I could say I don’t know how it began, because that’s easier than explaining the slightly long-winded truth; but that would, of course, be a lie- I remember how it started. The same way most of the things in life that end up being a really big do… as a little thing, just a stitch in time. An event that would have been forgotten had it not gained weight and strength, and bloomed; and eventually become part of who I am.
There was some strange kind of fashion amongst teenage girls, fifteen or so years ago, that was morbid and, albeit confronting and twisted, somewhat romantic. Whether it’s something teenage girls still do, I have no idea– for someone who once considered themselves so cool even the cool people didn’t get her, I am now an aging hippy who still listens to Triple J and gets excited at the thought of classic Tool albums being on iTunes.
Once upon a time, where I went to high school, if you had a boyfriend you were devoted to, you showed that by carving his initials into your skin.
I’m not going to say it was every girl who did this– most of the horse–riding, flute–playing Pollyannas most certainly did not.. But the girls like me– the darklings who didn’t quite fit in anyway– it was a status symbol, a way of showing you were owned. A mark to say you we’re good enough for someone to love you.
It started like that… “CL”.
And from there it became a habit that spasmed and grew, and I’m not entirely sure when it dug itself right into the base of my psyche… but it did.
It wasn’t immediate, discovering without even meaning to, without even realizing it, that self–inflicted pain had the ability to make all those other hurts fade away, dull and become insignificant. Just for a moment or two.. just for a little bit.
But I know it didn’t take long, not long at all. I carved those first two letters, wincing at the pain and only scraping through the top few layers of skin with the blunt edge of a tiny screwdriver, a tool that became a part of the ritual of hurting myself, of leeching emotional pain out via blood. And after I carved those first two letters, I began to add to them. Tiny words, a few millimeters high, carved and cut into the delicate skin on the back of left hand, being right handed as I was. A collage of single syllable observations that freckled my skin from just where my fingers branched out to the bracelet of wrinkles that signals the border between hand and arm. “Love”. “Hate”. “Pain”. “Life”. “Real”. “Sin”. “Want”. “Die”.
For a while, I wore those words like jewelry, akin to the tattoos and piercings I decorate my skin with now. They formed tiny scabs that I delicately removed, attempting to remove them as entire emotions, letters linked together. I took time doing them, lolling away Maths and English classes completely absorbed in forming words from blood- working hard at internalizing the pain, dripping a slow sheet of ice over my features so even the deepest cuts could not force me to wince.
I can say ’I don’t know’ in reverence to this next sentence and mean it as truth. I don’t know exactly how it escalated. I don’t know when hurting myself went from a silly game to being potentially quite dangerous.
I don’t know when it was I discovered that I had developed an overwhelmingly scary habit of hurting myself every day… and no one was paying any attention.
But I do know, it happened quickly. That the words on my hands quickly, so quickly, became not enough, not deep enough… they didn’t hurt enough. A matter of simple biology- my pain threshold had increased. My mum, recently divorced and attempting to keep life together in a way I now understand more keenly than I ever would have wanted to, was distant and had little idea how to handle her depressed, hurting fifteen year old daughter. What could she do with an insecure teenager who felt as though she were screaming in constant pain but unable to force out a single keening sound? Who was mired in the flying, burning depths of a relationship that had somehow hit the depths of emotional manipulation in a way that was nearly impossible for two people who were still essentially children to understand?
This was life, untethered. I think maybe that’s what happens when you go off, headstrong and romantic and confident, rattling around the extended world too early, showing off your heart that’s too far down your sleeve. The real world… it eats you alive.
The simple innocence of words on my hand slowly crept and trailed themselves down my arm; where they morphed into slashes. Slashes that were deep and red, that bled thick ruby rivulets of myself that fascinated me as I soaked them with stark white tissues, watching as bright poppies of plasma bloomed through the acid ebb of the pain. It was ritualistic and addictive. When things hurt, when I felt like shit, I would take a short sharp paring knife, white handle with blue willow print, that I had pilfered at some point from my mother’s knife drawer; and remove it reverently from it’s hiding place. I would sharpen it with the heavy grey whet stone I had stolen from the same kitchen drawer. I would press Play on some music, something poignant and grotty… and then I would cut.
Deep breath in. Push the pointed tip of the knife into my skin until there is a tiny bead of blood. Turn the knife just slightly so the blood seeps upward and coats the blade.
