Me talking self harm on Metro’s “Mentally Yours” podcast

Absolutely lashing with sweat due to illness, and having just burst an eardrum by being stupid, I went to a restaurant in West London to meet Yvette and Ellen of the Mentally Yours podcast in which, now having listened, I was surprisingly coherent in retrospect.

I don’t find self-harm the easiest topic to discuss. It’s pretty hard to without getting a bit graphic, so a warning that this podcast does have some fairly graphic language, as well as a few fucks, because it’s me. I haven’t self-harmed in 8 years, but because I live in a scar suit, the reaction my body gets from both the public and the medical profession means I may as well never have stopped.

It’s also not an easy topic to discuss because everyone is so different.  The hardest question I was always asked when I self harmed was, “Why do you do it?” I know the circumstances I self harmed in, the houses, the rooms, the ritual.  But the why, the visceral, deep down why, is mostly a mystery to me even now. I tried to explain here as best I could, the same way I tried when I was a teenager and was confronted, badgered, hectored with the, “Why?” from everybody who in turn wanted to understand their own anger, rage, disgust at it.

I talk about why self-harm might be on the rise in young women, on which I wish I’d said more. What I didn’t mention was my feeling that there’s an earlier sexualisation of young bodies, and self-harm can be both a fuck you to that, and a way of acting out self hatred.   I also touch a bit on the trivialisation and dismissal of childhood and teenage emotions, and of their trauma, and the unfathomable things children endure and can’t express (and bear in mind I blocked someone on Twitter for asking if I had self-harmed due to something like a teenage crush on Boyzone, so do refrain from making fucking stupid comments like that please).

And I chat about coping with scars and what led me to stop, how I stayed that way, and some advice to anyone who might want to hurt themselves.

Thanks for having me, Metro! Have a listen.

 

Accepting Life In the Scar Suit

The scar suit is how I refer to my body.  My body! Isn’t that odd?  It is how it feels, sometimes. As though I have been zipped in and trapped there and all I have to do is wriggle out one day.

I finished my first placement. I got really good reports (and flowers!) and feedback. I was blessed with an incredibly understanding mentor who I felt I could open up to about my mental health. It was something she saw as a positive. She saw my arms when I was practicising injection techniques then saw that as soon as someone walked in I hastily pulled my sleeves down.

I confided in her about my fears about my next placement, which is a medical placement. This means a uniform, bare above the elbow- my greatest of horrors, short sleeves.

She was amongst the few people who told me that this was something I needed to talk to university about. My scars aren’t the kind that you have to look hard to see. They are very noticeable.  Even though they are 3 years old.

I have an odd relationship with them. I can talk forever about mental illness, I can discuss deep and shameful and embarrassing things I’ve said and done, but self harm and my scars are a total no-go. I very rarely discuss it online (although I have posted photos here before, when I last tried to come to terms), I almost never talk about it in person. Occasionally Robert has caught me staring down at my arms, looking puzzled, looking sad. He kisses my head and tells me I’m beautiful. Occasionally I feel like Polly in Girl, Interrupted, stricken with panic and horror at what I did to myself. That’s the kicker, really. I did this to myself. Even though the person that did it seems so far, so distant and unfamiliar now, I still did it. It was me. How could I hate myself so much I mutilated myself? And it is mutilation, there is no other word for it. “Self-harm”, “self-injury” doesn’t convey the aftermath, it doesn’t remember that the cuts leave the scars and the scars leave their scars on you and everything and everyone you touch. And so very hilariously, I went through most of my life believing I was deformed, that my nose was huge and I was an alien-looking hideum, and then when the delusion dissipates, the reality remains. Maybe in some way, to anchor myself in hatred, forever and forever, no matter how happy my life is or became, to mar every happy moment with a big, red welt. To hold my husband in my scarred arms and my child against my scarred chest and to never, ever be allowed to forget.

Or maybe not.

