A personal story of self-harm… Anonymous Cardiff University student talks about her personal experiences of self-harming behaviour and challenges some tired clichés…
As March is self-harm awareness month I wanted to share my story. I currently study at Cardiff University, and if we got talking somewhere on campus you’d probably think I was a pretty average university student. I am a pretty average university student; a bit anxious, a bit socially awkward sometimes, but essentially one of many wandering down Park Place trying to figure out the elusive balance point between studying, sleeping and maintaining an active social life. I also have a history of deliberate self-harm. In this blog I’d like to try and persuade you that this one fact about me (the history of self-harm) doesn’t define my personality any more than any other fact about me, and in my opinion, doesn’t make me as ‘mad’ or ‘irrational’ as some would have you believe.
I’ve heard a lot of clichés about self-harm over the years, and I think it’s something that’s quite often misunderstood by both the general public and some people working in healthcare professions. All too frequently I’ve heard self-harm described as ‘attention seeking’. That it’s ‘irrational’ or ‘stupid’ are also common assumptions, along with the idea that people who self-harm are ‘crazy’. I’d like to invite you to hear an alternative perspective; that deliberate self-harm can function as a coping mechanism, a way of getting through when someone’s level of stress far exceeds their resources for effectively coping with that stress. That instead of a ‘crazy’, ‘irrational’ or ‘attention seeking’ behaviour, self-harm is often an understandable response to an overwhelming situation. And I’d like to posit that, instead of reacting with judgement and negative labels, we should instead seek to understand the reasons someone might engage in self-harming behaviour; to listen non-judgementally to their experiences and be sensitive to the level of emotional suffering that so often accompanies self-harm.
The beginnings of my self-harming behaviours…
I first deliberately hurt myself when I was around 13 years old. I played the piano growing up and used to perform in local and school concerts, local level competitions and was working through my graded exams. Public performances always made me very nervous, so I coped with the nerves by trying to learn my performance pieces perfectly, reasoning that if I could play perfectly every time I practised at home, when I was on stage I could just zone out and perform on auto-pilot. But perfection is a pretty tall order, so I invariably made mistakes, as everyone does when they are learning. With every mistake my frustration at myself and fear about the public performances grew. My attitude towards myself became increasingly hostile and aggressive, and aggressive thoughts turned into aggressive actions. If I hit a wrong note I started slamming my fingers and hands hard against the piano; if I played several wrong notes I would hit myself repeatedly about the head. Whilst this behaviour seems quite extreme, and was certainly an unhelpful response to the situation involving a fair bit of distorted thinking, it made sense to me at the time. I felt the pressure of public performances intensely; in order to cope with this pressure I had to be perfect. In order to be perfect I needed to learn better – if I could teach myself that mistakes led to pain, maybe I would stop making mistakes to avoid the pain. It works with rats (as per the famous experiments of B.F. Skinner), maybe it could work with me, too.
Another behaviour I adopted in my early teens was clawing at my skin; digging my nails into my arms until I drew blood. This was mainly a response to feeling overwhelmed and out of control. I remember there being arguments between my parents at home, and my Dad could be very volatile and display seemingly uncontrolled anger towards me, which scared me. Causing pain to myself in this context gave me something to focus on. Pain grabs our attention, and focussing on physical pain meant I didn’t have to address the complex and confusing feelings associated with family arguments. The clawing at my arms was relatively short-lived, whilst the causing pain to myself whilst playing the piano continued for several years, mainly associated with approaching public performances. I never sought help for either behaviour, nor confided in anyone what I was doing to myself. This is not atypical of people who self-harm; behaviours are often kept secret and hidden from those around us, in contrast to the ‘attention-seeking’ stereotype.
Moving away to university…
I left home to go to university in a bubble of hope and positive expectations. I had earned a place on a highly competitive course at a prestigious university; the future was looking rosy. However, with competitive courses at prestigious universities comes stress and high pressure. Not having learnt effective coping mechanisms for managing my stress growing up, coupled with the beliefs that I had to be ‘perfect’ and that admitting to struggling was a sign of weakness, I quickly fell into emotional difficulties. My early attempts to cope with this mainly involved drinking heavily and trying even harder to be perfect in my academic work. Initially the drinking was at nightclubs with friends, followed by sobbing into my pillow, mornings where I woke up to messages from friends recounting the ridiculous things I’d done, before rolling into lectures still drunk from the night before.
