Friday, 4 March 2011

Self-Harm...My Dark Secret

When I was younger, I really battled with my mental health.  Things weren't as open back then, it seemed much more of a dirty secret that had to be hidden.  It was not something I could discuss with my family, it was a taboo subject.  Admitting to harbouring an innate unhappiness was like saying I'm not grateful for what I have.  I held my feelings inside, internalizing my torment and feeling guilty and embarrassed for having this dark passenger that dictated how  I would feel or behave.

Some of my earliest memories involve a self-loathing and a desire to be punished.  I'd hold my face in a sinkful of cold water until my breath burnt my lungs.  I'd shut myself in my wardrobe in the dark.  I'd hit my legs with my shoes.  I'd bang my knees together causing huge bruises on the inside of my legs.  These things were just normal behaviour to me, it's what I did to feel right.

I was 14 when I first cut myself.  I had a Saturday job in a baker's and was washing up, feeling miserable because I felt persecuted by my new boss.  I broke a glass and instinctively drew the jagged edge across the skin on my arm.  I only cut lightly and was fascinated at how the tiny droplets of blood would seep up to the surface across the gash. I felt a release, a sense of control over what I felt.  It became addictive.  If I felt low I'd cut.

I used to carry a small pen knife in my handbag to satisfy my urge to cut.  I'd make little slices into my forearms, my inner arms and my thighs.  I did it in places that I could keep hidden.  Mostly the cuts were little more than a succession of quickly executed scratches, but others would be deeper and draw the deep red blood that would drip down my skin.  It excited me and I felt empowered.  Afterwards I felt humiliated and ashamed.

I didn't have a lot of self worth.  Looking back I want to shake myself and shout at myself.  I was tall, slim, attractive, really clever and had the whole world at my feet.  Why I chose a self-destructive path was a deep seated problem that I had no control over.  I hang out at a local pub, befriending a group of guys.  They were the sort of lads I'd warn my own children against having any association with.  I was dragged into the lifestyle finding a self-destructive path through my teens that only served to erode my self-worth further.  In my mind I screamed out for something more.  I wanted acceptance and love.

When I was 17 I met someone.  He showed me the respect and care I had craved and I was quickly seduced by the notion of being in love. I threw myself into a relationship pouring all my needs onto a poor unsuspecting boy who was ill equipped to deal with me.  To me, this relationship was my answer to my problems, re-inventing myself as a new me...part of a couple.  I felt validated and defined by this tenuous connection I had made with another human being.  I gave up my place at University and moved in with his family. Unfortunately and inevitably it was doomed to failure from the onset.  My depression reached a whole new low.  I started to cut worse than ever...going on to razor blades for a sharper, deeper cut.  I'd tie belts around my neck and pull until my restricted oxygen flow made my head explode with a bright, white light. I'd give myself cigarette burns on my arms. I'd bite and scratch myself. I'd fantasise about terrible, violent things believing they would happen unless I counted to a certain number before the next car drove past me...or some other random, obsessive behaviour.  I was erratic flitting between euphoric bouts of exuberance and sitting in a corner rocking.  My health suffered too.  I was tested for all manner of ailments from glandular fever to thyroid problems.  Nothing was diagnosed.  I kept my darkness hidden from my doctor.

Eventually, the pressure of living with me became too great.  When we reached the apex of our tumultuousness and we split up, I tried to slit my wrists.  Thankfully, I did this is an overtly dramatic manner in front of him, and he physically wrestled me as I hacked at my arm.  The cuts were deep enough to see the layers of flesh and fat beneath the skin.  I remember thinking it looked a bit like sausagemeat.  I went to hospital and made such a scene, bleeding and screaming about my boyfriend wanting to leave me that I was seen straight away.  I am retrospectively embarrassed by my behaviour.

I was put under my doctor after this but although I was on a waiting list for psychiatric help I never went.  I found out shortly afterwards that I was 10 weeks pregnant.  A switch inside my head was thrown.  My doctor said it was the first time I'd looked at her in the eye.  She felt I deserved a chance to have my baby without the stigma of having had treatment for mental health problems.  Thankfully she was right.

I felt such shame having my blood pressure taken. I said my scars came from putting my hand through a window...I don't think the midwife believed me but she didn't pursue her line of questioning.  Even today, I feel the same shame having my BP done.  The thin white lines up my inner arm are mostly faded, only visible if I get a tan, but the three thick white scars on the sides of my wrist are a constant reminder of my darkest times.

Having my son, as a 19 year old single parent, made me. It gave me strength, self worth and purpose.  Things I'd been lacking.  Although I'm not completely free of my depression, I recognise it when the cloud begins to descend.  I see it for what it's nobody's fault, nothing causes just is.  I differentiate between feeling a bit fed up and feeling dark. It has taken me a long time to understand myself.  I'm blessed with an understanding husband who doesn't hide behind his own self pity if things get bad.

I've not self-harmed since Joe was born.  I was lucky to have found my path through the minefield in which I walked.  Some are not so lucky.

If self harm affects you or you suspect that it is affecting someone else, there is help available.  Check out this website for information, support and a safe place to express feelings.  With the stigma and the veil of secrecy lifted, the guilt, shame and feeing of being judged will be too.


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