Monday, October 1, 2007

Confessions of a Former Cutter

When most people hear the term “self-mutilation”, it makes them think of a person who is crazy or mentally unstable. Some might even relate the term to a person with suicidal tendencies when in fact it has nothing to with being crazy, or suicidal.

Many people would cringe at the mere idea that a person would want to self mutilate themselves and although this is a subject that most people would rather not talk about, it is estimated that 2 to 3 million Americans suffer from self mutilation.

So what is self mutilation?

Self mutilation is the act of intentionally inflicting harm upon oneself by cutting, scratching, burning, hair pulling, anything that causes physical harm to oneself. Tattooing and piercing can be forms of self mutilation but only if pain and/or stress relief was a factor.

A self mutilator can be anyone of any age, but is more commonly a female between the ages of 13 and 30.

Why would anyone want to self inflict pain on themselves?

Self mutilation is usually used as a coping mechanism. I can’t speak for all cutters in terms of their reasons for cutting, but I can enlighten you with my story, even though I must admit that since this story is so personal to me, I did think twice before writing it.

Who knows? There might be people out there who might learn something from this. So here’s my story:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never really cared to show people my “soft” side. I believed (and to this day still believe) that if you allow others to see you weak, or soft, you would be setting yourself up to get hurt. It was important to keep an appearance of being tough and strong, even if it was only a façade.

I’m not really sure what lead me to think this way. All I can tell you is that I felt very strongly about not feeling vulnerable. I guess it may have had something to do with not properly learning how to handle emotional pain.

I had created a barrier around myself sometime during my childhood, and to this day, that barrier still stands, which I’ve just realized, may actually be hurting me, instead of helping me as it was intended. To move forward in life, sometimes you have to look back and see where the problem began.

I remember that when I was going into the 4th grade, I transferred elementary schools and was labeled “the new kid in school”. I felt pretty alone and isolated. I had made several friends, and yet, I always felt as if I never quite fit in.

I carried these feelings of isolation from elementary school, to middle school. In the summer going into my 8th grade, things took a turn for the worse when some unexpected “new editions” were integrated into my family unit.

The first time I remember cutting myself, I was 13 years old. Believe it or not, it was actually an accident. I was in class while the teacher was rambling on about God-knows-what, and was lost in my own thoughts. I had a mechanical pencil in hand and had unconsciously begun drawing on my skin. I suddenly realized that my skin was sore and looked down to see that not only had I unconsciously drawn on my skin but I had drawn a figure of a cross. My skin was red from where I had drawn the cross. At that point I really didn’t think much else about it, but instead of stopping, I continued to draw on my skin. I can’t say for sure why I didn’t stop. I guess it was because in some strange way, it felt good.

I was going through a lot of problems at the time. As I stated, there were some unexpected new editions to the family and I was suffering from low self esteem since I was a minority in a majority African American school.

Kids going through puberty can be quite cruel. I felt as if I had no control over my life, but the day I accidentally cut myself, I realized that although I had no control over the changes that had taken place in my life, cutting myself was something that I could very well control.

In some strange way, cutting myself allowed me to endure the emotional pain that I was feeling. It probably should have raised some red flags to family that something was wrong, but it went unnoticed.

I enjoyed the feeling of cutting myself because it felt like some sort of relief. All the anger and grief that I was unable to express made its appearance on my skin. I would cut my arms, legs, stomach, and once even my back. It was the only way I knew how to cope with my anger and emotional instability.

Through high school, I continue to cut. I felt isolated and had few if any friends, my freshman year. I was miserable at home and so I cut myself. When my mom finally did notice, she told me to stop. She thought that I was doing it for attention. I’m sure she meant well, but you can’t tell a cutter to stop cutting themselves and expect them to actually listen. It just doesn’t work that way.

As I watched my peers date and exchange Valentines Day cards, Christmas cards, and bring cakes and balloons for their friends on their birthday, I felt so alone and isolated. I would often wonder to myself, “Why don’t I have friends like that? What’s wrong with me?”. In all honesty, it tore me up inside, but I was determined to let others know that. So I’d act as if I didn’t give a shit and then I’d go to the bathroom at school or wait to go home to cut myself.

The situation at home wasn’t any better and only increased the urge to cut myself. I thought that no one cared about me, especially since no one tried to do anything to stop me.

Anytime that I felt stressed, angry, sad, or just plain miserable, I would go cut myself. I did this all throughout high school and no one seemed to notice, and those who did notice, didn’t seem to care.

Then one day during study hall, my senior year, someone did notice. My swim coach noticed some scars and fresh cuts on my arm and told me that he was concerned about how I had attained those scratches. Of course, I lied and told him some ridiculous story about the cat scratching me. I don’t think he believed me since he warned me that if he saw anymore suspicious cuts on me, he would have to refer me to the schools shrink.

Like a bulimic that learns to hide their constant trips to the bathroom and vomit breath, I learned how to hide my compulsions to cut. From that day on, I would cut my stomach instead.

The same year that I graduated high school, my situation at home had also improved. I was attending a university where I no longer felt like an outcast. My self esteem had also greatly improved. For that whole year that I was in school, I didn’t cut myself.

When I didn’t return to school the following fall, I again, felt alone and isolated. Again, I found myself cutting. My younger sister had also begun doing the same thing, and I couldn’t help but to feel somewhat responsible for that.

I was in shock when my sister was taken to the hospital to be evaluated by the doctors for cutting herself since no one had even bothered to take my cutting problems seriously. I ended up cutting myself that day.

At 19, I experienced a traumatic event, and for months, I would cut myself daily. I also must’ve experienced some sort of psychosis because I began to hallucinate for some time afterwards. I began having violent outbreaks, including an incident were I attacked one of my aunts, who was mentally unstable at the time due to being prescribed Prozac which she more then likely didn’t need, physically, followed by more cutting.

Not a lot of people know this about me, but the third tattoo that I had done was related to the traumatic incident. I also pierced my nose in response to a broken heart. The most recent tattoo on my forearm was also in response to emotional feelings that I just didn’t know how to express.

I tend to downplay how hurt am I when someone has hurt me emotionally. I make it seem like it’s no big deal even if I feel like I’m dying inside. I do this because I don’t like the idea of people thinking I’m weak and/or vulnerable. It’s a coping mechanism I suppose.

I’ll be honest. The only reason that I stopped cutting myself was because, at this point, I have a lot to lose if I’m ever caught. Tattoos and piercing are socially acceptable which is why I’ve now moved on to this form of self mutilation. Of course tattoos are also a lot more expensive which is why I’ve only had three done for the purpose of self mutilation, one of which was self inflicted and I’ll be completely honest and tell you that although the home made tattoo is shitty quality, it was much more gratifying then the two I had done professionally. The nose piercing was also self inflicted.

I’m not mentally unstable. I just haven’t learned a healthy way to process and cope with my feelings. I’ve begun to chain smoke to replace my former ways of self mutilation. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to face my emotions like a normal person would because I just don’t know how to.

They say that some of the best psychologist are really screwed up in the head, so who knows. Maybe I will be able to put my degree to use after all.

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