Out of all of the things I do when I am mentally ill, self-harm is the one thing that I feel most ashamed of. I have bipolar disorder and this leads me to do strange things sometimes, like rambling incoherent nonsense, pacing around in circles and curling up in a ball rocking back and forth. However, it is self-harm that I feel completely unable to talk about. It is self-harm that makes me feel like a monster. It is self-harm that I try to hide from the world.
I don’t know exactly why I self-harm. I think there are a number of reasons but I still find it hard to make sense of. When I feel mentally well, self-harm doesn’t even enter my mind. It feels like a completely strange thing to do and I barely remember what the urge feels like. I understand then why people who have never experienced a mental health problem would find the desire to self-harm utterly baffling. I often do too. So here is my attempt to describe why I self-harm.
The main time I self-harm is when I feel depressed. This can be either a typical depression or an agitated depression. I feel so negative about everything that it feels unbearable. I feel morose, hopeless, desperate and completely alone. I can’t bring myself to do anything and I can’t see anything positive in the world and my future. My mind becomes crowded with horrible thoughts and I feel like my brain is racing away from me. I call this kind of overwhelming feeling a ‘brain scratch’. I feel like someone had taken a sharp pin and has started to scratch and prod my brain with it.
It is this horrible buzzing sensation combined with feelings of anguish and depression which then leads to my urge to self-harm. On some level I may be wanting to punish myself for feeling this way. Self-harm could be seen as a way to tell yourself to ‘snap out of it’ and to ‘stop being so pathetic’. More importantly though, I think that self-harm is a way of feeling distracted from your mental pain. You try and ignore your mental turmoil by inflicting physical pain on your body. It is like if you have a chest infection and then you break your leg, you stop noticing the infection as you become focused on this other pain. Self-harm may then feel like a way to control your mental pain.
When I self-harm I suddenly become focused. I have a purpose and a mission and my mind becomes fixated on something other than mental distress. I get some sort of adrenaline rush as I cause the pain and I feel momentarily relieved. I know it is very strange and disturbing, but I look at my scars right afterwards and feel some kind of sense of satisfaction. I feel like I can see my pain in physical rather than mental form and so it becomes more tangible. I get some weird pleasure from the scars until they stop hurting. Then I feel a huge sense of disgust, guilt and shame about what I have done. The scars become horrific to me and I am stuck with them. I then live in fear that someone will see them.
It is a myth that people who self-harm are attention seekers. I try to only self-harm in places that no one will see. Of course this can be tricky when you are self-harming on impulse. I go to great efforts to hide my scars and have been absolutely horrified when someone sees them and asks me what has happened. I always lie but it is hard to know whether they believe me or not. I feel so anxious when it is brought up that I find it hard to think on the spot. I would rather lie through my teeth than have one of my friends know that I self-harmed.
Another myth surrounding self-harm is that people who do it are suicidal. I become very methodical about self-harm and try to cause some pain but in a manageable way. I have absolutely no intention of killing myself when I self-harm and therefore try and be as safe as possible. Most people who self-harm are doing it as a coping mechanism rather than contemplating suicide. Although in some cases people are suicidal, the main aim of self-harm is to inflict controlled injury to manage mental pain.
In reality, self-harm is never a good solution to your problems. One problem is that however safe you try to be when you self-harm, there is no truly safe way to do it. You are purposely causing pain and so are damaging your body in some way. Another problem with self-harm is that you may feel like you need to inflict more pain another time to feel the same relief. You become addicted to the short-term benefits and so need to up the stakes. The main problem with self-harm is that it only provides a short-term fix to feelings of despair. As soon as the physical pain goes, you are left with your feelings of depression again. Not only this but also you are left with physical scars and the shame and guilt surrounding what you have done. This only further feeds in to the depression and may lead to the desire to repeat this damaging behaviour.
There needs to be more awareness around self-harm and the surrounding issues. At the end of the day self-harm is just a symptom of an underlying mental health problem. The more we can understand why people self-harm, the more we can do to help them break the damaging cycle of abuse and focus on their underlying issues.