TRIGGER WARNING: this article contains descriptions of self-harm methods that some people may find distressing or upsetting.
By Freddie Cocker
It was #SelfInjuryAwarenessDay last Monday (01.03.21). Given that, I thought it was time to share my own experience of self-harm and subsequent recovery.
When many people hear the word self-harm, they will probably think of very severe cases of self-harm. Whilst these severe cases of self-harm do exist, self-harm can manifest in lots of different ways and ones you may even recognise as things you have done in the past.
Some of the reasons that people may self-harm include:
- Expressing or coping with emotional distress
- Trying to feel in control
- A way of punishing themselves
- Relieving unbearable tension
- A cry for help
- A response to intrusive thoughts
My self-harm has manifested itself through two methods. The first method has been nail-biting to an extreme degree and general skin-picking. It took me until this year to realise this was self-harm (even people who self-harm can believe stereotypes about self-harm).
It is an incredibly stigmatised and embarrassing habit but one I now know was borne out of trauma, self-hate and low self-esteem. It also acted as a communication tool when I was a child and teenager and I was unable to articulate how I was feeling when I was bullied at school.
I’ve also learned that I subconsciously viewed it as a self-care tool. Much like junk food was for me when I was overweight in primary school, I would self-harm to feel temporarily comforted, sometimes going into a trance-like state to escape the immediate situation I was in. This was despite the pain I was inflicting upon myself.
Over the years, this has caused huge embarrassment and shame for me. At one point my nail-biting became so severe I infected one of my fingers and had to get it lanced at my local hospital. I have never felt pain like it before or since.
After that moment, every time the skin around my nails would even remotely look inflamed, I would quickly put some disinfectant cream on them as a precaution. Most of the time it was justified but it made me start to obsess over whether a finger would become inflamed after a day or two.
The nail-biting also affected me in other parts of life. Whenever I would be out with friends or on dates with girls, I would always hold both my hands over each other or put them under the table I was sitting on as much as possible to avoid people seeing them.
That way, they wouldn’t recoil in horror and disgust by looking at them or question why they were so bad as I wouldn’t have an answer for them.
This stigma was not helped by the fact that some girls would put on their online dating profiles ‘don’t go out with me if you bite your nails’ or tweet their disdain for it (I’m sure men have probably done this as well).
However, it does make me wonder whether these people would think differently if they knew these habits were born out of trauma and are actually a mental health issue rather than a ‘choice’ someone makes.
The second method was a period of excessive drinking and overeating at university during a severe period of depression. This is why its important to educate people about self-harm because if we do that, we might create more understanding and compassionate people as a result.
There are many misconceptions about self-harm and it’s important to state that not all self- harm leaves visible scars and people do not do it for attention. Many people, including myself, want to hide their injuries.
Thankfully, after addressing my nail-biting through a round of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), I was able to address my nail biting and I am now over two months clean.
I still find it difficult to not scratch a bit of loose skin or a scab etc, particularly at the moment as I’m on Roaccutane treatment for cystic acne. For anyone who doesn’t know, Roaccutane is the most intense acne treatment you can take. It causes your whole body to dry up, flake and in my case, has given me eczema all over both my arms. You can also be susceptible to mood swings.
In the past, I have felt the urge to pick the heads off spots when my acne has been at its most severe and I may need to address this other self-harm habit in the future.
However, I am now in a much better place within myself, my self-harm recovery and thankfully, the last remnants of my acne is receding too.
As I’ve learned to love myself more, my urge to self-harm has receded more and more with it.
If you have cystic acne or general acne yourself, don’t let this put you off Roaccutane as it has worked wonders on my body despite the side-effects but please consult your GP and make sure you are in a mentally stable place before you start treatment for it.
If you discover someone you love is self-harming, here are some things you can do to help them:
- Encourage them to speak to a GP or free listening service about self-harm
- Ask how they would like to be supported
- Let them know you’re there for them
- Tell them about their positive qualities
- Try to understand their emotions and experiences, without judging them, rather than focusing on their self-harm
- Consider that any amount of self-harm might be a sign that they’re feeling extremely distressed
- Let them be in control of their decisions but get them medical attention if needed
Alternatively, here are some things you should NOT do:
- Do not try to force them to change what they’re doing
- Do not threaten to take away their control
- Do not insult them, for example by saying they’re attention-seeking
Freddie Cocker is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.