In the YA novel After by Amy Efaw, Devon, an all-American teenage girl whose life is upended when she becomes pregnant and has a baby, says the following:
In case you didn't know, dead people don't bleed. If you can bleed – see it, feel it – then you know you're alive. It's irrefutable, undeniable proof. Sometimes I just need a little reminder.
Our society is more aware of mental health and mental illness than ever, but there is something about self-harm – especially those forms which cut or scratch or burn the skin, leaving a permanent scar – which seems difficult to understand or accept.
It’s almost as if those scars on the body were written in a foreign language which permits no dialogue or translation.
Many people struggle to understand why somebody would harm themselves in this way (or because we don’t want to understand), and so all sorts of misconceptions persist: people who self-harm are attention-seeking, they are trying to die, they are always young and usually female, etc etc.
I find that it’s a good rule of thumb, when we don’t understand why people act in a particular way, to invite them to tell us, and then to listen to what they say:
I’ve learnt that, as my emotional needs were not being met, I used self-harm because I didn’t know how to express myself or say what I needed or wanted. A part was also for attention, I was desperate for someone to notice me and help me.
I hated my body and blamed it for what I’d been through, so I felt it needed punishing. Learning to accept and respect [my body] was key to overcoming self-harm.
I started self-harming when I was 15 or 16. I can’t remember why I decided to start, but that’s what I did.
Everyone is individual – there is no specific type of person who self-harms. The journey is unique, as is the road to recovery.
There is no single reason why people self-harm. In these four quotes, we hear of somebody cutting in order to express something (where the incision on the skin articulates something that words fail to convey), and somebody else using self-harm as a form of justice on the body. The third person cannot recall the motive – but the act of self-harming is nevertheless. There are, as the fourth person says, as many meanings as there are people – and in different parts of the world and at different eras of history, self-mutilation has been used for political, social and religious ends, as much as for personal.
But there is one distinction that I would like to emphasise here: the distinction between harm done to the self in front of others, and harm done to the self in private.
It is the former which is often decried as attention-seeking – but for the person who feels they’ve never been attended to or noticed, or who have been noticed and taken advantage of for all the wrong reasons, this is surely a perfectly understandable response. It may be intended to provoke, but that might be because without such provocation, nobody has been there to assure that person that he or she is valued and respected. Surely, such a person deserves to have their distress acknowledged and taken seriously.
The latter – self-harming in private – might show the same scars, but they may carry a very different meaning. Many people keep their self-harm private – a confidential practice between themselves and their bodies. For all sorts of reasons, there might be an intolerable feeling of tension or strangeness or badness within the body, like something alien or toxic is inside, trying to get out. Cutting oneself, allowing the blood to flow out, might be a way of releasing some of this tension and feeling alive again.
By writing this frankly and hearing such honest testimonies about self-harm, I don’t mean to downplay the upsetting or traumatic effect it may have on the person and their friends and family.
But, as always, it is so important to look beyond generalities, beyond the surface-level act, and hear each person’s individual experience. Trauma is what happens when we can’t digest or make sense of something. By trying to understand, perhaps some of that stigma might evaporate, and with it the feelings of guilt and shame which makes the distress so difficult to talk about in the first place.