Hypnotized I stared at the flame of the burning candle before me. Part of me knew that what I was about to do was wrong, but a bigger part of me just wanted to feel something.
Note: I almost triggered myself by writing this story. If you are fighting against self-harm, this may not be the best story for you to read. Self-harm is an unhealthy habit that can have fatal consequences. Please seek appropriate help if needed.
The subject of self-harm can be controversial and emotional. While I won’t pretend I have all the answers on the subject, I can share my experience and tell you what was behind it.
In my experience, a catalyst always preceded self-harm. Some big event in my life caused everything to change, and self-harm was the way I tried to center myself afterwards.
The time when things were at their absolute worst was not long after I lost my soulmate. She was the one person I thought would always be there. In an instant, someone not paying attention to the road took her away.
For weeks after she died, I went on with my life. On the outside, I looked like little had changed. I wore my smile; I went to work; I saw friends and family, but slowly inside, everything was dying.
Like a callus that develops on hands after doing repetitive hard work, my heart became more and more numb to the world around me.
I can’t say for sure what brought me back to self-harm. It was a habit when I was a teenager and again in my early twenties, but I always found a way to stop. I knew it was an unhealthy behavior.
Then one night, after feeling alone and empty for too long, when not even the images on the television or the sounds of music coming from the stereo could distract me anymore, I sat alone at my desk. The room was dark except for the light coming from a single candle in front of me.
It didn’t seem fair that the candle should burn there carefree and oblivious to the world around it. It haunted me as it danced in the darkness and scattered broken images on the surrounding walls.
Reaching out, I grabbed a paperclip and straightened it out. I held one end of it into the flame and watched as it slowly turned black and then started to glow. I didn’t intend to hurt myself or to allow the hot end to touch my skin.
As I sat there, my fingers growing warmer holding the other end of the paperclip, I felt compelled to take action. Carefully choosing a spot I knew no one would see, I held that paperclip against my arm and marveled as I felt something for the first time in days.
It wasn’t necessarily a good feeling, and it was by no means a high, but it was a feeling. The sensation burned completely through me.
I needed to feel something — anything. That unreasonable and unrelenting pain was better than nothing. For the first time in weeks, my world was touching me.
Self-harm in others
I’m no stranger to seeing self-harm. Back in high school, I had a friend who used to do self-harm with a pencil eraser. She would use it to rub her skin raw or until it bled.
A few years later, another friend carved a lightning bolt into her arm. The cuts weren’t deep, not much more than a serious scratch, but there it was. Self-harm was in front of me.
Both times, the people around me talked about how terrible it was what my friends had done. Unanimously, they agreed the habit was nothing more than an attempt to become the center of attention.
I knew the truth but wasn’t brave enough to tell my story. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever opened up fully about what I felt and why I did it.
At least a few of you reading this won’t believe it’s true. You know me and have no idea that I was ever addicted to self-harm.
I do think “addiction” is the right word. Once you start down the self-harm road, it’s very difficult to stop. It becomes an unquenchable thirst.
Still, if I was braver back then, maybe I could have helped my friends when they needed it most. I wasn’t there for them when they needed me, but I can be there now to help others.
Maybe my tale will let you know that yes, it is something that happens, and it is something you can stop.
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Hard to Stop
Putting an end to self-harm is difficult. To feel something after being numb for so can be intoxicating.
I didn’t settle for just burns, though. In time, I started to cut again and in a more destructive way than before.
One night, devastated by life, I carved an entire paragraph of text into my leg. Truth be told, it was the words of a scripture, but that doesn’t seem like a very Christian thing to share. Yet, it’s true.
Each cut was craftily placed well above where my shorts line would be. I made sure no one would see it no matter what time of year it was.
The next day at work, I could barely stand to wear pants. The pain of the fabric brushing across those open wounds was almost too much. Yet that night, when I got home and was alone in the dark, I did it again. Feeling pain was better than feeling nothing.
Not Seeking Attention
I can’t say for everyone, but in my experience and that of the people closest to me, I know that self-harm has nothing to do with seeking attention.
For me, I worked strategically to make sure my marks were in places no one would ever see. Even now, years after I’ve stopped, the places I’m scarred are areas most people never see.
The people who have seen the scars don’t recognize what they are or they’re afraid to ask. But the scars are there, and they remind me of what I once was and how much I’ve overcome.
With some authority, I can say that self-harm isn’t about seeking attention. If I had wanted people to notice, my cuts would have been out in the open where anyone could see them. I would have hurt my arms, my face, or my hands in a way that people had to notice.
Instead, I worked diligently to hide the marks, the cuts, and the burns. I never wanted anyone to know how sick I really was.
The addiction went on for months as I continued to burn and cut myself. After a while, as my heart started to heal, I didn’t feel the need to do it every day. On the hard days, when life was too much or the numbness unbearable, I would find myself in the dark doing more self-harm.
I didn’t stay there, though, and in time I found my way to recovery. Journaling was the biggest help because it gave me a safe place to work out what was in my head and heart.
Finally opening up to a friend, who in time told me she had the same compulsion, gave me the validation and support I needed to move in the right direction.
It’s been more than 10 years since the last time I burned myself. Do I still feel the urge? A lot of days I do. There is something very centering about hurting yourself, but the shame and guilt that come with it are not worth it.Self-harm can also cause infections and the potentially fatal sepsis.
Instead, I have “healthier” addictions, sugar and TV mostly. My trusty journal is my daily companion, and my friend is never more than a phone call away.
If you’re struggling with self-harm, please know that stopping the cycle is possible. It will take some time, and there will be setbacks, but with support and determination, you can succeed.
This story originally appeared on Medium on November 5, 2019.