By the time it occurred to me that I might need some professional help (after about a year of sinking further into despair), I was abruptly leaving my university classes due to intense feelings of panic, roaming around the city for hours at a time trying to escape my emotions, existing mostly on the verge of bursting into tears and plagued by terrifying impulses to harm myself. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and my medical notes contained mention of ‘panic attacks’ and ‘suicidal ideation’. I had some counselling and was prescribed medication, but I continued to sink even further into my own personal despair. I took some time out from university and moved back in with my parents.
Moving home had seemed like a logical step, but looking back I’m not sure how helpful it was. My parents didn’t really understand what was happening with me, and mainly viewed the situation as me ‘ruining my life’ and needing to ‘pull myself together’. For the record, this typically isn’t a helpful approach to take towards anyone in the depths of emotional despair. Drinking excessively in nightclubs had become drinking whenever I felt like I couldn’t cope (which was increasingly frequently), be it in the evening alone in my room or in the middle of the afternoon. The prolonged high distress levels and lack of a resolution led to a loss of hope that things would ever get better. I’d had medication, had therapy, and I was only getting worse. It was at this point that I started self-harming again.
This time the self-harming mainly involved cutting and scratching, as well as taking (non-lethal) overdoses of painkillers. By this point I was so low and so lacking in hope that things could improve, that I think I’d stopped caring about doing the ‘right thing’. I’d always done the ‘right thing’; worked hard at school, at university, gone to the doctor, taken my medication as advised and had, by this point, a lot of therapy, yet none of those things had prevented me from getting to, or helped me escape from, the dark place in which I now found myself. I didn’t expect that injuring myself would help, but I also didn’t feel as though I had much left to lose.
Personal reflections on my self-harm…
I’ve thought a lot about why I chose to engage in self-harming behaviours; something that seemingly flies in the face of our innate instincts to survive and keep ourselves safe from harm. For me, there were many reasons why I harmed myself. I was experiencing overwhelming, all-consuming emotions that were complex, difficult to make sense of and impossible to run away from. The physical pain I caused myself was far more tangible; “I feel pain because I’m physically injured” for example. The self-harming gave me a sense of control at a time when I felt as though I had no control over my life or what was happening to me. As perverse as it may seem, being able to control the extent of injury I inflicted upon myself made me feel as though I had regained a little of the control over my own life.
The self-harming also represented a form of emotional expression. At a time when my ability to express how I felt was low (especially when it came to expressing difficult emotions such as anger and emotional pain), hurting myself enabled me to express myself, albeit in a way that caused more problems than it solved. By this point in time I often felt emotionally numb, empty and distant from the world, so causing myself physical pain (sometimes) enabled me to feel physical pain and feel more connected to the world and my own body. Some theorists have suggested that one of the reasons people self-harm is that the body releases endorphins in response to physical pain; these endogenous chemicals are part of the way our bodies deal with physical pain, and act to help us feel better. This certainly seemed to be true for me; often causing physical harm to myself made me feel calmer.
A final explanation for my self-harm is one that I think often gets neglected when people talk about the reasons behind self-harm. Hurting myself allowed me to take care of the self-inflicted injuries. I could transform emotional injury to physical injury, and then tend to the physical injury in a way that I hadn’t yet learned how to do with my emotions. Keeping my cuts clean and watching the skin heal again had a metaphorical quality to it, and despite the physical injury I caused myself, there was also the desire to take care of myself, although perhaps not the skills to be able to do so.
