This week I heard from a friend who had to attend her local hospital to receive treatment as a result of self harm and her treatment was unfortunately not very helpful. This led me to thinking about the times I either attended A & E or was taken there by the police for treatment, usually as a result of self harming or being deemed mentally unwell and requiring treatment.
It is nearly ten years since my first ever hospital admission, but for many months before I had hidden the self harm that was taking place. I tried hard to wear long sleeves to hide the cuts and dressings which I needed to stem bleeding etc. I was determined not to require anyone to know that I felt so desperate and confused that I could only survive by self harming. This was in the form of cuts, burns, starvation, restricting my fluid intake or overdoses, by the time I was admitted to hospital my self harm was a daily occurrence such was the turmoil I found myself in.
I hid my self harm from medical professionals, my family and my friends no one but me; I thought, knew I was living this life. I can recall going out for days with the children carrying implements in my bag ready to harm, and hibernating in bathrooms and cutting during these days out. I would feel myself getting so distressed during the day that I couldn’t survive any longer and so self harm took place. Yet once it was done and I felt a wave of release that I had punished myself which I felt I deserved I could then calmly walk back out and carry on with life.
I was confused to such an extent that I believed I needed to punish myself because that way I would be safe from others hurting me, and I was terrified that past abusers would come and hunt me down and hurt me. I even had a notion that because one of my abusers was my mother that I was bad as I had her blood inside me, thus if I bled enough I would rid myself of her badness.
Now all this time no one knew how much I was struggling, the GP knew I wasn’t too great but all they kept saying was ‘take time out and relax more’, and ‘all women go through these phases’.
They never asked if I felt suicidal or what scale my mood was, they did eventually arrange for me to see a doctor and thereafter just told me I was on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist. Yet in the meantime I was continually told to ‘hang in there’, occasionally they’d tell me things would improve.
Of course things just kept getting worse and when I attended the GP one day and I saw a different doctor who asked to test my blood pressure; because I looked like I was going to faint, he saw the wounds that by now littered my arms. Recent cuts had been deeper and the blood loss alongside starving myself wasn’t helping me feel any better. It was then that he made the call and I was suddenly being sent to the local psychiatric unit for assessment. At this time I realised my eldest child had sensed something was wrong and had suspected I was self injuring, but we had both said nothing until I was en-route to the unit.
A & E staff from the start were slightly arrogant and mainly uncaring, if I had to attend as a result of cutting I lost count of the times I felt to blame by their attitude towards me. It was as if they weren’t best pleased to be treating me after all in their eyes I had self inflicted this injury upon myself, they never looked beyond the injury to the person. On only one occasion can I recall a doctor being helpful, he was actually concerned for me wanting to know why I hurt and was I getting help for my mental health. He treated me like a human being and not an attention seeking time waster which is what many other medical professionals seemed to treat me as.
The sad fact is the attitudes that I faced ten years ago still exist today, that means the medical profession has failed to learn about or understand self harming behaviours in a decade. That concerns me because I am aware of the efforts of so many different groups including government health organisations whose aim was to educate about self harm and improve outcomes for patients. A decade ago these organisation were trying to produce guidance to end the stigma that exists around those who self harm, if attitudes haven’t changed does that mean their efforts failed?
Self harm is not something we should ignore or take for granted for behind every scar, every injury there is human suffering. I didn’t harm for the fun of it and if I wanted to seek attention believe me I can think of lots of better ways of doing that. I wasn’t time wasting either, I was in acute emotional distress and I needed help. I couldn’t explain the anguish I was going through, the only way I could find to deal with the turmoil that was my life was to inflict injuries upon my own body.
Be that cutting, burning, overdosing or restricting the amount of food or fluids I took in, each act was either an attempt to deal with intense pain and turmoil, or the result of irrational thoughts. I wasn’t doing this because I enjoyed it, truth be known I hated myself for doing it, in fact I loathed my scars. The reality was I tried so desperately to avoid seeking medical attention as the last place I wanted to go to was A & E where I would be made to feel even more ashamed and be stigmatised.
Self harm controlled me a decade ago and at times of crisis it can still take control of my life today, it is sadly my default position when the pain is too much. Now when I lapse back into self harming I tend to injure in other ways in the hope it’s less visual, but it’s still harming all the same. Now I am not proud of the fact I self harm and I don’t want these feelings either, I would like to be free of self harm and yet I now understand it is a symptom of the life I lived as a child. A life which caused untold damage and will take a long time to deal with and heal from, my self harming is a symptom of my mental health not the cause.
The cause is my past and today I am having to face the harsh reality that I was betrayed, abused and psychologically damaged. Currently I am feeling emotions for the first time and I am starting to grieve over the fact I was hurt, I’m starting to come to terms with the dawning realisation that the horrific memories I hold and continue to recall don’t belong to my alters at all. They just carry my memories, and it was this body, it was me as a child and a teenager who the abusers defiled. Believe me that’s tough, it’s a harsh journey survivors walk there is a lot of pain and anguish that has to be processed and dealt with.
Perhaps when dealing with a person who is self harming instead of vilifying them and judging them medical professionals should remember to gently seek out the cause of this symptom. They should in my opinion treat those who self harm with the dignity, care and respect they so badly need, and they should afford them the right treatment to help them move forwards.
Copyright DID Dispatches 2014