Recently, a good friend confided to me that she was worried about her daughter. The young girl had started cutting herself and my friend was worried that she was suicidal. I wondered why my friend had chosen me to give her advice. How could she know that I’d once been a cutter myself? It’s been years since my cutting days, but the feelings of shame and embarrassment that coincided with slicing up my arms quickly resurfaced, like a secret that hadn’t been buried quite deep enough.
I quickly did an inventory of my feelings at the time of those events and I told my friend that her daughter was probably not suicidal, but I decided against giving her any advice because I was afraid of suggesting the wrong thing and perhaps causing harm instead of helping. I guess I also found it difficult to believe that someone else could have motives that were similar to mine. I must have a pretty big ego because I really thought that my feelings and my circumstances were unique. I had no idea that cutting had become such a popular activity.
For me, it started back when I was still a teenage punk, living at the Canterbury. I remember those times as good times. I was in a popular band and I was living in a crazy, fun, exciting place. I was far away from my mother and father and the domestic violence that I’d wanted to escape for so long, but for some reason, I felt numb and insignificant. I was drinking on a regular basis in those days and occasionally ingested whatever recreational drug was offered to me. I didn’t buy the drugs, so I never felt like I had a drug problem. I did have a drinking habit. I hesitate to call it an addiction, because I could go without drinking for days at a time, but I found it much more appealing to stay drunk.
I kept myself in check. I did not want to be drug or alcohol dependent. I’d grown up in East L.A. and I had my first “7&7” when I was still in elementary school, so I was no innocent. At Stevenson Jr. High and Garfield HS, I’d been around more drugs than were ever present at the Canterbury or at the Masque. In Jr. High, I’d chosen service as an elective and I’d worked in the nurse’s office and seen kids who OD’d and were taken by ambulance to the hospital. After their suspensions, they’d usually have to stop by the nurse’s office before being readmitted to school. I’d talked to some of these girls while they were waiting to see the nurse. I’d listen to their stories of how they’d had their stomachs pumped. Imagining a plastic tube being forced down my esophagus helped to keep me in line. The point I’m trying to make is that my self inflicted injuries had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.
I remember Craig Lee pulling me aside one night after seeing my arms. He was like a caring older brother. He was worried that my hurting myself was a prelude to suicide. I assured him that suicide was not what I was after. In fact, I never used razors to cut myself. I always cut with sharp objects which could cause abrasions or lacerations but not deep incisions. Things with jagged edges, broken bottles, scissors, needles, pins, metal can tops, anything that could draw blood was attractive. What I was after was pain.
Pain helped me stay in touch with my own humanity. I was going through a period in my life when I felt connected to everything in a cold, almost sterile way that’s difficult for me to put into words. At the same time, I felt disconnected from humanity. I felt emotionally and spiritually numb. It’s difficult to express this feeling of belonging and yet feeling that you are in a void, a feeling of being everything and nothing at the same time. The overwhelming numbness I felt was terrifying. It made me feel detached, cold, and not human. The more I felt part of something larger, the more I felt as if I was in danger of losing myself as an individual. The only way I can describe the sensation of cutting my arms and watching the warm blood trickle from the wounds is that it made me feel alive because the pain I felt was singularly mine.
For me, cutting was not a cry for help. I did not want others to interfere, to feel sorry for me or to wrongly assume that I wanted to kill myself. It may seem strange, but one of the reasons I was feeling insignificant and detached was because my understanding of my place in the universe was changing. My beliefs, my values, all the things I thought I knew for certain were being challenged. I was on my own, doing whatever I wanted, reading whatever I wanted, talking to people from different backgrounds with different ideas, actively seeking answers and passively allowing answers to reveal themselves to me.
I rigorously questioned everything I believed. I even had a strange experience which I hesitate to tell you, for fear that you’ll think me completely crazy, but which I must tell you because it scared me so badly. I was talking to Shannon, my old Canterbury roommate. She was seated across from me and I was lying on the sofa. As I watched and listened to her, I started to feel as though her voice was just a hum. I felt my body become rigid and then I felt myself floating up to the ceiling. I looked down and had an overhead view of Shannon talking to me (or my body), lying there on the sofa and I was so scared that I don’t know how I did it, but I wished or willed myself back into the body on the sofa. Maybe I fell asleep and dreamed the whole thing, but it was like no dream I’d ever had and whether it was a dream or not doesn’t really matter, because it changed me forever.
I had left my little cocoon far behind. I was flying, yet part of me wanted to remain anchored firmly to earth, to self, to the familiar. It’s much easier to change gears intellectually than spiritually. Deep spiritual change shakes you to the core. If the particles of matter that make up this thing I call “me” are the same as those that make up everything else, then the personal sensation of pain which only I feel, the drawing of my blood somehow helped make that reality personal. I was in touch with my corporeal self through pain and it grounded me.
I think that the so-called experts who study this sort of thing would probably denigrate my experience by saying that I was suffering from depression and didn’t know how to express it, or that my cutting was a cry for help. After all these years, I think I have a pretty clear perspective on what I was going through. My cutting was personal and private. It was not a cry for help and not indicative of a desire to commit suicide. I was not depressed, although there was a sense of loss that accompanied growth and change.
I eventually stopped cutting my arms. The scars faded after a few years. Had the subject not been brought up by my friend, I would have been quite content to keep the whole thing to myself but they say confession is good for the soul (there’s my old Catholic upbringing.) Having said all of this, I must tell you that I know nothing about why other people cut; I only know why I did it. I write this now in hopes that sharing what I went through may help someone out there who is cutting or who has a loved one who is cutting.