Self-Harm: Why I Did It, and How I Quit

Trigger Warning: 
This post discusses eating disorders, various methods of self harm and suicide. Please read with caution.

First things first, I have bipolar disorder. My psychiatrist suggests that this might have been triggered or caused, at least in part, by being sent to boarding school at the age of eight, where I was bullied horribly.

My first memory of hurting myself out of rage, upset and frustration was pulling my hair out in clumps. I'd never heard of self-harm (or, more specifically, trichotillomania) , and I was confused by my own behaviour. Now, I know that not all trichotillomania is self-harm, as such, sometimes it's a compulsive behaviour that even feels satisfying despite the ill-effects, but in my instance I'd pull out so much hair at once that I'd even bleed. I'd hide the clumps, not understanding why I'd done it but feeling ashamed and frightened. I was nine.

While I didn't get what was going on, I knew it wasn't "normal", and even at that age I could put together the fact that I did it when I was most miserable. I linked my misery to wanting to do something destructive, so I tried to find something else I could do. I settled on tearing up bits of paper. I carried notepaper in the pockets of my school uniform and when I was teased or bullied or homesick I'd take some out and tear it in half, and in half again and again until I had a pile of tiny squares, and then I'd throw it away. I even kept paper under my pillow for when the other girls would say horrible things to or about me after the lights went out. I remember getting in trouble for it when the matron changed my sheets and accidentally littered my dormitory with confetti.

Time passed, and I changed schools. I was marginally happier, and at the very least I was somewhat occupied. I would sometimes pull out my hair absent-mindedly, but strands, not fistfuls. I still do that now when I'm very stressed, but as long as it's only occasionally I try not to let it worry me too much. 

However, in about 2005, something happened. I got a subscription to a teen magazine, which did a feature on "the new epidemic: cutting". I'm sure it was well-intentioned, and maybe for the people who'd already heard of the self-harm via cutting it might have been helpful. But for me, who'd never heard of it before, it read like an instruction manual. While the article said "Girls who cut turn to it as a form of release" I read "Cutting will give you release". I'm in no way suggesting that the publishers intended to advocate cutting, but that's certainly how I ended up interpreting it. It even mentioned different tools and instruments people used to hurt themselves. To this mentally-ill 13 year old it was like a how-to guide.

It was around about this time that cutting, and other forms of self-harm, became common knowledge. TV characters were doing it, rumour abounded at school about which girls might be doing it, it was on everyone's lips. Magazines and news features meant to raise awareness in order to keep people safe, but really all it did was spread the word.

I cut myself quietly over years. It was never a cry for attention for me (not that doing it for attention invalidates it, generally the people crying for attention are just crying for help). It was about taking control of the pain on the inside, because when I felt pain on the outside too I felt less of an unmanageable division between my brain and my body.

My body was another problem. From a very (and I mean very) young age I was made to feel like my body was repugnant. I was tall for my age, and very wide-set. There are photos of me from my childhood where I looked fairly chunky from the front, but if I turned sideways there was nothing to me. However, as I got older and my hips got even bigger, my boobs started kicking in and I started to binge-eat whatever I could buy with my pocket money as a "fuck you" to anyone who'd ever commented on my weight, I actually started to get fat, which only made things worse. Their taunting and snide comments started to, for want of a better phrase, gain weight.

This resulted in me starting to make myself vomit. At first just after I'd binged, but then I started doing it after every meal. I was a self-harming bulimic for over a year. It sounds a little backwards, but this extreme behaviour is what led me to have a bit of an epiphany about cutting.

It struck me that, to my mind, I was putting myself through forced regurgitation to make myself thinner, and by extension more "attractive". It suddenly seemed strange to be mutilating myself one minute and trying to make myself "pretty" the next. I resolved to stop adding to my map of scars, purely because it was counterproductive to my ultimate goal of trying to be attractive to other people.

However, like quitting any addiction, it wasn't as simple as deciding to stop. I needed a substitute, a surrogate. This is where the article that started it all actually came in handy, because it had listed suggestions for things to try in order to quit, which I'd remembered for all those years. When I was at home, I could fish ice cubes out of the freezer and squeeze them in my fist. When I was back at school I did the same with hard or sharp objects which were slightly painful to grip but wouldn't penetrate the skin, like pinecones or rulers. I'd hoard elastic bands up my sleeves and snap them against my wrists. Over time I weaned myself off this dependency too. 

I finally quit purging when I was caught by a teacher who I loathed (the feeling was mutual) and was, frankly, too scared to do it again in case she caught me, because she made it very clear that she had her eye on me.

I won't lie to you and say that I've been entirely successful in putting this past addiction behind me. I have had slips when life has seemed especially unbearable. I have made attempts on my own life. I have resorted to making myself vomit. But not often. Not compulsively. And of that I think I think I can be proud. 

If you're struggling, I can only recommend seeking help. I know it's hard and it's scary, but there are professionals out there who could make a huge difference to your life. If you're not able to do that, but you want to quit, then I can tell you that my method of substituting cutting and hair-pulling for other, less-destructive habits was helpful. In my experience at least, it will made it easier to eventually quit. I promise, no matter how impossible it might seem to finally break the addiction you can do it, and you will.