Cutting It Fine

this stuff is golden, when do i get the manual, guest post, self harm, self harming, making art, mental health, mental illness, using art for mental health,

By Quinn

Trigger warning: this post contains descriptions of self harm.

I own three scalpels. When I start to feel stressed, I pick up a scalpel and I start to cut out tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Circles the size of pinheads and diamonds the size of exclamation marks are carefully carved out of card and then placed in a Ziploc bag. All sorts of shapes are sliced cleanly from coloured paper and when I have them all jumbled together in a meaningless muddle, I pour them back out of the bag onto my wooden table. I then carefully put them together using glue and Pritt pads and string and nail varnish.

I create tiny paper reproductions of real people. I clothe them in tiny paper reproductions of real outfits they have worn and draw tiny smiles on their faces, and when they are finished I feel like I have achieved something.

I may not have achieved something meaningful, but I have followed a project – no matter how small – to completion. It is done. I imagine some people get the same sort of kick out of finishing jigsaw puzzles, or solving Rubik’s cubes. If I don’t have a scalpel handy I can get similar satisfaction from baking.

this stuff is golden,

I have many different blades for my scalpels. They each come in sterile packaging, and when I slip them from their covers they are so sharp I have to be careful not to cut myself by mistake.

There was a time when I would cut myself on purpose.

I still have a vivid memory of the first time it crossed my mind. One day half a lifetime ago I was being crushed under the weight of a serious panic attack. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I didn’t know anything at the time. I only felt a deep, physical pain.

Unable to breathe, choking on tears and feeling completely and utterly alone, a thought shone in my mind like a torchlight through a black fog:

This hurts so much.

I had my arms wrapped around myself so tightly I wasn’t sure if my lungs were failing me or if I was suffocating myself. My hands grabbed desperately at my rib-cage as if letting go would spill my insides out. Curled into a human knot, I knelt on the hardwood floor and pressed my forehead to the ground, hot tears splattering against the timber.

This hurts so much.

Nothing could hurt as much as this.

I felt like I was dying. I felt like I might never catch a breath again. It felt like the world was ending. Everything hurt. My lungs burned and my entire body ached with tension. A cold, biting numbness had spread through every part of me, coursing through my veins and chilling me from the inside until I felt like a hollow shell. The only thing rattling around inside me was a strange, paralysing pain.

Nothing could hurt as much as this.

I moved my hands carefully up my body until I had covered my mouth with both my hands. I thought I might scream, and I didn’t want anybody to hear. My lips parted but only a low, keening sound escaped, like the sound of a wounded animal. I didn’t recognise it.

Nothing could hurt as much as this.

Nothing could hurt as much as this.

And then, in the next beat: …is that true?

Blinded by tears I reached one hand under the bed and felt frantically for the Stanley knife I knew was there. I slid the blade up. In a haze of panic I undid the buttons of my shirt, yanked the collar down exposing my shoulder, and pressed the blade into my skin.

I felt nothing.

I cried harder.

I pressed deeper.

I just wanted to feel. I wanted to feel anything that wasn’t this terrifying, unfamiliar, crushing agony.

I still felt nothing.

Blood pooled around the blade. I started to drag it through the skin, slicing it apart, and finally – finally – I felt something. I felt an almost pleasurably painful sting and a deep sense of immediate relief, as if by slitting apart my skin I had released pressure from my very bones.

My tears slowed, and then stopped. Blood pumped from my shoulder, tracing red rivers down to my elbow where it pooled in the crease before dripping to the floor. I wiped my face and my arm with tissues, then pressed them against the cut, found a plaster and stuck them down. I pulled up my sleeve. I buttoned up my shirt. I took a few deep breaths.

That was the turning point.

From then on I realised that anytime I started to spiral into that pit of pain, all I needed was a distraction. All I needed was this different, lesser kind of pain. Sometimes it was enough to simply dig my nails into fresh wounds, or pull the newly knitted skin apart. Other times – such as when I started to get a panic attack in the middle of class – I would tuck my Stanley knife up my sleeve, excuse myself, lock myself in a bathroom cubicle, and slice another long red line into my arm. The more severe the panic attack, the more brutal the cut. It wasn’t a perfect coping method but it was an efficient one; within one or two minutes of starting to cut, the panic would have completely subsided and I felt calm again, rational.

“Normal.”

Obviously it was far from normal to be carving lines into myself the same way others carve their initials into trees, but I hadn’t found another way. I didn’t even know what was happening to me, only that I had found a silver bullet. I had found something to stop the clawing, desperate darkness in its tracks. I didn’t know it had a name, I only knew that I felt like it might kill me. I didn’t know how to stop it, I only knew how to distract it. I was being chased by an allegorical grizzly bear, and every time I felt my legs might give out and it was certain to catch me, I would chop off a metaphorical finger and fling it into the undergrowth to grant me a reprieve.

