When the pain inside gets too much to bear, many resort to cutting themselves. Here, one brave woman tells us why she turns to the knife…
The first time I saw my mother threaten to kill herself was, to say the least, life changing. In her frustration, she held a knife to her belly and I truly believed she would have done it. For once, the power didn’t lie with my dad. He looked on as helplessly as her four small children but with resentment. He taunted her to do it. Told her she was weak, pathetic. Being a five-year-old child, seeing the person they love most hurting enough to leave them behind – and that’s exactly how it felt – is without doubt the most distressing experience they’ll ever have. And the one with the most impact.
I was 13 the first time I cut myself. Home life had become increasingly difficult with my mother still subject to a loveless, abusive marriage and a new hatred that my father had discovered for us (we reminded him of her you see). At that age, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, there wasn’t anybody to confide in and it just wasn’t the done thing to talk things out. I’d had an argument with my mother with whom I was becoming increasingly impatient. I believed it was as simple as leaving and could not understand why she stayed. We were coming of an age where, being Muslim, they had started talking about marriage and restrictions were being applied to our freedom; our clothes, the friends we had, the subjects we were allowed to pick. I can’t even remember what we argued about, only the frustration and the irritating sensation of my blood boiling. It was early in the morning so I was still wearing the new nightdress she’d given me. I slammed the door shut and in rage hacked away at the nightdress with a pair of scissors and as I did, I felt the rage melt away. I stretched the material over my knees as I sat on the floor finding new parts to tear at and that’s when it first happened. I caught the skin on my thigh between the two blades and watched, mesmerised, as the blood trickled out and a wave of peace and euphoria drifted over me. I sat there for a while contemplating what it was that I’d done and found myself ashamed. I guess I knew that it would happen again and felt fearful. I was afraid that God would punish me. I needed a way to justify what I wanted to do and reasoned that God had left me to deal with my own problems. That’s what I’d tell Him when he judged me.
At first I would use the same scissors but I realised that I was infecting the skin and it was difficult to cut because they were becoming blunt. I snuck away one day after school (home was like a prison: school at nine, back by 3.45 or you got beaten) and bought the blades I recognised from my granddad’s old style razor. They were individually sterile packed. I also purchased a bottle of antiseptic and a pack of various sized bandages; I can’t imagine what the chemist selling me these products was thinking. It felt great having a secret that nobody else knew about. Instead of fighting and screaming I would calmly walk away, knowing that I didn’t need confrontation, I had peace of mind. And before you think it was a cry for attention, let me explain. My objective was not to gain understanding or sympathy. I would cut in the creases of my elbows and just below so that even in three quarter length sleeves nothing was visible.
This was something that belonged to me, gave me comfort so that I was not so dependent on people I felt didn’t much care anyway. I felt the same peace if I pulled at my hair. I don’t remember much when that started, only that I have memories of being a very small child and feeling in a daze as I plucked one hair at a time from my crown. I’d play with each strand, pulling it between my fingers until it curled back on itself. This is something I continue to do today because unlike cutting yourself with a blade, which is something you’re acutely aware of, pulling your hair out is not something you tell yourself you’re going to do. A work related counsellor would tell me later that this was also a form of self-harm called Trichotillomania and she explained its triggers. In times of stress we tend to have a position we sit or lay in which helps to calm us. I would always have my arm bent behind my head to stroke the back of my head. Just as my mother had done to me as I was child. I still catch myself doing it. Only now I know where to draw the line. It doesn’t have the same taboo issue, we pay reference to it in our everyday language, “I was so frustrated, I was tearing my hair out”. Only in most cases people generally don’t.
I can’t fully understand why there were periods in my life where I didn’t cut myself, the same problems were there but just once in a while when everything became too much to bear I would reach for the tin. In my early twenties, I decided not to harm anymore, I was with a partner that loved me and life was now my own. I discovered he was also a self-harmer. It was a while after we got together that I caught him tearing his toenails off and the vision physically repulsed me. I felt I couldn’t tell him to stop because it would be hypocritical and I also understood the embarrassment I’d be saving him. And somehow it made me feel stronger. I could empathise but I looked at him with pity. It was when our relationship broke down due to his forced marriage that I returned to something I thought I’d buried, the same feelings of helplessness and utter anguish at the lack of love and control I had. In a way I wanted to mutilate everything I thought was wrong with me. Why had my parents not loved me enough? Why did my partner leave me? Why couldn’t he have fought for me? I was obviously lacking. The night he left, I sat in my living room and screamed so loud I hoped the neighbours would hear me. Maybe they’d help me. But it was inevitable. I took a kitchen knife and hacked at my thighs, not seeing the blood for the tears and I scored for every heartache, every problem I hadn’t felt the need to for before. I didn’t nurse them, went to bed in white sheets so that I could feel my own shame the following morning. I wanted to wallow, I felt disgusting and it was exactly what I felt I deserved. I wanted to maim enough so that I wouldn’t take another boyfriend ever. What kind of man would be able to understand and accept those types of scars? And I was ashamed.
The turning point came a few weeks later. My ex was refusing to talk to me and I felt truly alone and redundant. I contemplated suicide. Self-harmers don’t harm because they want to die but I’d crossed that line. I remembered seeing something in a movie once where the character was unsure of the right way to kill herself. Should the cut be horizontal or vertical? She’d boasted that if you really wanted to die, you’d cut vertically along the artery, making the blood flow faster and the surgeon’s job a lot trickier. I didn’t really want to die. I pressed the blade lightly into the flesh on my wrist and became panic stricken at the ferocity at which the blood spurted out. I clasped my hand tightly around my arm and cried myself to sleep. I vowed the following morning that it would never happen again.
I have harmed since then but with nowhere near the urgency that I had. It’s more out of curiosity and as a last resort. I’ve met a wonderful man who initially had difficulty understanding why I harmed but has helped me realise that nothing is ever that bad or impossible. I’ve worked with young women that have had similar experiences and sharing my past with them has, I like to believe, helped them to envision the lights at the end of their tunnels. When Asian women are three times more likely to self harm, it is an issue that doesn’t deserve ridicule, ‘Oh look, she just wants attention’, or for the matter to be brushed under the carpet. If you suspect that someone you know is harming, don’t tell him or her not to do it, it’s like taking away the only bit of control they have. Instead suggest that you talk and/or get them help. Don’t be freaked out by it, you may be the person that is able to change things for them and just knowing that there is someone to talk to that won’t judge them and is able to empathise might just turn things around. I have someone like that in my life
Sadly, I fear not everyone’s as lucky as I am.
How you can help: Some self-harmers refuse help because they rely on it as a coping mechanism, so confronting them with it isn’t a good idea. To find out the best way to approach visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk or www.siari.co.uk.