I think I have spent a great part of my life dealing with this: forgiveness.
I am an exceedingly rancorous person, towards others and very particularly towards myself. This has been expressed in many different, complicated, problematic and toxic ways.
I have never been able to let myself off the hook.
It’s not that I hold myself to a high standard. I know exactly what kind of person I am. I don’t expect to excel at something, to be the kindest or smartest or even the most caring because I understand my selfish and self-centred nature in a way I will never allow anyone else to understand. This is why I never allow myself to make mistakes, to appear mean or not-that-smart, or distant because I simply cannot afford to. I have spent so long crafting an oversized, sagging mask to hang over my real self that any slip-up could be fatal.
I want more than anything to be known, but only through the mask. I only want people to see me the way I want to be seen. I cannot afford to be known, even though I desperately long for it.
Through the years I have found ways of tweaking this mask, of bending reality and myself into a knot that not even the most careful of fingers can hope to unwind without fraying the rope into a disarticulated mess. To maintain this knot I also created fail-safes, punishments, ways to hold myself accountable because I knew others could not.
How can you be punished for sins others are unaware of?
This was when I began self-harming. I didn’t do it because I wanted to die, or because I’d seen other people do it, as the common adage goes. In fact, I never knew I was self-harming or that what I did was wrong until late into my freshman year of college.
I had read about self-harm, I had known people who’d done it and I knew what it did to a person, but I never conflated myself with them. I never thought of my ‘failsafe’ as self-harm, because I wasn’t using scissors or knives. But I was self-harming in a variety of ways.
Ever since I was a kid, I had realised that there were things I’d done that deserved to be punished but I was too ashamed to come clean about them (breaking something or taking something that belonged to someone else) so I would just punish myself in the most basic of ways. I would not allow myself to play or watch TV or any things I’d enjoy. I wasn’t the kind to nap because to me sleeping earlier than usual was a punishment I’d often use on myself. I sometimes said I wasn’t hungry, even though I was because I didn’t deserve to eat.
These behaviours evolved, got dropped, or remained as the years went by.
The first time I scratched myself as a punishment, was in 7th grade when a classmate made me angry by calling me names and telling me stupid things. I was so mad at him that by the end of the class when everyone had left, I confronted him and scratched his arm. It wasn’t that bad, my nails were shorter than they are now and I was a pretty wimpy kid, but I knew it was wrong, I knew I’d be punished for it and I didn’t want that. I panicked for a second while my best friend at the time stared at us. I knew by looking at him that he wasn’t going to tell, who’d tell a teacher that the midget of the class, the weakest person no one ever picked in PE for anything had attacked him? But still I panicked, my whole face and body burned with a hateful shame, everything tingled in unrest, from the tip of my toes to the space behind my eyes, and as they both stared, I pulled my sleeve up my arm and desperately carved uneven patches of thin blood up my arm.
Afterwards, I asked my friend not to tell on me. I gave her a story “I’d fallen over in my bike and there was glass on the ground”. Of course, that glass wouldn’t have caused the kind of injuries I had, but I was a kid and I knew that if I cried my mother would believe me. why wouldn’t she? She didn’t know about self-harm either, she would not be able to conceive a different scenario for why her youngest daughter came home from school with a scratched arm.
She believed me, and slowly scratching just became part of what I did when I was too ashamed to confess my sins to someone, when I made someone cry and ‘I’m sorry’ wasn’t enough, when my grades weren’t great, when I lied, when I failed to be the exact version of what my mother wanted me to be, and when I got angry at things.
I could not be angry. Anger was not a part of the mould I needed to fit, so I could not under any circumstance show that I was angry.
By the time I started college I had a variety of punishments ready to be exploited now that there were fewer eyes looking and the pressure was high:
- Punching hard objects like walls and trees.
- Not eating.
- Pulling at my hair.
- Punching myself.
- Scratching myself.
- Not allowing myself to sleep, or sleep too little.
- Walking large distances instead of taking the public transport no matter the weather.
