The first time it happened, maybe, was sixth grade.
I had missed the bus and it was raining, a prickly mid-March storm where the rain is semi-frozen without quite being sleet. I was waiting in the parking lot instead of my middle school’s lobby because I felt, by virtue of having carelessly missed the bus, I deserved the pain of half-ice slapping against my skin. My back was pressed against the red brick wall of Houghton Middle School. I was watching for my mother’s Dodge Caravan.
I never clipped my nails as a kid. I had two brothers and we used to engage in occasional physical scraps. Outmatched in terms of pure strength, I relied on scratching. It was a cheap trick to momentarily neutralize one’s aggressor with unexpected searing pain. That day, I turned my weapon of choice on myself. While I waited, I dug my fingers into my right hand and scratched until the skin came off, peeling made easy by the skin’s wetness, until I had crafted a sticky welt on the back of my hand. When I got in the car, I showed it to my mother. I was almost proud.
“Look,” I said, “I punished myself for being late.”
She was suitably horrified.
Someone once told me I was brave to show my scars. I was 21, and coming out of a college lit seminar, when a classmate stopped me. I admired this person the way we sometimes admire people strictly because they possess certain traits we lack. In this case, it was self-confidence. She was short, a bit overweight, and carried herself in a way that was profoundly, if inexplicably, sexy, dressing in an array of tight-fitting spandex outfits colored in mismatching neon shades, clothing so gaudy it should have been ugly, and maybe would have been on someone else, but the way it wrapped around her frame made her look unshakably desirable. I wished I could pull such a thing off, but I dressed down in non-flattering loose fitting t-shirts and floor-length skirts, neutral colors like brown and black. I never thought of myself as noticeable, but she had noticed me, and I felt a momentary quiver of excitement. “I think it’s cool,” she said, “that you show you scars.” I sputtered out a thank you. She continued, “I went through a phase myself, and I would never let anyone see. I’d be mortified. You just don’t care. That’s courageous.”
My decision to show is not an act of courage. It is a combination of necessity and apathy, barely a decision at all. My scars are impossible to hide. They are undeniable, thin white lines running up and down both arms from shoulder to wrist. Even long sleeves cannot conceal the totality of the damage done. I never plan to cut. It is always an impulsive urge. Sometimes, I keep razor blades on hand in case I need a fix, but the act itself comes in uncontrolled and unwanted moments of panic. By virtue of this spontaneity, I lack the foresight to cut in concealable places. I tear into my arms with razor blades, broken glass, x-acto knives, fabric shears, any sharp object in reach. I’ve grown so used to being occasionally cut up that I cease to notice the damage. At some point, unconsciously, I stopped caring if others noticed. People rarely comment anyway. My classmate was the first and only person to do so.
When I tell people I am a cutter, the question of why arises. Why on earth would a person turn, with such utter ferocity, against their own body? Why ignore all instincts of self-preservation to shred the sheltering confines of the skin and expose the vulnerable underbelly of human flesh? Non-suicidal self-injury, the current diagnostic term, is now its own disorder. Prior to 2013, self-harm was classified as a symptom of other conditions. To be diagnosed, one has to have engaged in self-harm on at least five days of the past year, motivated by one of three things: the desire for relief from a negative state, to resolve an interpersonal difficulty, or to achieve a positive mental state.
I do not know what motivates me.
The act is rarely premeditated. It is nearly always a hysterical response to emotional turmoil. I can tell you there is a certain release in cutting. It is a kind of purging, as if some demonic energy is expelled from my body through the act. Cutting is often the only thing that can placate me during a panic attack. All the varied breathing exercises prescribed by psychiatrists pale in comparison to the sheer fulfillment of blood. Once I draw blood, it is over. A symbolic climax is reached, and I can rest. Like alcoholics who swear they only drink after five, I have certain comforting justifications. Cutting is better than many self-destructive forms of stress-relief. It is less physically harmful than smoking, binge drinking, any variety of hard narcotics, less risky than promiscuous sex. Cutting is at least only cosmetic damage, literally only skin-deep, and my skin is all around un-pretty anyway, patchy and discolored as is, and so the scars only make an already ugly thing uglier.
My older brother is an attorney. He wants to dissect and then, in a curt closing statement, explain, no room left for the ambiguity of untidy answers. He once told me he knew why I cut. He had tried before to get me to stop, had gone as far as to claim that when I cut red marks inexplicably appeared on his own arms, a lie told in hungry desperation. His explanation went back to when I was five. “Do you remember yourself at five?” he said.
“Of course not,” I said, “I was five.”
“I do,” he said, “You were awesome. You used to take your clothes off in the middle of the supermarket and be like, ‘Why do we have to wear clothes? It’s stupid.’ You didn’t care. You were brave. Then you had that shitty teacher in first grade. Before that, you were always way ahead. I wish you could remember.”
In first grade, I was bad at math. I struggled with very basic addiction and subtraction, often accidentally reversing numbers when I wrote them down. The abstract concepts behind math, how and why it worked on a theoretical level, began to make sense in college, but knowing the theory did nothing to improve my performance. I started off on too weak a foundation. My teacher was a witch. I remember, once, struggling over a math problem. I asked her for help. She sighed and sat on my desk, her arms folded in anger. She did not try to aid me in any way, but instead just sat mute, her foot tapping impatiently as I tried to work through the problem. Eventually, I resorted to simple guessing, sputtering numbers at random. Is it three? Four? Six? This went on for a good two minutes until she finally snapped.
