Self-harm real life story – seeking release
By Rachel England
Self-harm – the act of deliberately hurting yourself in times of emotional distress – is often associated with adolescents and teenagers, but adults can be affected too. Even Hollywood A-listers like Johnny Depp and Drew Barrymore have admitted to deliberately injuring themselves, and yet the issue remains a social taboo.
A coping mechanism
Hannah Winslow was a teenager when she began to cut herself as a coping mechanism – a behaviour which continued into adulthood. She tells us her story.
I was 15 when I had my first panic attack. I was on holiday with my family at the time, and we’d been out for dinner. It had been a completely normal day. But as I drifted off to sleep that night, I started feeling sick. My heart started pounding and I felt dizzy. Everyone thought it was something I’d eaten, but I knew in myself that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t breathe properly and I felt an overwhelming sense of fear – but of what, I didn’t know.
‘I thought I was losing my mind’
The next night the same thing happened, and then again, and again. Every day of that holiday was dominated by a horrible sense of unease, dreading the onset of night when I’d endure another ‘episode’. I’d hoped that when we came home it would stop, that it was in some way linked to being away, but no. The same sense of clammy anxiety and agitation would pull at me all day until nightfall, when I would stay awake reading magazines, watching TV, doing anything to distract myself from falling into a bottomless pit of panic. I thought I was losing my mind.
A cocktail of pills
Eventually I stopped going to school, and trips back and forth to the doctor only produced more blister packs of antidepressants and tranquilisers. Living in a house where problems were simply swept under the rug meant that any suggestion of counselling or therapy was vetoed, and I had little option but to fester in my anxiety and daily cocktail of pills. Eventually, living in an endless cycle of anxiety, insomnia and panic, with nothing to do but lie in bed and dwell on it all, I fell into a spiral of depression. This was exacerbated by my parents’ frustrations – I felt like a failure, both as a daughter and to myself.
In the end, I got a handle on the anxiety by myself. It was still with me every day, but less acutely, and I’d taught myself to manage the attacks. I went back to school and did pretty well in my GCSEs. But the depression stuck with me, and I was angry at my parents for their inability to help me, and angry at myself for feeling like I did. And to deal with that anger, I started self-harming.
My first time
I can’t specifically recall the first time I did it, but I remember that I used a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, and dragging the cold metal across my skin gave me such an enormous sense of relief. Some people say they cut themselves to feel alive, but I didn’t even notice the pain, and the blood was incidental to me – I just felt lighter than I had in a long time. I was careful to do it on my upper arms so it was easier to hide, and as I rolled my sleeves down after that first time, I felt deviously happy – I’d finally found something that made me feel better.
The ritual began
I continued cutting myself for years. In the beginning it would be a daily ritual, a ‘treat’ when I got home from college, but gradually it evolved into a ‘go to’ fix for upsetting incidents or periods of stress. I graduated from kitchen scissors to razor blades and would use other methods of self-injury, depending on the emotional trigger. Sometimes I would burn myself with a cigarette lighter, other times I’d slap myself hard on the face. Either way, I felt immediately better afterwards and had become methodical in cleaning up after myself. Nobody suspected anything, which was fine by me. It was my little secret and in a way I felt empowered that I was dealing with things by myself.
The problem was that I was beginning to accumulate a fairly large collection of scars on both of my upper arms. It wasn’t difficult to hide them, but during my university days I wanted to go out wearing slinky tops, and any interest from blokes went hand in hand with an awkward talk about my issues. My self-confidence sank right down as I gradually realised that everything I’d been doing to ‘help’ myself was inadvertently having a negative effect on other aspects of my life. I’d started out harming myself to deal with depression, now I was using it to castigate myself for not living up to my ideas of how I ‘should’ be. And so the cycle continued.
However, while I was at university I was lucky enough to find a brilliant group of friends who’ve stuck with me all these years later. While I never explicitly explained my problems to them, they simply accepted me for who I was, scars and all, and that was a tremendous confidence boost. Gradually I learnt to love myself a little more, and the stares and snarky comments from people in nightclubs (and once in a park on a summer’s day!) about my arms simply washed over me. The self-harm dwindled back down to ‘crisis cutting’ only.
This, however, was harder to beat, and I’ll admit that there are still times when the thought flashes through my mind. As a relatively happy and secure adult, I didn’t self-harm to ‘escape’ from things, as I had when I was younger. Instead I found myself doing it when external events became too hard to deal with, or simply when I was feeling low about myself. Like I said, it was my ‘go to’ fix and I suppose I had conditioned myself into thinking it was the only way I could deal with things when they got really tough.
But one day, I had something of an epiphany. I was looking after a friend’s young daughter when she asked me what was wrong with my arms. No doubt that’s a question I’ll be asked again in the future, because there’s very little I can do about my scars now, but as I tried my best to explain to this innocent, wide-eyed five-year old that it was down to some ‘problems’ I’d had, I realised that in order to properly love myself in a way that would stop me feeling worthless, I had to stop treating my body like it was worthless.
It’s not been easy. When I feel like I’ve failed myself (or others), I do find myself thinking about the immediate ‘relief’ cutting would give me. But I do my best to resist it, because in doing so I feel better about myself than I ever could with a blade in my hand.
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