Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Confessions Of An Ex-Cutter

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.


Jenny Lens said...

Alice, you never cease to amaze me. Your depth of feelings, your ability to express yourself intellectually and emotionally at the same time, equally and balanced, leaves me breathless and challenges me to respond. Few are as talented as you musically, visually and verbally.

I knew you as a sweet, beautiful, loving, popular beauty with style, grace and charm. You stood out from the crowd, in real life and in my photos. People are always drawn to you when they look at my photos.

I've always regarded our friendship as a special gift. I was stunned reading about your aggressiveness ("Violence Girl") and now your cutting.

You've touched upon something I think many can relate: doing something that on the surface seems to others self-destructive, yet to you, made you feel more connected, more alive to yourself. Usually people run away from pain, drown their sorrows, take pills.

But your self-inflicted pain "grounded" you. I've related to food in that manner. In fact, I have to fight that urge all the time. I "feel" myself more fully when I am stuffed and it's a constant, moment-by-moment struggle to feel as grounded when hungry, which is how I need to feel to stay healthier.

I didn't cut myself but I shot speed and heroin a few times (which only made me sick). What's the difference between cutting and shooting up? Not much. I wasn't suicidal, although many times I didn't care if I lived or died. But I wanted to feel more intensely. I wanted to experience more, live on the edge.

At the same time I wanted to feel less pain, the pain of being an outsider, of not being recognized for all the hard work w/my photos. The pain of not being on the guest lists of the very bands I helped get gigs or supported, not just through my photos, but telling everyone at record companies. The pain of seeing my photos published without my name or worse, another photographer's name on MY photos.

The pain of just living as a fat, bright, talented, insecure, loud Jewish woman, needing love but with such a strong personality, always the loner. Why not shoot up? But cutting, oh the scars and infections. At least shooting up gave me such a rush! And I was flying for hours.

You wrote "It’s much easier to change gears intellectually than spiritually." I knew the punk lifestyle would be short-lived. I knew the country was becoming more conservative, more repressive and that depressed me. That "shook me to the core" and I haven't stopped shaking my head in disbelief. Society was changing, becoming more expensive and the scene migrating to OC and South Bay, becoming more hardcore and women getting pushed out.

The punk lifestyle and subsequent shooting up (the result of record and magazine indifference to my work and media/industry disdain for the first punk generation) brought new excitement and real danger into my life. I got involved with shady characters (think "Blue Velvet"), but my scars were internal. They took two decades to begin to heal.

I've never understood cutting. Maybe because I've cut myself so many times while making art and I heal slowly. I still have the scar from a Clash show my first night in England, June 1980.

While we are in "confession" mode, I want to share the headline of my recent blog entry, the first in months.

I had an abortion. Ms. magazine has a petition, which I signed. I got pregnant upstairs at the Whisky, in the backstage bathroom, 1978 or 79, by one of their bartenders. Is that a great rock story or what? Knocked up at the Whisky.

It's very important to discuss this because few women are able to get abortions these days. Too few clinics and lack of money. Perhaps next year all women will be denied this most basic right. If I had that child, my archive would not exist. My life, and the child's life, would have been ruined. I would have become suicidal.

Please help preserve every woman's right to choose whether to bring a child into this world or not. Not all of us can be good mothers like Alice.

And not all cutters are suicidal. But all cutters need friends. We can't truly heal without friends. Here's to staying healthy by sharing our stories, encouraging others to survive whatever depression, blues, problems. We've all been there. Don't give up.

Anonymous said...

thanks for talking about this, Alice. While many people are aware that cutting happens very often to in teenage girls [along with eating disorders that go along with self esteem issues], I just want people to remember that teenage boys suffer from this too. I know, because I did it myself.
I still have a hard time figuring out why I did it. it certainly was not for attention, because I always made sure it was on a place where no one would ever see it but me. All I can think of was the desperate need to feel something, anything, even if it was pain. I can't blame drinking at that point in my life. so I think it was straight up depression.

Anonymous said...

thanks for talking about this, Alice. While many people are aware that cutting happens very often to in teenage girls [along with eating disorders that go along with self esteem issues], I just want people to remember that teenage boys suffer from this too. I know, because I did it myself.
I still have a hard time figuring out why I did it. it certainly was not for attention, because I always made sure it was on a place where no one would ever see it but me. All I can think of was the desperate need to feel something, anything, even if it was pain. I can't blame drinking at that point in my life. so I think it was straight up depression.

