Saturday, 16 May 2015

Self-Harm: A Blog Post in the Interest of Openness

Many years ago when I was an active self-harmer, I walked into a newsagents with my boyfriend and saw a front page exposé about self-harm gracing the cover of a national newspaper. It was complete with an image of a woman's hands clasped together, her forearms covered in fresh cuts. I was appalled and angry. I picked it up, threw it down and walked out in disgust. I remember that as I walked down the street my face and neck were getting hot and I felt as though I wanted to crawl out of my skin. My boyfriend had no idea how to comfort me through this strange inner drama and everything he said seemed to be exactly the wrong thing. I had been self-harming for five years at that point. I always took great pains to disguise the fact, spending all summer in long sleeves. Although I hadn't made any active decision to stop, I felt exposed in that moment as though the newspaper was telling my little secret to the world. I spent a lot of time and energy in those days convincing myself that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Something made a hole in my carefully constructed narrative that day.

But there was much more to my emotional upheaval than a simple case of feeling as though my behaviour was on show. I kept insisting that it wasn't appropriate for the mainstream media to address the issue of self-harm. I talked about how 'the masses' were just 'gawking at it with morbid curiosity' and that they 'didn't want to help' but only to 'point and stare'. My view was that the media were doing more harm than good, even though the newspaper running the story was a respected broadsheet with no such vile agenda. Looking back it seems kind of obvious that I thought the world was against me, that I thought no one could possibly understand my pain.. It's also obvious that I thought people would only be prepared to judge, not to open their hearts and show empathy. Finally, it seems blatantly obvious that I was looking for anything to distract me from the fact that self-harm was a way of overlooking my feelings, avoiding my responsibility to myself, avoiding life..

These days I do still have some reservations about the media having an active role in telling the stories of self-harmers. Some areas of the media are far more credible and responsible than others and I have my own opinions in that regard. But I no longer think that everyone who wants to write an article about it or do a speech about it for their school/university/workplace is merely courting attention or trying to sell papers.. I now know that there are many people who struggle with their difficulties alone. Often an article, a video on Youtube or an overheard conversation in which someone is being honest about their problems can be a catalyst for real change. Sure, there are some people out there who judge harshly and make assumptions. There are some areas of the media who use the recurring hot button issue of self-harm to grab attention. But I no longer think this means that silence should reign supreme in all cases and across all areas. There are so many people who feel alone, unable to speak their truth and seek help. For someone in that position, using our voices can be the difference between merely existing and really living.

Openness is one of the most powerful tools for change that we have as human beings. My anger that day as I threw the newspaper down was anger at the fact that openness was interfering with my little world. In my little world, my self-harm had to remain a secret and wasn't up for discussion. In my little world, anyone who broke the code of silence was an attention-seeker and couldn't possibly be someone with real problems. (I needed to constantly legitimise my issues in order to feel as though I didn't have to face up to them.) I wanted to protect my self-harm at all costs. Now that I'm out on the other side of my problems, I know that I can write and speak responsibly on the topic, potentially allowing someone out there to feel more understood and less inclined to avoid seeking help indefinitely.

Let me be clear - self-harm is not a cause. It is a symptom. It is a coping method, which dictates that the self-harmer is trying to deal with something and using the behaviour as an outlet.

Due to its alarming nature and the way people tend to respond to the news that a loved one has been deliberately injuring themselves, the temptation is often to put an immediate stop to the behaviour. The reality is that there are always some issues underpinning that behaviour. Until those issues are dealt with, treating the symptom alone is like shovelling the path while it's still snowing. Insisting that a self-harmer put an immediate stop to their behaviour whilst providing no support to help them deal with their underlying problems is a bad move. The likelihood of relapse is high. The likelihood of the self-harmer feeling misunderstood and alienated is even higher.

It's only through discussing these issues that we can move forward in our understanding of them and how to help those who deal with them. Staying silent only reinforces the shadow of self-harm as a coping mechanism. When I look back now, I see that those who wanted to be open about self-harm were bursting my bubble of secrecy. I can also be honest about the fact that my parents did not deal with the discovery of my self-harm in a healthy and productive way. But perhaps that's because there was a lot less open and honest discussion about self-harm going on at that time, almost fifteen years ago. Perhaps, by bringing more awareness and information into the equation, fewer people will receive unhelpful responses when they reach out to talk about their self-harm. I can be a part of that. I know from experience that secrecy and silence to cover up problems never goes anywhere good. As a thirty year old woman with a history of self-harm, breakdowns, eating disorders and depression, I can safely say that there is so much more open dialogue occurring about these things now and the vast majority of it is informative, compassionate and conscious.

For many out there right now, self-harm is taking place because they feel as though they can't talk to anyone about what they're going through. They feel like they can't find an outlet, a mode of expression, a way to make sense of their inner and outer experiences. Creating safe spaces for them to realise that they are not alone and that they can get to a place of self-acceptance and openness is the duty of people like me who've been there and emerged at the horizon in the end.

This week is mental health awareness week to help raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues. Consider this my long overdue contribution and my testament to the notion that there's nothing inherently bad about awareness, openness and transparency.


Do you want to start your healing journey? Check out Emotional Healing: The Write Up