Because of shame, I rarely speak about a particularly disturbing aspect of my mental illness. I discovered it by accident as a child, likely in response to having my innocence unravel. What began as a coping mechanism became reflexive behavior, in turn developing into a symptom of its own, ultimately integrating itself into my diagnosis. When things get dark internally, when I am faced with more anxiety than I can handle, when the impulse to protect myself from my fears is unavailable to my conscience, I reach for the valve that releases the pressure, and nothing and no one can make me stop. I go directly to self-harm.
The first time I hurt myself I used a nail I’d found in the alley. After developing an infection, I needed a tetanus shot. Unlike the needle, the nail never hurt; to the contrary – it made the Voices stop. I could calm down. I could think. It was a different kind of medicine.
I can hit my body with enough force to punch through a plasterboard wall. I pound my thighs until they bruise, or bang my head against the countertop. Later I discover yellowing blotches and wonder how they got there. I’ve learned that I am using pain to create a semblance of control, but I rarely feel that pain, and control too seldom follows.
Self-harm is private, as private as self-love. While relatively few, if any, stigmas are attached to caring for one’s self, the opprobrium of disclosing self-harm is not only widespread, but encouraged. A popular, but grossly incorrect, belief is that people who live with this symptom are hurting themselves to get attention. The guilt associated with self-inflicted injury precludes any attention-seeking. It’s enough of a challenge trying to be accepted as a person living with a mental illness, let alone deal with the disparaging remarks and bullying that accompany being honest about those bruises and marks. Long pants and hoodies do a fine job of covering, but they’re more than a little obvious in the heat of a summer’s day. It’s easier to hide the evidence by starting in a place no one would look than it is to concoct a wall of lies to hide behind.
Shame on top of shame on top of shame. It’s a self-generating puzzle box nestled deep within my diagnosis. It might start with a movie where a recluse marries a mannequin, or a writer starts dating his operating system, but eventually the message finds its way into my soul: I am a failure unworthy of love. I deserve to be beaten.
The pool of my peers as they build relationships, start families, and create successful lives for themselves reflects nothing but sky when I gaze into it. Advocating for equality in the world of social interaction is nothing compared to admitting that it wasn’t the cabinet door that I slammed into in haste. If the house of cards shows signs of instability, I isolate. When it reaches a certain point, the fists come out. That brief moment of burning muscles signals the end of any frustration or emotional pain. Sleep and sunrise guide me upstream from the nightmare, renewed. But shame settles in when I see my legs in the shower, my face in the mirror, the purple-blue flowers of self-loathing bled and ruined.
The reasons for self-injury are as varied as the individuals who share this widely misunderstood symptom. People living with bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder are all at risk for self-harming behavior. If this is you, take heart. You are not alone, and you can get help. There are others like you who experience this, and there are professionals who are willing to listen. They can offer assistance in ways that go beyond the shame and the fear of exposure, so that even if it’s just for a little while, you can find some relief. It’s a better kind of medicine.
The society we live in is waking up to the need for a change in the way it views and deals with mental illness. Regardless of your diagnosis, acceptance is finally a seed of an idea that has been planted at a grassroots level, and things will get better. They already are. But if you cut, or if you bruise, or burn, beat, pull, or puncture your body, the harm it can do runs a terrible risk of taking you out of the game before you get a chance to see just how vitally important you are to the movement of change that we’re all creating together.
I know it hurts. That path our demons take us down is a horrible trap, and the relief is so short, the control is so fleeting. I understand because I’ve been there, because sometimes I still go there. Your therapist understands, too, because it’s their job to understand; they may have even walked that path before us.
I know that it gets confusing, that we don’t always understand why or what or how or even when. I know that sometimes it’s a long and calculated plan from here to there, but please know this – as your body ages, without some form of intervention and professional help, it will begin to heal less quickly, and the shame will imbed itself more deeply. I’ve learned this the hard way, and I am finally starting to break free after sharing my story with my therapist. We have found a way to help me, and that’s a start. Share your story, please. You are not your diagnosis and your symptoms aren’t your life. Your future can be free from pain. Find that trusted person and start a conversation. Bring change to mind and body – yours.
Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle artist, writer, and musician living with schizophrenia. He received his diagnosis in 2010 and has been managing his illness with a passion ever since. He is currently writing a memoir chronicling his experiences with schizophrenia and trauma in the hope that people living with a mental illness – as well as those who love and care for them – will find something in his story that compels them to share their own. Publicly open in his advocacy for awareness and change, Henry focuses on education and communication as the most effective tools in any superhero’s utility belt. Honesty and courage work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.