The first cut really is the deepest. But I would never have believed that, aged 16, when, in a steaming rage, I scratched a 1cm-long cut into my left wrist with a blue WHSmith compass. Had I realised that that was just the beginning of 15 years of self-harm that often manifested itself as 1in-wide cuts stretching from my wrist to my inner elbow, I would have punched a wall instead.
A report by The Lancet Commission revealed last week that self-harm is the largest cause of death among 20- to 24-year-olds in the UK. In 2013, 329 young people aged 20-24 died from self-harm, with the report’s authors citing global trends that promoted unhealthy lifestyles, youth unemployment and less family stability as some of the possible reasons behind the figures. However, the report failed to indicate the number of people who regularly self-harm with no intention of suicide, or who cut with deliberately superficial wounds. I fell into this category.
For me, self-harm was a secret that allowed me to vent my frustration quickly and carefully without causing anyone else any trouble – which is why I suspect self-harm is often the go-to fix for women, and Asian women in particular, who are often expected to conform to a certain cultural ideal and struggle in silence, instead of shouting for help and support. I attended a frighteningly academic all-girls school where competition was rife, and I lost perspective of my successes and failures, crying at my four A* and six As, because everyone else had 11 or 12 A*s. That was the first time I made a cut. I was furious at myself for failing and I punished myself. It was more than six years before I made another cut, but I remembered that overwhelming feeling of release when I did, like kicking off a tight pair of stilettos at the end of a long day, and so it started again.
The biggest problem with hiding self-harm is that you hide it from yourself. I had severe depression but couldn’t see it for what it was until I discussed it with friends and family
Contrary to popular belief, self-harmers don’t always want to die. Far from it. I used the energy I got from cutting to spur myself on to do better. Each session felt like a workout, leaving me relaxed, clear-minded and calm. And it was certainly not a cry for help. I would position bangles, hair scrunchies and long sleeves over the cuts, so that nobody would ever see them. Over the next 10 years, I relied on self-harm the way others do on alcohol or cigarettes. When a relationship failed, or I was miserable in my job, I found myself cutting again. At its lowest point, I was cutting every month, which became every week and then, eventually, every evening. But I couldn’t see it for what it was. For me, it was my quiet time and I realise now that it was the control that appealed. When everything around me went down in flames, I was absolutely certain of my routine: boil the kettle, sterilise the scissors, put on track three on that Coldplay album, and curl up into the same corner of the bed. And my cuts were perfectly spaced, identical lengths and artistic. I was in absolute control of them. I never felt pain and I never cut deep enough to scar.
Then, one day, a friend noticed my cuts and called my brother, who sat me down and talked to me about it. He asked if I wanted him to call my parents – both medics – and 10 years' worth of frustration and depression came to a head. I said yes and breathed the most enormous sigh of relief. I soon found out that I wasn’t alone: at least four close friends were also former self-harmers on anti-depressants and I felt relieved that I had others who, like me, looked completely “normal” from the outside, and in the hope of preserving that image of being funny, intelligent, loving, attractive, multi-tasking women, took their secret to bed with them, too.
The biggest problem with hiding self-harm is that you hide it from yourself. I had severe depression, but couldn’t see it for what it was until I discussed it with friends and family and normalised it. With a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and a period of anti-depressants, I soon stopped cutting, and haven’t for three years. I have had a couple of relapses – I can’t promise I will never do it again, but when I did it just disappointed me and realised it had lost all appeal. Towards the end of last year, I was devastated to hear Ruby Wax encourage those with mental-health issues to hide them from their employer and to make up another excuse for not coming in. Why? I won’t apologise for my mental-health issues any more than someone with chronic migraines. And why should I? The best move I made was talking to my employers who happily declared that they too had suffered from mental-health issues or helped loved ones who had. They encouraged me to let them know when I needed time off so they could get cover, and so I didn’t feel added pressure to lie or crumble beneath the weight.
Find a handful of friends you can rely on, and cut out the ones who judge. It’s the only way to survive. On my first date with my husband, I told him I wasn’t drinking because I was on medication and he simply blinked and bought me an orange juice. Now, my depression sweeps in in waves but, when I feel it creeping up, I tell my husband – who made me write this piece – or dial a friend who comes over and sits with me while I cry. On one occasion, I asked my old housemate if he minded if I closed the kitchen door, smashed a couple of mugs against the wall, then brushed them up. He fetched them from the cupboard, watched a bit of TV while I vented and then we ordered takeaway.
The key to fighting the stigma surrounding mental health is to talk openly about how we feel, admit to taking medication and make others feel comfortable enough to talk about and work through their own challenges. It’s the only way we can ever see a change.
Mental Health Awareness Week takes place May 16-22