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I’ve been self-harming a lot lately. It’s not something I talk about much because it tends to get me in trouble, but more than that, I’m ashamed of the adolescent habit that’s followed me into adulthood and turned my life upside down. My bed sheets are covered with blood; I’ve gone through three packs of razors in the past two weeks, as they keep getting taken away by the people who love me. How do I return that love? I go and get more razors, angry at those people for having the nerve to care about me when I don’t even care about myself.
I don’t have a good reason for continuing to cut myself. I don’t think there is a “good reason” that would justify the countless nights spent in the bathroom waiting for the bleeding to let up enough to put on a pair of dark sweatpants that won’t show bloodstains.
Having my body covered in scars, bandages, and cuts is just a way to reflect how I feel on the inside, cliche as that may sound. I feel unworthy of basic care and affection, even when it pours out of those around me. I simply don’t understand why people treat me with the love that I receive, and I don’t know why I can’t wrap my head around their kindness and love. Cutting myself is a physical manifestation of the negative self-talk that constantly beats me down.
I take most of my bad feelings out on my thighs, which are now covered in scars and fresh cuts from years and years of abuse. So today, I decided to do something different with that part of my body. Today, I got my first tattoo.
The tattoo is partly a tribute to the Orlando shooting victims because my friends and I easily could have been among them. The aftermath of the shooting was an incredibly spiritual experience for me, strange though that may be. Not long after, I started working the Twelve Steps and solidified my connection with God. I believe I was made in God’s divine image, made with care, divine love, and cosmic magic. Who am I to hate something that was made by a perfect Creator? Talk about playing God. Today, I will practice humility and not suppose that I am so great that I can see God’s mistakes. Today, I will practice self-love and take care of my body. Today, I will honor my story of survival and strength by being proud of who I am and loving myself. It’s about damn time.
My experiences at college are comparable to day and night. In the daylight, I was studious, intelligent, reserved, and sensible. I never skipped class; I always budgeted time to do my homework; I kept my dorm clean; I was on good terms with my roommate. I might have had a cigarette (or ten–let’s be real, I chain-smoked.) during the day. I probably consumed more caffeine than calories between breakfast time and dinnertime, but overall, I was on my best behavior.
Nights were a different story. After dark, I had a tendency to wander campus alone and barefoot, a cigarette between my lips and plenty more in my pocket, dizzy with hunger and dehydration. I had a favorite swing where I would sit and listen to music, letting my depression overtake me. Under cover of darkness, no one could see how red my eyes were after my friends and I got high. We would smoke outside and then amble through campus, jumping and skipping like children. It was nighttime when Jake and I laid in a hammock, arms around each other, inhaling each other’s pot breath as we exchanged kisses. We saw a shooting star. It was a good night. The next time we got high we smoked with a stranger, and it was not so good.
Sexual assault is not easy to talk about. It was not easy to experience. It has not been easy to work through in treatment. Instead of blaming my assailant, I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been on drugs. I should have known better than to get high with a virtual stranger. I should have listened to Jake and my other friends who were telling me I’d had enough. I should have picked up on how he was touching me before we were alone. In the days after the assault, a constant chorus of, “My fault… my fault… my fault… my…” played in my head. It made sense: I had been irresponsible and careless by taking drugs, therefore the assault was punishment for my behavior. Just as God warned Lot and his family not to look back, my parents, teachers, and society had warned me not to take drugs; and just as Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s instructions and was turned into a pillar of salt, I disobeyed what I had been taught and was punished. So I thought.
It was this kind of black-and-white thinking that led me to bang my head into a tree out of frustration just a few days ago. I felt like my world was crumbling and falling apart because I had realized that I can’t keep blaming myself for other people’s actions forever. I had been crying on and off all day, wrestling with my ideas of God and what it means to be Jewish. By blaming myself for the assault, I had the world neatly explained and organized. I believed that a sort of karmic justice permeated the universe, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. As I beat my forehead against the tree, I did not experience clarity. Sobbing, I sank to the ground and wiped a trickle of blood away from my eyes. Nothing made sense. If the assault wasn’t my fault, then I wasn’t being punished. If it wasn’t a punishment, then how could I explain it?
As one of my friends from treatment reminded me, God gave us all free will. I had a choice about how to handle my emotions as I walked through the woods crying. God didn’t make me bang my head into that tree, and God didn’t make that boy assault me. We chose to do what we did. I believe that God feels my pain and wants me to turn to Him–not self-harm–for comfort.
It is hard for me to let go of my karmic fantasy. I wish the world were as simple as rewards and punishment, and when I think about the fact that the world is random, chaotic, and dangerous, I get scared. I thought I could beat the fear out of my psyche if I just hit my head hard enough. Today, I choose to appreciate the mysterious ways God works instead. It is hard for me to have faith. In my disorder, I turned away from God for a few years, labeling myself as an atheist, and ignoring any spiritual connection. As I made progress in my recovery, I returned to synagogue and felt close to God through music. Still, I am trying to trust. I am too small to see the awesome and wondrous pattern that runs through the universe. The world is intricate and in constant motion; each individual is like a single spot of paint in an impressionistic painting. When I look around, I see no pattern, only chaos. I simply have to trust that God is a master artist who can see the whole design.
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.