Why I Cut Myself, and What Helped Me to Stop

Self harm

*Trigger warning: descriptions of self-harm

If you, or someone you know is at risk of self-harming, please seek the assistance of a professional psychologist/psychiatrist. If the person is in immediate danger, contact emergency services now.

Throughout my childhood, I faced some significant challenges and traumatic experiences, some of which I am only now beginning to uncover. This left me with a broken mental state and little avenues for support. I didn’t have the coping mechanisms required to deal with the events happening in my life and I couldn’t make sense of what had already occurred.

So, beginning in mid-primary school and continuing into my early twenties I would self-harm as a method of release. I found that by cutting myself I was able to reduce the tension, anxiety and anger that would build up. It was like releasing water through a dam. It felt like if I didn’t cut my mind might crack, with devastating results.

I knew that it was wrong to cut myself, but I felt like I had no other options. In hindsight I should have told someone, but I didn’t feel like they would understand. How could I, ten-year-old, possibly explain to an adult why I was cutting, I didn’t have the words? So, to keep it hidden, I would cut my upper thighs or feet - areas that were not easily visible to anyone else.

I would perform my self-harm pseudo ritualistically.

Firstly, I would make sure that I couldn’t be interrupted. Preferably I would wait until I was home alone, or until everyone was asleep. But failing that, I would lock my door and turn on some music, loud enough to block out any sounds coming from my room, but not loud enough to draw attention from anyone.

Once I felt secure, I would then take a box out from under my bed and lay the contents out neatly on the floor.  Primarily acquired from raiding the households first aid supplies, the box contained the following items:
- one candle and box of matches
- a pocket knife (a gift from my father)
- a knife sharpener
- two bags of cotton wool
- one bottle of antiseptic spray
- various bandages, bandages and medical tapes

I would begin by lighting the candle. Often, I would just look at the flame and rhythmically run my hand through it. The borderline sensation between heat and burning was soothing, and the candles dance was mesmerizing. Sometimes this process was enough to satisfy me, and after a few minutes I would just pack up the contents and return the box under the bed. Other times, my mental state required more.

Still looking at the flame, I would begin to sharpen the small blade of the pocket knife (experience having learnt that a sharp blade cuts far better than a dull one). Once satisfied I would ‘clean the blade’ by running it through the flame, wiping it down with a cotton wool ball and then spraying it with antiseptic.

I remember wanting to hurt myself, to cut into my skin and to see the blood – but I didn’t want to get an infection. There was a nuance to the process. I didn’t want to suffer in any way, I wanted to suffer in a particular way. I wanted to feel the blade and see the blood. I had no desire to get sick from bacteria.

I would usually only make one cut, slow and deliberate.

After a few minutes, I would clean and seal the wound. Spraying antiseptic on the area and wrapping it in a bandage, or by searing it with the side of the knife having warmed it via the candle. When complete, I would lay on my bed listening to the music and feeling the sensation of the fresh wound which would pulsate in time to the beating of my heart. After some time I would either repeat this process or clean up, making sure to dispose of any bloody bandages at the bottom of the outdoor bin.

Looking back, I think that my self-harming behavior was really a crude attempt at mindfulness. The ritualistic nature, the pain and process all resulted in significant levels of present state awareness. During that whole process, I was in the moment. The pain kept me there. And whilst I don’t use self-harm anymore, I do ‘shock the system’ with cold showers, spicy food and hard physical exercise – all activities that force me into the present moment. When you are in the moment, you are not in your head. In that instant, depression and anxiety are gone, leaving only the sensations of the moment.

I stopped regularly self-harming about seven years ago. There are still occasions where I relapse into it, but these are happening less and less frequently. At my lowest point I did use antidepressants and they saved my life, but I didn’t find using them to be sustainable into the long run as their side effects made life not worth living, that being said, I would go back on them if required.

I put my recovery down to a number of factors, I talk on my podcast in depth about these here, but in summary:

1) I am receiving regular professional help from a psychologist
- Having someone to talk to, provide advice and feedback is vital. Shop around until you find one that works for you. They are people after all, so some will be better suited to you then others.

2) Writing
- Writing saved my life. The page listens without judgement or response. You can tell it anything, perfecting it until perfect, refining and discovering aspects of yourself. I share my story to help others, but that is not needed. Write for you and throw it out after. It is the act of writing itself that helps people.

3) Meditation
- I have found that a daily meditation practice calms my mind and stops the rumination. I prefer a breath focused mindful meditation, but have had some success with guided meditations as well.

4) Diet, exercise and sleep
- The brain and body are connected systems, thus I have found that when I look after my body, my brain thanks me. By eating a balanced diet, exercising daily and getting a decent amount of sleep, my brain functions better.

This whole process is gradual. But by slowly implementing changes, my recovery began to compound. Things got easier as I did more positive things for my mental state, and as I did so, things got easier again. The key was to first believe that I could get better, and then to begin.

In my experience, recovery is a slow process. At the start, it required a lot of faith to believe that I would get better, but eventually I started to see some improvement.

There will always be hiccups along the way, but the key is to keep trending up.

I will finish with this: ideally you will have the skill-sets and supports in place that will circumvent the need to self-harm. If not, please start the process now – speak to a professional, read self help books and talk on support groups.

However, from experience I know that self-harm is sometimes the only thing between you and suicide. If you feel like self-harming is the only thing stopping you from doing something worse to yourself then do it – but take that as a warning sign that you need to get help, and that your current measures of help are not adequate for your needs.

Zachary Phillips

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Why I Cut Myself, and What Helped Me to Stop