Then push down, hard and straight into the skin. If you’ve sharpened it enough, the knife will slice into your flesh, past years of sun–sprinkled freckles, the very moment you put enough pressure on. You will feel your skin split, and the pain will bloom the same way the blood does. And that’s the point that smooth, cultured sheet of ice is required– bring it on with a deep breath, close your eyes just slightly and hold, hold everything, feel the entire universe pause as you soak yourself with pain.
Breath out. Let the pain, and the urge to sob or cry out leave with it.
Dead breath, oxygen depleted. Breath it out, grey and void.
And after that, after that first cut is done and your flesh bleeding and bruised… you just slice. Drag the knife across your skin, that ice barrier staid and static, controlled and concealing. Smile just slightly, almost sickly, just the very edges of your lips curling upward. Then watch the blood run, watch it pool and drip, bright red and reflective and rich with life.
Soak up that life, seep it onto pure white tissue. Again and again, until you have a small, crumpled pile.. a tiny snowdrift spotted with infinite murders.
Dress your wounds, should they need it. Pull on a shirt with long sleeves, even in the warmest of weather. Always, always keep the facade of ice in place.. you never know when you may need it. And get on with your day. (Not that the day of a teenager seems to entail much, I comparison with now. But there is no reality, only perspective– and perspective tells me, being a teenage girl was a bitch).
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what we used to call a ’smiley’. It’s a burn inflicted with a heated, upturned disposable cigarette lighter. Years before the introduction of the metal safety guard on lighters that prevented tiny thumbs– often including my own– from flicking the roller against the flint, it was another one of those strangest of body arts. The head of the lighter, two bluntly serrated rollers, combined with the metal rim at the far side, applied hot and with a certain amount of determined pressure; would leave an imprint in the skin that, if done correctly, looked somewhat (morbidly) like a smiling face.
Writing that out, know, as an adult, I’m horrified– it sounds so macabre and barbaric. It was macabre and barbaric. It didn’t seem that way, then. Although it was, understandably, even more confronting than cutting my skin. And it generally wasn’t something girls did-that kind of depravity was reserved for the same boys who pulled wings off fly’s and were just killing time until the end of Year Ten when they could legally drop out of school and officially do Nothing for a living.
But burning myself was a step up from cutting myself– it hurt more. It left scars that were far more interesting. Cutting myself, the pain of it… It had reached a point, as all addictions and habits do, where it just wasn’t enough any more. It felt like a craving for something deeper– searing metal on tender nerve endings is a whole different kind of pain. It was far more difficult not to flinch from that kind of heat, to cover that agony with ice… it was so much more of a twisted, senseless, exquisitely painful achievement.
Six months, from memory, all that went on for. Six months of blood and burning and blisters and making only the vaguest attempts at hiding it from people– after all, what good is a cry for attention if no one else sees it but you? But it seemed as though all that metaphorical crying, screaming… it did no good. No one knew how to help me, and, to be honest, I cannot remember what it would have taken, what would have been classified as ‘helping’. Love, maybe. Lots of it. (The very same thing I need now…) My mum tried her hardest, I remember that– but I was vaguely impenetrable. I vaguely remember offers of appointments with counseling services that were too difficult to obtain and too far off to be of any benefit to a teenager whose synapses just couldn’t frame a proper picture of the future in her head.
Sometimes I wonder exactly how relevant this fact is to the rest of this story, how intertwined the two are. It may mean nothing at all. It may be an consequential key to the frame of mind I was in. Either way, it seems relevant to note- I’d just a few months before started taking the contraceptive Pill. Hand in hand, I’d just fallen into my first real, unyielding, all consuming bout of dark depression.
Whatever the reasons, complex or simple- I felt like flat, paper thin, dessicated, alone and adrift, almost all the time. It’s natural to crave and seek an endorphin rush, it’s just human nature… unfortunately, the only rush I could manifest came from the push of the knife into my skin, or the sear of a heated lighted making my flesh bubble.
As a teenager, there was no sense of ‘this too shall pass’, of the future being just that and the present passing quickly. It was, possibly, the most mindful I’ve ever been in my life… the only issue was, I felt awful, all the time. And that’s not really a great thing to be mindful of.
It’s difficult to remember, looking back a it, exactly what it was like. It was pain, all the time. It was wanting something desperately and not knowing what it was. It was hating myself so much, feeling so insignificant that bloodshed- a primal indicator of distress- seemed an appropriate becaon of my distress of on a daily basis.
It was crying tears of blood, tears with substance; because nobody saw the salt ones. Real tears are clear like glass and people look straight through them… blood is never so easy to ignore.
