My Experience Only. YMMV.

Self-Harm Revisited

If that title isn’t enough of a TRIGGER WARNING for you, I don’t know what is.

Not long ago I saw on the web a video with the title “Is scratching self-harm?” Well, of course it is, I thought. The video agreed with me.

It seems like the low end of the spectrum, not as extreme as as what most people think of as self-harm, but a form of it nonetheless. Scratching, pinching, hair pulling, and the like are probably considered subclinical next to cutting and burning. But they are still problems. They can escalate into worse self-harm.

In another article (http://www.upworthy.com/this-researcher-who-studies-self-injury-explains-why-people-do-it-and-why-he-did-it?c=ufb1) I saw this definition for self-harm:

“Self-injury is intentional damage to body tissue (that doesn’t include body modifications like piercings, tattoos, and scarification) without suicidal intent.”

So, yes, scratching is self-harm. It is intentional. It is damage to body tissue. and it does not indicate suicidal intent.

Scratching sounds so minor. We scratch ourselves all the time when we have an itch or an insect bite. We scratch ourselves accidentally on protruding nails. Occasionally we draw blood. We wash it off, slap on a band-aid, and that’s that.

But when scratching escalates to self-harm, it can indeed be serious. For one thing, scratches have a tendency to become infected, infection of the sort can lead to further tissue damage – and if untreated, to more serious complications.

There is also the potential for further harm because the scratching will scab over. Then the desire to scratch off the scabs kicks in. When this happens, the scratches never heal. And yes, that’s both a fact and a metaphor.

My own experience with scratching came when I was working at a job that required me to monitor burglar alarms. The alarms tended to go off – whether there was a burglary or not – during thunderstorms. When a storm hit, a dozen or more alarms could go off simultaneously, or at least in rapid succession. I had to call the owners of the businesses, or emergency services as required.

One night during a particularly bad storm, I missed one of the alarms. I did not call the owners until I looked back at the record. When I called, it was 45 minutes since the alarm. I knew I had made a mistake, and a bad one. The owners of the business would not be happy. My boss would not be happy. I was not happy.

I sat alone by the monitors and imagined the trouble I was in. I started scratching my right arm – long slow strokes from nearly the wrist to nearly the elbow. Repetitively. Obsessively. Painfully. I believe I was punishing myself for making a bad mistake. Perhaps there was some thought that if I inflicted the pain, I would escape further consequences of my mistake.

Of course that makes no sense. It’s an example of the irrational thinking that goes with self-harm.

I don’t cut anymore, as I discussed in a previous post (http://wp.me/s4e9Hv-cutters). I also don’t scratch the way I did that night. I still have a tendency to pick scabs. Occasionally if I have an insect bite, I will scratch it to blood and then pick the scabs on that. I try not to. My husband helps me by reminding me not to pick at scabs or to put band-aids on them. I try to rub instead of scratch, or use lotion.

Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) has admitted in her most recent book, Furiously Happy, that she scratches past the point of bleeding and pulls her hair enough to create bald spots. It’s clear that she considers this self-harm. Her husband tries to help her with it too.

But self-harm is basically a private thing – something we do and hide from the world. Some people are able to hide it even from their most intimate family and loved ones. I know I wore long sleeves to cover the dreadful scratch on my right arm. It healed from a scratch to a pink scar and then to a white scar. Now I can’t even see it anymore through the freckles.

But I don’t need the visible reminder. I remember how it felt to do it, how it felt after I did it, and how I felt as I watch the scars slowly fade. its nothing I’m proud of, except for the fact that I survived it and no longer do it.

As most cutters and other people who self-harm do, I feel shame in recalling the act, and almost never speak of it. The reason I’m sharing the story in such a public forum is to let people know that not all self-harm consists of big dramatic gestures. It can start with a tiny scratch. But it is not something to be ignored. We need to talk about self-harm, educate about it, bring it out in the open, and let others know that it doesn’t have to continue.

And that it can start with something as small as a scratch.

Comments always welcome!

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