The journey to accepting myself was harder than I could have ever imagined.
I used to live in long-sleeved tops.
It didn’t matter if it was the height of Summer and I was going for a run, I stayed covered up, because I had something to hide. And because I knew revealing what was beneath my sleeves would change the way people saw me – the extrovert who loved being the centre of attention and always had a cracking joke to tell, a personality I’d worked tirelessly to perfect to believable standard.
The real me was hidden under layers of dark clothing and a cloak of long, wavy hair; an anxiety-ridden introvert desperate to avoid being discovered.
While friends turned to booze, sex and punishing exercise when the going got tough, I turned to sharp objects. Scissors, disposable razors, the ends of paperclips, shards of glass. Anything I could get my hands on. And I carved away at the skin on my limbs until it was a patchwork of self-inflicted battle scars; in particular my left arm, which was the easiest to torture in a snap, hidden under the guise of a desk or stowed away behind a locked bathroom door.
The select few that caught me in the act, mainly boyfriends, were terrified I’d top myself, but suicide rarely crossed my mind. More so, cutting was a form of release, like squeezing a stress ball or throwing a glass tumbler against the wall and watching it shatter, it brought me a few welcome moments of relief from the suffocating feelings bubbling up inside me.
I never went too deep and I never aimed at any major arteries. My goal was to feel the short, sharp tingle that rose to the surface when my flesh split apart like a brilliant red seam.
I cut when life felt unbearable. When my insides screamed so loudly I thought they’d surge right out of my throat, and when it felt like no one understood. In short, cutting was my refuge. A kind of sick therapy that didn’t require life-affirming statements and talking about my childhood. But like all habits it eventually got out of control.
I realised one humid afternoon when I momentarily lapsed and removed my cardigan, after which, a friend abruptly grabbed my arm and asked if I was alright, staring in horror at the criss-crossed crimson lines escaping from my capped sleeve, that my refuge had become my prison. But it wasn’t until a friend pushed me into an ambulance some months later, that I was finally able to see just how out of control my need to punish myself had become.
Staring at a blank ceiling in the confines of a hospital room, barred any access to tools of potential self-destruction (even my pyjama pants cord was removed by a nurse, a strange interaction I found quite comical in an otherwise bleak moment), I began to think about how I’d gotten there. It was around that time my husband, who’d been hundreds of miles away camping, burst through the room looking like a ghost.
“Why…how are you here?!” I asked, mentally trying to unravel how he’d managed to pack up his tent in the middle of nowhere and make the 800-odd-mile journey to be by my bedside at 2am in the morning.
“Where else would I be?” was his only response, rimmed fear and heartache, and in that moment, the only one I needed.
Though I’d had many boyfriends, close friends and family around throughout my self-harming years, I’d never shaken the sense of being an alien in a world where everyone else seemed to relate with ease; but for the first time in my life, looking into my husband’s sunken eyes in that cold hospital room, I felt comfortable revealing myself. I didn’t put on a strained smile, or crack a joke. Instead, I wept like a newborn who’d discovered I had lungs for the first time, and let all the pretence go.
With his support, I went on to talk to counsellors about my battle with cutting and promised I’d never put him through the pain I saw in his eyes that night again. I can’t say my journey to freedom from self-harm was perfect, that I didn’t slip up along the way, and that I got here with a few therapy sessions and a pat on the back, and I can’t honestly say it won’t always be something I have to keep in check. Much like any other bad habit, I’ve had days when I’ve felt weak and longed to return to that feeling of solace. But nowadays, with a little effort, I can find that feeling within. And like any muscle, my self-acceptance has grown stronger with time and exercise.
I wear sleeveless tops and singlets now. The scars are faint, but still visible. But I’m not ashamed of them anymore. They’re a reminder of how far I’ve come.
If you need to talk to someone, call United Way Helpline on 1800 233 HELP or go to adaa.org
Image via therevelationproject.me