Archway is an area of North London populated with Irish people like me. It’s almost home in two senses. It’s not far from where I live and there’s so many Irish centres and pubs that it feels like a walk down the Falls Road. It lies at the foot of Highgate, which is a vast hill upon which expensive houses perch and old churches bleed light into winter nights.   It’s quite an ugly, depressing place.   Some social climbers refer to Archway as “Lower Highgate”, when it is in fact the far less fanciful, “Upper Holloway”. (I was wrong: The name Archway derives from the arch built between Highgate and Hornsey in 1896.).

Standing outside Archway station requires a person to dig their feet into the concrete in order to avoid being blown into oncoming traffic. It is perpetually windy and cold, an urban moor of a place, wuthering heights. Nobody smiles. And standing craven beneath a bus shelter with wind bellowing in my ears is where I saw the man, or more accurately, the boy.

The man was probably in his early twenties but seemed like a boy in his rodent thinness and anemic awkwardness.  His hair was cropped and he was smoking nervously, one after the other.   He had no-one with him, in fact, I don’t think he was even waiting for something, or for anything.  Two girls were talking to each other, the usual teenage things, and he stood near them, his head turned as if listening, not in a sleazy or strange way, but in an attentive, polite way.  On first look it might have seemed if he were with him but their cynical, rather rude rolling eyes at him betrayed otherwise.

I was tired and freezing, I surreptitiously turned my music down so that I could hear what was going on.

He put his hand out in a friendly way and introduced himself as Martin.  The girls turned away from him, hand to face.  He then smiled rather tightly and stepped back, clocking a man sitting behind the girls.  He offered up a grin, but the man carried on ignoring him.

He then almost danced across the road, expertly weaving through traffic and I thought he was gone.  I resumed my reverie, pulling my coat tighter around me.  Sunday buses are terrible.  But then he reappeared and seemed to be at the shop door one second and at the bus stop the next, with no beeping horns or exasperated drivers cursing him.

From his coat pocket (one of those sports coats, with a tear in the sleeve), he produced four lollies.  He handed one each to the girls, then another to the man, and one for himself, explaining apologetically to me, “Sorry, I could only buy four”, to which I just smiled and carried on pretending to listen to music.  Then he resumed his rather jittery hovering, but was studiously disregarded.  The girls didn’t even say thank you.

The bus pulled out and almost from nowhere came a great swell of people, pushing and shoving and shivering.  I turned to look for the boy, but he was already walking away, with his hands in his pockets.

Some people might have thought he was a weirdo or predator, but that’s not how I saw him.  He was utterly nonthreatening, he didn’t bristle with aggression, he didn’t seem to have that spring coiled up inside him.

I am one of those people who worries if she feels she’s “said too much”.   It is very difficult to become my friend.  I have armour thirty feet deep.

Everybody is lonely.  And everybody is haunted.  But there’s a certain kind of loneliness that is terrifying in its obviousness.  The eyes hungrily devour the most throwaway of attentions.  Every glance is begging for acknowledgment.

This boy emanated pure, naked need. And the whole time I was watching him I was reminded of those lonely children in the playground who stood close to others in conversation so that they could pretend that they had friends. Like me.

Perhaps I should have spoken to him.

What Lurks Beneath My Sleeves: Goodbye to self harm.

I spent a lot of last night wrapped in a bath towel examining my body.  It’s strange to notice and acknowledge your skin but have very little feeling towards it.  It’s kind of like babysitting someone else’s child.  Or looking at the meat in the butcher’s window and being unable to imagine what the animal looked like when it was alive.

I haven’t self harmed for a year.  I just stopped a habit of almost a lifetime.    There was no dramatic going on strike, no downing of the razor blades.  It just happened that it didn’t happen.  I never thought I’d stop self harming, but I did, and it’s weird.   Even though all the mental terribleness of last year, I didn’t do it, didn’t feel the urge to do it.  At the moment it feels as though that part of me has gone.

(Reading all this back, it sounds melodramatic).

It used to be as much part of my day as making a cup of tea, and had the same uniform banality.  It used to horrify people, and their horror would be utterly lost upon me.   I always shrugged somewhat, and it’s not something I even really talk about.  I just never felt that it was a big thing.  Even as I write about it I’m aware of my own dispassionate tone.  It’s not something that’s shocking to me, yet when I see scars or wounds or burns on other people, my heart twists.   I want to hug them.  Or shout at them.

I kept it all very secretive, but invariably, my sister found out. She used to clean me up in the bathroom.  I felt horrible for putting her in that position, and I felt worse when my mother found out and was furious that Paula hadn’t told her.  

Initially, they thought it was a “phase” (I mean, c’mon, I was a Manic Street Preachers fan…), but then it kept going on, I hid more, and my mental health began to fall apart.  They just assumed that I was on drugs. In hindsight it’s easy to spot that I had manic depression, it’s easy to see that I wasn’t well.  Hindsight is a bitch, though.