I spoke to my tutor about it, and she was great. She was incredibly understanding (as I would expect her to be, as she’s a mental health nurse), even though there is realistically nothing she can do. I have to go on a ward, at some point or another, the arms have to come out. I knew I needed to talk about it and I found it very hard to keep my voice even, found myself rambling and at points wanting to cry.  Partly because she was so gentle and lovely about it.  It’s the gentleness that makes me cry.

She asked to see them, which was difficult in itself. I absolutely hate anyone looking at my arms. I almost always keep on long sleeves, I spend my summers sweating and burning in coats and cardigans and this has been my life for the past 10 years, longer, in fact. I see women in light dresses drifting down the street and want to drift after them, in their aura, their freeness, to feel like that.

I hate what people think about me when they see them. That I must be violent (I’m not), that I must be fucked up (I’m not), that I must have been abused (I wasn’t), that I must be unstable (I’m not). It’s not a tan or vitiligo, it’s scarring and it is obvious what they are from.  Once, two years ago, I was feeling particularly brave and went to Tesco in a t-shirt.  On the way back, some twatty little shit slapped my arm as he ran past and laughed.

She mentioned my two long term options. One is surgery, which would have to be skin grafts. That in itself will leave a scar, but maybe a better one.  It is an option I’m not discounting. The second is the Red Cross camoflage make up service which I referred myself to three months ago and who haven’t gotten back to me today (I emailed them today to chase them up).

Without these, what are my options? To accept them. To accept that my body is a little bit different, to accept that I once felt like that but I don’t anymore, to accept I have scars and that’s that, they are part of me, not some foreign, shameful thing. To reconcile who I am now with who I was then, to celebrate it. (Pride? I can’t imagine ever feeling pride). How sad, she said, to feel the need to cover up on your wedding day (many people have said this). This is the rational, well-meaning advice I have gotten time and time again which has always gotten the same response from me: It is easier said than done.

But I really can’t go the rest of my life like this.  I can’t. It is time to accept them.  This is my body.  It’s not a scar suit.

To accept them means I will have to have responses ready for people who ask (and they will, and they do). To be quite strong in the face of that and to be calm. I hate that thought, though. I just want to be normal.

But to accept them means not living in heat and burning in the summer and not clutching onto my sleeves with my fingers when I talk to people. To feel sun on my skin. To see what goosebumps look like again.

First I will (weather permitting) stop wearing my coat. Then roll up my sleeves. Then try above the elbow. Then nothing.

Please wish me luck, because this to me is the equivalent of walking around with my bare arse that has, “NUTCASE” written on it in shite.

Hopefully, the sun may even help.

Be Gone

I’ve booked an appointment with my GP on Monday to discuss the possibility of some sort of surgery on my scars. Wish me luck! The most nerve-wracking part of will be showing my arms. I might go in with my bum out to soften the blow.

Although I have scars on my bum, too, due an over-enthusiastic dog that I met when I was ten. It became intimately acquainted with my legs and arse. It looked like this:

I should have karate kicked its face off

As a result, facked fans, I have a slightly deformed looking arse! On the plus side, I got two weeks off school AND a box of Quality Street from the lollipop lady who bopped Lassie on the head with her stick.

Magic moments are when a dog is mauling you…

Two things will possibly push me to pick up the glass and pills that will send me to sleep, though- one being that my sister and her boyfriend are coming to stay tomorrow, and two being that I have to give a presentation at college and people are having trouble following my speech and train of thought. Why can’t I just record it, then come out at the end, grasping peoples’ hands then take off in a helicopter? Eh? Bloody adult education and its low budget for obnoxious stunts.  I’d have to come back anyway, but still.  I’m going to bring my dictaphone in and record the lesson because my arse memory means I tend to leave and go, “Wait, where was I?”

So, er, that’s where I am! Hiya!