I look back at what happened then, at how disconnected I was from myself, from my mother, and I wonder if that was me, reacting to my parent’s divorce, or her? Or just both of us, combined with life unpleasant? I carry the guilt now of how much all this must have hurt her, how helpless she must have felt. I hope she knows– I think she does– that none of it was her fault, and that she did everything she could. That I know she did what she could with what she had, and I love and respect her dearly for it.
In the same way I have only the fuzziest memories of how all this began, I can only vaguely remember how it ended. I moved, changed schools, left a mother and brother to move in with my dad– that’s a guilt I can still carry now, when I choose, one that only increases the longer I am a mother myself. The new house I found myself living in, without a bedroom of my own, lacked the privacy with which to indulge in angst. A grandmother with an insistent verbal mantra of ‘You are beautiful, you are clever, you are funny’ helped immensely, as the did the wardrobe of new clothes she bought for me. Attending school without the bullies I’d grown accustomed to, working a part time job and earning money of my own… all those things built my self esteem like tiny bricks, stacking their tiny increments up against each other to form a wall that was more solid than what I’d known before. Put those elements together with suddenly being sixteen years old, rather than fifteen- birthdays are funny things- and finally seeing some future beyond the next few months; and, without my even really being aware, life became a better place to be. I remember feeling the urge to hurt myself, more than once, in the six months or so after I moved to that new house. But instead of feeling dark and fraught and pensive, I just felt stupid. ‘Maturity’, a psychologist has named that feeling in the years since. Maturity, being able to see that cutting ones self to pieces as an outlet for one’s emotional pain is not at all se
nsible, not eve close to being socially acceptable.
And yet the urge remains.
Many people who are ‘cutters’ will attest to it becoming an addiction of sorts, an impulse that stays with them for life. Most activities that release a rush of endorphins into the system are essentially addictive- we judge their suitability by the potential damage they do to us psychically and emotionally.
Cutting yourself, obviously, it damages both. It becomes an instant release -for any time you feel your emotions are not validated, your words are not heard.
If no one will see the pain inside, it can be worn on the outside instead.
For years, any deep emotional pain that involved interactions with other people, people visible and tangible, almost always resulted in me wanting– craving– that feel of a knife on my skin, the rush of pleasant hormones that accompanied the blood. The only exception to that rule was when Tony died– I remember my psych asking me, early on in the After, did I want to cut myself, to hurt myself? Try ice cubes, she suggested, pushing them into your skin hard, or perhaps a rubber band around your wrist so you can flick it if the urge to hurt yourself begins to take over. And I remember staring at her, my disbelief causing me to miss a beat before I corrected her. No… it was OK. I was not OK… but I wasn’t going to cut myself. That wasn’t nearly enough, not even nearly intense enough to dilute this emotional pain.
And the dilution of pain was half the point.
It’s only been lately, as the deepest of this particular begins to wear off and I start to feel something like myself again, that the urge to slice my own skin has returned. It happens whenever someone is leaving me, whenever someone I love goes away. Or even when I just think they might be– even the smallest abandonment feels as though the world is ending, as though the sky is falling in all over again.
The scars stayed with me for far longer than I would have liked– I could read tiny words on my hand for a year or so, and feel bumpy scar tissue along my left forearm (always my left forearm– attempt to cut me anywhere else and I would scream, cry, unable to conjure that sheet of ice that was necessary to hide what I was feeling… The nerve endings in that particular patch of skin so very used to being abused they take it with minimal complaint). Even now, fifteen years later, I have one scar that remains. It looks like a small white pock mark half way up my arm. I doubt you’d ever know it was once a huge, infected burn blister, the result of heated steel held on flesh so long I smelt my own skin burning sweetness and it nearly made me sick.
It’s been years since I cut myself, burned myself. Now, as some kind of responsible adult, when things get really intense I generally get something pierced, or I work my way up to a new tattoo. If all else fails I’ve been known to turn to felt tip markers and pens, drawing the pattern for slices I cannot make. On my left forearm, of course. The urge to do cut myself still centers itself there. So that is where I draw.
It must be that maturity kicking in, or something… but I don’t cut myself anymore, and I rarely feel the need to. I’m thirty one years old with a Real Life and two kidlets of my own– cutting myself feels far too very much emo teenager. And I was ‘emo’ even before the word ‘emo’ was invented. (I told you– so cool, others hadn’t even caught up to my cool yet. Or something.)
But sometimes I look back at that teenage girl– a different one again from the Lori I am now, or the Lori I was in the Before– and I feel so sorry for her I could weep. I want to tell her, it’s going to be OK… we are going to be OK.
I want to be sure I’m not lying to her.