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The scars on my skin are hard to see unless you see me in the right light, and I’ve been working in the sun a lot lately, causing my skin to tinge golden-brown so suddenly they pop up like neon.
Some of them are raised, creating texture, but I rarely allow people to come close enough to touch them. They twirl around my arms and along my legs, a reminder of something I survived.
I started cutting largely by accident; I have trouble remembering what the catalyst was, but there was a moment when I realized that there was something, one thing, in my life that I could control. I could creep off into corners and darkness and master something in my environment. It started quietly, and got bigger and bigger over time, as these things often do.
I became the master of the casually worn long-sleeve shirt or artfully placed jacket, wrapping scarves just so, avoiding settings where people might see my body.
I was very good at bandaging tight and close to the skin so I didn’t have any suspicious bulges, and I was careful about placement, to ensure a certain sense of invisibility. I thought I was very clever, you know, and that no one noticed.
Sadder still is to know that people did notice, but didn’t say anything.
I cut throughout high school and into college, and people very rarely said anything about it. The scars criss-crossed and grew and older ones faded while new ones took their place. No one asked me what I was doing or why, though.
In college, no one thought it was odd that someone who didn’t shave had a box of straight razors in the bathroom. My excuses for the injuries people did occasionally see were accepted at face value.
There were a few of us in high school, who drifted past each other and nodded. We knew. I saw my kind in college, too. We were hard to miss if you know what to look for. But no one ever talked to us about it.
There was a strange, fragile balance, where people seemed to think that if they pretended it wasn’t happening, it would all go away. We fell deeper and deeper into the darkness but no one threw out a rope to save us.
I hear people say that cutting is a “cry for attention” and perhaps it was, for some of us.
For me it was something deeper and stranger that I was working through, but I certainly could have benefited from attention, from a friendly voice, from someone expressing concern, instead of that awkward, eerie silence.
For others I knew, it was definitely a cry for attention, as in, a cry for help, a desperate plea for someone to notice them.
Something about the phrase “cry for attention” has always rankled at me, because it sounds so dismissive. It suggests that people don’t really need help, and that, like dogs begging for treats at the kitchen table, they should be ignored until they can learn to go lie down and behave while the grownups are eating.
Cutting can mean a lot of different things, but it’s definitely not something that should be ignored. A teen who is cutting is not an animal pawing at your knee for a bite of your beef roast, but a human being who is attempting to process something, to gain emotional control, to comprehend something that may be very large and frightening.
With the idea that cutting is a “cry for attention” comes the dismissive belief that teens don’t have traumatizing life experiences and thus their lives can’t be “that bad.”
I grew up in a rural area with a lot of poverty. I’m well aware of how “that bad” the lives of teens can be, not just from my own life, but from the lives of the people I saw around me growing up, and continue to see as an adult.
Some of whom don’t make it, sometimes because their “cries for attention” were ignored.
There’s a mythology particularly in small towns that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, which means a cutting teen gets ignored because the teen doesn’t fit the narrative. Shoving things under the carpet, though, doesn’t make them go away.
I am being careful, here, to talk about how and why I cut, because as a former cutter, I know how intense reading pieces like this can be. How part of me wants to read them, to see how someone else survived, what someone else experienced, but part of me doesn’t want to read them. That second part of me is afraid something will be the tipping point that pushes me over the edge and sets me off again.
Me now is the kind of person who doesn’t think twice before slipping into something with short sleeves or diving into the swimming hole, and that’s the person I want you to see.
For the same reason, I deliberately didn’t include images of my scars, because this is not about my scars. It is about me, and that fact that I survived.
Not because someone reached out a helping hand after identifying that I was clearly in trouble, though. And not because I magically hauled myself out of my own despondence, either.
Oddly enough, the reason I stopped cutting was because of extreme anxiety over a performance review at work. I wasn’t sleeping and was having nightmares and I felt like I was going to explode from stress at any moment.
After some prodding from a friend, I decided to go see a therapist, and I started talking to him about work, and as these things do, other things started coming up, and then my neatly-arranged long sleeve rolled up, and he saw.
And so we talked about it. We talked about what I was doing and why, and by the end of the session, we’d reached a tenuous agreement that I wouldn’t cut for a week.
I came back at the next session feeling intensely guilty, because I’d failed, after four days, and I’d been too ashamed to call and admit my failure.
And so we talked about that, why I failed and what had happened, and he patiently suggested we try again that week. And we did, and I came very, very close to cutting again but I called him, and I made it through that week.
The next week was a little easier. The week after that, even more so.
I say this simply and quickly but of course it was neither of those things. It was a long and constant battle with myself and it still is. I couldn’t have made it through without that helping hand, though, and without the strength he gave me to reach out to friends and ask them to help me.
I survived because I was terrified of my boss and went to a therapist who told me it was okay to build a support network.
I haven’t cut in years, although I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I still feel a strong urge to do so. My scars are still there and they remind me of what I survived, and I have numbers in my speed dial for those times when I feel like I’m going to slip again. Sometimes it’s me on the other end of the speed dial, answering the phone in the middle of the night.
“Yes,” I say. “I know exactly how you feel.”