You learn from the moment you’re born to avoid pain. Every bump, every bruise, every scrape. Every time something discomforting happens at all, your body makes a mental note to not do that thing again. Don’t touch the fire. Always cut away from you with scissors. Wear your knee pads when you’re skating. It’s actually much more ingrained than that. We choose routes of travel, we choose places to live, we choose people to date based on the primal, instinct-driven prerogative to avoid pain. Think about that the next time you get in your car to ride to work, or pick out a new shirt at the store, or check out a guy or a girl at the bar. You’ll quickly realize that its all about avoiding pain.
Science calls it “fight or flight.” We assess our options and choose the route by which we can achieve the least amount of suffering and produce the highest amount of pleasure. If we have to fight, we choose the stance, the fist to throw, the punch to dodge, the foot to their groin and the smile when they succumb all to produce the most pleasure and the least pain. Im not trying to make you feel bad about life or to take away your perception of your positive choices. Trust me, I am all about manifesting positivity and growing into your most awesome, most positive self. If you hang out long enough, I’ll probably pen a few stories about just that.
The reason I’m painting this picture of our choices is this, if we are built, at some pre-dawn era primal, cave man level to simply avoid pain, then how is it that it feels so good to run a razorblades across your forearm?
Naturally the question raised just now isn’t “How does it feel good?” but rather “Why would you wanna do that at all?” And for many, the answer is, “I just do.” Beyond that, it becomes much more personal. I don’t think that anybody, regardless of age sets out with the idea that hurting themselves is going to solve any of their problems. And in reality, it doesn’t. After the cuts are bleeding, after the burns are blistering, the problems are still there. What isn’t there, at least for my story, was the connection.
The first time I cut myself I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew that I was so tired of hurting emotionally, so tired of feeling the weight of all my anxiety, my depression, my whatever the hell a 12 year old articulates his adolescent feels to be, that anything else would have been better. I knew that I wasn’t going to kill myself, not yet anyway. I’d heard in school about self mutilation and how it is a sign of inner problems and how it doesn’t solve anything and all the helplines you can call if you wanna hurt yourself. There were even posters up in the hallways with pictures of teenage actors standing in the shadows looked as though they are lamenting something awful and the wording reads It’s ok to feel hurt, but not ok to hurt to feel.” I remember reading that dumb poster so many times in the hall and laughing about it but as I sat here in my living room, knowing I had hours before my mom would be home to bother me, I couldn’t help but wonder what the motivation was that the photographer gave the actor to help them to look like they wanted to hurt themselves. I could totally be that poster. Maybe after I do it, I’ll send them pictures and I’ll write on them with a Sharpie so that they read “I read your first poster and I figured I’d do both.”
I had thought about it all day. Thought about what I should use to do it with. Should I use a straight razor, a shaving razor, a kitchen knife, a thumb tack? Hell I’d even considered opening a can of tuna and using the sharp edge of the lid so that I could hide the evidence as an accident. Sitting in the living room, hungry because we were out of tuna, I sat holding the razor I used to shave. I’d been shaving my pubescent mustache for several months now and, if I’m honest about it, I picked this because it had a guard on it. You know, the one they talk about on TV so that you get the closest shave ever without razor burn. I thought, what a great way to ease into it.
Next was the choice of where. I had no intention of causing attention for myself. (some people cut as a cry for help and they’re just as justified in their choices as anyone else who does it but
when a doctor says cutting is all a cry for help, it’s because they haven’t spoken to enough people to get a full story.) And because I didn’t want to be found out, I also took the time to plan out some clothes that covered my arm all the way to the elbow and down.
I should make a quick note here that I had just decided to wear a wardrobe comprised exclusively of long sleeves and jeans in Florida as we were coming into the hottest months of the year. Parents say they have no idea that their kids have these addictions. My mom still to this day says she had no idea. And I believe her. That being said, suddenly making the switch from shirts and shorts to jackets and jeans when the temperature is going higher, not lower, has got to trigger some kind of a “what the heck” reaction. As a now father of three, if this happens to you child, don’t brush it off. I know this story is about me, but really it’s about thousands of boys, girls and probably aliens all over that simply haven’t spoken up.
Now that I’ve done the PSA to parents about warning signs, lets jump back in. Where was I? Oh yes, I’d decided:
New clothes to cover it up. Check.
Weapon of choice, a shaving razor. Check.
Location to try it out, the uninterrupted time before mom gets home in a comfortable chair on my living room. Check.
