Whenever I write or speak publicly, I feel compelled to frame cutting, burning and hitting myself as something I used to do. I don’t actually outright say I’ve stopped, but I use the past tense and thus I suspect most hear it as implied. Somehow, the pressure to appear outwardly ‘all better’ in that way still seems big. Self-injury (of that type) ranks pretty high up there on an awful lot of people’s scary meters. Just saying you are someone who has ever done that sort of thing seems disconcerting enough for most.
Perhaps others won’t so much see that as a problem, but I think it is one. When I speak about self-injury, I speak about it from a standpoint of advocacy and education. I’m sharing what it’s meant for me, and all the counterproductive pain that people have caused simply by trying to force me to stop. However, at the same time I’m saying ‘this isn’t such a bad and scary thing,’ I’m re-enforcing that this is a ‘bad (enough) and scary (enough) thing.’ So much so that I can apparently only speak up about it once it’s been eradicated from my life.
The truth is I do sometimes hurt myself. Present tense. Its place in my life has changed as I have changed, but frankly, sometimes I still find it to be useful.
So, why does that feel so hard to say?
First of all, self injury was, in fact, the reason I experienced my first involuntary (the ‘you-can-choose-to-go-to-the-hospital-voluntarily-or-else-we’ll-section-you’ kind of) hospitalization. There I was. Locked up. Stripped of all my protections and ways of coping. And, not a single person was asking me why. Why did I hurt myself?
I could have told them, even then. Sometimes I have felt like I’m floating above myself and all that is happening in my life, and I’m just not sure how to get back into my body. During those times, hurting myself has helped ground me. And sometimes, I feel such deep emotional pain rising up in my chest and getting so big that I donn’t know what else to do. Hurting myself has sometimes given me some ability to release and control that pain in a world that otherwise can feel pretty chaotic.
No one asked, but they did teach me a lesson. It’s not safe to tell.
Almost two decades later, things have changed a little bit. Understanding has grown. There are books out now speaking about self injury in a much more human fashion. There are research studies that explain that forcing someone to stop self-injuring raises the risk of suicide, not the other way around. And yet, I still hear all the time about people getting put on alert, hospitalized and forced into treatment because they cut or burn or otherwise hurt themselves to cope.
Another reason talking about self-injury in present tense feels hard is this complicated and often abused concept of ‘recovery.’ When I first ‘came out’ to my work world (a role in the traditional, clinical realm) as someone who had been psychiatrically diagnosed, people were particularly freaked out by my saying I still struggle. One person compared it to the addiction world, and someone who’s still drinking trying to support someone who’s trying to stop. Others wouldn’t even attempt to articulate a reason why my admission of continued emotional distress made them feel so edgy. Apparently, all their lives were smooth sailing. (Not.)
Reality check: We all struggle. Sometimes it interrupts our lives, and sometimes we have enough resources to see our way through quick enough that it doesn’t rock our world. As I said in my blog, ‘The Recovery Trap,’ when did what you get to call ‘life’ become what I have to call ‘recovery’? Why are so many people still so attached to the idea that those of us who have been diagnosed and those of us who have escaped diagnosis are all that different?
Yet, there still feels a certain pressure to act ‘recovered.’ As if, if I don’t act ‘recovered’ enough, then the rest of what I’m saying may lose its legitimacy. How do I need to live my life in order to retain my credibility? My voice?
There’s a funny sort of trap that happens in our world. We’re expected to lay out our most personal and painful experiences so that we can reach people or allow them to evaluate our ‘street cred.’ Yet, at the same time, we’re expected to not lay it out in a way that might make others (too) uncomfortable. We’re supposed to talk about how things could be better in the system, but never in a way that sounds too angry or makes providers feel blamed. And, meanwhile, if we look too good, people are probably going to discount much of our story anyway and claim we were misdiagnosed. But, if we look too bad, then what exactly are we proving about the potential for healing and moving forward? Oh, and, don’t forget that neither what constitutes ‘healing’ nor ‘recovery’ are measured on a scale set by us. It’s easy to get lost in all that.
So, yes, sometimes I still hurt myself. And truth is, so do (at least most of) you. Who among us hasn’t worked too much because it was easier than dealing with a problem at home? Who hasn’t eaten in excess for an emotional reason at some point in time? Starved yourself due to societal pressures? Smoked when you’re stressed out? Drank a bunch after a hard day? Spent too much money? Gotten a tattoo or piercing at least in part because it was a more socially acceptable way to engage physical pain?
I’m pretty sure that a burn on my arm actually poses far less risk to my life and well-being than many of the variety of ways people out there are hurting themselves every day.
So, even though so few of us who hurt ourselves by burning, cutting, scratching, hitting, pulling out our hair, etc., get asked *why*, I think it’s about time we start asking the rest of the world that very question.
Why are you so convinced that this sort of self-injury is worse than other kinds of self-injury?
Why do you believe that it is bad when I hurt myself and that I must be stopped?
Why are you so uncomfortable with it?
Why can’t you just sit with it?
Why don’t you ask me why?
And how about…
What does self-injury mean to you?
What sorts of ways have you hurt yourself and why?
When you force treatment on me to get me to stop, is that really about me . . . or more about you?
I’m not advocating *for* self-injury. I’m not suggesting people who don’t do it already should start anymore than I’d advocate that someone who doesn’t already hear voices try and figure how to draw one out. But I am suggesting that (just as with so many other things) if we start talking more about it, we’ll learn about ourselves and each other. I’m also suggesting that it’s not so abnormal, and that what gets labeled as ‘acceptable’ verses ‘unacceptable’ self-injury is often a matter of privilege and/or societal values that have very little to do with the impact on the actual person. It doesn’t necessarily need to be eradicated, but we could all do with several doses more of understanding.
Instead of hospitalizing me, if only someone at that time in my life would have been willing to sit with me in pain and ask me questions to understand… If only they would have made space for me to talk about why I was hurting so much . . . If only they would have wondered aloud how my cutting and burning was actually impacting my life (which is what really matters, anyway) and what that meant for how I wanted to move forward . . .
“Flesh Wounds? New Ways of Understanding Self-Injury.” Kay Inckle. 2010.
“Our Encounters with Self Harm.” Charles Baker, Clare Shaw and Fran Biley. 2013.
“Between the Lines.” Copyright 1997 by Meta Flicks. 21 minutes. Produced by Sophie Constantinou. Available from Fanlight Productions, 4196 Washington St., Suite 2 , Boston , MA 02131 ; 800-937-4113
Healing Self Injury: healingselfinjury.org
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.