I have a secret that I keep hidden under layers of clothing and illusions of normalcy. From the age of 14 to 27, I cut myself. Regularly. Intentionally. And with anger and sadness in my heart. You read that right: I was a teenage cliché – a “cutter” – well into responsible adulthood.
People often think of self-injury as a suicidal act. I can only speak for my own experience, but I didn’t do it because I wanted to die. On the contrary, I believed that I needed to live so I could receive the punishment I deserved. Punishment for being ugly, being fat, saying the wrong thing, boys not liking me, girls not liking me, being stupid, being a bad person… I was eyeballs-deep in self-loathing and so uncomfortable in my own skin that I felt like I had to take action. At times, the pain of cutting shocked me back to reality, diverted my attention from my internal dialogue so I could think clearly. Sometimes it felt like breaking my skin was relieving some kind of throbbing tension, like draining an abscess. Sometimes I just felt like I deserved it.
I stopped cutting myself when I was 15. And again at 18. And again at 25. And finally for good at 27. I kept finding good reasons to stop, like promising a boyfriend or making a deal with a therapist, but inevitably when life got hard, I fell back into it. Once I became convinced of my worth as a human, cutting was still my default. It took me years to develop healthy coping skills that actually worked. My mind still goes there sometimes, but at this point in my life, cutting isn’t worth it anymore. It’s not the person I want to be. It’s not the mom I want to be. That’s my main source of motivation.
Why am I sharing this? Self-injury carries such a negative stigma, as do all topics on the unhealthy end of the mental health spectrum. It’s something that we simply don’t talk about. I don’t even talk about it. I have told just a handful of people in all these years, including only two of my three therapists. I never even told my parents. My mom found out when I was in high school – I still don’t know how – and she did the right thing by getting me into counseling right away. Still, it isn’t something that we have ever openly discussed as a family, and they are oblivious about the extent of my relationship with self-injury. Sometimes I wish I could share my story more openly, but, honestly, I’m afraid to do so. Afraid – not because I’m embarrassed – but because the impact on my family, friendships, and career are unknown.
The other reason I am sharing this with my fellow moms is because it’s important that you know WHY all this happened – or maybe the lack of a “why.” The truth is that, at least as far as I know, I was not abused, and I did not experience any major losses or trauma as a child. I actually had a really lovely childhood, and the guilt I felt about that contributed quite a bit to my self-hatred. When I had negative thoughts, I told myself that it was unjustified, that I was ungrateful, weak, and pathetic for feeling that way. In reality, I was a pretty regular girl who held unrealistically high standards for myself, struggled deeply with self-worth, and lacked resilience. And I don’t think anyone who knew me would have suspected was I was doing.
That last part is what I find utterly terrifying as a mom. Yes, mental health problems run in my family, but they run in all families. I apparently did not present as overtly depressed or excessively anxious, and outwardly I functioned pretty well. I got good grades, did sports, played music, and had friends. My family was supportive and caring. And yet behind the scenes, I was grappling with very dark thoughts. I didn’t just fly under the radar, I soared.
Because I still can’t pinpoint exactly what made me resort to cutting in order to deal with my feelings, I feel helpless when it comes to preventing this kind of problem in my own kids. Yes, I plan to help them handle their feelings in a healthy way. Yes, I plan to talk to them openly about hard things. Would that have made a difference for teenaged me? I’m not sure. I wish I could identify that moment or that person who could have changed my trajectory, but I’m stumped. Like many other aspects of parenthood, there is no recipe or roadmap I can use to navigate this. I can only try to do what my gut says is right instead of what feels comfortable, to devote my energy to taking positive action rather than to useless worrying.
Above all, I will continue to honor the commitment I made to not hurt myself, to talk about my thoughts and feelings, to exercise, to write, to breathe. A solid foundation for healthy kids is a healthy mom, and my children deserve that. I deserve to be healthy too.