The panic attacks continued for another two years.

I tried other methods; multiple small nicks rather than the gaping, deep wounds that struggled to heal. I tried other places; my thigh, my hip, my knuckles. Some of these because they were always covered, others because once bandaged they could be easily passed off as a graze or a papercut.

I always came back to my left shoulder. Right-handed, I could control myself better. I wore t-shirts and long-sleeved tops and school shirts. I was careful not to let the cuts bleed through the fabric. It became a process, a project. The cut, the cotton, the bandage. If it bled too much for that, I used gauze. I followed the project to completion, and then I put everything away and buttoned my shirt back up and continued on with my day.

The panic attacks slowly abated as my life stabilised to a rocky normality.

The day I decided to stop, I was getting dressed and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I saw my arms looking like dermal graph paper. Horizontal and vertical cuts in evenly spaced, systematic lines, some delicate and controlled, some thick and reckless. For the first time I felt something other than pure, undistilled self-preservation and an unfamiliar thought crossed my mind:

I shouldn’t have done that.

I ran my fingers over my upper arm, feeling the welts.

I shouldn’t have done that. Past Me, what were you thinking? This will never go away. You can’t hide this. You can’t smooth this over.

I realised that if I kept it up, ten years on Future Me would be PISSED. Future Me would be hissing, ‘You knew, you KNEW what it would do to me and you kept doing it!‘ Future Me would be cursing my name and have more reasons to hate herself than I did in the present.

So I stopped.

I stopped for vanity, for health, for Future Me. She rarely gets the consideration she deserves so really it was the least I could do. Without the panic attacks, it wasn’t difficult for me to put down the blade. It was a ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ type of a thing after all, and the desperate times had passed for the most part.

Thirteen years later, I still have scars.

Most have faded to nothing. My left arm has been smooth for a couple of years now. I still have one or two tiny pale lines on my left thumb, but my right hand is unmarred. I’m tugging at the waistband of my jeans looking for evidence of these old wounds for the first time in years, and I can only find the faintest outline of a couple of marks on my hip, probably invisible to anyone but me.

this stuff is golden,

My left shoulder is a different story. I don’t think the scars there will ever fade completely. They’ve improved – it has been over a decade after all – but they are raised, and stark white, and difficult to conceal. They are the only part of me that burns pink when the rest of me turns golden in the sun. Sometimes people ask about them.

“What happened your arm?”

“I survived a close encounter with a possessed pitchfork,” I might say.

Or, “This is the only visible evidence of my alien abduction.”

Or, “Koala attack; they’re more dangerous than they look!”

Or simply, “Ninjas.”

Then I change the subject, eager to move on. I haven’t yet found a succinct way to explain that slicing myself apart once seemed like the only way to put myself back together.

Today, when I start to get stressed, I still reach for a scalpel.

But these days, I cut other things apart. I carve out slivers of card instead of flesh, and then I slowly, carefully, put them back together. I take my time. I focus on the tiny pieces until the rest of the world melts away and my mind can zero in on colours and layers and minuscule amounts of glue. It drains the energy from incoming panic, and reroutes it towards something more productive. It’s not as efficient – not as immediate – but it works.

It soothes me.

And the end result is always more aesthetically pleasing.

9 Comments

  • Arihant says:

    💛💛💛. Power to you Quin 💛💛💛

  • Madmeg says:

    Very powerful. Resonates deeply. Thank you!

  • Felicia says:

    Dear Quinn,

    *hugs* from a distance.

  • Jeff Cann says:

    Quinn: You are truly talented. Not just for your writing but for your cool little people as well Self harm and I are old friends. It wasn’t something I even understood until a few years ago. The story needs to be told over and over so others can understand their destructive behaviors.

  • Lane Beck says:

    Quinn, truly you are one of the bravest, boldest, most honest people I know. Everything you write is revealing, endearing and heartwarming. I feel your humanness when I read your writings, and I understand myself a bit more. You have an incredible and unique gift to touch the human spirit through your writing and I would like to challenge you to think huge, like no boundaries, and really do something amazing with it (not that you aren’t already). Thank you for continuing to share your gift.

  • nkdwhtguy says:

    An amazing story that reminds me just how amazing you are. Thanks for sharing,

  • Krista says:

    Love this gal’s writing. And these words pierced my heart! I too, like many others, have scars from the past. While mine may not be scars from cuts they are visible scars just the same. Today, they are worn as badges of honor for what I’ve triumphed over. Rarely thinking upon them or the reason why they are there yet appreciating that they are part of my tapestry that makes me and my life unique.
    Thank you dear Quinn for your honest beautiful sharing!. Adore this!!!!

  • Becca Talbot says:

    You are so brave to speak out about your experiences with anxeity, depression and self harm Quinn, well done you. I’m glad you’ve managed to channel your desire to cut into something more creative, and as you say, aesthetically pleasing. Sending you a big hug right now xx

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