I was thirteen years old when I started harming myself. I was being bullied in school and starting to experience depressive symptoms, although I didn’t recognize either of these occurrences for what they actually were. I kept quiet about everything that was going on, silently berated myself for not being able “just get over it,” and broke my skin open with increasing frequency.
At eighteen, I am a newly minted adult, but still dealing with the detrimental habit that characterized my high school days. Over the past five years, I’ve harmed myself with everything imaginable: my fingernails, my teeth, broken bits of plastic and metal, sewing needles, thumbtacks, knives, and razor blades. This is only a partial list. In fact, it is merely a list of things I’ve used to cut myself. The list of things I’ve used to hurt myself is much longer, but my weapon of choice was Zach.
I met Zach during my sophomore year of high school. That was the year I missed a quarter of school to go to residential treatment for the first time. When I came home, I took all but two of my classes online so that my parents could keep a closer eye on me. I was isolated at home and having a difficult time making friends. Zach was a member of my lab group in chemistry class. He had all the typical interests of an awkward high school underclassman: anime, memes, webcomics, and death metal. He paid attention to me, and that was all it took for me to desperately want his attention. Suddenly I, too loved death metal and webcomics. It was easy to parrot the all-male lab groups idioms and inside jokes. Sometimes they would try to throw erasers and bits of paper down my cleavage, but I forgave them. Sometimes they would grab me from behind, sneaking their bodies against mine, but I forgave them. That’s what friends do. Our chemistry station in the corner of the classroom was an island where courtesy and self-respect did not exist. When Zach flirted with me and accused me of reciprocating, I did not deny it, although to do so would have been to tell the truth. Instead, I dismissed the notion with a laugh and the wave of my hand.
Zach and I parted ways during our junior year due to a coincidence of class schedules. We were reunited during our senior year in math and physics classes. Perhaps the fact that we always had science classes together was a sign that our relationship needed more logic, more analysis. Indeed, there is no place for fantastic storytelling about what happened between us. If only I had followed the scientific method with him–this is my desired outcome; here is how I will work towards it. I imagine carefully measuring my time and emotions to create the desired chemical reaction.
Yet another variable in my grand experiment was Paige. In actuality, Paige is just another girl who was born twenty years too late and and spent her high school years yearning to experience the heyday of grunge. But in my mind, she defies description. Paige was my primary tormentor in middle school, and although nearly four years had passed, the memory of her meanness still stung. My eating disorder had robbed me of all self-esteem, and I believed that Paige was an all-around better person than I could ever hope to be. I took her proficiency in math and science to mean that she was smarter than I am, ignoring the fact that I was acing advanced English, getting published in magazines, and editing my school’s literary magazine. Paige dressed the way I wanted to dress; she was allowed by her parents to pierce her nose; she drove a really cool car. She also had a close group of friends that I walked past every day during the lunch period on my way to spend it alone in my car sipping diet energy drinks. I was also aware that Paige had anorexia. In my jealousy and disorder, I did not feel bad for her, much less think of supporting her. Instead, I obsessed over the fact that she was much thinner than I ever believed myself to have been, and hated myself for every calorie that passed my lips.
As senior year wore on, I became better friends with Zach. I began to confide in him about my eating disorder and self-injury, and he told me about his own mental health issues. We often talked about relationships, and our conversations were laced with flirty quips and sexual innuendo. He called me beautiful. I begged him to say it again.
I was almost relieved when Zach and Paige started dating. Although I desperately wanted a relationship, I was ill-equipped to actually have one, and I was anxious at the thought of intimacy–emotional and otherwise. But even though Zach claimed to be devoted to Paige, he continued to flirt with me and describe his sexual fantasies, which often involved me.
High school can be a time of sexual growth and exploration, but it was very much the opposite for me. While my peers were charting new territories on each other’s anatomies, I could barely face my naked form in the mirror, much less stomach the thought of someone else seeing my body. Because of this, I felt repulsed and fascinated by the details of Zach’s sexuality. When he told me about what he did with Paige, I felt jealous; when he told me what he wanted to do with me, I felt powerless and degraded. Still, I encouraged him to continue. I believed I was taking something away from Paige by basking in her boyfriend’s attention.
Things came to a head in December when Zach and I found ourselves alone in his house. He told me that things were not going well between him and Paige. I am a reasonably intelligent individual, and I saw were this was going. Immediately, I felt anxious. I was not ready for intimacy. I knew I wanted Zach’s attention, but I also knew I was not attracted to him. I followed him into the bedroom anyway.
I left Zach’s house shaking and panicky, feeling like my eyes were too big for my face. He hadn’t forced me into anything, but he didn’t need to. I was insecure and scared to say no. I let him do and say degrading things to me, and I blamed myself for not using my voice. He called me a slut, and I believed him.
This pattern of behavior continued for the next few weeks. I was constantly cutting myself in an attempt to regain some sense of control over my body. Although my actions were making me miserable, I continued to repeat them, driven by the thought of “taking” Zach away from Paige. I wanted to beat her at something–even this.
A few days before winter break was over, Zach came to my house saying that we needed to talk. He told me that we couldn’t be together anymore because he and Paige had made up and were back together. His exact words were, “I could love you, but I do love her.” A true scientist would have stopped there, declared the experiment over, results inconclusive. Instead I envisioned a creative solution.
I spent the next six months in IOP working on my recovery, and I gave up self-harm for all of that time. Well, to be specific, I gave up cutting. I started smoking, and when things got tough, I turned to Zach.
By now it was summer, and Paige had broken up with Zach, who was devastated, right after graduation. I believed I had the power to make him feel better, so I moved in on him and we continued our old pattern of behavior. I ignored his violent and misogynistic tendencies, and he ignored my constant put-downs and comparisons. He never asked why my thighs were perennially covered in band-aids, scabs, and scars, which only made me seek his attention more desperately. I was determined to own this boy, no matter the cost. I still felt inadequate compared to Paige, believing that the only reason Zach now saw me as good enough was because Paige no longer wanted him.
Ultimately, I had a conversation with Zach about physical boundaries, and he deemed me unprepared for a “real” relationship because I wasn’t ready for sex. His hypothesis was true, although his reasoning was faulty. Our attempts at being “just friends” failed dismally; we found ourselves in the same cycle.
Finally, I knew it was up to me to make a change. I realized Zach had never treated me with the respect I deserved. I respected myself enough not to let another person harm me emotionally or physically, so I deleted Zach’s number and told him not to contact me. He upheld his end of the bargain, and I am no longer able to use Zach as a form of self-harm.
Unfortunately, now that I don’t have Zach or a pack of Marlboros, my dreams shimmer with visions of razor blades. Self-harm is a demon with many masks. Although I respect myself enough not to let Zach continue hurting me, I struggle with the self-respect I need to stop hurting myself. Self-destruction is embroidered into the fabric of my nature, but the next time I have a pair of scissors, I won’t use them on myself. Instead, I will use them to snip the threads of self-harm and self-destruction right out of my life.