(with apologies to e.e. cummings)
(This post will talk about self-harming, so please take care of yourself — I will totally understand if you feel vulnerable right now, and can’t bear to read further. I hope you’ll be okay. And if you want to approach me about this topic, comment away so we can try to have another kind of conversation. ♥)
I’m a self-harmer. I pick incessantly at the skin around my fingernails. I also have a terrible tendency to pick at the scabs if I get wounded, which actually explains why many of my scars are so darkly pigmented and still visible in many places on my body.
I pick and I pick and I pick and some days I bleed because of my picking. Whenever I pick at the skin around my fingernails, I wind up feeling pain for the rest of the day, and the pain doesn’t go away when I do things like wash the dishes or cut food or pick up a pen in order to write.
My mom gets mad every time she catches sight of the wounds on my fingers. I can’t really fathom the reasons as to why she would feel that way. Maybe she’s afraid of what people might say when they see my hands — but what does that have to do with her? Would people think that she’s inflicting those wounds on me? Or, worse, would people think that she’s one of the reasons why I inflict that kind of pain on myself?
Put it that way, I can see why she gets ticked off.
Okay, that leads me to the question of: why? What makes me pick at my skin to the point of drawing blood, and to the point of creating or worsening scars?
There are many reasons why people might self-harm. They might want to express something that is really hard to put into words. They might want to take control of their bodies and feelings and experiences. They might want to escape bad memories, especially if those memories are of trauma.
Some people who self-harm do it because they feel numb or disconnected or dissociated from their physical selves, and the pain helps them to feel connected to their bodies once again: after all, the brain picks up the signals from the nerves, right, and the pain is an actual physical manifestation, a means of showing that the world is real and that it exists.
That’s my reason: the pain grounds me back in my body. It helps me understand that my consciousness is tied to the physical body that walks around in the world.
Ever since I can remember, I have had these vivid episodes of being convinced that I’m not real, that I don’t exist in this world. I think that the “me” of my brain, meaning all the thoughts running around in my head, is stranded as a passenger in the “me” that is my physical body, the “me” that casts a reflection in a mirror and a shadow on the pavement.
Dissociation is a really scary thing. I have had to convince myself that I am still real and alive and that I must still keep myself safe, fighting through the disorientation of dissociation while walking down a poorly-lit street in the middle of the night. I have had to convince myself that I am still real and alive while looking at my own reflection in a mirror.
For me, and I guess this might be true for other people who might feel this way, intense sensation is a link back to the actual and real physical body — it’s how we know that we’re not just, I dunno, invisible minds and collections of thoughts floating aimlessly through the world. The signals that flash up and down my nerves, which are interpreted by my brain as pain, tell me that what I tell this physical body to do will have a real effect on that same traitorous brain that has already half-convinced me that I’m not real.
Yes, I know it means my hands look frankly unkempt and rough. Yes, I know the wounds become worse the more I pick at them. Yes, I know I bleed sometimes. I don’t see these things as a problem; I see them as proof I’m still in this world and that I can still interact with the keyboard of my laptop, or the glass of water next to my hand.
Many mental health experts think that self-harm is a response to terrible memories and experiences, or that it’s a reaction to trauma. Well, yeah, I’m certainly carrying quite a few of those terrible memories around in my head. I also have self-esteem and self-worth problems, with impostor syndrome and a host of other hang-ups to boot. And I feel like I can’t always contain those memories, can’t always escape the consequences of those thoughts. I can’t always control how my brain works, or how it sometimes throws up a bad memory.
Does reading about self-harm help? I guess it might in my case. The reading tells me I’m not the only one who’s doing something like this. The reading tells me that there is an actual explanation for this thing that I do which my mom excoriates me for. The reading tells me that there are coping mechanisms.
The reading also tells me that what I’m doing is crying for help.
If you think that you might need help, too — please know that you’re not alone. Please know that you can ask for help.