Life In a Scar Suit

I always wear long sleeves, whatever the weather, so I don’t see my own skin a lot. But I just looked down at my arms and reeled in shock. They are at their least shocking ever, because I haven’t self harmed (apart from a few tiny-calm-down scratches during the summer’s high that didn’t even leave a mark) in such a long time. Two years ago, I posted photos of where my scars were at that point.  They are much better than that now.  But it’s not just my arms.  My face, my legs, my chest, my neck.  Everywhere.

Sometimes I struggle to remember why I did it. I often gave reasons I’d read about, rather than my own reasons, when discussing it with doctors.  I have never liked talking about it, or even acknowledging it.  I was secretive, evasive.  For the most part, I guess, it was to be calmer. I rarely self harmed when I was depressed- it was usually when I was agitated. I did it too because I hated my appearance. That was difficult to explain. Why disfigure yourself when you already feel ugly? I butchered myself. I treated my own body- the only one I will ever get, however unreliable it is, however ugly I find it- like it was a piece of meat.

I can’t imagine doing it again. The urge died in me a long time ago, I guess when I started to believe more in my own worth. I still don’t like my appearance- I don’t think I ever will- but I know people love me for more than my appearance, know my body is just a vessel. Still. I wish it were a more beautiful one. I wish I hadn’t wilfully made it uglier and that, no matter how well I am, I have that reminder to carry with me.  And, unless I continue hiding as I do, it is for other people to see, and to judge me by.  Not just strangers, and friends.  But doctors, too.  I still have to pull my sleeves up when I go to my GP.  Despite the fact I haven’t self harmed in years, and despite the fact I have never sought medical attention for it, I’m still treated as a self harmer.  Still-wrongly- seen as someone impulsive and self destructive.  I may as well have branded the words into my skin.

It is good, in a way, that my scars finally have the power to shock me, as they have shocked so many other people over the years. People have always winced and I failed to see what the fuss was about.

Now I see.

And with it is the sad, immensely sad, realisation that I am going to be living in this scar suit for the rest of my life. I will be buried in it, too.

How My Dad Died.

Originally written in April 2007

I was asked in comments to write a story about my dad here.

The way my mind is working at the moment, I can only think of negative and horirble stories, doused in alcohol and soaked with sickness.

I have very few specifically positive stories of my dad. Plenty of lovely memories, but they are fleeting, small events like him making us Toasted Toppers or his insistence that Graham Chapman deserved a better looking boyfriend than David Sherlock.

Wedding Day

I’d never been to a wedding as a Grown Up. Nor a reception or any suchlike thing. The first wedding I remember was that of my aunt and uncle, Anne and Brian. Anne is a blonde model who appeared in speeding adverts, I’ve seen her in a bridal gown only once before, and that was on an advert on Ulster Television- “40 miles an hour!” with blood rolling apologetically down her dress. She used to come back from filming in England (“You’ve been to England?” we’d gawk at her) with those fat red dummy rocks in clutches for us. My uncle Brian is a big nosed, fresh-faced lovable man who has raised his three children to have quiet country burrs which is somewhat exotic to me when he brings them begrudgingly to their aunt’s house.

At the time I was nine years old and wasn’t taken to the wedding. My granny Molloy looked after me that day, in the only time she had ever been to our house. I remember her with her red slim face, which always looked like a warning triangle, taking my hand and us walking to the Dairy Farm, a supermarket near my house, where she bought me a pink keyboard. Then we went to the library where I proceeded to be kicked out as I was too fascinated with my first ever musical instrument. I managed to retain my dignity and my Asterix books, whereupon I rechristened myself Cacophonix.

That day I seemed to inherit a new family. At the wedding my mum met some of her family, The Mallons. Edna had a sharp tongue and fast humour, then there were her three daughters- Angela, Ceri and Michelle. Their ages corresponded roughly with the ages of me and my older sister. Michelle was the youngest so we were expected to get on. We were utterly different people so were never close.

So one wedding created a new family. The next was the day after my 18th birthday, the wedding of my uncle Michael to a quite well-to-do middle class girl called Fiona. Her family were much more respectable than our rough West Belfast one.

