I was interested in volunteering, so we met to talk about the help I could offer. "I feel strongly about the work that you do," I explained to the volunteer coordinator, who welcomed me kindly and spoke excitedly about opportunities for me to be involved. I had already completed most of the volunteer training but had missed an important session, the content of which she wished to review with me.
She gave me some handouts. The organization serves a vulnerable population, many of whom battle depression and suicidal thoughts. Some of their clients self-harm, she explained, as she indicated a list of ways that people self-harm.
I read through the list and stopped at a word. One word can change everything, including you.
I sort of knew. Not at the time, I don't think, but with hindsight I sort of knew that what I'd done probably fit the definition. It was a thought I'd kept submerged but here it was, now, staring at me. Confirmation.
I took a deep breath.
"I know a little about self-harm," I explained to her, quietly. "I used to do it."
Until today, until this post, she is the only person I have ever told.
It was right there on the list, after cutting and burning.
Seventeen years ago, when I was in the depths of my worst depression, I would sometimes hit myself.
I think it started in a moment of anguish. I think, in a moment of absolute despair and rage at the lot I'd been cast and the never-ending pain, I hit myself hard on the thigh without thinking about it, a lashing out to release some of my pent-up frustration.
It worked. I felt a little better. In fact, I felt a lot better, at least for a few minutes. So I kept doing it. Not all the time but often when those moments came up, I'd hit myself hard on the thigh. Sometimes repeatedly.
To someone who has no experience with self-harm, I imagine it is difficult to understand why anyone would do such a thing to themselves. I'll do my best to explain what self-harm was for me. I hasten to add that I can only speak for myself; this may not reflect what self-harm is for others.
Hitting myself made me feel better because it distracted me. For a few moments, maybe a few minutes, I could focus on physical pain rather than the horrendous emotional pain that was torturing me. Importantly, the physical pain was a pain that would go away. It was a pain I could handle. My emotional pain, I was convinced, would never leave me.
I suppose, in some subconscious way, it also served a secondary purpose: It was a way to punish myself. I expect that on some level I wanted to hurt myself because I believed I deserved to be hurt. But the truth is, I don't remember thinking that. I only remember wanting the escape, however temporary. Punishment was a bonus.
There were no scars for you to see. There was no blood. There were no scratches on my skin. There were no wounds that needed healing except the ones within me. The skin on my thigh would blaze red and then, within a few minutes, the redness would fade away as if nothing had ever happened. My body kept its secrets well.
As I got help for my depression - began therapy, started taking medication - I hit myself less and less often until it was no longer the tool I reached for. I had collected other tools, healthier coping mechanisms that had me run straight at the emotional pain and tackle it head-on.
I'm not altogether in the clear. I have a self-harm souvenir that has stayed with me: Sometimes, when I'm having those moments again, my illness conjures up the image of someone hitting me, pushing me into a wall, violently beating me, throwing me down stairs. This image flashes through my sick brain unsummoned and however much I reject it and however horrific I know this would be if it actually happened, this image comes to me and I feel...soothed. Even just thinking about it now, I can feel my body relax. Even though I have built new, healthy circuits, this faulty wiring remains like a vestigial tail.
Some people believe that self-harm is a pre-cursor to suicide. Some believe it's a way to get attention. But self-harm often happens in secret - in fact, I'd say that's a key part of its modus operandi - and although self-harm and suicidal thoughts sometimes stalk in pairs, they are not the same. I wasn't trying to hit myself to death. Again, I can't speak for everyone, but I don't believe that people who harm themselves are trying to die. On the contrary: They are trying to live. I was trying so hard to live. Self-harm was a way to keep living when it felt like there was no other way.
This is illness, like any other, although the invisibility of mental illness makes it particularly brutal and cowardly. This is the body fighting itself. But we're not our bodies. We're the ones within. The girl in the body is there. The boy in the body is strong. The father. The mother. The child. The friend. The one you love is there inside that battlefield body, whole and fighting.
I no longer hit myself, or harm myself in any way. My hands are peaceful allies. My thighs are only red these days from the weight of children on my lap. I no longer need to keep my body's secrets.
I no longer need to fight pain with pain, fire with fire. Now, the girl in the body blazes bright.