It never looked bad enough. No matter how gaping the wound or how garish the blood flow, it never looked to me like I’d done anything at all. It looked like a joke, like a mockery of the attempt itself. It was like trying to write a sonnet and coming up with a nursery rhyme instead.
My first therapist, we’ll call her Cindy, kept asking me why. Why do you do this? Why do you cut yourself? What are you getting out of this that can’t be had in other ways? I couldn’t answer her. I didn’t know why. I just knew it wasn’t enough.
That need didn’t end with the initial injury. I’d spend a month not making new cuts. Easily interpreted by outsiders as an attempt to recover, I spent that time interfering with healing. I had a dozen methods for removing scabs and new skin growth, many invasive and difficult to stomach. I kept at it for weeks, not giving any wound a moment’s peace until there was nothing left to pick at. I was after something specific. I wanted my scars to be as wide open as the initial injury. I wanted them purple, raised, and angry, a clear sign that the initial cut had been significant. Only when it wasn’t possible to aggravate them any more did I move on.
All the while Cindy asked the same questions. Why do you do this? What are you getting out of this? I didn’t know, but that didn’t stop me.
Neither did the first instance of blood spray. I’d been pushing toward that particular line in the sand for months and knew it. My rule was to stop cutting when the blood appeared to be “bubbling”, a low pulse in time with my heartbeat. One night, that self-imposed stopping point came earlier than I wanted. I wasn’t finished. It didn’t look bad enough. I pushed through it and found out what that hiccupping kind of bleeding meant. I’d been leaning over my arm, making cut after cut, trying to worsen it when the blood leapt up to meet me, spraying my face and hairline.
And I laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed as I applied pressure to my arm with my already soaked towel. I laughed as I tried to figure out how to mop up my face with one arm occupied with bleeding and the other with trying to stop it. It didn’t faze me. I treated the wound as I had every other, annoyed that despite how violently it had bled, it didn’t look as bad as my most recent cuts.
What are you getting out of this? Why doesn’t this bother you? When will it be enough?
What eventually stopped me was not the cuts themselves, though I acknowledged in my journals at the time that they’d become gruesome. No, what stopped me was the realization that I’d become blasé about the damage I was doing myself.
I woke up one Sunday morning and found the wall behind my bed speckled with fine drops of blood. When I went to the bathroom to get a towel to wipe it up with, I saw that my face too was still stained with gore from the night before, with streaks across my forehead where the attempt to cover my tracks had ended. I wasn’t even doing a good job of hiding the severity anymore, and I’d long since given up covering my arms. I’d become comfortable with spraying blood every time I cut, in fact, I’d come to like it.
It was like needing to pee on a road trip. After miles and miles with no exit, finally a bright blue sign with a single gas station appeared. Cutting to the point of blood spray was not unlike that relief, sitting on a dirty toilet and letting go, emptying out what had once been painfully full. The details of where and how always mattered less than that relief. Combined with my lack of concern after the fact, that feeling of release and renewal made it clear that I was going to kill myself if I didn’t stop.
The next week I gave my sharps to Cindy in an empty tin of ginger chews. It was heavy, packed to the top with loose razors, a small piece of brown paper wrapping each blade.
I still didn’t know why cutting was so primally important to me. I just knew that if I didn’t stop, I was going to bleed out. I wasn’t ready to die. I also wasn’t ready to stop cutting. In the end, I figured there was no such thing as preparedness in such a situation and handed over my sharps.
Not long after, I stopped seeing Cindy and took my attempt at recovery onto the page. Neither I nor my current therapist can piece together what happened next. It’s clear that whatever it was worked. I stayed clean from cutting. I whittled down my other self-destructive behaviors. I made better friends. I socialized more. I realized that I could correct for much of what led me to feel like I needed to cut in the first place. I started to build a tolerance to that sensation. It became easy. But the journals themselves are scrambled, a hundred lists of things I know I never completed. Something clearly stuck, but what exactly I can’t say.
Still, I didn’t spend any time with Cindy’s questions. I worked on the external, the things that made daily life more difficult. I never addressed the trauma behind those behaviors. While my relationships improved and I became less erratic, emotionally nothing had changed.
Somewhere in the intervening two years between therapists I did finally find the answer. I’m not sure if that moment is buried in my pile of journals or if it happened during a marathon phone call with my closest friend, but I remember the moment that last piece fell into place. It felt so true as to be obvious, a mundane sort of epiphany. By the time I started seeing my current therapist I had that answer in hand.
I’d needed my cuts to look as bad as I felt. I needed them to communicate for me how badly I was doing internally. I didn’t have the language to talk about my abuse and had so often been disbelieved and brushed aside that even having the words might not have helped. Instead, I externalized that hurt onto my own skin. The trouble was the cuts were never bad enough. They never would have been. The enormity of what I was going through after decades of neglect, emotional, and sexual abuse could never have been communicated through self-harm. It was never going to be bad enough. I absolutely would have died trying to make it so. No matter how much damage I did myself, it simply never compared.
Often, when we talk about self-harm, we talk about people who self-injure for attention as a separate class somehow distinct from people who harm themselves for other reasons. I find that I fall pretty neatly into that category. I needed someone to see that I wasn’t okay. What led to that need was the near constant denial of the trauma I’d survived. I’d spent my entire childhood being told that none of what I suffered was worth talking about. My cutting was a last-ditch effort to show people that what I’d gone through was real on a visceral level. That attempt very nearly killed me.
I can’t speak for other people who cut for attention. I can’t know everyone’s situation. What I do know is that when I hear that phrase, “for attention”, I can’t help but think back to the stun of blood smeared across my face and how clear it had become that I was going to die in my attempt to be heard.
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