“One, Erin,” she said. “The answer is one.”
With that, she left, shaking her head in disgust. The sting of that moment never quite left. My first cutting spell in college was in response to an algebra course.
My brother is one of those people whose cynicism is rooted in idealism; people frequently disgust him because he truly believes that, by virtue of being human beings, they are capable of far more kindness and heroism than they generally churn out. He thought he was helping, but he was not. First off, he was wrong. Math is not why I started cutting. Second, it would not matter if it were. The notion of the repressed root as key to recovery is a myth of pop psychology. Knowing the why does not always lead to a solution. Even psychiatric medication is, in a sense, made backwards. Most meds were originally used to treat other ailments. Seizure medication and sedatives shown to improve mood were then administered to the depressed, the bipolar, and the anxious, pills successfully crafted through knowing the symptoms without quite understanding the cause.
It interests me that both my brother and my old classmate interpret my desire to bare all as a sign of courage, an admirable devil-may-care mentality. It is not. It is a sign of wildness, not a matter of refusing to contain oneself but of all out lacking the ability to do so. I have never been able to quell strong emotions in a way that is socially acceptable or even healthy. My nakedness, both literal and symbolic, is not a decision. It is combination of apathy and necessity. I do not know how to be anything else.
I lied to my brother. I remember myself at five. In fact, I remember myself before five.
The truth is, I think this is actually the first time it happened:
I was upset because I slept through Winnie-the-Pooh. My mother tried to wake me, but I had wanted to sleep more and she obliged my request after a few failed attempts to rouse me. When I found out I missed the show, I was inconsolable, screaming and sobbing, and someone, some adult, picked me up off the kitchen’s linoleum floor and set me on the counter, next to the new toaster that glistened in a deep shade of cobalt blue. I am uncertain how old I was, but I think I was around two or three. The memory is dreamlike, and sometimes I think I am remembering my remembering and not the incident itself, that what I call a memory is instead a sort of shadow memory. What I do remember, concretely, is the feeling. I had this feeling of profound self-disgust, shame at my slovenly nature, shame at my inability to wake up on time. It was a violent rage, every bit directed inwards. There were two slices of white bread warming in the toaster, the metal edges of which I knew would be hot. I placed my hand against the top and let my soft white flesh burn.
My mother snatched me off the counter and ran my hand under cool water in the sink. Another feeling emerged. Mixed amongst the self-loathing there was this external awareness of how stupid, how absurdly stupid, what I just did was. I burned my own hand over Winnie the fucking Pooh, a stupid television show, had carried on a ridiculous amount over a very silly thing. It was so ridiculous it struck me as funny. As I became aware of my own foolishness, the noise I made became a hybrid sound that veered between glee and despair. It was unclear, to myself and everyone present, whether I was laughing or crying. I wanted desperately to take myself seriously, but could not hold onto the ability to take myself seriously. Every few seconds that awareness of the absurdity of the moment would surface, and a laugh would creep in. I could not suppress the waves of giggles interspersed with my sobs.
That was the first time I hurt myself. I remember the confusion and the rage and the hatred. I remember the sensation of dull pain in my hand. I remember how, as I got older, the tendency towards self-harm became more habitual while simultaneously less satisfying. Like an addict, I came to need more, and I remember the damage becoming progressively harsher. I remember when I realized I needed to draw blood to feel release. I remember hiding razor blades in my bedroom and then, in college, at the bottom of a jewelry box I kept in my dorm. I remember how it started to feel vital to survival. I remember people confronting me, asking me to stop, and me finding myself unable to kick the habit, throwing out x-acto knives only to go out and buy more the next week. I remember all of these things, most of them with such intensity the moments are painful to recall. What I don’t remember is when that eerie semi-laughter, self-amusement mixed in with the self-disgust, disappeared.
That is, I don’t remember when it stopped being funny.
I was so young the first time it happened. I feel that the self I was then, by virtue of having existed so briefly, was in a purer state, unsullied by experience. It was before the math teacher. It was, in fact, before much of anything had happened to me at all, when I was perhaps more nature than nurture. This makes me wonder if this propensity towards self-harm was less a result of bad experiences—the kind of rejection and humiliation I would face later in life—and more an inherent part of my personality, fueled no doubt by experience but always, always present. This means what I have to work against is not external negativity that was at some point thrust upon me. What I have to work against is myself. The first time I touched something akin to a hot stove, I did not learn to pull away. In fact, I touched it with the knowledge it would hurt. I came away not with wariness for pain, but desire.
Erin Wisti is a senior editor at Entropy Magazine and recently received her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been previously published in The Chicago Literati, Ampersand Review, and other places. She is working on an upcoming web series that explores how modern technology helps, not hinders, the fostering of intimate relationships. She also does a Vince Vaughn impression that people either find hilarious or incredibly off-putting, and currently resides in Chicago. She tweets @hartisbetter.