I went through a spell in my early 20s where I would cut myself. I was living away from home for the first time, attending university, and I was not coping well. I was feeling lonely and out of my depth: I was awkward socially and didn’t feel that I fit in, and what I now know to be executive function deficits made living independently a huge challenge. It also made the degree of independence expected of university undergraduates with respect to managing their studies a big challenge: for me the rigid structure of school education where every day was filled with lesson after lesson was perfect, although I always had issues getting homework done when left to my own devices.
To cut what could be a long story short — I’ll write about it in detail one day but not right now — I was failing my courses: missing lectures, lab time and supervisions (what they call tutorials outside Cambridge, England). I had begun to drink heavily — my first means of harming myself — as a coping mechanism more than anything else. I was depressed, had problems with anxiety that I still suffer from, and hated myself for being unable to cope, for failing, for getting drunk every night, for not being able to make the kind of close friendships I saw all around me.
In my state of mind I considered killing myself. No, it was more than consideration: I calmly sharpened a knife, sat down, removed my watch from my left wrist and made a small cut. I’m uncomfortable admitting that it felt good. It felt really good, as if I was releasing the pain of my feelings. It wasn’t painful so much as a feeling of sharp clarity bringing my mind into focus. I did it again, just a short cut of about an inch, through the skin but not into my veins. And again, then on the other wrist. I was enjoying the feeling: I felt that I was in control for once.
That was the first occasion. There were others. I believe it was a reaction to overload, to more stress than I could handle, to feelings of failure and low self-esteem. I can’t say whether I felt anger — internalized anger. I can say that I was self-destructive and that I have always internalized my feelings, at least until I explode into a violent meltdown. And I can also say that the cutting helped. It brought a relief from the intensity of my emotions, a distraction from my troubles.
It also brought shame later on. It was sign of weakness, another sign of failure. The marks on my wrists were a visible reminder. And I was ashamed that I wanted to do it. I believed — because that was what I had been told — that it was wrong. That “normal” people didn’t do things like that. And I wanted to be normal, to fit in. Even my coping mechanisms were causing me additional stress.
I don’t cut myself any more. That behavior stopped after I left university — dropped out. I was away from the cause of my distress and no longer needed to escape from it. I was back in control, back home in a safe environment. But sometimes I still become tempted to go fetch a sharp knife when I’m feeling overloaded and away from any place I feel safe. There is a desire to feel that release again.
I hope this explains my experience of self-harming, how it started and why it stopped. And why I am never that far from it even today.