Best of P-Mag: Live Though This: Growing Up a Cutter

Trigger warning: Self-Harm, Violence and graphic descriptions of both.

Over the last two years, Coco has written so many excellent articles. This one is recent, but it is so raw and personal, and there are a few passages in this have have really stayed with me. Thank you, Coco, for sharing your story with us. -queSarahSarah

Before I even begin this story, I do want to say that I wish I could tell you more. While some things stick out to me, there is so much more that resides in sort of thick fog.This is a place where history might be different, less remembered–a place where I have stuck things to be forgotten, most often purposely. Things often run together, my memory has changed, shifted in hindsight, and cobbled together a collection of events that exist as one blurry night that ends up being a better clencher, rather than a period of time when I experienced more than just this one thing. Even now, the place where I was when this happened is a very far away “thing,” less lived history and more like an anecdote that I either watched or conclude, “Yeah, I think I did that.” The past is strange like that. It is, for all we put on it, a collection of, ” I think this is what happened.”

I was a cutter. It sounds so much more dramatic than I believe it to be, but I think that’s also one of the great strengths of writing things down, where you have to stare at them point-blank, instead of letting them swirl around longer in your head. I also think the drama of the word itself, cutting, brings stereotypes of depressed, spoiled, suburban children who are mad that mom doesn’t understand and that life is obvously unfair. Because of this, it is perceived as somewhat of an absurdity, and with that, I still don’t know how to contend with my own experience. It does seem like something every child may go through and I know I certainly wasn’t alone in my own time of self harm. But how to talk about it publicly, without feeling that weird, sickly shame and embarrassment or like it was a right of passage, a “quit your whining, everyone does it”? Is it normal? Is it a right of passage? Is it just being a teenager? Is this now just navel-gazing?

I cut myself, profusely, and with vigor, for about seven years. To say I just cut is an oversimplification: I scratched, I burnt, I defiled, I destroyed bits of living flesh in an attempt to understand and bring to the surface why exactly I felt so hurt and so powerless. At the time, I did not realize it was hurt–it was more that my brain had seemed to turn off and as an impulsive, frightened, and awfully ashamed kid, it felt less like a statement and more like an action towards something I needed to solve and could potentially solve by opening holes into solid limbs, as if the answers were buried inside.

It is here is where I may be lying. There were times when I purposely showed off my cuts, like they were badges of honor, daring someone to say something. While this at the time probably felt more like a taste of control, I realize now that it was just grasping at the idea of control, and really, it was only a manipulation, a sick ploy for attention and not the type that I actually needed. I liked shock–what young kid doesn’t? I liked making people uncomfortable (and for the record, still do). Moreover, I liked the feeling of power that I got from knowing I could alter my body–my temple that I had been taught to never desecrate and to keep sacred because otherwise, I would be like that dirty piece of tape used as an example of what women would become if they just “gave” their bodies away. Then, it made sense. Now it feels like desperate measures.

So I cut myself. With razor blades, knives, pins, glass, cans, whatever I could find. I did this because it felt good–it took away the stress of my chaotic internal state, which helped because I did not know how else to deal with the chaotic internal state. I did this because I felt it was an option and because I don’t remember how I started, but I remember knowing that the first time it felt really good. That it was a different type of pain, one that I could manage and manage well, with perfect precision and control. It was undeniable proof that I was alive and well, and that I had control. “You might imagine that a person would resort to self-mutilation only under extremes of duress” says Caroline Kettlewell, author of Skin Game.” …But once I’d crossed that line the first time, taken that fateful step off the precipice, then almost any reason was a good enough reason, almost any provocation was provocation enough. Cutting was my all-purpose solution.” I know those who have never cut are thinking: are you out of your mind? But I know that almost everyone who has put a sharp object to their skin would at least be able to tell me they know this type of feeling.

Boyfriends would say nothing. What were they supposed to say? At the time, it felt like I would lose them or that they would lose the ability to be with me if they did say something, but now I know, what the hell would I say if I were a nineteen year old boy? Friends who cut had a certain silence and acceptance about the whole thing, while friends who didn’t hopefully never saw, and if they did, it was always excused. Kitchen accident. Cat. Clumsy. I assume people bought it, though, I’m sure some didn’t and never knew what to say. The worst was when I would change or go to the beach, exposing the battle grounds. Faces warped into horror, disgust, and shame as I took off my clothes. I would remind myself that it really wasn’t that bad, given that I had become accustomed to the normalcy of it. I can only imagine that from the outside, it was like looking at a graffiti drenched wall, that it was sociopathic and destructive. But how could they know? They had never tried it, so they couldn’t know. They also couldn’t deal with reality, which is the convenient yarn I told myself at the time. People hurt and so people hurt themselves. This took me much farther than it should of, justifying behavior that while compulsive was, in fact, a cry for someone, goddamn, anyone, to pleas, just help me. With what, I am not so sure.

So this continued for years. The secrecy, the hiding, the well-placed shirt sleeves and pants, the sex in the dark, the excuses that just got more and more ridiculous. It also escalated, because pain is a threshold and once you pass one landmark, you are ready to pass another. The grotesque act became a managing ritual, the small marks became a game of how deep can we go? More than once I was certain I would have to tell someone after slipping and going to far. More than once I was scared of being exposed. I did not want to be embarrassed, to be found out. They would not get it.