- Not allowing myself to do things I enjoyed (listening to music, go somewhere, read, watch TV, etc).
- Choking myself with my hands.
- Not wearing weather appropriate clothes.
- Showering with too cold or too hot water.
- Pinching myself.
And so the list went on and on, gaining and losing items as people stared too long, or asked awkward questions.
At some point, I stopped just punishing myself for mistakes, and I just did it whenever I became overcome by negative emotions. Anger, sadness, and frustration kept me up at night, kept my arms and legs sore and too-hot in the summer.
But I was fine! Of course, I was! I was finally functioning the way other people seemed to. I was giving the world my very best, polished version, who cared if it was fake? I certainly didn’t.
But the downside of it all was how tired I was, how easy it was to slip up and admit things you should never tell others. The punishments grew harsher the more I revealed to others. I was ashamed, terrified, disgusted at myself, but I could not stop.
I would promise I’d do it. I would never self-harm again, but then anything would happen and I’d become breathless, volatile, overly emotional, and I would just have to do it.
How can you deal with feelings when the only way you know how is through pain?
I have pages upon pages or journal entries that start with either the number of days I’ve refrained from scratching or any other habits in the list or a number of times I’ve done it just that day.
Counting became a habit. Until I didn’t just count the number of days, of scratches. No. I had graduated to a new level: How many times I’d almost taken it too far. How many times my hands ached for something sharper to sink into skin and muscles.
Then I counted how many times I repeated the mantra “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die”, “Everything’ll be better once I’m gone”, and “I should’ve died when I had the chance”.
Of course, all of that was happening when I was okay. I was fine, and happy, and enjoying my time doing something I loved and was relatively good at.
I guess, people forget to tell you when they talk about the suicidal ideation and the bottomless pit of self-harm, that you never truly need a reason. Once you’re in, it just becomes second nature: I breathe, thus I want to die. I am alive, therefore I deserve a punishment.
It just goes on, and on, and on, and on, spinning faster and faster until you can’t breathe or taste anything other than this, right here, right now. Everything that might cause your death feels inviting. As you laugh along with your friends, as you work on that project that you love, your mind is working overtime, finding all the tiny gaps inside your head where suicide looks like the best option to this life you’re trying your hardest to live.
I couldn’t understand how other people didn’t have that treacherous part of them reminding them that all numbered days were better than days where death was not at the forefront of your mind.
And it’s not like I wanted to die all the time. I honestly didn’t. It just that thinking of suicide was part of a routine: On your way home you need to buy bread, and something for supper, don’t look at the tracks for too long, don’t think about jumping, you need to take the right bus, don’t step onto the street, don’t walk home, it’s late.
And you know how hard it is to break out of a routine.
The day I told my family that, “This is what I do, it’s called self-harm and it keeps me sane when there’s nothing wrong at all but my body is screaming that something horrible is happening.” and “I constantly think about dying, but I also think about how I could never do that to you, because you’d feel bad if I did.” I got the following responses:
- My mother cried. She could not understand how her youngest daughter came home from school with arms scratched raw and a sob stuck in the back of her throat.
- My father was calm, quiet, trying to understand how we ever got stuck in the middle of this storm when he could still remember his hands around mine when I was a child and asked him to “put Sylvia on in English again! I swear I understand what they’re saying!”.
- My oldest sister stared at me like I was a stranger, or no, like I was someone who’d grown in a different direction to what she expected. I was a tree that grew inward instead of outward, she hadn’t known what I was hiding until I decided to show her. She said, “I never knew. I always thought you were stronger than that.”
- My other sister frowned, still unaware of how someone could hurt this way, still used to me acting like a character on a show while I tried on different skins that allowed me to breathe under scrutiny. She said, “Stop trying to get people’s attention. It’s annoying.”
And it was. I was despicable in more ways than one. I was a liar, a fake, the faded design in a shirt that had once held charm but now just sagged too big on sunburnt shoulders.