My uncle Michael looked like Damon Albarn. My sister Paula and I used to boast to our school friends about this. His fiancée was a social worker, tiny, buxom, blonde and beautiful. I first met her at a bedside vigil for my granda. I’d never met her before and remember feeling insulted rather than touched that she had come here while my grandad was so sick. In that respect, I’m quite traditional. For all my running-off-to-London, I believe in the family and find “outsiders” intrusive sometimes.

The wedding was in Bangor, and my dad was determined that we weren’t taking a feckin’ train that day. We got a taxi, god forbid, all of us piled into one black cab. He wanted us to be stylish, just as good as them, he said. But he was brimming over with happiness, as he always did when we were all together.

We found ourselves outside the church with a half an hour to spare and a bit peckish. “There’s a reception on later, Da,” says Michelle. Imagines of vol-au-vents, quiche, delicately decorated salmon en croute filled our minds.

But it would be hours before we had the chance to eat.

In our new clothes, we went to KFC and smeared ourselves with greasy chips and microwaved gravy. We sipped flat coke out of enormous buckets and liberally ate cold chicken.

We went at breakneck speed to the fancy Gothic church, stinking of fast food, gravy on our lips and the odour of old plastic seats sticking to our arses.

Twenty minutes later my other uncle Brendan (sarcastic, amusing vegetarian, much beloved of Paula, much resented by me for wrecking my carefully constructed house of cards) shows up, late and distressed and bangs on the window, Graduate style, to be let in. The priest shook his head and we all froze in horror and laughed as he strained to watch his baby brother getting married through a window, occasionally letting loose a fly of words that made the choirboys blush as he batted unruly twigs away from his face.

I wish

I could end the story there and that it would be Full O’ Larks. But of course with my dad in tow the day turned ugly.

He got drunk, completely pissed, and refused to be told otherwise. He was loud, embarrassing, abusive and disruptive. We ended up having to look after him, pleading, begging and crying.

I don’t think, until that point, his family believed us when we said his alcoholism was severe. But as the evening progressed and his behaviour got worse, I think it finally clicked that for all those years, we had not been exaggerating. Michelle, Paula and me were just exhausted, exhausted, humiliated and depressed, wanting to be a Proper Family out at their uncle’s wedding, instead of three ringmasters in the arena of my dad’s illness.

I have a lot of guilt concerning my dad. Not just that everything we did didn’t stop him from dying. But for childish things.

My mum and dad had prolific and devastating fights almost every night. My dad would eventually stumble upstairs, screaming obsenties. And my sisters and I would huddle in their bedroom and talk about how if we pushed him downstairs, we wouldn’t have to put up with it anymore.

We had many comical scenerios as to how we’d get rid of my parents. And they were comical, we didn’t actually want them to die but craved silence.

My dad rang me up on my 16th birthday. It was one of the periods he wasn’t living at home and I had assumed he was calling to wish me a happy birthday. Instead, he told me he was going to kill himself.

Sometimes I wish he had done. There were times when I violently wished that something, anything would end his and our suffering. I knew always that alcoholism was a disease and an addiction but it’s scant comfort when you’re in the living room with your little brother and sister trying to block out the crockery breaking in the kitchen.

I wanted something quick and painless and it would be over.

I was outside work once. At the time, a friend of mine was suffering from serious depression and they had rang me earlier to tell me they were going to kill themselves. This was sometime during 2005. I took the phone outside and tried to talk them down but I was petrified and shaking.

When Vicky died, I prayed to whatever gods there were that I would never have to go through it again. The stark memory of sitting down on the chair being told she had hung herself, the starker memory of walking down the forest the same night, vision blurring with tears, standing on the roadside we had walked upon destroyed me.

I got off the phone to my friend and lay back against a wall with a cigarette.