Anonymous said...

Miss Alice,
This was an awesome blog. Your honesty is brilliant. I only wish Sarah could see this. I know she has felt like you did then. I started this up a year ago, i'll be honest, I couldn't take it anymore. I was able to stop...I started this back then too, 76-77. When my daughter started this about an year ago, due to the death of her father. I started up too and didn't realize. It was hard to hide the scars on my wrist, so I started on my ankles and feet, this I reasoned, no one could see the scars there. When i was caught by my daugther, i couldn't tell her, i said it was the cat or I guess I sratched myself and did know. I then realized i might have a problem too. One that i needed to get an handle on. i was able, and it is on-going, day by day. I would like to thank you, Monsignor Mike Murphy and one other awesome fellow for helping me stop. Sarah has stopped as well. On my bad days like the one I had about 2 weeks ago, that would of been the first thing I would do, because then it was something I could control. I just worked through it and was able to pat myself on the back for not starting up again. Because if I did, I would be letting you, Monsignor and the fellow that I am very very grateful too for helping me too.

Thank YOu Alice for your blogs and for sharing your life with your readers. You are a GREAT GIFT!

Anonymous said...

WOW Alice! What a well-written and brutally honest blog about a misunderstood and still-taboo subject. I have to applaud your bravery in sharing what must have been a painful memory for the sole purpose of helping a friend in need. That's a true friend.

It almost sounds like your use of cutting had a sort of religious, spiritually cathartic purpose. In that respect, it's much closer to ritual scarification and body modification. In modern terms, it was your way of physically manifesting and then releasing the emotional pain you were feeling. Instead of trying to stuff the pain or numb it with drugs or alcohol, you choose to feel it intensely and briefly and thus release it.

Anonymous said...

Alice, your candor and honesty never ceases to amaze me! I could never have written this. Great blog. Keep it up.

NicPanter said...

Hey Alice,
I just wanted to write and give you a big thumbs up on this blog entry.

Like you, I was never much of a druggie or alcohol drinker. And like you, by the time early LA punk was in full swing, I was slicing up my arms with various dull to medium sharp objects all the time.

I'm surprised at how much of our stories bear similiarity -- but then again, maybe it's not that surprising. Also like you, the home-life I'd escaped into the open arms of punk from was filled with domestic violence (a lot of it directed at me by a psycho step-father).

By the time I left home, I was as numb as a kid could be and still be breathing and it was just as you describe -- cutting made me feel physical pain and this was such a relief -- it made me feel human again.

Over the years, recovering my humanity from the hell of a sad childhood at the hands of brutal adults has been a long and at times, difficult process and my arms are still crosshatched by those scars.

Like you, cutting reminded me that I was alive and could feel something. In all the literature I've read about this phenomenon, no one has ever quite hit it so squarely. It's about defeating the numbness and finally feeling something....

all the best,


NicPanter said...

ps thanks for the Keith Olberman clip down the page. Oh, my god!!!! Someone is finally saying it!

darkside777 said...

Alice is an awesome person for sharing this story with us all. I am very grateful. Alice is indeed an TRUE friend. She always has been and still is to me and my daughter.
Thank you Alice for sharing something so personal.

HoosierAdvisor said...

I love the way you write.

I don't think your feelings and motivations are unique at all. People don't talk often about having those feelings so everybody might think they are the only ones who feel that way.

Now I guess I'm going to have to go to your website.

Got any short stories you'll share?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this, Alice. It is hard to put things so personal out there, but you are right about it helping other people. I've been a cutter for more than 8 years now and I just turned 20. It is also important to note how different people are and how one actions doesn't have one cause. I grew up in an abusive family situation, and this is what made me want to cut growing up. For me, being confronted by my parents wondering if I was suicidal was horrible . I felt so outed; it made me want to hide myself completely from my family and other people. I become very angry and withdrew as much as possible every person.
Having someone to talk with- friends who cut/understand through experience/or people with close friends or siblings who cut- is what has helped me. I go to therapy now that focuses on cutting. It is a huge huge step to go to counseling and I used to say I would never go ever in my life. I just wanted to be left alone. The things that have helped most people in my group therapy of people who self-harm is re-establishing this whole notion of being like everyone else/your painful emotions as a universal reality. To stay grounded in humanity, which is something you touched on very well. Hearing other people explain how you aren't a freak and that your emotions are valid and human- thats what helps. Thanks so much again; take care.