I hurt myself out of self hatred, out of panic and out of the desire to calm down, when I didn’t know why I couldn’t be calm, and didn’t know what was happening to me.  I cut, burned and drank bleach.  I was scared and very lonely for a long time.   It wasn’t just me who was suffering.  My family suffered, every relationship I’ve ever had has suffered.  Everyone I was with tried to  help me stop doing it, including two who had self harmed as well.   But it was something I needed to stop myself.

I am absent from a school portrait in the year 1999 (whoops) because, as I was standing there, amongst my peers and my teacher, blood began to pulsate through my white school shirt as a wound reopened (self harm rule number 1- only robotic movements are allowed.  Stretch your arms and the wounds will open like a zipper).  I hastily grasped my arm with my hand but it began to seep out between the valleys of my fingers, and I left the room, found my jumper and wrapped some toilet roll around my arms.  And that was in the good old days, when my self harm was confined to a small area of my wrist.   I used to cover it up with my watch, and it was disgusting to peel it off, it was covered in gunk and blood. I remember feeling so humiliated, having been, “discovered”.

I used to have a “clean” arm that I proudly displayed when people suspected me of self harm.  That arm was clear and youthful and untouched for about a year before it was swallowed up like the other one.  And I earned a reputation as a bit of a cold fish as I winced from touch.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be touched, it’s just that it hurt to be.

As it became more extreme, I became more secretive.  There were times I needed stitches, and times I froze with shock and pain, but I never did anything, never went anywhere.  The only time I ever got stitches was due to a large wound on my face (partly accidental).

I do get upset about it sometimes.  My friends say, “You have BDD, you’re not ugly” but I have genuinely disfigured myself.  I have a real, concrete reason to be paranoid, and ironically, the violence was partially born out hating my appearance.  I just made it worse.   I wear make up nearly constantly (though these days I am managing to sometimes go without, so that’s good, and thanks to CBT), which is partly because of the scars on my face.  It is exhausting and uncomfortable.  It takes me ages to put it on because I freak out about it.  I am always late, and the worse I feel, the more make up I wear, so I look like the Joker half the time.  And I feel ridiculous sometimes.

I cover up.  I could, of course, not, but I am far too self conscious for that.  I don’t want to be seen and more than that, I don’t want to be seen as an “attention seeker”.   On the occasions I’ve not covered up and attempted to be open about it, people have disdainly bitched about me behind my back.

The summer is horrendous.  The scars itch and burn, and I have to wear cardigans, gloves and sleeves constantly.   My clothes become a moving prison, and I feel older, far older than those whom are my age drifting idly down the chlorine bright streets in strappy tops.  In the winter my skin is nearly purple.

When I watch romantic propaganda on TV, I feel very sad when I see someone stroke their lover’s arms.

In my dreams I have no scars and feel the breeze on my skin.  In which I’m wearing dresses.  And one some days when self awareness strikes me and I take a look in the mirror, I want to cry.  And I have a patch of skin on my shoulder that is bare and smooth and beautiful and I touch it as if it were silk.  It’s like a little piece of who I could have been.

The scars look good.  They look better than they’ve ever looked.   I still scrupulously cover up but they’re not so vivid, so painful looking as they were.  The scars on my legs, chest, stomach and face aren’t so bad at all.   I call my facial scars my “cat’s whiskers”.  Wearing low cut tops is still a problem in warm or cold weather, as the scars become quite red then.  The scars on my legs and stomach frustratingly resemble stretchmarks.   The scars on my arms mean that they look slightly swollen, discoloured and misshapen.  There hasn’t been any new additions for a long time.   They have faded, and they will continue to fade.

That’s the problem with self harm, though.  You’re left with the scars.  I think that, after a year, they should magically lift from your skin, like some sort of great crotchetted bird, and fly away.  Instead the realisation dawns on you that you’re going to get married (or in my case, probably not), write your first book, have a child and die with these scars on your body.  They tell the world that something’s wrong with you, that you’re “crazy” (who wants to be friends with the crazy person?  Who trusts the crazy person with their children, or their secrets?) and people shrink away. I have seen that flicker of fear, disgust and pity in peoples’ eyes when I’ve raised my hand to my face and my sleeve has slipped down my wrist.   It makes me cringe every time, because I’m not crazy.   I am genuinely Scarred For Life.  And it’s crap.  And I did it to myself.

But would I miss them, if they were gone?   I remember each one, from the first to the last.  They are still part of me.

I’m not one for posting visceral images, nor have I ever been the type of person who ghoulishly seeks them out. (There are reasons, I know, but I find it a bit ghoulish.  And posting them feels, even now, this one time, to be “attention seeking”.  I really hope nobody loses respect for me for this).  I’ve never joined a self harm support group or anything like that, so aside from the odd errant photos other people take on the days I’m around people I trust indoors, nobody ever really sees my scars.

And  here comes my first ever trigger warning:  you know the deal.  Please don’t look at these images if you think it would be bad for you.

If you’ve ever been curious, this is what lurks beneath my sleeves.

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