Image: Tim Whitby/Getty Images Europe.
Listening to Victoria Pendleton trying to explain her reasons for self-harming on the radio this morning reminded me of a time when I too sought refuge in the slicing of my own flesh. Conversations with people since then, plus the perspective that the passing years lent, did not make the compulsion any clearer to me.
What I do know is that it was necessary, it was powerful and it frightened the shit out of people.
It never really goes away – you just learn to manage it better.
It was attention seeking. It was about control. It was because I wanted to kill myself. These were all explanations offered to me by friends, medical professionals and others who saw the tell tale bandages on my arms and decided to talk to me about it, rather than adopting the preferred position of choice: ignoring it. At the time I denied the first, embraced the second and discarded the third. It was about control. But of what?
Back then, I had no idea. But I can tell you it hunted me down. After an unplanned practice run which involved scoring the back of my hand with a broken bangle while drunk, I realised that some sort of release lay in that place and I visited it again a week or so later, and this time I went prepared.
Attributing and then dismissing a compulsion that saw me test the efficacy of numerous tools for the job before the actual cutting because I was looking for ‘control’ and ‘attention’ is not constructive. But the explanation does rather lend itself to the reality. Victoria Pendleton said she used a Swiss Army Knife and a pair of nail scissors to cut herself. I tried a number of tools including kitchen knives and Stanley knife blades I used to steal from my Dad’s toolbox before alighting on the most efficient for the job. And I scared myself with it, which is why I’m going to keep that to myself. The journey and the act are of significance here, not the transport I used to get there.
Chronic self-harmers do not hurt themselves in a fit of rage or anger. In fact the very opposite. My headspace when I was cutting was calm. Peaceful. I knew what was going to happen and it was a thrill. It was. I genuinely benefitted in some positive way and I believe that stays with you. I haven’t cut for years but I know I could in a heartbeat. It’s easier than the alternative.
Which isn’t suicide. The third option in that classic triumvirate of other people’s explanations for my ills is, in my experience, entirely irrelevant. I didn’t want to kill myself. In fact, I wanted to be alive more than anything in the world. I was a vibrant, excited kid with the world at my feet, a gang of great friends and a job that, while relatively menial, gave me access to thing I loved most. Music. Death was the last thing on my mind.
You can see why I was confused.
In her interview with Radio 5Live’s Victoria Derbyshire this morning, Victoria Pendleton spoke of her experiences as an athlete and how she had felt discomfited by the training regimes she learned, the motivation techniques used and the general environment of a sporting team. She stated that women need “different things, different support systems and different motivations” than men to succeed. She was careful to point out she wasn’t asking for better than the guys. Just different. She didn’t feel like she should have to conceal her emotions. Or care about what other people thought.
That chimed with me. It wasn’t an end I sought, but an exit. I wanted to express myself freely. I didn’t know that then, and it’s no one’s fault that I had the subconscious sensation that I was in a box that I’d grown too big for, but for me, a functional way of dealing with it was to try and reshape my form into something else. There was no other clear exit then.
Our culture finds few things more offensive and confusing than a woman defacing the vessel in which she exists. Particularly if she is young, and life hasn’t done it for her. I thought to be a woman was something vastly different to what I ended up being, to what I thought I was allowed to be and the increase of self-harming among young men in a culture that defines masculinity with increasingly narrow parameters is a worrying, but inevitable manifestation of the same thing.
I was lucky. I survived more or less intact. It’s just flesh and scars. I was fortunate enough, through music and literature, to be exposed to women who didn’t conform to mainstream cultural ideals and were still successful. Much more importantly, they were and are proud of the traits that I had learned to bury, or hide or simply not say because I was afraid of not being considered ‘feminine’. I learned that it was ok to be me, to feel emotions, to make decisions that were right for me and not be afraid of what others thought. They’re going to think it anyway.
Victoria Pendleton’s story inspired me to write this. I’ve often thought about doing it but while the experience is always there, I’ve never been able to give it a meaningful conclusion. Pendleton hasn’t set herself up as any kind of spokesperson for self-harming, nor is she trying to offer explanations for it, but by sharing her unique experience, she has helped me to gain a perspective on my own experience and learn new things.
If more people did it, then maybe other kids would realise that when the box starts to get uncomfortable, they can find a new one if they want to. Or use that energy and creativity to build one of their own.
This, for the record, is mine.