“You go first,” Justin said.
I pressed it against my skin, equal parts scared and excited. At the worst, it would hurt really badly. At best, I’d finally be in charge of something in my life, which was spinning out of control.
One month earlier my parents informed me of our plans to move. “We’ll be closer to your school,” “You’ll get used to it,” “Just give it time,” they said. None of it made me feel any better. The worst was when they told me, “You’ll make new friends.”
“I DON’T WANT NEW FRIENDS, I LIKE THE ONES I HAVE!” I wanted to scream. But I kept my mouth shut. And now, a day away from the big move, I decided to speak out.
I focused my eyes on the part of my arm just above the crook of my elbow. I had to see everything.
I pressed the point down until I felt a hard pinch. I had to feel everything.
I swiped the blade across my arm. I had to make myself bleed.
I watched as the skin separated like a time-lapse video of a flower in bloom, but it didn’t bleed. Another failure.
As I began to mourn one more thing I couldn’t control, it happened. The blood began to fill up the slit like water on a cracked desert floor. My eyes widened with anticipation, and as it overflowed and began streaming down my arm, I felt it for the first time since in my life.
I was ten years old.
Eight-grade track meets were the best. I got out of school for the entire day. I got to hang out with all of my friends. I got to stare at the best-looking girls from all of the schools in our district. And, best of all, I got to do it all without having to run (Thank you, creator of the shot put).
By the third meet of the year, I’d made a name for myself in my circle of friends for my take on the pre-run prayer. It was funny. It was serious. It included everyone. It was my calling.
About an hour before the final race, my friends and I stood in the middle of the field making jokes and talking to a couple of the popular girls from our school. As I was daydreaming about what I’d say during the pre-run prayer, my buddy Spencer snuck up behind me, grabbed the sides of my shorts in each of his hands, and swiftly yanked them down to my ankles. Mortified, I reached down to pull my pants up and realized my boxers had been pulled down too. I fell to the grass and struggled to pull my dignity back up. About the same time my waistband realigned with its namesake, I heard it. Laughter. There was nowhere to hide and my thoughts went on a rampage.
They’re laughing at me and I’ll never have any friends and no girl will ever want me and my life is over…
I couldn’t take it. I marched off the field shrugging off every attempt to appease the situation.
“I didn’t see anything,” a voice called out.
My life is over…
“It’s no big deal.”
My life is over…
“I’m sorry, man. Where are you going?”
My life is over….
I marched off the field and over to a nearby neighborhood. The tears made it hard to see, but I could still feel everything. The hurt. The embarrassment. The rage. The shame.
I’d felt pain like this before. I thought of that day with Justin a few years earlier and yearned for the feeling I discovered.
I searched the ground for something sharp, eventually stumbling across a small metal section from a chain-length fence.
I picked it up. The end was sharp. I wasn’t scared. My life was over.
Cut. Scratch. Punch. Repeat.
As the sun set, I started the short walk back to the field.
The cuts on my left forearm stung as I covered them with a white shirt that soon became streaked with crimson. The blood from my nose tasted the way a metal bar smells as it traced the outline of my mouth. The horror on my friends’ faces as I crept into view was even more apparent through the squint of a swollen black eye.
Apologies. Disbelief. Fear. Sympathy. Heartbreak. They expressed it all and I welcomed it. I’d earned it this time.
My friends didn’t invite me out tonight.
She didn’t return my phone call.
Mom and dad got in a fight.
Coach yelled at me.
This is what “cutting” and other forms of self-harm became for me. It was my way of controlling my emotions. Sadness, guilt, betrayal, regret, frustration, anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, all gone with the blade of a knife or the prick of a pushpin or the sharp end of a nail.
It didn’t take long before I became adept at hiding my affliction. That second incident taught me that, when it comes to “cutting,” people want to believe anything but the truth.
“I fell into a thorn bush playing football,” I told my parents, friends and anyone else who asked. The cuts were an equal distance apart. They were only on the inside of my left forearm. They were too deep to have been caused by a thorn. They didn’t question it.
I didn’t blame them.
Being in the emergency room for a self-inflicted injury that isn’t quite an emergency is excruciatingly pathetic. I sat with the tourniquet on my wrist. On one side of me, a bald-headed drug addict with sunburnt skin and a twitch. On the other, a ten year-old boy who’d fallen off his bike. I envied him. Not just his head wound, but the look of wonder in his eyes. If only he knew what was in store for him, he wouldn’t be so hopeful.
I wanted to talk to him. To tell him what was coming.
“In five years, you’ll fail your first suicide attempt so miserably that the doctors who are supposed to be saving your life will tell you to wait in the ER like someone renewing a license at the DMV. But don’t worry. In five more, you’ll solve everything. You’ll figure out how to numb your pain so efficiently that you won’t mind hanging out in hospital waiting rooms. You’ll even have some fun. Nothing compares to the joy of filling a prescription after convincing the same doctors who stitched you up five years ago that you’ve never heard of oxycodone and you’ll give it a shot if they think it will help with your chronic back pain.”
“What’s oxycodone,” he’d say.
Self-harm is an addiction. Addictions tend to go one of two ways. Death or recovery.
I am sitting on my bed and the girl I love is standing before me. She’s telling me that she’s sad and worthless and hurting and I’m telling her it isn’t true. I tell her that she’s smart and beautiful and funny and I can see that, for her, it isn’t true.
She says, “I’m sorry,” and I ask, “For what?”
She pulls up her jeans and I see them. I see them and I know exactly what each one means.
I am ten years old again.
Seeing yourself reflected in someone you love is the most powerful catalyst for change I’ve ever experienced.
Sometimes it’s impossible to be compassionate with the person in the mirror, but with loved ones, it’s usually effortless. Just seeing my reflection in her was enough to spark a change in my life that would lead me away from my need to control everything and toward a powerful realization.
We weren’t perfect, but we were trying. And as much as we wanted to be in control, we needed even more to surrender. To give up this misplaced ideal that tells us “everything that isn’t right is wrong.” To realize that we might not be exactly what we wanted to be, but we were enough. To let go of all of the judgments and all of the negativity and all of the mistruths that led us to believe we were unworthy of love. To finally feel it…