In the spring of seventh grade, I had a terrible falling out with my friend Becky.* I can’t even remember how it started—she spread a rumor about me or maybe blabbed one of my secrets—but it came to a head when she had her mom call our principal to tell him that I was going to kill myself.
The principal called my parents on a Friday night when I was sleeping over at another friend’s house. My mom, knowing that I was having problems with Becky and not wanting to embarrass me in front of my other friends, managed to remain calm and waited until I got home the next morning to ask me about it. Still, I felt completely humiliated by the looks of concern my parents were giving me. Whatever I might have said to Becky that made her believe I was suicidal had been lost in a fog of anger and depression, so when they asked why she would say such I thing, I blamed it on my mostly black wardrobe. My one vivid memory of the whole debacle is of the meeting I had the following Monday with the principal, my parents, Becky, and her parents. After rehashing the phone call he’d gotten, the principal yelled, “And as it turned out, Stephanie was at a slumber party probably enjoying some fresh-baked blueberry muffins!” (Fresh-baked blueberry muffins? WTF? I thought.)
The principal forced me to have a few sessions with the school guidance counselor anyway. Those consisted of a lot of fake smiling and insisting that really I was fine, just having a dumb argument with a dumb friend. She also had me decorate T-shirts with puffy paint. Seriously. And the school put me on suicide watch.
In truth, though I wasn’t suicidal, I did hate my life. I’d endured three years of bullying at the hands of girls at my elementary school, because I wore the wrong clothes and got good grades. In junior high, the boys joined in, taunting me for being flat-chested and ugly. I’d also just found out that I was losing the one person who’d helped me survive all of that by joining me to laugh at Garfield comics, watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, and be weird and totally proud of it—my best friend, Juliet. Her grandmother and legal guardian was dying of lung cancer, so Juliet was being sent to live with her aunt. I floated around my junior high like a dark cloud, always on the verge of either bursting into tears or lashing out in anger. Which didn’t really help with my suicide-watch status.
One afternoon at stage crew, I was too busy stewing about my various problems to pay attention to what I was doing, and I snagged my arm on a nail that stuck out of the wall in the tool room. I almost screamed, but I gritted my teeth and stopped myself. Then I realized that I felt strangely calm. I hurt so much inside that hurting myself on the outside was like opening up a pressure valve. Instead of telling one of the supervisors, who would make a big deal out of it, I put a flannel shirt on to hide the little cut. Later that week when I was feeling crappy again, I went back to the nail and accidentally-on-purpose ran my arm across it.
So from the end of seventh grade on, I continued to cut whenever I was feeling anxious, angry, or sad. I cut in secret, locking the door to my bedroom or the bathroom, carefully hiding the evidence, and feeling fortunate that it was the early ’90s, and I wasn’t the only one who had a flannel or a beat-up army jacket on at all times.
I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing for a long time. I was a perfectionist; I felt like any problems I had were flaws that I didn’t want my parents to see any more than I wanted to get a B on my report card. I wouldn’t confide in any adults at school for the same reason. As for friends, I was so stung by Juliet’s moving and Becky’s betrayal that I stopped confiding in anyone I might consider a peer.
I knew that most people wouldn’t understand my method of coping and would label me “suicidal” again. This lasted until sophomore year, when I made friends at a local park who “got it.” My new best friend, Acacia, kept a razor blade in the wallet she wore chained to her jeans. I don’t remember her telling me this or talking about the cuts on her arms, but I know I took off my long sleeves around her and started carrying a razor blade in my chain wallet, too. My sort-of-not-really boyfriend, Brandon, discovered my cuts when were making out. My face got hot, but then he said, “That’s cool,” and showed me his.
I didn’t think it was cool, though. After spending much of my life feeling like a freak for various reasons, I was relieved to find a group of friends who understood me so well that I didn’t even have to hide my scars from them, but there’s a line between that and craving rebellion just to be trendy, like a Dateline-type special on “teens in trouble” would seem to imply. In fact, when a film crew from some outlet or another came to our park to talk about just that, Acacia and I scrammed. We weren’t about to trot out our scars for the camera, because we weren’t proud of them any more than a junkie is proud of their habit. To us, cutting went along with smoking cigarettes in terms of stress relief: deep down, you know it’s not good for you, but it calms you down in the moment, and once you start, quitting is hard. Late at night on the phone, or maybe one-on-one outside of Denny’s after someone noticed someone else’s fresh cut, there were whispered conversations that started, “I wish you would stop…and I wish I could stop, too.” Sometimes we even talked about the reasons behind the cutting, but a lot of times there weren’t words for that black pit of depression or anger that lived in your gut and threatened to swallow you whole. On top of that, we were dealing with things that we had no clue how to handle on our own, and we distrusted the rest of the world too much to seek help for our problems—like Acacia’s violent situation at home or the stuff I was going through when my cutting got really bad the summer between sophomore and junior year.
