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Health

Searching for Reasons Why I Self-Harmed for Seven Years, and for Why I Stopped

From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to wrap your head around why, when humans instinctively avoid pain, someone would actively and regularly seek it out. But I did.
May 19, 2015, 6:50pm

Photo via Flickr user Christiaan Tonnis

Warning: This story contains graphic discussion of self-injury.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

From age 14 until a few months before I turned 21, I was a regular self-harmer. My choice form of abuse was mainly cutting, usually done with a box cutter or blades pulled out from pencil sharpeners. At least once a week, I would drag a razor across my skin and watch as little red beads of blood burst to the surface and merged into a bright scarlet line. Some weeks, my wrists, arms, stomach, and thighs were barely touched; at other times, I'd start running out of space and contemplate whether I could afford for another part of my body to be covered in scars.

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I'm not going to feed you that bullshit about coming out a stronger person or that I'm glad I went through that phase, because it fucking sucked. But for seven years, cutting took over my life.

From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to wrap your head around why, when humans instinctively avoid pain, someone would actively and regularly seek it out.

I don't remember what caused me to cut for the first time, but I remember feeling the sensation of cutting myself suddenly clearing away the negative thoughts that had been ruling my mind. And I was hooked.

For more on mental health, watch our doc about a family struggling to care for a child with severe mental illness:

Sometimes, my thoughts would race too fast and I couldn't handle not being able to grasp on to a single idea for more than a few seconds. Other times, I'd experience such crushing despair that it'd feel like my chest was about to implode. Sometimes it'd be rage and frustration, or nothing at all. No matter what it was, when I hit an emotional extreme, physical pain could "ground" me, remind me that, yes, I was still alive and that other things existed besides the torment in my head.

Dr. Susan MacKenzie, a psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who works with self-harmers ages 14 to 24, put it another way.

"For some people, [self-harm is] a powerful way to calm emotional distress in the moment, and these are often people who experience, probably, a more extreme range of emotions than the average person," she said.

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Situations that triggered my urge to cut didn't always strike at convenient times or places; I remember hiding behind a tool cabinet to cut during high school robotics club because I knew I'd have a mental breakdown if I didn't. Another time, I retreated to a university washroom because I was panicked that someone would find out about my habit. I dealt with the anxiety by cutting even more.

There might be a few biological reasons behind self-harm, too. Rebecca Kaushal, a psychology and anthropology undergrad student at the University of Toronto, has been studying the biology and neuropsychology behind self-harm and said there are several genes linked to aggression that might predispose people to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. As well, the body releases a rush of endorphins in response to physical injury, which can lead to feelings of euphoria and explain why some people come to enjoy certain kinds of pain.

"I remember someone saying [that] there's nothing that can help override the emotional pain you feel than how physical pain feels in a euphoric sense," Kaushal said. "It doesn't necessarily hurt anymore, it's a different kind of pain."

Self-harm usually starts to manifest itself in early adolescence. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), around 2,500 youth (ages ten to 17) were hospitalized for self-harm in 2013-2014, which works out to about a quarter of all youth hospitalizations. Girls made up 80 percent of that number, and over the past five years, the number of girls hospitalized for self-harm has increased by more than 110 percent (35 percent for boys).

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In Ontario alone, 3,411 youth visited an emergency department in 2013-2014 for self-harm, a 98 percent increase for girls and 30 percent increase for boys since 2009-2010. It's not clear whether self-harm is on the rise, or if more people are seeking help.

MacKenzie said the majority of people she sees are cutters. Females are more likely to cut, while males tend to turn to reckless behavior like irresponsible driving and substance abuse. She also said it's not clear why self-harm starts in adolescence or why the methods differ between genders, but that the emotional turmoil that seems to trigger it tends to naturally subside in one's mid to late 30s or 40s. The youngest person she's worked with was 11.

Related: Angel Haze talks about the epidemic of youth depression.

I never really talked to anyone about cutting. Throughout school, I would hear my peers dismiss self-harmers as dumb emo kids, desperate attention-seekers, or dangerous people who should be institutionalized. I didn't wanted to be associated with any of those things. The few people I did confide in usually told me I was fucked up and should stop, so I took that as a cue to hide my cuts and scars as much as I could.

"There's a huge stigma around suicide and self-injury, and therefore it's a great big secret you can't tell anybody because, heaven forbid, if you speak to the wrong person, they might just kind of further invalidate your experience and tell you to get over it," said Yvonne Bergmans, a suicide intervention consultant at St. Michael's Hospital's Suicide Studies Research Unit in Toronto. "'Why are you doing this?' or, 'Does your mother know you're doing this?' or, 'For such a pretty person like you, why do you want those scars? Why are you doing this to yourself?' And those are comments that miss the entire point of the emotional pain."

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Any cutters who favor their arms know that long sleeves and bracelets are their best friends, no matter how warm it is in class or how sunny it is outside. Being uncomfortably warm for a few hours is a better fate than having your friends, or even worse, a teacher, notice last night's cuts and start asking questions.

It's also surprisingly effective to just position your arms so that any cuts are facing your body. Lying also worked. My go-to was blaming my cats. When that was no longer a plausible answer (an acquaintance once responded with, "What the fuck kind of cat do you have, a goddamn tiger?"), I'd make up a story about falling down drunk or riding my bike through a particularly prickly bush. I'm not sure anyone actually bought my stories, but they stopped asking questions and I considered that a victory.

There were also the small things I did to keep up an appearance of normalcy: hiding my razors; always making sure I had fresh bandages; cleaning the blood off my sheets and clothes; wearing a lot of bracelets; not cutting on my arms before things like going to the doctor, getting on a plane, or attending an event where I'd be in a sleeveless dress.

For the longest time, I thought I'd live the rest of my life that way.

And then, as suddenly as it came, the urge to cut just disappeared. I still get "cravings" to cut, but the motivation to act on them is mostly gone and I've been clean for almost a year now. What I'm left with is seven years' worth of scars; sometimes, I wish I had got help so I could've put an end to it sooner. There are a hell of a lot more coping mechanisms that are much safer and healthier than running a razor over your skin. But for all the angst and anger and rage and sadness that scars me, there's also a little bit of hope. One year ago, I was convinced I would cut forever. But I've finally reached a place where I don't want to add another scar to the collection again.

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.