I was nineteen when I had my first impulse to cut. Twenty when I actually took a razor blade to my arm. But it began long before then. As a little kid, I used to ball my hands into little fists so my fingernails would dig into my skin whenever I was upset in order to lock the tears and anger inside.
It was just after my sophomore year of college that I had my first impulse to cut. Nothing in particular had triggered it. I was in the middle of a breakdown, feeling overwhelmed and like a failure because I wasn’t perfect, and the depression that I had been battling since middle school had finally reached an unbearable level. Suicide crossed my mind for the first time that night, but I knew that I didn’t really want to die. I just needed the hurt to stop—now. And then I had the urge to take something sharp and cut myself, make myself bleed. It terrified me. Was I really so sick that I wanted to harm myself?
I didn’t cut that night, only because I was too scared. Scared of myself. Scared of what such an act would say about me. Scared of anyone finding out how messed up I was. But a little less than a year later after a nasty fight with a friend, I found a box cutter in my desk drawer and made three little cuts on the inside of my left arm. It didn’t hurt and they didn’t bleed much. But the pain inside was miraculously gone. For the first time in what felt like forever, my mind was calm and still. I knew I’d cut again.
Over the next three years my depression raged, and I did my best to hide it with smiles and long sleeves. I had bouts where I was suicidal, making plans to slit my wrists in the shower or drive my car into a tree. There were periods where I would cut ten or more times a day. Both arms, both legs, and my torso are covered in scars. Some scars thin and straight, barely noticeable; others deep and angry, screaming: look at me! Since I was an overachiever and stubbornly independent, I was determined to handle my depression alone, without any help from professionals, family, friends, or medication.
Just after college I would try to kill myself. Not a serious attempt. I cut at my wrists a bit, nothing deep. My suicide attempt had nothing to do with wanting to die. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to live. But I needed the hurt to end, and I couldn’t fathom a life in which that was a reality for me. I had gone through periods where I was relatively content and even had moment of happiness and hope, but the depression and self-loathing always came back. Then one night I had a single, rather simple thought: I can’t live like this anymore. I knew I could pull myself out of the depression because I had done it before. But I also knew that it would come back again and again simply because it always did. So if I couldn’t climb out of the depression and end my suffering, I was going to give into it, kill myself, and end it that way.
I wish I could say that it was hope or some shred of self-worth that kept me from cutting deeper and ending my life. But it wasn’t. It was simply fear. The fear of death was stronger than my pain. However, that thought, I can’t live like this anymore, had grown roots in my mind. Since I couldn’t kill myself, then I had no other choice than to climb out of the pit and find a way not to fall back in.
It’s been ten years since that low point in my life, and I’ve come a long way. The depression resurfaces from time to time, but not to the depths it once did. And I’m not going to lie, I still cut from time to time, but there are years between these isolated incidents when I just get too overwhelmed. I wish I could say that I finally found the strength to get help, but the truth is that I’ve never been on an anti-depressant. I’ve never spoken to a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist. (I do, however, have a couple of close friends and a husband who know about my struggles and support me). I am still obstinate and determined to do everything myself, including battle my depression. This is not a path I recommend, not by a long shot, but it is the one I’ve chosen.
For me to overcome my depression, I had to take control of my thoughts. Self-loathing always has been my greatest vice. My waking hours consisted mostly of ripping myself apart for not being this ridiculous ideal I had created in my head, for failing to reach unrealistic expectations, and for simply being human and fallible. I also had a nasty habit of replaying painful events in my head over and over again to punish myself. I called myself ugly names and told myself that I deserved to die. Call it cognitive therapy, call it mediation, but I began monitoring my thoughts, and every time I starting tearing myself down or reliving something painful, I consciously stopped that line of thought. It was exhausting, always being so conscious of the thoughts skipping across my mind. It took great energy, discipline, and time to end that destructive self-talk. But eventually I didn’t have to keep such a vigilant watch over my thoughts because the negativity gradually faded away.
As a side effect of taking control of my own mind, I became more self-aware and began to understand why I was the way I was (there was no abuse, no great trauma; just genetics and dysfunctional family dynamics). I cut toxic people out of my life, those that reinforced the negative opinion of myself and drained me of my energy. I distanced myself from those that I couldn’t cut off. I found other ways than cutting to cope when I felt overwhelmed, depressed, or like a failure—I wrote; I vented to a friend; I found stillness in nature. I learned to ask for help and try not to be Wonder Woman all the time (though admittedly, this is still difficult for me). I also found the confidence and self-esteem to change the external things that didn’t work in my life—a job I detested and a crappy apartment.
The cutting was a symptom of the depression. But it was also so much more. It was a coping method, a way to escape the pain; it stilled the mind so I could function. It was a physical manifestation of the self-hatred; not only was I beating myself up on the inside, I was also beating myself up on the outside. It gave a physical symptom to my mental illness, and in some twisted way gave my illness validity. I could thrust out my arms and say see, it’s not all in my head. And it was me asking for help, even if I hid the cuts.
Just as an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even if he or she gives up drinking, I will always be a cutter. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed since I last harmed myself. When the darkness comes, I still get that impulse to cut. It’s rare that I give in to that impulse, but it’s there and always will be.
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L.B. Blake is a recovering cutter and author of the novel, Bleeding Souls. She can be found on her Goodreads.
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I like how you describe yourself as a “recovering cutter” instead of a “recovered cutter” or “ex-cutter”. No one seems to talk about what happens to cutters after they stop cutting. No one mentions how the impulses resurface for years to come. There is so much talk about curing mental illness when it’s more about managing it.
I always enjoy well written articles like this. Being a cutter myself, I feel less alone when someone is willing to share their store. I feel less alone knowing there are people out there who understand the whys of it all.