I’d just broken up with Greg, who was the first guy I slept with. During the six months we dated, he’d isolated me from my friends and forced me to let him read my journal. When I talked to the wrong person, wore something he deemed “slutty,” or refused his sexual advances, he punished me with the silent treatment and other psychological tactics like destroying my things, threatening suicide, and threatening to tell my parents how crazy I was. It took me several months to realize that this behavior was not normal—it was abusive. It took me years to realize that I didn’t deserve it.
He’d basically rewired my brain so I blamed myself for all the things he did to me. Cutting became both relief and punishment. I was going to the bathroom at school and running out on my friends at Denny’s to do it. It scared some of them. One begged me to stop with tears in his eyes. I started to realize that cutting was a dangerous addiction that had spiraled out of control, but I was too stressed to stop.
Then, one night in early November, I got into a car accident. It wasn’t really a big deal. I made a left turn, miscalculating how fast the guy coming up the street was going, and he clipped the back corner of my car, ripping the bumper off. No one besides Jezebel, my ’91 Civic, got hurt—a lucky break, since my two passengers weren’t wearing seatbelts.
My parents didn’t even raise their voices at me, but I had never been angrier at myself. The rage and self-loathing festered while I sat in the living room waiting for them to finish inspecting the car, and when they came inside I completely lost control and ripped away the thin shield that had kept my deepest secret hidden for almost four years. I threw my army jacket on the floor and displayed my arms, which were crisscrossed with bright red cuts, fading pink scabs, and tons of little white scars.
“I cannot handle any of this anymore. I am fucking crazy. You need to check me into Riveredge right now,” I told them, referring to the mental institution that some of my friends had been sent to when their parents were sick of their behavior. Still rather obsessed with The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted, I thought it might be a nice little break. In fact I kind of hoped I was crazy enough to stay forever, just so that I would never have to deal with real life again. Even though I knew institutions were sad and frightening places, I imagined that a padded white room would be like a safe little cocoon compared with the outside world.
I honestly don’t remember much of our conversation that night. I know that my parents went very pale after seeing my arms. I assume that my mother cried. No one yelled, except for me as I begged them to commit me so my problems would go away.
It was decided that I would see my mother’s therapist instead. Mom also insisted that I stay home from school the next day. She told me that whenever I didn’t feel like I could handle things, I could call her and she would pick me up from school and we’d talk about it or watch soap operas or read or do whatever I needed to do. She helped me begin to find healthy releases.
Frightening as it had been to reveal my secret to my parents, in the end, it was incredibly liberating. Oddly enough, the sense of release that I got from it was quite similar to how I’d felt back when I’d first snagged my arm on that nail, but it was better because I was actually taking control. It wasn’t until I let go of my secret that I realized how all-consuming it had been: hiding my cuts from my parents and the friends that didn’t know, worrying that a sleeve might come up or someone would grab my arm and I’d flinch, revealing all of my vulnerabilities. Not to mention, cutting had become the only way I knew how to deal with any sort of stress. If something upsetting happened and I wasn’t able to sneak away with something sharp, I felt completely powerless. Like with many addictions, what had initially seemed helpful ended up becoming such a crutch that I forgot how to be resourceful, how to take care of myself and find real ways of working on my problems.
It still took me a while to give up that crutch. I don’t have a last cutting memory like I have a first cutting memory, because quitting was a process that lasted until I was 24 or 25. After I told my parents my secret, I stopped viewing cutting as helpful. I felt guilty every time I did it, which sometimes led to more cutting, but more often than not, it led to me reaching out to my mom or to the friends of mine who were making a serious effort to kick the habit. This healing period was the emotional equivalent of those bootcamp-style workouts. It was intense, incredibly difficult, and sometimes there were setbacks. I had a drama-filled relationship with a guy and every time we fought, I was tempted to cut, but when I managed to put down something sharp and either pick up the phone to call someone or a pen to write in my journal, I’d never felt stronger or more proud. It taught me who I really was and what I needed to keep myself balanced in the world—namely, to give my feelings words.
Writing has always been my healthiest form of catharsis. The desire to cut lessened a great deal after I went back to college at 21 to pursue a creative writing degree and started finally opening up to my therapist. For me, cutting never was the “cry for help” that I’ve heard it called, but rather a way to suffer in silence. I couldn’t begin to heal until I cried out loud. ♦
* All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.