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Why We Cut Ourselves

Me and my 1941 Royal Typewriter

The memory of me sitting down at ten years old, digging a hole into my leg with a knife and a needle (see yesterday’s post), feels distinct from the times I pulled blades over my arms and legs. The childhood act seems premeditated: a kid in the middle of summer, bored and looking for something to do, thinks it’d be a real hoot to dig a hole into his calf.

Later incidents were true slasher-moments, when I, in the throes of a full-blown psychotic break, have sliced up my skin with a blade. The needle and the knife and the ice from childhood—that feels calm. But the later cuts, in high school and, much later, in my forties, were desperate attempts to take the pain out of my head and place it somewhere where it made sense.

Cutting is a coping mechanism. Whatever happened when you were a kid is too vast for your brain. It hurts, but, where is the pain? Everywhere. Desperate, you look for a pain that makes sense.

The technical term for cutting, according to this Psychology Today article, is “non-suicidal self-injury.” This is true in my case. I don’t cut to kill myself. I slice to shunt the pain out of my skull, to a place on the body where I can focus. These are times when the prolonged rape in childhood has, due to a stressful moment, filled in me like a steel balloon. It pushes out of me, against my skin. No, it’s in my head. No, it’s in the room, over there in the corner—here he comes. Then, one pull of the cutlery over the forearm—the blood, the three inch slice: relief.

This obviously isn’t good for you. If you know someone who cuts, intervene. But please understand this: we who cut usually aren’t suicidal. If you feel physical pain, you know you’re alive. A person who cuts is trying her goddamned best to free herself from the clamp of psychological pain.

But, for those who don’t know the specific road of acute childhood trauma, it looks like we’re weak. Insane, obviously. We scare people. So we hide our scars, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, even in summer.

Or we might slip up, and let you see a scar. I do that when I’m desperate for help. The shriveling Me inside me is screaming for someone to save us both. In those moments, my psychotic mind has a crude strategy to it: by cutting, I’m trying to show you something that you will never understand.

Which, is not your fault. Because, this isn’t just psychology. And it sure isn’t Devil possession (I will address Madness qua Demonology in later posts). During that year and a half of rape, starting when I was five, the hardwiring in my head twisted up. Which means we must look inside the head to get a better grasp of what’s going on in there. We must study telemore-degradation, the amygdala, and cortisone. We must see, on the molecular level, what another person’s malice has done to us.

At least, that’s what I have to do. I read a lot about the shit in my head—psychology books, neurobiology, circadian rhythms, trauma-induced bipolar. It doesn’t cure me. There is no cure for any of this. But studies help me be more aware of the sickness, and thus, more aware of myself. Who I am. All of me.


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