Suddenly, the image of someone calling to tell me my dad had killed himself flew into my head and took my breath out. All those times I wished it had happened pulverised me and I felt like the worst person in the world. The reality, the already-grief of his dying laid me on a fold up chair in tears.

I had always believed he’d get better. I held that hope to my chest, to my heart, to every minute of the day. I believed that with our help and willpower, he would recover and live to say, “When I was an alcoholic”…

The Reality of it

When it happened, I didn’t know what to do.

My dad had been in hospital for two weeks or so. It started innocuously enough. I was on the phone to my brother when he made a joke about my dad looking like one of the Simpsons. I asked him what he meant and he said, “He’s bright yellow”.

That night was a Saturday and I was alone in my flat. And for some reason, I got my mum on the phone and said, “I think daddy has liver failure”.

She didn’t really take me seriously so I told her I was going to call NHS direct. I described my dad to the nuse on the phone. Jaundice. Alcoholism and, in the background, his slurred voice.

I rang my mum back and told her I was calling an ambulance. I rang them in London and asked them to transfer me to Belfast. Rang them up and sent them to the house.

I was on the phone when they came. I heard my daddy protesting that he had an appointment with the doctor in June (it was the end of April) and that he was fine. I told my mother to keep trying and spoke to the ambulance staff, telling them I think he’s very ill and please make sure he goes.

He didn’t. He refused the ambulance and my mum called someone else, I can’t remember who, I think it was psychiatrist services. He finally went.

A few weeks passed. Phone calls here and there. I didn’t go home as nothing sounded serious. He was filled with fluid and had acute liver failure. I assumed he would get a transplant.

I had a holiday to Belfast booked on the 18th of May to introduce Rob to my parents. It had been booked for a while. I had spoke to my daddy on the phone and he was looking forward to seeing me and Rob on the 18th. He sounded fine.

On the 16th of May, while I was in work, my sister Michelle sent me a text saying daddy was dying now, right now, and to get home.

I called her, then called my sister Paula who was in the airport on her way back to London. She didn’t want to make a fuss so I called the nurse to make sure Michelle wasn’t being hysterical.

The nurse told me to come home.

Paula turned round and went back to the hospital. I had no money whatsoever and couldn’t change my flights. Jo and my boss at work started printing out train and flight times. I appealed on Livejournal for someone to help me get home. A friend lent me the money, I booked my flight, kissed goodbye to Rob and flew home.

I met my friend Tracie at the airport. She had some ham sandwiches and a bar of chocolate for me. I was filled with dread. I couldn’t, would not think of my dad dying. We sped down the long, dark, 10pm roads. I laid my head against the passenger window and stared at the greyscale countryside.

I met my sisters in hospital. I was not prepared for what I saw.

My dad was so clearly and obviously dying. I burst into tears.

When my grandad died, my drunken, grieving father shouted that the next funeral we would be at would his own.

I had not believed him. And here it was, his dying.

He was so afraid of death and that’s mostly what was on my mind. Did he know? A nurse leant over his bed and told us it wouldn’t be long. I was horrified, what if my dad heard? Was he afraid?

He was yellow and ancient and couldn’t breathe- he couldn’t see or talk and he was so clearly dying. I started crying as soon as I saw him, held his hand and tried to tell him I was here but I don’t know if he knows I was. I thought at least he would be able to talk, there was so much to say. He looked so different and my sister assured me he had only become this bad within the past 24 hours. Before that, he was able to talk and I hate myself for not going home 24 hours earlier.

We stayed the whole night in the room, holding his hand, talking to each other, going to the smoking room and watching his monitors. I’d bought him the issue of Kettering- I had thought he would be conscious enough for me to read him to him, he had wanted to read my Neil Innes interview, because he was a fan and he was proud. He’d gone round telling everyone I was interviewing him. I had been so hopeful he would be conscious. I desperately wanted to speak to him. Wanted to hear him say my name.

