in a much safer environment and getting medicated. Sometimes I do try to use lower-risk coping strategies before I self-harm, like distraction or crying or going for a walk, but that’s not because I’ve learned that self-harm is, for some reason, bad – frankly, it’s largely because it’s inconvenient. I have bondage to do and I don’t want to bleed on nice, expensive rope.
Telling people that they shouldn’t self-harm is undermining their bodily autonomy. It’s obviously always important to respect someone’s autonomy, but when they’re self-harming because they’re dealing with or recovering from abuse, or anything else that makes their life feel outside of their control, it’s especially crucial that you don’t urge them to refrain or “quit”. You can remind them of the risks if that’s appropriate (like if you’re a medical professional, or their mum) and you can ask if there’s any other coping strategies they’d like to try first, but ultimately, every person has autonomy even when they’re using it in ways that others disapprove of. If you’re someone who self-harms and you’ve felt alone in the fact that you don’t see why you should stop: I see you. Know the risks, be as safe as you can, but know that I am not judging you. I’m as confused as you are. We’re going to be alright.
If this resonated with you and you love what I do, please consider joining my Patreon. It helps me pay my bills and makes me feel super warm and fuzzy!