Self-Harm Is Not Shameful
The admission I’m about to make is not easy for me. The topic of this article is extremely sensitive, and I have a tough time talking about it, even after all these years. This is the first time I’ve publicly confessed to my actions, and despite my assertion that I’m not ashamed of them, I’m only too aware of the stigma that exists around them.
The topic at hand, however, is an extremely important one, and eternally relevant. So, with the understanding that this is difficult for me to write, please read on.
I was 13 the first time I hurt myself.
I had just seen a fictional instance of self-harm in a movie, and succumbing to the urges I already felt to make my depression manifest physically, I picked up my instrument of choice in my bedroom one evening and hurt myself for the very first time.
It would be far from the last. My wrist endured a lot more abuse in the following years. At any given moment, cuts could likely be seen spiraling up my arm, healing only briefly before I opened them up again a few days later.
Every time I sliced into myself, I wore long sleeves to school for the next few days, regardless of the weather. I was only too aware of the unwanted attention I would bring to myself if my masochism were discovered. Adults tend to get really bent out of shape over that kind of thing, and I was afraid of the consequences that would inevitably rain down on me because of other people’s misunderstanding of my decisions.
And I was right. When inevitably I did get found out, it was like the world was ending around me. I was interrogated, monitored, and generally fretted after for months. Potential weapons were taken away from me. And, to my bewilderment, every single adult who found out that I cut myself mistakenly read suicide in my intentions.
Let me reiterate that: My self-harm was never an attempt to kill myself. I meant to damage myself, sure, but never die. While I may have been suffering intense suicidal ideation during those years, my masochism was never actually supposed to follow through with those fatal fantasies. It was intended to scar me, and that’s it.
This was the first misconception with which I was plagued once my self-harm was discovered: “I cut, therefore I’m trying to die.” I found that no amount of explanation could banish the fear that clouded the otherwise rational minds of the adults around me. They always assumed I meant to commit suicide, no matter how much I explained the contrary.
The truth is that my motivations for harming myself were totally unrelated to matters of life and death. It’s as true now as it was ten years ago, when all this started: when I pick up a weapon, it’s because I’m suffering mentally, and that suffering demands to come out. My depression demands to be experienced physically.
So that mental illness finds its way out through the skin. It commandeers my body and downright makes me harm myself.
The benefit of this is that the pain becomes visible. When that agony is stuffed inside, no one can see it. But when it can be seen, it feels more real. It’s much harder to gaslight someone’s suffering when it’s visible.
Keep in mind – this is crucially important – I’m not encouraging masochism. I understand that many people who purposely hurt themselves are actually trying to die, and when that’s the case, self-harm becomes very dangerous. I would never tell somebody that they should hurt themselves, because it’s a habit that can spiral out of control and end up causing real damage. I only mean to argue that it’s not shameful or morally wrong. Masochism is not a sign of weakness, nor is it a character failing. It’s simply a means of expressing emotional pain that otherwise festers silently and invisibly.
In other words, self-harm should be avoided, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid.
My relationship with masochism is extremely complicated. It has brought me a lot of solace over the years, but if I had more control over the matter, I would choose never to cut again. I hate hiding my scars, and I hate the looks I get from the people who notice them. Every time I do it, I feel like I’m disappointing my family.
I was hesitant to write this article for fear that it would be misinterpreted as an argument in favor of self-harm. Encouraging anyone to hurt themselves would be terribly irresponsible. However, it’s critically important to me that the legitimacy of masochistic impulses be understood. It’s wrong to judge someone for hurting themselves – they’re going through enough pain as it is, emotionally and physically.
Instead, if you find out someone you care about is harming themselves, show them love and understanding. Make an effort to help them through the tough times, and do not make them feel judged or flawed. Depression is not a choice, and masochism is an extremely difficult impulse to ignore.
Your compassion may just save a life.
*The next post, “Thanksgiving Is Better Than Christmas (And I Can Prove It), will go up Monday, 11/5, at 11AM Eastern.