Trigger Warning: attempted suicide, cutting, stitches, detailed graphic writing on scars.
“Be sweet with yourself.”
That’s what my friend Joy told me when we parted one month ago. She was leaving for a new life in Tennessee. I was just out of the hospital.
It was a pretty remarkable thing to say. Sweet with myself is exactly what I’m not. I’m harsh and critical and temperamental, abusive even. Look where it got me.
Two days previously, I tried to kill myself. I cut my arm deep with a knife. The police were called, and I was taken to the hospital and put on involuntary psychiatric hold. When I was released, Joy was there with me.
My stay in the hospital only lasted two days, but it opened my eyes to how cruel I can be to myself, and how dire my mental state has become as a result. Coming out into the world again, I felt like a butterfly emerging from the safety of its cocoon, wings crumpled and wet, vulnerable and unable to fly.
Be sweet with yourself.
I can’t remember a time when my internal dialogue wasn’t berating and cruel. I’ve always had a punishing attitude toward myself, always felt like I wasn’t good enough. In the days following my suicide attempt, I felt especially worthless. I was overcome by the plague of internal terrors that tell me: No one loves you, Jenny. You’re pathetic. You’re a drain on others and they’re better off without you. You don’t deserve to live. When Joy said that to me, it really touched a nerve.
Why would she tell that to me? Why does she care? What right do I have to be sweet with myself? It’s an unwell line of thinking, but one I cannot purge. All I can do is strengthen the contending voice – the voice of radical self-love.
The next day, I found myself on UC Berkeley campus, a place where I used to play as a child. I had my camera with me. It had been broken for a while, and I was hugely relieved to have it fixed. I held it close to my chest for comfort. I was eager to craft and create again after a time of such intense crisis.
I sat in a small clearing among redwoods, a stone’s throw away from the iconic Sather Gate. A stream trickled by, lined with ivy and horsetail. The sound of the water was calming. I felt pensive, solemn, troubled. I tried hard to sit with myself, but my thoughts were profoundly uncomfortable.
My eyes fell to the cut on my arm, to the three blue stitches that held the edges of my skin together. I remembered how the blood had streamed down my fingers. Envisioned the scar that it would eventually become. I looked closer, imagining that I could see my flesh knitting itself back together. I was enthralled.
More Radical Reads:“How Do You Love Your Body On Bad Days?:” 6 Lessons to Surviving Illness & Resurfacing Self Love
I pulled the camera to my eye. Through the viewfinder it was all the more engrossing. The texture of my cut in the sunlight, the stark shadows of the three little stitches. The colors of my bruised and scratched skin against the blues, greens, and reds of the campus around me. I snapped the shutter. Once, twice. Again. Now in another light, now with a different background. I couldn’t stop taking photos. It was so cathartic. It felt like I was diving headfirst into my own pain.
There it was: my pain, carved into my flesh for me to see and examine. I held it up to the light. Stepped in and out of myself. Looked at the image of myself watching me. Let myself be reverential and repulsed. Let those feelings bleed into the camera and let the camera bleed into me. It was profoundly liberating to engage with my recent experience so intimately. It gave me an almost mystical sense of perspective.
I could see my many selves, and all their various levels of awareness and suffering – the grotesque dance that went on between them. One languishing in pain, one trying to heal. One making pornography of it all. Another seeing the ghostly and transcendent result. Being overwhelmed and looking away, then looking again only to feel aroused and disturbed. A self at the center of the throng, falling in love, and a self beyond the “I”, both one with the others and void of them, too.
I felt fractured yet fluid, distant but present, ephemeral. There was no pretense. Just me and me and me and me. Simple, honest, alone.
I could cry, I’m so beautiful.
As I saw myself, I saw that I was tender. That I have always been tender. That I am inflamed, and fragile. I have been trampled on, and never been given the time or resources that I need to heal. I can withstand a lot, maybe. But what I need is a life that is gentle. A world that is kind and people who are soft. A mind that is safe from violence, both social and internal.
Be sweet with yourself.
I could hear Joy’s voice in my photos. Be sweet with yourself, Jenny. You’ll break your heart if you don’t.
Looking back at the photos now, that’s exactly how I feel. Heart-broken. Every time I see the fresh-forming scar on my arm. Every time it brushes against my clothing and I feel that hypersensitive sting. I feel heart-broken, and helplessly in love.
More Radical Reads: Why You Need Self Care The Most When It Seems Impossible
That’s what this little art project really showed me. It led me to realize the depth of love that I have for myself. Not just bitter, incendiary egotism. Rather, the warmth of compassion that cries for a person’s suffering. A tragic love, perhaps, but true.
Yeah, I’m a mess. I’m a huge fucking mess. But my messiness is so god damn beautiful because it’s real.
This is the real pain of life in our terroristic society, and my real resiliency in the weaving together of my broken skin. Right here, in my tears, is the real process of overcoming trauma. The real result of body terrorism, and my real fight to overcome it.
It’s okay to love yourself in spite of being a mess. In fact, you ought to. We have to be forgiving of ourselves because when we’re not, we internalize all types of violence, which inevitably leads to self-harm.
This is not limited to physical self-mutilation. I’ve compulsively harmed myself in so many ways, I don’t think I could list them all. The mind and body can only take so much before breaking down. At some point, re-orienting yourself toward self-love and self-appreciation becomes a matter of life or death.
I wonder why Joy chose those words. Those words specifically. Did they have personal significance to her? Did she see deep into my soul? I can’t know for sure, but I keep turning them over in my mind one month later. They will stay with me for a very long time. And judging the warmth and sustenance they have given me, I think they were the right words to say.
So, dear reader. Just in case you’re struggling. Just in case you’re like me, and this is exactly what you need to hear:
Be sweet with yourself. It’s everything you deserve.