Cleaver yet misguided notion about what to do afterwards (refer back to the poster reference a few minuted back). Check.
All that was left to do now was to actually drag the blade across my arm. And I’m going to sit here behind my keyboard and describe it like a Shakespearean masterpiece where the blade glided gracefully across my bare flesh, causing a fount of blood to rush forth, ever increasing until my arm fell limp and my breath grew heavy with the anguish I felt until I could ache no longer and cried out in vain for it to cease. It was actually much more like the awkward kid in every 80’s movie when they tried to have their first kiss and couldn’t figure out what the hell they were doing.
It took so many tries to do more than just scratch the surface that I’d almost forgotten I was trying to hurt myself. It was at that point I realized that the guards on the head of a shaving razor are really good at their job and if you cut yourself while you’re shaving, its isn’t the razor that doesn’t working right, it’s just that you suck at shaving. It may come as a surprise to you but when the beautiful girls in The Craft prick their finger with a blade and blood just pops out, it’s all for show. Actually drawing blood is much harder. Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. Actually what the hell am I saying, please take my word for, you don’t need to try it for yourself.
So i decided that instead of slicing away at the surface, which caused about the same physical response as being itchy and scratching too much, that I’d place the razor against a spot, press down very hard, and then drag it. that spot ended up being the outside center of the bicep on my right arm.i pressed it down so hard that it hurt and i thought it might start bleeding just from that, but I’d resolved to drag the blade and damn it i was going to drag it. So I did. I dragged that blade all of half an inch, probably less, though it felt like my arm had been removed from my body. And It started bleeding. Slowly at first, just pooling inside the area itself. I was almost afraid to touch it. But hey I’d come this far, I had to know what it felt like. So I slide my hand across it, wiping all the pooled blood off the cut and to the side, and that’s when the dripping started. More blood started pooling, and faster too, and then dripping down my upper arm. I didn’t plan this part out in my check list. What now, a bandage? A towel? A tourniquet? So I took my shirt off and started wiping. I was feeling pretty good about my cleanup job until I noticed a single drop on the arm of the chair. The arm of the beige, cotton-blend loveseat. This was a spectacle to behold I’m sure. Frantically trying to clean everything up, looking down at the drop and feeling like it was all over. Like I’d been caught and was certainly headed to the
looney bin. But, it came right off with the shirt. Like God himself saw fit for the stain to not set it. (though I’m not exactly sure that God would have signed off on this particular activity).
By the time all the blood had been wiped clean, my heart was racing so fast that I didn’t know if I should lie down and rest or if I’d lost too much blood and was about to die. Ask any medical professional and they’ll tell you that the amount of blood that probably came from this wound wouldn’t get you anywhere near death. So I just sat back down in the chair. And I realized suddenly, as if someone had punched me right in the jaw, that the emotion I was feeling wasn’t pain, sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, fear or anything like I was used to feeling. It was numbness. I felt nothing. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what those other feelings felt like. All the things that had been pressing me down so powerfully that I couldn’t get out from under them were dulled so much that it was almost like they’d been stripped away.
Finally I’d found the thing that could help me escape all of the feelings that were raping me of the joys of life. I smiled a smile in that moment that even the Cheshire Cat couldn’t pull off. I strolled up the stairs to my room, closed the door, and collapsed on my bed in such satisfaction. And then just as quickly as it had gone, it was back. I looked around my room and remembered that life was the same as it was before. School was the same. My family was the same. I hadn’t freed myself of anything. I hadn’t found a solution. Just like all the posters and in-class discussions and helplines had said, cutting isn’t a solution.
But it was something. Something I couldn’t quite describe at the time. And maybe “something” is the wrong word. It was, nothing. I felt nothing. For just a few minutes, and from just that one little cut, I experienced a disconnect from my feelings. I felt only physical pain. I caused myself mindless, pre-dawn era primal, caveman-logic defying pain. And it was perfect.
*It should be said, that though I’ve romanticized my experience through my retelling of the story, and even though these are exactly my feelings and my memories as they exist in my head, I am by no means supporting or suggesting that self-mutilation is a good idea. If you’re struggling with this addiction in any way, please consider, for a second or two, seeking help. Not because you are too weak, but because you are strong. And no matter what you choose to do, you aren’t alone. Also yes I realize the irony in making a “get help” statement after making fun of the poster. The poster was right, i just wasn’t ready to read it.