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This entry is going to stray into some very personal and fairly painful material for me. I am going to come out publicly as a self-mutilator in an attempt to make other people understand what it means. Self-mutilators are pretty darn misunderstood.
It's been something I have struggled with since I was 13 years old. I have large burn scars on my arms that will never go away. I preferred burning over cutting although I did cut myself as well. I have it fairly under control now that I'm older, but that's not to say that when I'm very upset I do not fall back into old patterns and the urge can be pretty fucking strong. It doesn't happen very often now and I manage to keep from scarring myself; but it's still there and always will be, just like the scars. There are a lot more young people out there practicing self-mutilation than you might think.
My mother spotted the burns on my upper arm when I was about 16. They were big, scabbed over ugly looking things. I generally kept a shirt on so no one saw them but my mother walked in on me changing. I had been burning and cutting myself for years by that point. She was angry that I would do something like that to myself. She threatened to take me to a burn ward and make me explain to burn victims why I would do something so terrible to myself. I don't think she really understood the deeper psychological issues that drives someone to self-mutilation.
Self-mutilators do not usually want to kill themselves. They aren't necessarily doing it as a cry for help or attention. Most self-mutilators hide what they are doing. I would say that self-mutilation has a number of factors that are different for each individual. For me it was a combination of a deep socially-rooted hate of my body, depression, social anxiety, emotional overload, and isolation. I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere... not at school, not with my peers... I was a fat smart weird kid who felt very lonely and the only way I could live through that internalized pain was to live it in a very external way. I don't think I ever felt suicidal when I was doing this but I sure as hell wanted to feel something else, anything else, than the deep emotional pain I was feeling.
I talked to a psychiatrist years ago about the issue and she agreed it was a way to live out internal pain on the outside of your body. It was a way to get that emotional pain out and live it in a physical way. You can bandage up a physical pain much easier than psychic pain. Sometimes I think it was the only thing that kept me alive; or kept me from falling into a spiraling emotional abyss and never coming out. I made a psychological pain into a physical pain I could deal with. I'm not saying it's a particularly healthy way to deal with things but it was the only way I could survive some very dark times in my life.
If you know a young girl or boy who is self-mutilating; don't chastise them or make them feel guilty. Self-mutilation comes from a place of deep emotional pain not as an urge to scare or piss you off. They aren't doing it to make you feel bad or to try and guilt you into sympathy. They are doing it because they lack other options of dealing with their body issues, emotional pain and isolation. I think a better option would be to try and understand what is going on in their lives to drive them to that option. Support and understanding will go a lot further in the efforts to bring someone out of the isolation and fear that serious depression can bring on.
I hope disclosing this will help a few people feel a little less alone out there and maybe shine a small light on the fact that there is something seriously wrong with our society as a whole if this is how so many people feel they have deal with their emotions.