In the past I have used surgical scalpels, craft knives, Stanley knives, nail clippers, my own fingernails, a leatherworkers clicker knife, hypodermic syringes and a piece of glass to deliberately cut into my flesh and cause myself to bleed. Some of these cuts were sufficient to require hospital treatment, many many more were superficial.
This sort of deliberate self-harm is repellent to many people who either cannot conceive of why an individual would choose to act in this way or are driven themselves toward this sort of behaviour and cannot allow themselves to feel anything but disgust else they weaken and join in. Other people, a surprising number of people, show a flash of recognition if they see the cuts or, in the case of other people’s self-harm, burns or abrasions. They will give a nod of understanding or the flicker of a smile. Just enough to let you know that they get it and in that instant of recognition neither of you are alone. The truth is that self-harm is a lot more common than most people think and it is not necessarily a sign that a person is self-destructive; indeed I would go so far as to say it saves many lives.
I have self-harmed for a number of reasons but almost all of those reasons involve a need to regain control of my emotions. I am in many ways the archetypal male product of the patriarchal system. Since my childhood my peers have instilled in me the fact that as a male I am allowed no public expression of emotion – except perhaps anger. I have internalised this. I actually cannot cry beyond a single hard squeezed tear and even that is only released when watching feats of superhuman Hollywood bonding (my brother and I were bound for life by both shedding a single man tear whilst watching Backdraft, as the wounded firefighter looks down at the hero fighting the blaze and whispers ‘he’s my brother’). That’s it, Backdraft is my only outlet, the pinnacle of release. Backdraft and a few other films are the only tap that remains to my inner emotional wellspring.
I didn’t shed a tear when my Grandparents died, in fact I am the go to guy for reading the heart touching eulogies from friends and family. I read my dads goodbye to his father and there was never a hint or suggestion that I might shed a tear – even though it was one of the most touching things I had ever read; if the emotion is strong it will be automatically and idiotically hidden . Don’t misunderstand me, my fathers words touched me to the core but I could not let that emotion into the world – I just don’t know how unless it is in the act of beating a punchbag or some equally violent activity. When I received the news of my Grandad’s death I ran further and faster than I ever had before and then beat on my punchbag until it came loose of its hanging and collapsed. That was my grief, that was all I had the ability to share; my upbringing, almost every man’s upbringing, had left no ability to release emotion in a healthy way.
This is a problem. This is a problem of magnitude because the metaphor of a ‘wellspring’ of emotion is an apt one. The emotion doesn’t go away, it builds up. The pressure of emotion rises until I am in severe mental distress and anything, anything, is better than the pounding, drumming, surging emotion that is pulsing inside me. Anything. Anything including death.
It’s in these moments, when the pressure inside me is so monstrous that I will take the scalpel, knife or glass and I will deliberately and slowly cut through my flesh. Once upon a time the cuts were only just deep enough to draw a trickle of blood. With time they got so deep that I could watch the fatty adipose tissue before the blood welled forth.
When I cut the pain is inconsequential. I can feel it, but physical pain is really a very small thing compared to mental pain – it is insignificant. Also, the nerves sit near the surface of the skin, a deep cut hurts no more than a shallow one. The act of cutting silences the pressure of emotion within me. It makes my inside as flat as the visage I present on the outside. The violence I do to myself acts as a surrogate for the violence I need to inflict to drain the emotion. As the blood flows I relax, I am calm, I am no longer suicidal. Self-harm has saved my life.
It says something about me, and about society, that the only way I can release strong emotion is through these means. I feel I have been deliberately and mercilessly denuded of the tools that I need to live an emotionally healthy life. This abuse has come partly through mental illness but I fervently believe it has come mostly through the way society (and Western Kyriarchal society especially) has robbed me of the tools to experience emotional fulfilment. I truly, strongly, believe that.
I do not cut very often now. I redesigned my life long ago to avoid all situations that would generate hard to cope with emotions in myself. I have taken up mindfulness meditation and done my best to learn about better ways of living. I still can’t express emotion and if I were to be given a choice I’d give up almost anything to be able to cry again. What use money, importance and pretty toys when you’ve forgotten how to enjoy them?
I am a manic depressive and the statistics are fairly clear when it comes to suicide. I have a 20% chance of committing suicide if I am well medicated and a 40% chance if I am not. As far as I am aware these are the highest figures for any form of mental illness. I am not a special case of manic depression – I get the urges just like so many others and those urges are so much harder to battle when I feel that I am swollen with trapped emotion; when ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’ (to quote Harlan Ellison), when I am desperate to cry or laugh, when my body has shut down and my face gone impassive and my externally directed mood gone indifferent not because I don’t care or don’t feel but because my lifelong lesson has been DO NOT SHOW IT, and now I cant. Now I can take my place amongst the Sensei of patriarchy. A white man, status job, money, reaching middle age, emotionally dysfunctional and only capable of masculine expressiveness through violence. I’d just rather that violence were aimed toward myself than someone else.
I do not cut very often now, but it is a tool I keep because sometimes it is the only tool with which to access tomorrow.
I have always considered myself a pretty selfless person. When in a relationship I will willingly surrender my own needs, hobbies, or even desires in the service of furthering my partner’s happiness. I have always assumed that my partner would do the same, to the best of their ability. I have always seen this as noble, and as the best possible way to show love, but recently I had an argument – an argument that helped me realise that not only is this not good but that it may just be abusive. An abuse not just aimed toward my partner but also aimed toward me, an abuse that I have never been able to see – until now.
I’ve been thinking hard about this ever since and, as has become my want, I’m using this blog to try and work my head around the issues.
When I enter a relationship I enter into a wonderful period in which I get to explore the being of another person. Physically and mentally I get to discover their past and their present, get to delve into their psyche and learn a little of their inner workings and their outer habits. We get to share, we get to delve deeply into each other and revel in the amazing complexity of another person. I laugh and I cry, there is a lot of hugging and deep wonderful sexual play. I learn and, perhaps, they learn too.
And then it goes wrong.
In some misguided way that is, undoubtedly, born of my past history I choose to start prioritising what I perceive as my partner’s desires over my own. I will not discuss it with them, I will not let them in on the decision making process, I will simply decide that to make them happy it is necessary to shed some of my desires and replace them with the servicing of what I have perceived to be their desires. In a healthy relationship there would be a dialogue. Some of my desires would be scaled back, as would some of hers and we would find a negotiated medium in which to function peacefully. In my world I choose what is important to her and eject my needs based on that assessment. I take her choice, her actual desires out of the equation and replace them my own perception of those desires; this leads, inevitably, to a situation in which I feel I have sacrificed a great deal to make the relationship work and she, quite rightly, feels that she is being forced down a road she has not chosen; a road that is a distorted mirror of her true desires.
I have never realised this before, but this behaviour is abusive. I am the abuser in this situation and I feel ashamed to have acted in this way; I feel ashamed that I never even saw that I was acting in this way towards ones that I loved.
Shame is a good thing to feel if it drives us away from our negative behaviour and toward something better. I am getting better, but a lifetime carving out this mould is not so easily broken free from. Therefore I am going to talk to my partner. I am going to show them this post (before it is posted) and try to agree a way forward based upon their true needs and desires as well as my own. I am going to look for a way that allows me to properly integrate who I am and what I want into our relationship whilst allowing them to be who they are. I want to stop imposing my skewed understanding of what they want or need and truly address both of our needs and desires.
I want to be a better partner.