The first time I self-harmed was when I was 15 years old. I was taking GCEs and CSEs at school. There was a lot of pressure from my parents as I was going to be the first person in their family to go to college and become a teacher. My grandmother had wanted to teach but poverty intervened and at 14 she was a servant in a big house, my mother had a fantasy of teaching but lacked the intellect so it was pretty clear that I was there to fulfill their dreams. I didn’t want to become a teacher; I wanted to learn what I wanted to be. I wanted to leave home and see strange things. I wanted to stop living safely and take some risks. I wanted to go out when it was cold without wearing a scarf or cross the road without being that careful. I wanted to drink, take drugs and meet the kind of men I wasn’t supposed to.
A few weeks before my exams began, having missed the mocks due to illness, I felt as though I was shattering into a thousand pieces. No matter what I did to try and rebuild myself it was the wrong thing. My mother hectored me in to revising to get the results she needed. It was made clear that when I qualified I’d still live in the same town and that I would be expected to support my parents financially. I’d been supporting them emotionally, being their surrogate parents since I was 12 and it was just too much. I later learned that it was when I was around 15 years old that I began to experience bipolar disorder for the first time and that makes a lot of sense. My parents didn’t notice, except for the odd moment, that I was under a great deal of stress and then they wrote me off as being difficult. I’ve spent my whole life being difficult.
I found myself out in the dark one night, walking around terraced streets that were too narrow by the day and by the night narrower still so I had to turn my anorectic body sideways to make my way through without banging my bony elbows on the doors as I passed by. It wasn’t the best neighbourhood in the world. We had a poly, a town centre and a red light district all within a few hundred yards. Across the main road was the area that even the residents didn’t go to at night. At the top of the road was a school in a few acres of ground where my brother’s friend had found a hanging body one morning. Not the sort of place you should let your kids roam around after dark.
I heard a noise behind me and began to run as fast as my barely strung together body would take me, tripping in the dark knee first on to a pile of glass. The noise behind me was in my head. My school trousers were ruined, my hands were filthy, I was crying but I felt relieved. The nagging and shouting love-in I got when I returned home was spectacular. What was I doing out? Well actually nobody had realized that I wasn’t there so I always felt that it was a pretty redundant question. Much emphasis was laid upon how much the family relied upon me and how I had to stop being so dramatic and pass my exams. The relief that I’d felt earlier quickly disappeared.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that I’d formed a relationship with someone older from school. I was 15 and he was 18. He was pressuring me into having sex with him; my mother was pressuring me to marry him. I was staying with him because he was joining the army and I thought it would be an escape from the family that held me so tightly against my will. I felt kidnapped in my own home. Life was a mess.
I passed the exams and left school. I didn’t go onto further education I went out to work. My family was furious especially as one of the jobs I took was in a factory. It suited me well and the money was fantastic and the accidental injuries were frequent. I still have the faded scars on my hands, each one a moment of misery blissfully relieved.
I had no idea until I was in my mid forties why I really did what I did. A consultant psychiatrist was doing a study on self-harm and asked me to be part of the study. There was a recorded session with a researcher and I described my experiences of what I did, how it felt, what the outcome was. Even now as I’m typing this I feel the scars on my arm twitching. That’s usually a sign that something is stressful and that harm could be on the way. I had to stop wearing earrings because I always felt tempted to pull them out the hard way when I felt my scars twitch.
I sat in a room in a psychiatric out patients department. A lovely room with a plant in that I tended each time I went. As the researcher settled herself and set up the recording equipment I had my chat with the plant, watered it, washed its leaves, wasted some time until I had to sit down and begin to talk. I wanted to talk but, like all of these experiences, sometimes you learn truths about yourself that you’d rather you didn’t.
We talked of when I harmed and the ritual. Had there been any time when I hadn’t followed this pattern of harming. Surprisingly yes, a ten-year gap during the time I was conscientiously drinking England dry. Yet another form of self-harm.
We talked of why I harmed and the outcome and this is why I can never say that I will stop harming myself. I feel pressure building up inside me when I have mood swings. I have violent moods swings. They’re sudden, massive physical attacks that my mind wreaks on my body. I have no control over them but I can gain relief from them. I am a fully inflated balloon waiting to explode loudly. The self-harm is a strip of sellotape over the balloon and a pin piercing the balloon through the sellotape. The balloon deflates slowly, easily, painlessly, and comfortably. It leaves me exhausted, ravaged, a mess of tears, laughter, sadness and joy. It leaves me alive because without it I would surely kill myself.
As I harm I get a hit. A legal shot of a drug I never used in my hedonistic days as an abuser. That’s probably the truest reason why I won’t stop harming.
I’ve tried to stop. I’ve tried drawing on myself and holding ice and all of the other things that don’t come close to stopping me want to die. I have formulated a way of harming safely with the knowledge and consent of my GP and my consultant. It’s not ideal but it keeps me alive and scarred as opposed to dead and without a mark.
Self-harm. Neither adolescent nor attention seeking.