Michelle left to sleep and Paula left to smoke and I tried to tell him that I love him, he made no sign he’d heard, just groaned and fiddled with his breathing mask.

He kept trying to take his mask off, and we kept putting it back on. A few times he’d clutch his head, like he had a headache, like something so normal, a headache. He tried to sit himself up a few times. He tried to sleep.

He must have known we were there. He kept holding Paula’s hand while I stood on the other side and stroked his hair. It made him sleep. In his sleep, he said our names. All our names, his five children.

He said. And he did say, although my sister denies it, “I don’t want to die”. It could have been a trick of the ears but I am sure he said it. And my heart cracked in two.

He was obviously in a lot of discomfort but the doctor said he wasn’t in pain. He kept pulling out his wires and tubes- he was so scared of ending up like my granda that Paula told me he’d been pulling them out since the beginning. He always believed he’d be going home and on some level, so did I. I thought this would be a lesson, he would stop drinking and get better. I thought he was brilliant because recently he’d been sober more, and he was going into rehab this month.

Hours passed of him taking off his mask, falling asleep, waking up. The morning came, we hardly knew. About eight am or so we called our mum and asked her to come take our place for an hour while we ate something. We didn’t want to leave, we agonised over it but we needed something to eat. We expected to be there days, we were getting ready for it.

Before we left, Paula stroked his arm and said she’d see him soon. I kissed his forehead and told him we’d be gone an hour but we’d be back.

At about 8am, our mum came and we went home to get some food.

A half an hour later, the nurse phoned and told us to come back. We tried to wake our little brother up but he wouldn’t wake up. After some exhausted, frustrated screaming at him, he got up and smashed the china set my dad had bought for my mum.

We got to the hospital. Liam went to the toilet and we went up to the ward. Tacked on the curtain was, “NO VISITORS”. And my dad had died there, without us at about 9am on 17th May, a day before Rob and I’s visit. Aged forty seven, a month before his 48th birthday.

We howled. I had to go and find Liam and tell him. He was in the corridor and I didn’t know what to do or say. I just had to tell him that his dad died. How do you tell a fifteen year old that?

I remember standing by my brother and sisters and crying, I remember hugging my uncles, his brothers, and his mother, who had lost her sister two weeks ago and her husband seven months ago. It is not fair, I remember thinking that over and over.

A nurse came in and said, “Did he have a wedding ring on?” Nothing else- “NO” and then, “Did he have any gold teeth?” “NO” get out of my sight and she did and I hated her so much.

They took him away and kept hassling us saying they needed to do it now. We said wait because his brother isn’t here yet, my uncle Michael was on his way. Before they took him away we said our separate goodbyes and had our time with him. No-one will ever know what we all said, and I am glad.

They took him and we organised the wake at my grandmother’s. It was best to be there, it was his real home.

I slept after that and the next day Rob got here. We spent the next days at my grandmother’s. He met everyone in my family, except my dad. I wrote the obituary with my little sister and it appeared in the paper with many others, and flowers arrived and two big wreaths, “DAD” and “BROTHER”. I got away with much as a lot of my extended family and friends didn’t realise I was his daughter, so there weren’t many, “I’m sorry”s or tearful hugs. That hurt me slightly because I wanted some hugs but I had Rob, my sisters and uncles and brother and that’s all I needed, all we needed.

The coffin was in the room and they did a good job, he looked like my dad. I couldn’t understand why he was there, none of us could.

The priests came and went and on Friday night, Paula, Brendan my uncle and I stayed with him on his final night. We talked about a lot of things, not really my dad, and didn’t sleep. Everytime the automatic air freshener went off, we jumped.

The funeral was on Saturday and at first I didn’t think I could do it. My sister held my hand as we listened to the priest before they took him away. I couldn’t stop crying. I said goodbye again, I said I’m sorry.

My fifteen year old little brother had to carry his dad’s coffin.

On the way up to the church we noticed one of the men carrying the coffin had something written on his bald head and neck in green marker. He didn’t know he had it.

