Let’s call them gifts. They sit under my (metaphorical) Christmas tree. Addiction, Overdose, Trauma, Grief, Anxiety and Depression, to name a few. They are big, they are small, some are surprising and some obvious. A few are neatly packaged, but most look like they have been ravaged a part by a three-year-old trying to get to their new paw patrol pup. It’s a mess. Mostly unwanted, and not eligible for return, I must make the best of them.
Throughout my life, I’ve encountered a lot of these…gifts. I’m pretty much a blue-ribbon winner of all things Crisis. I’ve also thankfully had periods of joy, triumph, happiness, love and creativity. I’ve spent years in therapy, and I’m grateful to say that these days I’m (mostly) winning the battle. I still get shaky. I get scared. I mess up and I repeat harmful patterns. It’s hard to rewire the brain. But one box I’m ready to bust open and talk about is self-harm.
I’m a cutter. Was. Was a cutter. The words are sharp and uncomfortably guttural even as I type them. I don’t remember how it really started, but I was about 16 or 17. I have no recollection of where I got the idea or impulse or what I was going through at the time-- something painful, in those late high school years which prove to be difficult for a lot of us.
It’s baffling. It’s probably the hardest one to explain. I’ve had a difficult time trying to wrap my own sense of understanding around it. It also holds the most shame for me. My scars are constant visual reminders of the pain I felt. Each one mark a different emotion. Red, raised, flat, deep; Rage, crying out, hiding out, and shame. The tell my secrets even when I want no one to know. They branded me, and I wish very much that they were gone.
Why did I do it? They were tiny orange plastic scissors in the beginning. They graduated to kitchen knives. Self-harmers, I have read, and as I have come to understand it- - do it for many reasons. It’s a compulsive behaviour. For me, the pain and turmoil I felt inside, seemed insurmountable and yet also invisible. If I made a wound, I could see it—I could deal with it—I could heal it. So, in a way, I was trying to solve the problem. I was trying to make right what felt wrong. The cuts were tangible proof that I was messed up, broken, and needed fixing. Something that I desperately felt inside, could now be seen outside.
In moments of emotional hurricanes, things were crazy and hectic and swirling and I craved clarity. Calm. Peace. With the red blood came a surge of momentary serenity. It’s fucked up. It sounds fucked up. It’s also something I usually did WHILE fucked up, either very intoxicated or high. Not solely limited to those times, but most often. My cutting was not all that frequent, but when it happened it was bold, and it was bad. One instance, 10 stiches bad. The cycle would repeat. I’d feel bad and guilty and wrong for what I had done to myself. That shame and guilt would lead to the next instance. I was not okay. I’ve also managed to keep most of it all, a secret. Those closest to me know what’s going on, but to much of the outside world I’ve kept my scars very hidden.
I’m an actor. I’ve been good at pretending since I was a kid. Like, deep pretend. Profound pretend—sometimes to the point of even fooling myself. This talent has become my livelihood, and I’m grateful for it. At the same time, it’s been a dangerous skill to have during those times when I should have stopped pretending. Perhaps the cuts were my attempt to show that it really was all a facade. Walking into an audition room- blonde, blue eyed, poised and confident to take on a role; all the while my bracelets and long sleeves covered my scars, my fear, my deep anxieties, and my belief that I was truly worthless. I needed to present myself in the way in which the industry saw me. Shiny and pretty and presentable!
We all wear masks, we all hide our insecurities. They may be big, they may be small, they may be obvious, they may be subtle. But they are there. I wore a mask to keep getting through life; to keep moving forward, the best way I could at the time. I like to think I have more self-awareness now, more of an idea when the mask is helping and when it is hurting. Sometimes we need to wear masks. I’m still in a place of deep vulnerability about my scars. I’m trying to move to a place of being OK with it.
I won’t wrap this article up with a nice shiny ribbon and bow, because life is not always a dazzlingly beautiful gift. Sometimes it’s not sparkling and bright. Maybe it’s a shoebox, or broken, or lumpy. Maybe it’s in the corner hiding deep beneath the tree, wanting to be picked and yet not wanting to not be seen. And that’s OK, too.