When I was in hospital, my cut marks weren’t overtly impressive when compared to other patients.
Even though at its worst I looked like I had been arm wrestling a cheese grater, it was nothing compared to the gutters of misery that trailed down arms, legs, sides, stomachs, telling that any kind of blade was good enough. Someone’s hand was permanently crooked as they had severed a tendon.
I’m a different kind of cutter. Almost clinical. I always make sure that I stay away from the wrist area because I don’t want to risk anyone noticing.
I always use the same knife: a blunt bread knife, so the cuts are very neat, shallow and thin. I’m right-handed, so it’s always the left arm.
I sterilise the cuts with a spray and it stings but that’s the point. It has always been about the pain to me, not blood.
When I was really unwell, my morning routine was getting up, getting dressed for work, doing my makeup before having some breakfast. All perfectly normal, with the difference that I would slice my arm open before heading out the door.
So many professionals have asked me where I got the idea. Because it was in fashion not too long ago, wasn’t it? I tell them that it just worked. It would’ve been anything that worked. Luckily enough I had an easier access to kitchen knives than to heroin, so I could try and test self-harm first.
I can’t remember the first time I cut because a lot of memories from that time are hazy at best, but those first cuts convinced that this suited me. I was so numb, and this made me feel something. A hot rush of pain and a strange peace afterwards. Maybe it was the endorphins?
I was so tired so I would also cut to wake myself up. It might take five times, it might take twenty-five, it might take fifty, but eventually one would hurt enough that I could stop.
It was like I was constantly underwater, surrounded by this unimaginable pressure like I was a diver whose eardrums were about to explode. I couldn’t hear or see, with my lungs about to burst from the pressure. As a last resort before drowning I would get the knife and create gills, secret openings that finally allowed me to breathe. I became a mermaid.
Of course, I wouldn’t leave the cuts alone. I couldn’t exactly carry a knife around at work, so if it stopped hurting too soon I would scratch my arm or pour hot water into the open wounds.
At the hospital it was strange to follow nurses’ instructions and massage my arm with oil to prevent scarring. The touch was so different than the previous attention I had given to the arm. It felt strange. Every once in a while, I would look down and think ‘I did that.’
Now I call it my tiger arm.
Of course, I make fun of it. That’s how I roll. Does your summer collection feature anything with long sleeves? Me and my friend came up with our own company called ‘Cutting Edge Entertainment,” and our first production would be ‘Self-harm: the musical.’
It would feature some classics such as Johnny Cash’ rendition of ‘Hurt’, Linkin Park’s ‘Numb’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Oops, I did it again.’
I was offered rubber bands as a substitute in hospital but I’d end up breaking them sooner rather than later after banging the band against the same spot in my arm over a thousand times in a row. Frustrated that I wasn’t allowed a knife, my arms would bear more resemblance to zebra’s legs. In any case, it was worth a try.
A while ago I got upset. I went to shops, came back. Still felt like cutting. Left the groceries on the floor. I went out, bought some antihistamine which I had forgotten and paid at the self-service check out with the smallest coins I could find to kill time.
I came back. Sat down. And for the first time since I got ill, I didn’t cut. I started crying again because I was so proud of myself. A twenty-five-year-old crying her eyes out because she had had the restraint to not to slice herself with kitchen utensils.
To a healthy person, self-harm makes just about the same amount of sense as killing yourself. But it did help me. It offered a break from the suffocating pressure that was crushing me. When I was overwhelmed, it brought me back to reality. As I became more and more numb as the depression ate away everything that made me human, at least I could still feel pain. As I went about my day, I could touch my arm over the shirt and know my gills were there. It was comforting.
Once I got involved with the local crisis team, it was such a relief to talk about it. Finally someone didn’t get upset or tell me to stop. They recognised it was helping me at the time, so I could continue doing it until I felt ready to deal with the emotions in a more productive manner. They would advise where to cut to keep myself safe, told me to call if I cut too deep or if I suspected that I needed stitches. I liked that this otherwise horrifying and deeply emotional matter was dealt in a matter-of-fact way. It made it less scary. It brought me hope. It’s going to be OK.
I speak in the present tense because I have cut since that day I didn’t. I hardly do it anymore but can’t say I’m completely over it yet. Who would’ve thought that cutting yourself with a bread knife would be such a difficult habit to kick? Usually people complain about not being able to say ‘no’ to chocolate.
Those setback days go to the category of ‘blips.’ Such an innocent word. When suffering from a mental illness, ‘blip’ is everyone else’s ‘tits up.’
Still, just like with any blip, you dust yourself and move on. I have an amazing care-coordinator, who always manages to put things into right perspective for me. A setback doesn’t undermine all the good progress that has been made. Which it doesn’t.
My scars are faint, so it’s difficult for anyone else to see them. In some twisted way, I’m proud of my tiger arm. This was something that helped me, when I was really poorly. It still helps me sometimes when I’m overwhelmed but I have come far enough to know other ways to face those emotions.
Still, it’s a part of my personal history, a body part, a part of me.