It is hard to admit that there are times where you deliberately hurt yourself. Talking or writing about an illness, with identifiable symptoms where there is a treatment is easier. It might be a mental problem but talking about an illness in a matter of fact way can be done. Sitting with a therapist or doctor explaining what is going on in your head, experiencing treatment, can be painful, it can be exhausting, but it does not have the shame that goes with an admission of self harm, that at some point your negative response is directed at yourself to such an extent that you wilfully deliberately cause yourself pain. To feel. To assert control.
The admission alarms therapists, prompts them to bring out certain questionnaires. To reassure them. To reassure you.
The summer had been difficult. I had finished school, was working in a shop before going to university, trying to build a bank balance aware that money would be tight. I’d had exams, had not really had a break for months. I’d worked every weekend through my final year at school, a couple of nights at week too, studied after, studied on the nights I wasn’t working. The shop wasn’t too busy, but there was toing and froing. Bringing through boxes and opening boxes and emptying boxes and filling shelves and arranging shelves and checking stock and bringing through boxes and opening boxes and emptying boxes and
The empty boxes were kept in a side store, along with large metal pallets used for deliveries and uplifts and two giant red waste bins. The roof was a clear plastic, ridged. Sometimes I was sent through to the side store there to break down boxes, unload pallets, fill the bins. It was cold in the winter in that side store – gloves were needed, a scarf. But as the temperatures grew warmer the roof retained the heat, the store became airless. A few weeks after my final school exam I was in there fevered, forehead moist, face flushed. I was moving trays of cans when I collapsed. Fainted. Unnoticed for a while in the shop, someone came through eventually, woke me.
I was drained, so tired. I had some days off, went to the doctors, told him about the tiredness, the way that walking was an effort, standing was an effort, being was an effort. I was tested for this and for that.
I didn’t tell the doctor what scared me though.
I had stopped being able to read. I realised around the time of the fall. When I picked up a book and opened it at a page the letters slid off, words became shapes, abstract shapes that meant nothing. Lines and circles, tops and tails. I was about to head to do a degree in law, where reading would be fundamental, and I was lost. I picked up Ladybird books in the house, those I’d read as a small child. Ned the lonely donkey. Sleeping Beauty. The pictures were clear enough. The donkey alone in the field. The scratches of blood on the face of one of those trying to fight through the thorns outside the palace. The words weren’t. Even simple texts fell apart. Words breaking up. Letters dancing.
And that scared me. Everything I was, everything I could be, vanishing.
The tests came back. I was ill. A post viral illness. There was something in my blood. But while the lethargy and physical symptoms were there I had an apathy too, a disinterest. Not caring. Nothing mattered. Nothing mattered. I didn’t matter. And I couldn’t read.
I had lost control.
I had lost control of my body. I had lost control of my mind.
I stayed in my bedroom, avoided people.
I was scared. And I was alone. And I could not see how it could get better. I could not see why it mattered. I could not see why I mattered.
And I felt nothing. I was numb, so numb. I felt nothing. I could feel nothing. The anniversary of a bereavement came. There were no tears. I stopped responding to letters I’d been exchanging with a friend from the year above me at school and I didn’t care. I lay in my room, radio or television on, staring at the ceiling, or out of the window.
I could not feel.
I could not
One night when everyone was asleep I went to the bathroom, took a blade, thin, cold. I was deliberate, slow. No rush. There was a burning as I cut. I felt. A heat. A burning. And a pain. There was a little blood. And I stopped. It was enough. I used to joke that I’d fainted. On brand messaging. I didn’t though. I watched the blood clotting, felt the tacky nature of it. I cleaned up. The next time I did this in a sink of warm water, watched the blood bud and flower, before withdrawing my hands, and cleaning up with sheets of toilet paper so the towels were unmarked.
It was about control. As things spiralled out of control, health, physical and mental, deteriorating the marks were things I could control. But most important, I could feel again. Within days I could read.
I started university later that year. I was a very long way from anywhere, in lodgings where I was uncomfortable, the landlord drunkenly trying the door in the middle of the night, where I needed a half hour bus trip to get to the campus. The owners had lost a child a couple of years before, letting rooms to student was a poor substitute. They would not let me cook in the place. They didn’t like the smell of cooking. I could eat out, I was told.
I was lonely, hurting. I had fallen into the degree, studied law because a teacher said that with grades like mine I should. I was a long way from home, a long way from the campus. When I got out at night I didn’t want to go back. Eating out was expensive. Travel was expensive. I hated the work. I hated the place. I hated the people.
I wrote to a friend in the year below me at school, the subject of a crush, easier to communicate with when I didn’t have the capacity to stammer in front of her and she didn’t have to see my face. She replied erratically. I lost hope even in this idolised non-existent love.
I had taken books with me when I went away. I read The Bell Jar, Love in the time of cholera, Call yourself alive?, a book of poems by Nina Cassian, an angular Romanian poet who revelled in rejection. Damage and lost loves. I projected what I read, onto myself.
For the second time in a few months I felt that I had no control, felt myself in a spiral. Money, work, personal life. Everything. I hated it. I hated everything about the place. But while I was desperate to leave I couldn’t. I couldn’t embarrass my family. I couldn’t admit failure. Not then. I’d wait until Christmas, leave at that point.
I decided to stop eating. I could manage one thing. I could manage what I consumed. Meals were missed. Water or milk. I was obliged to have breakfast in the lodgings but that was enough. And as I ate less the colours I saw became more vivid, heightened. That autumn there were never oranges as orange as the leaves on the ground. The yellowing leaves, with the dark marks of decay were the yellowest yellow. I lived in technicolour. Eventually, you don’t even notice not eating. It doesn’t matter. You live in an instant, every sensation heightened.
She saved me though, then. My oldest friend. My closest friend. She fed me, and cared. Made sure that at least one night a week I felt worthwhile, that I mattered to someone.
I broke from the spiral.
But within it, not waving but drowning in the vortex it did not take much to reach the point where self damage was rational, was sensible, was a reasonable response, a way to feel alive, a way to assert yourself over something, a way to be, a way to live.
It was only later that I realised that as well as the physical such self damage could be psychological.
I found, still find, making friends difficult. Friendship required vulnerability, giving myself, dropping the masks. I had one or two close friends, who I trusted and who trusted me. Where we could be honest about things that had happened, where conversations were comfortable not because we dwelled on things, but because we could talk about them if we needed or wanted and did not have to skirt around topics, watching what we said.
And those friendships meant so much, giving mutual comfort and support.
But over time I pushed them away. Every one of them. With various forms of self destructive behaviour. Breaking friendships through action, or inaction. Losing touch. Losing their support. Losing their love.
And it hurt. How it hurt. That isolation. The pain. The scars. That loss.
And psychological self damage comes from the same source as physical. The same despair. The same powerlessness. The same loss of control.
You feel each step towards isolation, but you feel the pain with the absence, the gaps. After The Satanic Verses was published Rushdie spoke of having “a God shaped hole” inside. There are friend shaped holes. When you read a book or watch a film or programme or see a show and want to share, to enthuse – but can’t. When things happen, when life happens, good and bad, and the calls you would make aren’t made. That’s when it hurts, when you realise what you’ve lost.
And trying to remedy that, trying to be kind to yourself, is self care.