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.