I’d like to say that the final moment was this: one night, months after I had moved away and begun a new life, one that was supposed to get me the hell out of dodge, I was still grasping at my previous existence, scared that I was not cut out for that new life. Maybe it is also because I was thrown into a house of drunk and high people, all who were equals in different types of self-destruction or maybe it was because I was drunk and high. Maybe I just wanted to prove something to everyone. That I was as crazy as they thought I was and that no one could hurt me because I would do it to myself first. Maybe it was the fucked up people around me. The reasons are as long as they are justified.

So here is what I know. I am on a bed, and I am way too fucked up. It is a rose colored room and it is smoky and there are some people there, but I can’t really tell because it does not concern me. Someone is using a razor blade to cut something up–weed? Nothing harder, I think. All I know is that I have the razor in my hand and I make one cut, then two. The pain feels pinched, slight and brief, because I am not really there and my brain is drowning in substances. There is a girl on the floor and her eyes are wide in horror and I think its because she has never seen cutting before, but it is really because I am too bombed out to see that the person next to me has seen the permission given to cutting my arms. If I can do it, why not them? Another person joins and I say nothing because what is happening and isn’t this what I want? But wait, why are they doing it and not me? Who said they could cut me?

My arms sting and are covered in blood. I can’t think of any way to react and decide to ignore it, as if it means absolutely nothing to me that two people I do not know have not only watched me cut myself, but then joined in. I don’t pull down my sleeves and walk around a house full of drunk people, bleeding. No one says anything but their faces say everything. I lose track of time and I feel faint, too drunk, too high, and too angry that this is happening and I can’t get my shit together because I am supposed to have a different life. Why am I here? I think there is yelling. I think there is someone driving me home. I think this is all a really bad trip. It is only when I wake up and see my sleeves stuck to my arms, the sting that comes from peeling the shirt off and re-opening each cut, that I realize this might be a thing. After changing and hiding, I see my mom washing my vomit drenched coat and to her credit, she says nothing and why should she? She is going through her own struggles and can’t force me to get my shit together, but even in the silence, I can tell she is disappointed that I am so willing to sabotage the attempt I have made to escape for a better life. It is then that I realize how much it kills me to have my mom disappointed in me, almost as much as the disappointment I feel in myself.

So even though this moment makes for a very dramatic come-to-Jesus type of story, it isn’t the end, but only a change of plan. Cutting becomes less of a habit and more of a stress response. Less of an all out war on my body which I deem as unworthy of any type of love, and more just a way to cope with the fact that things get heavy sometimes. The actual last time I was in a shower, and as soon as I do it, I realize that the want and the appeal, is gone. It does not feel invigorating or therapeutic. It is physically aggravating. There is no a-ha. No moment of clarity. Just a moment of deciding not to anymore.

I would be lying if I said that I did not feel an impulse every now and then. The worst it had gotten was this year when it nagged me like a small voice in what seemed to be an exercise in getting back up from the bottom. I had gotten so used to the idea that I was the best expert on myself and that I, like many people who face depression, just needed to buck up, and stop being a privileged whiner. Some people have real problems. But it is that lack of empathy for the fact that pain is contextual that leads people to be secretive, to cut themselves and wall themselves off from help. In the midst of going to seek out help for my own shit, I am working towards the foundation of being a more empathetic person, in the hope that I not only don’t try to self-destruct, but that I can better understand when others try to.

There is no overarching lesson to this story, no state learned, no quip to wrap it all up with a nice bow. It is only the fact that this is what happened and it is what I feel is honest and that maybe if I tell it, someone else will tell theirs, and so on and so on. As a woman who writes publicly, there is always a fear of being a navel-gazer and a narcissist rather than just speaking from the experience that has defined my life and hopefully it has some sort of universal understanding in its specificity to my situation. There is also the fear of the the female wreck trap, that writing about the worst that happens to us sets oneself up for some hysteria based narrative of destruction. ” This is the real danger,” writes Sady Doyle, author of the article. “…I’m just another girl, unless I can offer myself as a human sacrifice, or (as is often the case) let myself be offered. There will always be an appetite–on the part of both men and women–to see the women transgress the rules of femininity and get punished. And there will always be people, whether unscrupulous editors or blood-hungry fans, who eagerly hand women the rope to hang themselves.” Can one write about destruction without becoming boxed into one of the many small categories of crazy, attention-seeking,narcissist, or bad? Can’t we just write about our trauma as we experience it without this hanging over our heads?

This is my own attempt to connect the dots, to unfold a true story about something that feels so very far away from who I am now. The fact that it is on the Internet, for all to see, terrifies me, but it also gives voice to a very real thing that I know I am not the only one who has ever done. It does not feel true, but it is true, though I only have my version to go on. I’m sure someone who witnessed it from the sidelines saw it very differently. One can only hope that this version of truth, my truth, can be spoken on behalf of my history, and perhaps a look into why self harm exists as a point in most women’s and many men’s personal history. I think I can only succinctly end this with the words of David Karr, New York Times journalist and author of his own personal demons memoir, Night of the Gun, says in the opening of his own exploration of strange pathology:

But my past does not connect to my present. There was That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery, and there there is This Guy….I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many other days. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, then what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?

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