After the funeral, we went to the PD, a Republican bar my dad and our family went to often, and had a buffet and a drink. Since then, I’ve felt very little. I’d been sleeping in his bed and going through photographs, taking some and not taking others in the knowledge he’d kill me. But he isn’t here now and I can’t really understand how. As time wears on, the truth of it, the real truth of it, is beginning to dawn.

I don’t know what to do now. There’s years ahead without my dad but I still feel as though he’ll be back. I never want to remember him as that man I saw in the coffin. I hate Catholic services. I’m worried about the future for my mum and the kids. I’m worried about my granny. I don’t know what to do without my dad. He’s the one who understood us and helped us. He paid my rent once and bought our Christmas presents. He taught us how to read and ride our bikes and taught us how to write and taught us our history. He got me into comedy and music. I have all his David Bowie vinyls now, as promised.

The last time I saw him was Christmas 2005 and he had stayed sober, it was lovely. There is a photo of him in the bedroom, arms outstretched and smiling and you’d think he didn’t have a trouble in his heart until you notice his wrist, a huge gaping wound. He was not a happy man and that kills us. We tried. We love him so much.

My sisters joked we should put lots of IOUs in his coffin with him because he helped us with money when he got ourselves into scrapes. I wanted to put his comb in there with him. Paula could barely look at him but when she did it was to fix his hair. He would be mad at us if he’d known we didn’t shave his head for 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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The Insane Guide to Living With Mental Illness: The Mixed Episode

Ah, here we are. It’s now time for me to introduce the special circle of hell reserved for the manic depressive: the Mixed Episode. These were meant to be funny, sarcastic guides (like the Depression one was) but somewhere, it’s become all serious!

A mixed episode (also known as dysphoric mania or, for depression with hypomania, agitated depression) bears a little explanation. It is literally a mix of manic and depressive symptoms at the same time. It’s generally considered as the most dangerous of mood states, being that if you want to kill yourself, you have all the energy and frantic invention necessary at your disposal with which realise that particular dream.

However, if you believe the DSM-IV, relatively few people with bipolar disorder experience these episodes. The reason? It is strictly defined as mania and depression for a week; leaving out hypomania, thus nobody with bipolar II or cyclothymia has ever had a mixed episode. From my forays into BipolarLand, reading and research, please take it from me (and the dissenting voices in the psychiatric community) that the DSM-IV needs updating. But lucky me, eh, bipolar I, so, by the DSM-IV rules, anything goes.

It lies close to my heart. Dysphoric mania is, by far, the most common episode that I experience. Those much romanticized euphoric manias has almost disappeared as I have grown older, and my manias are now increasingly black and almost always psychotic. It’s why I’ve escaped being diagnosed with depression. I’ve been suicidal and depressed many times in my life, but the manic edge which accompanies my depressions has exempted me from being considered clinically depressed. It is one of the reasons, I suspect, that even when I’ve been in front of a psychiatrist absolutely suicidal, the relentless diagnosis of bipolar I has always been returned.

It is difficult to describe how it feels; imagine the white noise of racing thoughts pitched at total destruction and despair, horrible images, frightening visions, flights of ideas punctured by the bleak feelings of failure, endless energy overriding utter, utter exhaustion, nameless guilt, manic lack of inhibition, rambling and ranting, restlessness, the damaging impulsivity and grandiosity of mania, terrible agitation, rage, anxiety, panic, psychosis, paranoia and fear. It can be constant, or can fling you from mania to depression and back again extremely quickly.

A mixed episode landed me in hospital, and mixed episodes are almost totally at odds with normal functioning; it is simply impossible to go about your normal life when in a mixed episode. Everything is frightening or an insummountable challenge.

