Self-harm has become a wellbeing issue which has been in the spotlight for a while now. I think with the rise of social media, it is something that is spoken about more openly and that is a good thing. However, I also think that self-harm is probably about as misunderstood and misrepresented in the media as alternative relationship dynamics, such as the ones that many of us choose to follow. I have also come across a lot of people who are into BDSM who have also self-harmed at some point in the past.
What is Self-harm
Self-harm is any sort of injury which you intentionally inflict on yourself. It includes the more documented things such as cutting, burning and scratching, but would also include things like punching walls and risk-taking behaviours. Most self-harm is done in secret and the person will try to keep it that way. This is often to do with the feelings of guilt and shame which are associated with it, but some people will make it more obvious. This has led to the perception that self-harm is ‘just attention seeking’. Sometimes self-harm is dismissed because of this, but I would suggest that if someone is intentionally injuring themselves in order to seek attention, all is not well. Either way, they need understanding from those around them.
Why do people self-harm
Self-harm is a coping strategy. It is used to deal with difficult emotions that the person is struggling to manage any other way. Hurting themselves may offer a temporary relief from the pain of those emotions for a variety of reasons. What is does not do, is fix the problem which lies underneath, and that is what really needs to be identified and worked on. Ultimately, they should try to find healthier ways of coping with difficult emotions, but that may take some time, and self-injury may always be something that eases things in ways that other things cannot. Public opinion would also have us believe that people who self-harm are suicidal. Actually, for many people, self-harm is about trying to cope with difficult feelings and circumstances and some people would describe it as a way of staying alive and surviving these difficulties.
Self-harm and Pain
Hurting yourself causes pain, and someone who chooses to do it will usually still feel pain. What it does do is provide an opportunity to experience physical pain which they can control. This may work for them as a strategy for a number of reasons such as: it may block out the emotional pain, it might enhance the emotional pain, it could allow them to feel something, or it may provide a temporary break from other discomfort. Often people who self-harm may not know how to express their emotions, or they may feel that their feelings are not validated when they are expressed openly. In addition, the endorphin rush that they get from the natural painkillers the body produces might give a temporary release from the pain, meaning that they actually do feel better for a while.
I self-harmed when I was younger. There were obviously the eating issues which I wrote about last week which I see as a form of self-harm, but at the same time I was trying to deal with my emotions, I also cut. I have written about this in the post, Healing. I am not sure why I started it really. I don’t know where I got the idea from as it was not something I had ever heard of someone doing before. I wonder if it was experimental as I also used to pour hot wax onto my skin (some things only make sense over time), but I certainly didn’t know anyone else who did it, and I knew enough to know that I had to keep it a secret. The first time, I used a blade that I had dismantled from a razor, and let it skim gently across my arm. The contrast of the bright red against the pale white of my skin gave me a thrill, and the adrenaline that I felt, prevented any pain from registering at that point.
I felt power, I felt purpose, I felt a clarity that I didn’t feel at other times. I carried my little secret around with me for a while, luxuriating in the feeling of doing something illicit that was my own. I was in control. I could make this happen and I could manage the way that it made me feel. It was a choice and it was one that I chose for me, and I suppose that meant it was something that made sense in the tumble of confusion I was feeling at that time. Of course it made no sense. And as those feelings faded, ones of shame took hold. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered where it would go next and where it would end. As I squirreled away my blade, wrapped carefully in a tissue in a little box my mum had given me, I felt the pangs of disappointment I knew she would have if she ever found out.
I felt guilt then, and it overwhelmed and consumed me. I was tossed back and forth on the waves of my conflicting emotions. And the urge to return to it grew stronger, the more I listened to the voices in my head that challenged what I was doing. The horror, the disgust, the incredulity that a person would enjoy doing what I was doing, and the only way to silence them was to give in to the urge. It took it all away of course, or at least that was how it felt. Once again, I was in control, I was the one making the choice, and there I was doing this thing that felt dangerous and delicious in equal measure.
I came to love not just the pleasure in it but the punishment too. I used it to regulate so much of what I thought and felt, harnessing the pain not just at that moment, but afterwards too as my body wore those reminders of what I had done. It became my worst enemy and my greatest friend. I suppose for me it was about validation of my feelings, but also about being able to identify what those feelings even were. It was about confusion and fear. It was about living a life that I didn’t understand and wanting answers that I couldn’t find. And in the end I left all of that behind. I found new ways. I became more settled. I found a purpose through others that meant that I was far less self-focussed than I had been before (says she with the personal reflective blog about her life and journey!)
And so to BDSM
I am not saying for one moment that there would be a connection for everyone, that we are all secretly harmers underneath, for that would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that for me, many of the things that self-harm gave me, have some parallels which are rooted within what we do now: the feeling of something secret and illicit that is mine; the desire for pain and the way that can be transferred to pleasure; the need to experiment and push physical boundaries a little; the thrill of being able to escape from certain thoughts and feelings; the pleasant reminder of wearing the marks.
And in other ways it makes it difficult. My relationship with pain is complicated and I have written before about the fact that it is still something that makes me feel powerful and in control. It will push me into myself and towards a place which is my own, and therefore it is not conducive to building a connection with HL. It becomes about what I can tolerate for me, and not what I will tolerate for him. It puts me in a position of strength instead of the position of vulnerability that I look for now. I own myself rather than being owned by him, so it is counter-productive to push pain past the point where it enhances the pleasure for me.
I do think about experimenting with cutting as part of our play, although I am not sure if it is something that we will ever try. I don’t know if it would work in a positive way or not, and there is also the fact that it may not be worth the risk. I recognise that I am in such a different place now to then, so I don’t really think it would trigger anything negative for me. However, sometimes things are best left untouched. The person who has written the account above lived a life so removed from the one I have now, and, re-reading those memories, I feel more like an observer who watched along, rather than the person who experienced it.
I know that everyone’s experience is different, but I always worry that someone reading will out me as not being authentic. I guess this is a throw-back to not feeling validated, but it concerns me that I may be seen as someone seeking attention and making a big deal of something that is a small part of who they are. I feel guilty that I may be making too much of something, when there are the real sufferers out there. I am not looking for sympathy, or even empathy or understanding. I am sharing the information because I can, and because, unlike some, I have moved past the point where it would have been too emotional for me to do so.
If someone shares with you that they are self-harming then there are some things that are really helpful to do. Try not to judge, and try to make sure that your face doesn’t show what you may be feeling inside. Try to listen to them and to validate the feelings that they are articulating to you. Don’t make them promise never to do it again. Help them to seek help.
The are lots of good sites with factual information and help but I like these Resources for straightforward information, including a detailed list of distractions and alternatives. The site also has a forum.