The following post is a contribution to the “In Good Company” project, which aims to encourage people to share stories of their experience with anxiety and depression, in much the same way as the “It Gets Better” project aims to help LGBT teens. It’s a project that’s important to me, even though I don’t usually get this personal on this blog.
School, adults claim, the happiest years of your life. I remain convinced that anyone who’s actually said that never went to school, or if they did, they didn’t go to mine.
I was on to a loser from the start, being the speccy, nerdy, plump, academic kid with big hair. Useless at sport, not fashionable enough to hang out with the cool kids, I managed to trudge through, keeping my head down, until I got to senior school. That’s when it all went, for want of a better word, tits up.
Our school didn’t have a bullying policy. To have a bullying policy would, in the words of the Senior Mistress, be like admitting the school had a bullying problem. If they didn’t admit there was a bullying problem, ergo, there wasn’t one.
Except there was. I found that out real fast when a group of the trendy girls in my year decided that short, plump, speccy me was a legitimate target (these same girls later drove another girl in my year to bulimia). It wasn’t just me, but I can only speak from my own experience. And my own experience was hell.
The bullying was rarely physical. It was emotional, psychological, and it had the effect, over the years, of stripping away every shred of confidence and self-belief I possessed. It made me feel like a worthless shell of a girl, as if there was nothing inside me. Aged fourteen, I would go to sleep every night wishing I could die in my sleep, so I wouldn’t have to face another day of it.
One night it became too much, and I took a kitchen knife and cut my left wrist. If I was trying to kill myself, it was a pathetic attempt. But as I stood in the kitchen watching the blood pour down my arm, I realised it didn’t hurt, and that I felt better. All the pain, all the crap, was pouring out of me with the blood I had spilt. I could do something they couldn’t do, and for the first time in over a year, I actually felt empowered.
From then on I cut myself regularly, and when I couldn’t find anything to cut myself with, I would hit my arms and legs until they came up in great black bruises. I told lies about it – I fell, I caught my arm, the cat did it. I became an accomplished liar. Still am, but now I get paid for it.
I was desperate for something I could control. I had no control over anything else in my life, but I could control what I did to my own body, and whatever anyone did to me, I had the feeling I was stronger than them, that I could do something they couldn’t. I could control how I hurt myself, and I could control what I ate.
By 17, at college, when I had no further need for such control mechanisms, everything had completely broken down. I was under six stone, and I was self-harming every night, because if I didn’t, I couldn’t sleep. The methods I had used to control my pain were now controlling me, and I didn’t know how to stop them, and that was terrifying. And I couldn’t ask for help, because asking for help meant admitting I had a problem, and I had built this careful facade of being ok that everyone but me could see right through.
Stitches, suicide attempts, therapy, but nothing got through to me because I didn’t have a problem, and if everyone just left me the hell alone I would be fine. I insisted on going to university, because another month in the town I grew up in, living in daily fear of my tormentors, would have finished me off completely. Even at that stage, some part of me desperately wanted to live, to have the normal life that everyone around me had. Self-harming is often misinterpreted as an attempt at suicide; for me, it was an attempt to stay alive, to stay in control.
I have a belief that sometimes, you have to hit absolute rock-bottom before you can start getting better. And University was rock bottom, because to the delicious mix of self-harming and anorexia was now added a copious amount of booze. At least if I was drinking myself to sleep, I wasn’t slicing up my arms in a bid for oblivion. (I’m not sure of the logic here, I wasn’t in a very logical place at the time, I have to confess).
And I’m sad to say I can’t tell you what happened to change things, only that I was exhausted living this way. Life was physically wearing me out. I remember, Christmas morning, alone in a rented house. My flatmates had gone home, I was hiding from my family because I didn’t want them to see what a wreck I was, I had to have the heating off because I’d spent the heating money on Vodka and razor blades, and it dawned on me, as I huddled in a blanket trying to force myself to eat a celebratory Christmas chocolate, that I wasn’t in control in any shape or form. I was, in fact, a bloody, starved, scarred, scared, boozy mess.
In the words of a wise man (Morgan Freeman, or possibly Stephen King), I could get busy living, or get busy dying.
And I walked away. Not from the booze, but from the knives and razors, the biting and punching. Not all at once, but with baby steps – “I won’t cut myself until after the X Files / today / this week / until after my birthday….” And gradually the urge diminished, I ate more, I slept better. It never completely goes away, but now I spill my blood on the printed page, not down my arms, and that works out better for me and for everyone around me.
A close friend told me just this afternoon that I was one of the most “together and fabulous” people he knew. From self-harming mess to together and fabulous (or at least, the convincing appearance of together and fabulous) in a mere twenty years. It’s been a long time, a long crawl out of the darkness. But it is possible, and it’s worth the journey. It’s a journey lots of people have taken, and if you’re embarking on it right now, you’re not on your own, and you never will be.
If anyone wants to talk to me about any of the issues raised by this post, my inbox is always open.