But I was also someone who could fit into the smallest of boxes just to make myself unknowable, appealing, funny, charming. So I did. And I didn’t talk about it again.
At least I didn’t until I found a better language for it: Jokes.
I became that person. The one that jokes about suicide and self-harm with others. The one who will jokingly reveal all of her secrets because she knows her facade is so thick, so well crafted that no one will think twice about her saying, “Oh, yeah. I can’t look at the train tracks because it makes my legs shake with how bad they want to jump.”
And I was fine again.
I had a language I could use, I wasn’t really lying anymore, just using people’s views of me to my advantage.
I didn’t have depression! What do you mean? I’m laughing! See? I’m happy. I am always happy.
(Of course that I knew that to not be true, but I didn’t really care. I’d been feeling this way for years and I still hadn’t died. It couldn’t really be that bad).
I made the mistake at one point of going to a psychologist who proudly and loudly announced I could not have depression because I had never attempted suicide. He looked at my scarred arms and said, “I’ve never seen this before.” while I tried to say it was self-harm. He said, “You just need to control your emotions.” and I wanted to say, “I know. This is how I do it.” He told my father that I was “too dramatic” for my sake.
And I thought, maybe I am lying. Maybe I was trying to make people pity me, maybe I’m not sick! Maybe it’s just all in my head (well, duh!) and I allowed myself one other mistake.
I finished my major that I loved, and worked in the things I was kind of good at. And I started something I didn’t hate but didn’t like either, and I was pretty bad at.
I thought, “This won’t win against me. I’m not sick. I’m just lying to get attention.”
But it did win, and I was sick.
It was then that I was able to relive something I had forgotten: The bad thoughts and the self-harm when you are already at your lowest.
I had forgotten I hadn’t gotten sick when I was in college and happy, I was sick back in high school when I was tired and miserable.
I had forgotten how it felt to only breathe in with half of your lungs because panic didn’t allow you to go any further. I had forgotten how a panic attack tastes when it’s stuck in your throat for days before it is detonated by the silliest of things. I had forgotten what it was like to cry yourself to sleep while you prayed to a God you hardly ever believed in to give you the courage and the strength to end it all. I had forgotten the feeling of ants crawling under your skin, beating a rhythm that seemed to say: “Here, here, sink the knife in here. Here, here, pain will feel sweeter here.”, all the while your brain reminded you that: “it will never get better than this. It will be this, and this, and this, and the ants, and the pain, and the fear, for as long as we live.”
I had forced myself to forget about a time where everything hurt, and no one was listening. I had allowed myself to forget that suicidal and depressive were a journey, not a destination, until it all caught up with me, and the person I was before, the one I tried burying under elaborated webs of pretty words, reached out and held my hand to remind me we were still the same, maybe less lonely, maybe more scared.
She reminded me the risk was real, my pain was real, my fear was real. We were going to die unless someone did something about it.
But the thing about becoming her again (about holding onto her as the one thing that could possibly keep me afloat) is that she was still invisible, quiet, lonely. And so no one saw, and if they did, they couldn’t afford to care.
So I had to pull myself out of the storm I had allowed to brew.
I cried every day, whenever I had a moment for myself until I just couldn’t hold it in. Until I cried in front of anyone and everyone. Until my cousin looked me in the eye and told me, “this needs to stop.” And she held my hand while I allowed myself to let go of the ties I had wrapped around myself.
My friend says I learnt my limits that time, and she is right. I learnt that those limits that seemed blurry and weak were not there to keep me from growing, they were there so I wouldn’t be able to rush over the edge of a cliff.
I understood it, I didn’t have to like it. And my body didn’t have to immediately heal afterward. In fact, it didn’t.
I will carry all the scars of everything I’ve done to myself, both mentally and physically.
But I have better control now that I’ve allowed myself to burn. I still scratch from time to time, but I no longer have the need to draw blood whenever I do it.
Panic doesn’t sing through my bones, but the ants will never leave.
This is who I am, at least for the time being, it is this, and this, and this, and this, the anxiety, the ants, the bees, and me.