I recently heard some shocking statistics: nearly a quarter of 14 year old girls in the UK are self harming. A few days later I saw a girl with her sleeves deliberately pushed up to reveal an array of scars. She wasn’t the first person I’d seen do this either; when did it become okay to be so public about it? How do these girls feel in themselves and how do they feel about how they are perceived by others?
These questions resonate with me deeply. I grew up with a sense of inner wrongness. A separateness and the feeling that I was somehow internally bad. I experienced anxiety attacks before I was old enough for school and a nervous inability to eat much or often. I burned with a sense of injustice and anger toward myself with a belief that I must be deserving of punishment. I didn’t understand why or what or how I was wrong. I didn’t know how to make myself right. So I would bite myself. Hard. I would hit things or hit myself with things.
As I got older I used school compasses to inflict pain on myself. I once cut holes in my hand with scissors. I was twelve. By the time I left school I had cigarette burns and sore knuckles from scraping them along walls. I lived with an all pervading sense of shame. Shame at my self and shame of my behaviour, behaviour born out of shame and spiralling into more shame.
Having left home young, I put myself through university. I studied design, a primary tool of which is a scalpel. The scalpel made contact many times with my skin, as did the switched on electric hobs on the cooker in my flat, broken glass, anything sharp or hot. The pain of existing was so enormous that cutting myself was a means to let some of it out; burning myself reminded me I was real. To alleviate the pressure of being such a lost and broken individual, a waste of space. I never wanted to take my own life; I just needed to remember I existed.
I hid my scars or lied about their origin; it seemed I was very accident-prone. I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone knowing the truth although it was probably obvious at times. The thought of people asking questions terrified me, it still does. How do I admit to something that other people find so hard to understand? What will they think of me if I tell them? I tried to explain this once to a friend who replied with ‘Why do you put it there if you don’t want people to ask about it?’ No, this is not attention seeking. If only it was that simple!
Do I still do it? No. I took myself to hospital for nine stitches about fifteen years ago which more or less put a stop to it. I feel like it occasionally and I still carry the shame. The shame is heavy and I’ve been carrying it a long time.
Throughout my life art helped keep me going, creativity has always been my saviour.
When I realised I still felt shame for something I don’t do anymore, I made some art to help me make sense of it. I created black and white photographic prints of my skin and filled in my scars with 24 carat gold leaf. To make what is broken into something beautiful.
It is World Mental Health day and so I will show you my art and let go of my shame and try to help. To help people to understand. To make it so girls don’t walk around with messy arms and hidden pain and for it to be okay for us to feel good about ourselves and for it to be okay for us to say so when it doesn’t.
Because in the words of Karen O ‘My sun is your sun...’ My scars are my scars and my story is my story. I don’t want it to be anyone else’s.
- A note about men and self harm. I know this is not exclusive to women, but I can only speak from my own experience. I’ve known a few men over the years who self harm. Artist Daniel Regan talks about it from a male point of view.
- I donate a percentage of sales from my art to the UK mental health charity Mind.