In helping people who self-harm through peer support, I’ve listened to a variety of perspectives of one particular type of self-harm: Skin tissue injury. Typically, people think of this as cutting, but it’s more than that; it can be picking at the skin, plucking hairs, scratching, hitting body parts against hard surfaces, and other methods that have the consequence of hurting “superficial” (anatomical term) tissue. And even when thinking about cutting, often there is a narrative that includes razor blades that someone uses on their forearms.
I find it interesting that this has become the stereotype of self-harm. For example, my self-harm used a specific tool — a thumb tack. And I would always cut on my thighs because that was the body part I hated the most, and was significantly easier to conceal than other locations. There’s an interesting logic to my self-harm behaviours. When I first started self-harming as a teenager, I found a thumb tack on my shelf in my bedroom and I began wondering what it would feel like to drag it across my skin. I began by just using it to scratch the skin, often not drawing blood. But eventually I cut a little deeper, and now all these years later I have these fine, white vertical lines on my thighs.
Thankfully, it’s been a few years since I hurt myself like that. A few weeks ago, I was walking in my dining room with shorts on and the evening light was beaming from the window; as I stopped to put something on the table, I noticed the light caught my legs in a peculiar, and somehow beautiful way. The small ridges on my legs, the usually unnoticed whiter parts, stood out like I hadn’t seen them before. I’ve always referred to them as my battle scars, but in that moment — seeing them in that light — they had a luminescent quality about them. They weren’t ugly, flaws, or even scars. They just were. It was a peaceful moment.
For many years I felt a deep sense of shame about my self-harm scars. I tried every method in the book to try to get rid of them — or at least lessen their appearance. And I was moderately successful; it’s hard to see them now unless you’re really staring at my bare thighs. Part of me regrets going through that process. It was a tedious and felt miserable hiding my scars and always being conscious of what I was wearing — especially for dreaded events like swimming.
If I happened to have a self-harm relapse today, I wouldn’t go out of my way to conceal the wounds. I know from personal experience that self-harm wounds and scars tend to make people feel uncomfortable. To all those who do feel uneasy around people who have visible self-harm scars, just imagine what it takes to show those scars. I’ve had people stare at me like I’m a dangerous, wild animal. I see the stories such people begin to fabricate in their minds. And it leaves me at the disadvantage of not being able to explain the pain, trauma, and turmoil that resulted in those scars forming. It is another form of objectification, and it can be particularly vicious in that we the self-harmers tend to have few allies.
The percentage of people who self-harm in Canada and the United States is an educated guess at best. When we look at the research, the prevalence of self-harm has been plagued by many problems in accurately measuring how many people self-harm, and what self-harm is even defined as. But on a day-to-day basis, knowing that doesn’t matter. What we do know is that people do intentionally inflict harm on themselves and we need to care for these people with compassion even when we don’t quite understand what we’re dealing with.
There are various messages to elaborate on, which I think can be summarized in short (for now):
For those who feel uncomfortable with self-harm and have never self-harmed:
If you can’t understand why someone self-harms, you can certainly try to understand the person who self-harms.
For those who feel uncomfortable with self-harm and do self-harm:
It’s okay to hate yourself, to feel ashamed, to be depressed, to be angry, or whatever else you feel about self-harming. I’m not here to tell you how to go about your process or healing journey. I’m just here to say someone out there understands and wishes you wellness.
For those who want to be allies to people who self-harm:
It’s scary and you’ll probably make mistakes, but that’s okay. Education is key. Continue listening and asking, “How can I help you?” (Also read here and here for other stories I’ve written about my self-harm.)
For those who self-harm and don’t hide their scars:
I admire your decision to do so.
In breaking down the myths of self-harm, I always look to others. I am only one story out of many, and I think it’s crucial to remember that if we want to break down walls to authentic human connection.