[Content warning: Graphic descriptions of self-harm]
In March of 2007, I would have described myself as a happily married man. I had two beautiful children and was about to be surprised by a third. I had close friends, a loving family, and a well-paying job. Most things I wanted, I had, and with the satisfaction that I had worked hard to get them. My marriage had its problems. Whose didn’t? My wife and I had communication problems, but we did not talk about it much. Irony intended.
Things were good, on the surface. I did not look below that. Childhood crap was down there. I knew it. No need to re-hash it. I had moved beyond it years before. I was now a well-adjusted man who somehow had been spared from the nightmare problems childhood abuse typically creates. Or so I believed.
In March of 2007, if you’d asked me what self-harm was, I would have paused. Never having heard the term, I would have looked at that hyphenated word and made a guess: “Well, it’s hurting yourself.” I was envisioning mentally disturbed people in sanitariums repeatedly bashing their heads against a padded wall; that was the depth of my understanding.
That statement is more ironic than “My wife and I were not talking about our communication problems.” I had already self-harmed.
Twenty-five years earlier, a nineteen-year-old boy realized he was going to have to break his girlfriend’s heart by admitting he had been seeing someone else and gotten her pregnant. He had never felt worthy of this girl. She was prettier than he’d deserved. Making the guilt worse, she had been through a rough childhood as well. Who the hell was he to do this to her? What that young man did not know was that he had no ability to process guilt.
The unconscious mind is wondrously adaptive at finding ways to survive. From the age of six until fifteen, he had learned not to feel guilt. He was being sexually abused. He knew it was wrong, and he had to keep it hidden, but his body also enjoyed it. The only way his mind could balance was to not feel guilt.
So, in a calm and lucid manner, that nineteen year old heated up a piece of metal and burned “Denise” into his forearm. Slowly. Letter after letter. It was a just punishment in his mind. “Ensure that I never forget what I did to her.” The burn became a keloid scar, and a few years later, he had the skin surgically removed.
In the twenty-five years that followed, I never gave much thought to the significance of what I had done. It was not a problem. I’d moved beyond it.
You know, not having to feel guilt is a great thing until you reach the point where you do. In April of 2007, after eleven years of marriage, I committed adultery.
There were plenty of signs my marriage was in trouble. My wife and I ignored them for the most part. I am not going to make excuses. I played with fire and burned the damn house down. It is what it is. And while looking at the charred remains and the stark reality of the pain I had caused my wife and my children, the fuse blew in my “hide the guilt” machine.
I don’t remember much about the first time I put a blade against my skin, pushed in, and pulled down. The cut was not deep, just enough to bleed, but the warm blood running down my arm made the guilt go away. It felt like forgiveness. It felt like love.
The following morning, the euphoria continued. Every time I moved my arm, the pain reminded me I was forgiven. I was normal for a couple of weeks. When it healed, the guilt returned. The cuts got deeper and longer. The guilt worsened. The dam had broken. So much pain, hidden for so long, was spilling out everywhere.
Six months later, I had gone from cutting once every couple of weeks to cutting every couple of days. Then I discovered my heroin — re-discovered it, actually. Burning. I converted all the subtle cutting scars into nice keloid burns. They would not go away, ever. My forgiveness would stay.
It did for awhile. I hid my scars from most people. I knew I was struggling, but I thought I was working through it. I was trying not to burn anymore. When I needed to, I would cut a little. Get a fix. I used the existing scars so that people who knew would not notice. It worked, sometimes.
Therapy was an on and off thing for me. The deeper I dug, the more I realized my guilt was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There was an enormous pit of self-hatred below that, and it was very old and angry.
A friend of mine told me, “Treat your mind like a dangerous neighborhood. Don’t go walking around in it alone.” Advice I should have taken more literally.
Two years passed. My occasional cutting was hurting those people who knew. I needed to stop for them, and I found a way — quickly getting drunk and passing out before I could cut.
Let’s stop for a minute and think about what cutting was for me.
I felt essentially like a big hole filled with self-hatred and a generous layer of guilt frosting. It took over forty years, but the hole was full, and the frosting was starting to ooze over the edges. The cutting was a pressure valve releasing little bits at a time, preventing the whole thing from boiling over. My subconscious knew what was under that frosting, and it was not chocolate cake. The self-hatred would not be satisfied with cutting and burning.
So, use alcohol to remove that pressure valve. Good idea? Two bachelor’s degrees, and I didn’t see a problem with that solution. Can I get a refund on that tuition?
The inevitable happened. My alcohol resistance grew, and one night, I didn’t pass out. I found myself alone in that dangerous neighborhood, and I met a very angry little boy. I thought my self-hatred was bad, but he hated me on a whole different level. We got along great! We trashed the house, literally. I cut my face, and we wrote exactly how I felt about myself on the walls, in my own blood. Then sitting atop the pile of furniture, I knew if I took one more step, I would not turn back. I thought of my life-long friend and the promise we’d made to each other ages ago. I called him “before I got off the ride,” and he saved my life.
Seventy-two hours locked in a psyche unit at Saint Luke’s Hospital, and two years later, I’m still trying to move beyond it. I now know what self-harm is for me. It might not be the same for everyone, but this is how it works for me:
♦ I can’t fix it! It’s there because it needs to be. Messing with it before I dealt with the cause didn’t work. The following quote is on my computer wallpaper: “Don’t try and fix me. I’m not broken. I’m the lie living for you, so you can hide” – Evanescence
♦ My desires to self-harm were not suicidal. Yes, they were a huge red flag, but they were a self- preservation mechanism protecting me from real suicidal desires.
♦ Treat it like an addiction, because it is. I needed to find many alternate behaviors to replace the release cutting gives. Physical activities work best, especially if they engage the mind. Ballroom dancing, woodworking, crochet, and writing have helped tremendously.
♦ Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Who ever said it did was misguided. Time can make them worse. Deal with them now, head on.
♦ Does everything in my past have to get sorted out, analyzed, and resolved? I’m not sure on this one. My root causes look like a hopelessly tangled ball of yarn. Could I untangle it? Probably. Would it take me the rest of my life? Probably. It may make more sense to cut out the tangled portion and tie the ends back together. In the end, does it matter if I truly understand why I am the way I am? Either way, I have to learn to cope with the “me” that I am now.
♦ I cut because I do not want to heal. And though the root reasons why are ugly and convoluted, the simple truth is that I have to want to heal first. I have to want it. That is the forgiveness I need. Only then will I move beyond it.
Tomorrow, I take a huge step toward that forgiveness. I am going to permanently say, “The cutting and burning are done.” The line of scars on my arm will end with the semi-colon tattoo. That part of my life is over. I’ve decided to continue on without it.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a light-skinned person with short dark hair facing the camera. Their head is bowed forwards and their hands are crossed over one another, covering their face. The person is wearing a white long-sleeved button-down shirt.]