Yes. They’re no fun. So, here’s the Insane Guide to the Mixed Episode. I found it difficult to be sarcastic about mania, it’s almost impossible to be lighthearted about the dysphoric kind. So this guide is kind of crap.  Apologies.  Read the previous ones instead by clicking on the category, The Insane Guide…

The Mixed Episode

Manic, depressed, who the hell cares, you can have it all! Welcome to the mixed episode. You may never leave. I really mean that.

1. Eating and self-care

2. Social etiquette

3. Hobbies

4. Sleep

5. How to deal with those around you, who may not be so excited about your insanity as you are! Includes lovers, friends and the medical profession.

6. The future

1. Eating and self-care

Have you eaten? You can’t remember the last time you ate. You probably should eat, but you can’t focus long enough on anything, let alone the thought that you need food. Everything feels like it’s been put there to test you, and you find yourself by the kettle in tears of frustration. You can’t even do that, a task that wouldn’t tax a five year old. You can’t do anything.

You brush your hair and teeth, on automatic, and neglect to put on underwear, simply forgetting. It doesn’t feel very important. You can’t really concentrate, your clothes are a jagged mish mash of colours and shapes, old blood stains seeping through the cheap fabric. You look in the mirror but you can barely focus on the image. There’s pictures in your head, horrible pictures, that seem to permeate everything you try to look at.
2. Social etiquette

You did go out for a drink but found yourself crying at a table alone. You’ve been trying to talk to your friends but you just can’t, you can’t communicate at all. The words, rapid and free flowing, are not making sense. People can’t keep up with you. They listen, for a second, but you’re going too fast, and they drift off, nod, and turn their attention from you. You don’t look right, your eyes are fire in pitch from lack of sleep.

Self pity kicks in, and you’re convinced that everybody hates you, more than hates you, wants you dead. You are ferociously, wildly, suicidal and you begin to feel angry at those around you- why can’t they see that, why can’t they help you? The strong desire for someone to reach out is not as strong as your desire to be alone, so you leave, and walk quickly into a cold night, frightened at every single sound that you hear.

3. Hobbies

Nothing from the outside makes a difference; you can’t concentrate on a film, the things that used to calm you down don’t and your panic is rising. How can you slow the thoughts in your mind? So you have new hobbies- running on the spot, talking to yourself, anything to calm down. You’re exhausted, your whole body is screaming out to stop, but you can’t. Relentless, frantic energy grips you and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. Absolute rage and frustration courses through you, and the room is wrecked. You get up and write disjointed prose, the words jumbling up, making no sense at all.
4. Sleep

You tried to sleep, you lay down, but your head felt like someone was chainsawing inside, so you got up again. You want to sleep, but you can’t, you’re restless and anxious and the dark shadowy shapes in the room seem to be moving.

5. How to deal with those around you, who may not be so excited about your insanity as you are! Includes lovers, friends and the medical profession.

You’re depressed, you know you’re depressed, despair, sorrow and complete hopelessness is flooring you, but the doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong- you’re not eating too much or sleeping too much, you’ve had more energy than you’d had for some time and although you sit and talk for half an hour, nothing makes a difference.

Your friends are long gone- something you did or said, you can’t remember. Loved ones keep their distance, unable to cope anymore with your shouting and seemingly untriggered crying fits. It just compounds your guilt- you’re a bad person, and you know it.

6. The Future

You can’t think straight- tomorrow seems like it’s a thousand years away. You have no idea what you’re doing or what you’re going to do. You’ve been awake for days and are starting to become very paranoid. You don’t know how to feel safe or how to stop, you just want the agitation to calm down, for one second.

Crap guide there. I find it hard to write about. It’s just a horrible way of being and all I want to write is, “I’M SORRY” to anyone who might be going through one. To be honest, I’ve been getting so panicked and bizarre lately that I think I’m not doing too well myself. Today has been a White Noise Day, that is, very rapid, quite scary sequences of thoughts and voices going over and over in my head that frightens me and makes it impossible to concentrate.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to write down everything my brain voices say so that I can understand it. But I can’t, because they move so damn fast that it seems like malevolent gibberish.

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