On 29th August, official last day of the Singapore Night Festival 2015, I officially talked to someone about my “self harm” behavior. I’m ever so grateful for the safe refuge this friend of mine had enveloped me in that night, making it easy for me to confide such dark matters in her.
During the peak of my sadness attacks, I love to slam my hand against solid, painful surfaces – railings, wall edges, rough concrete walls. I would swing my hand towards them with great velocity, as if imitating the motion of swinging a squash racket delivering a serve. The result: a trembling right hand with a red, raw and peeling back.
Throughout the motions, I am all too aware of the negative connotations associated with self-harm behaviors. After all, I’ve been on the other side, regarding individuals who engage in self harm as “attention seekers”, “weak” and “irrational”. Which made the whole ordeal x100 worse.
Upon a retrospective discussion with my friend last Saturday night, sitting on a patch of carpet grass, beers in hand, it dawned upon me that self harm isn’t entirely harmful. If conducted appropriately, it is a useful tool for maintaining sanity.
Based upon my personal experience, self injury actually WORKS. When my sadness attacks are prolonged, I find myself up to the neck, ensnared by apathy and indifference. This affect blunting had me sealed up within its cocoon. I find pain rather effective in bringing me away from this state of downward spiraling limbo, back to the present moment, a return to reality.
My friend inflicted pain upon herself to regulate her intense emotions. On the verge of tears, or an emotional outburst, pinching herself hard in her arm gave her the maintenance of control over the intensity of her feelings. Works like a charm most of the time.
In fact, looking beyond humans, research has shown that self-harm behaviors can be found in animals too. This is backed by a perfectly rational explanation too. Self injuries usually occur during emotionally disturbing circumstances, when animals find themselves in a state with little or no control (i.e. when being locked up). Parrots pull their feathers out and primates in captive bite themselves as a coping mechanism against helplessness and social isolation.
These strategies provide momentary regulation of emotions and can bring about a sense of calm among the chaos. I can definitely attest to that, especially when the acute pain is accompanied by a sharp, involuntary intake of breath, bringing on the rush of oxygen into the body. In high oxygen conditions, the mind focus upon the present moment, pushing aside all the thoughts which had been plaguing us.
I acknowledge the fact that self harm behaviors can often spiral out of control, leading to more entrenched beliefs and dire consequences. However, I believe that there is much fault to be found in the way our stigmas about self-harm perpetuates the deterioration of the condition. All the stigma associated with “cutters” manifest themselves in the minds of these individuals, inducing copious amount of guilt and shame, so much so that they find themselves seeking solace in pain to escape from these negative emotions.
As the privileged majority who fail to understand that self harm isn’t inherently deleterious, we need to examine more critically the stereotypes we are perpetuating and the consequential amount of shame we are generating in relevant individuals.
See these scars and blood as a cry for help from someone who have been held captive in their minds for a long time, with countless failed attempts to break out of the cage. Respond appropriately by holding their hands, soothing their feathers and delivering the message that YOU are willing to work together to help find the key, which will take them out of their minds.
So PLEASE, stop self harm shaming and start learning how to show some tender loving care.