Even during this very turbulent few years of my life, where I think we can all agree that I wasn’t coping too well, had you encountered me in the street or at my place of work, you wouldn’t have known anything was amiss. I became very good at painting a big smile on my face. So good, in fact, that despite having diagnosed clinical depression work colleagues regularly described me as ‘cheerful’ and ‘always smiling’. I told bare-faced lies if it was too hot to wear a jumper and people noticed the marks on my arms, and whilst I felt hideously guilty about having told the lies, people believed them. I started cutting my legs instead of my arms; much easier to keep hidden. My point here is that you don’t necessarily know if someone is self-harming. People self-harm in a range of different ways and are often good at keeping any marks hidden. Despite not coping especially well during this period, I didn’t fit any of the self-harm stereotypes. Not ‘melodramatic’, ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘crazy’, but outwardly cheerful, friendly and approachable.
Taking small steps towards change…
What I believe was most valuable for me in this deeply unpleasant time was finding a therapist who was empathetic and able to view my self-harming behaviours as understandable given my life circumstances, whilst simultaneously working to promote behavioural change. A therapist who engaged in conversations about self-harm and the reasons behind it, rather than reacting with fear, exasperation or treating me as someone beyond the realms of rationality. I attended a therapy group in which many of the other service users also self-harmed. We were taught practical strategies as alternatives to self-harm and worked towards being able to tolerate difficult emotional experiences. Whilst the practical strategies were useful, what I found most beneficial was an environment in which self-harm was accepted. To clarify, by accepted I don’t mean endorsed or approved of, but acknowledged as something unlikely to be helpful in the long term, but an understandable reaction to adverse circumstances nonetheless.
Several years on, I no longer deliberately inflict physical harm on myself. This has not been due to suddenly realising the ‘irrationality’ and ‘craziness’ of my behaviours, followed by an almost magical sense of my own self-worth blossoming inside my brain. Real life is far less like a Disney film. It has taken good people, who were able to work with me without judgements and stereotypes, and support me in taking lots of little steps towards changing how I think and feel about the world. I still have thoughts about hurting myself during times of high stress, and I think I probably always will. Brains are full of neurons connected to other neurons in highly complicated networks. The connections in my brain that associate stress with self-injury are still there, although I now also have lots of other connections to compete with them. I am slowly developing a sense of trust in myself; I don’t want to hurt myself and I am beginning to trust that I won’t.
Some final thoughts…
I’d like to implore you to step outside the tired clichés that are so often associated with self-harm, even today. To see people in the context of their experiences and who they are as a person, rather than a crude stereotype representing no one and based on a single behaviour. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, self-harming behaviours can take many different forms, and it’s not always possible to judge how someone is feeling when you are external to their internal world. In addition, you may not know that someone is self-harming, as people can be very good at keeping their self-inflicted injuries hidden. Treating people with kindness and listening without judgement can be immensely powerful, particularly as people who engage in self-harming behaviours may have already faced a range of negative reactions from those around them, perhaps even within the systems in place to help them.
For more information about self-harm, check out the other blogs the Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Team have written on the subject for self-harm awareness month. Some are online already, whilst others will be appearing throughout March. There are also many online resources such as this leaflet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Mind have some information about self-harm here.
A variety of support services are provided below (both inside and outside of the university):
- Cardiff University Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Team on 02920 874966 (Cathays) or 02920 742070 Heath Park. Booked appointments are available via their online referral questionnaire, plus a daily Wellbeing Walk-In Service (3pm-3.45pm: Monday–Friday and Wednesday mornings: 9.30am-10.15am at the Student Support Centre at 50 Park Place; and Wednesday afternoons 3pm-3.45pm at Cardigan House, Heath Park Campus).
- Your GP
- NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 (Wales) or 111 (England and Scotland)
- Samaritans (the confidential emotional support service, available 24/7) on 116 123.
- CALL on 0800 132 737.
- Nightline (student-run listening service, 8pm-8am, term-time only) on 029 2087 0555.
- CALM (for young men) on 0800 58 58 58.
- HOPELineUK (support for young people up to the age of 35) on 0800 684 141.
- Get Connected on 08088 084 994.
- University Security on 029 2087 4444.
In addition, if you have taken an overdose or are worried that you have harmed yourself severely, you can call 999 or go straight to your nearest A&E department
Have you read Amy’s blog?
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