It was my partner’s birthday at the beginning of June. He’s a keen cook so I’d mentally noted the number of times he’d mentioned getting a decent chef’s knife and decided this would be the perfect present for him. Hours of internet research later, I felt able to make a reasonably informed choice and smugly tucked the long thin package into a classic ‘safe place’.
Come the week before his birthday, my mental health had deteriorated considerably and I found myself tearing anxiously through all the possible ‘safe places’ where the knife could be. Eventually located, I tearfully presented it to Mark and he took it outside to live with all the other household sharps in his car boot.
Bread knife, chopping knife, carving knife; kitchen scissors, craft scissors, nail scissors; razors, clippers, staple removers and anything else with a point or a blade: all now resided in his car boot. Common o’garden painkillers and my spare meds were also stashed there. We had scoured every corner of our home to ensure that there was nothing left that I could possibly hurt myself with.
Sometime after, I managed to negotiate the return of my practically blunt vintage letter opener. It probably says a lot about me that this was the item I missed the most; having to rip envelopes open only added to my mental distress.
A while later still, I finished my time at the mental health day hospital. To mark this milestone, and in recognition of my somewhat improved state, we repatriated all the sharps. In every room of the house, drawers and pots were replenished and I felt pleased with my apparent progress.
Yesterday I walked over to the kitchen drawer, took out a knife and firmly drew the hard steel blade across the soft delicate skin of my left wrist.
The term ‘self-harm’ comes laden with connotations of teenage emos listening to Marilyn Manson et al in their dimly lit bedrooms. It is not associated with smartly dressed thirty-four year old women standing in their kitchens on an otherwise unremarkable Monday morning.
I’ve been unable to identify any specific trigger that led to my action. It wasn’t even impulsive behaviour undertaken whilst agitated. On the contrary, the thought crossed my mind as I was finishing getting dressed. Once considered, it seemed like a good idea. As I styled my hair, the compulsion grew stronger. By the time I had put in my earrings and sprayed my perfume, the urge felt irresistible.
Now the small scar where I’d previously hacked the same wrist with some nail clippers is joined by a second visual reminder of the destructive urges that can accompany mental health distress. Other efforts have left no visible trace but the visceral memory remains.
I guess the motivation for such behaviour varies between people. It is often cruelly dismissed as attention-seeking, with no regard for the desperation that someone must be experiencing if they decide that this is a reasonable course of action. For me, hurting myself in this kind of physical manner is about a desire to escape from my current state of mind. It is about escape, being released – however temporarily – from the torment of my emotions. Cutting my wrist provides a different focus, a distraction, a moment of feeling and being other than where I am now.
I in no way wish to condone self-harming or encourage others to do likewise, but as with so many other aspects of mental health, we need more open and honest conversations about what’s going on. Is using a razor or a blade to cut oneself all that different from other forms of self-medication? Why does the term self-harm refer to cutting and slashing but not the damage that we can do to ourselves through drink, drugs, food, unhealthy relationships? These other behaviours are often seen as harmful to us, so why the distinction from ‘self-harm’?
When I’m in a good place, I can use exercise to the same effect as the knife; moving my body also gives me a different focus, a distraction, a moment of feeling and being other than where I am now. But oftentimes exercise feels like to much effort; it seems beyond my reach. In those moments, I am simply grateful for remembering the havoc that alcohol has wreaked on my life and not wanting to tred that path again. So for now at least, perhaps I have to swap the bottle for the blade.
The mental health charity Mind has some great information and support on self-harm if this affects you or someone you know.