When teaching about self-harm, I would often joke about hearing myself referred to as a ‘self-harm expert’ – this accolade suggests something other than a professional who has learnt a lot about the topic. Sadly, the darker connotations of this title are now, once again, true. Despite my extensive knowledge on the topic, despite the fact I have directly or indirectly supported thousands of young people to prevent or manage acts of self-harm, I have recently found myself falling rapidly down that rabbit hole.
I did so secretly at first – deeply ashamed that my current experience would undermine every word I had ever uttered in a classroom, from behind a speakers’ podium or in my book on the topic. How could it be that I, a leading expert on the topic, was suffering from the very affliction that I had worked tirelessly to educate others about? I felt lost, I felt alone. I felt guilty. I felt like a fraud and I felt deeply, deeply ashamed.
But as I began to open up and share my story – starting with the emotional roller coaster of the day that I sought help with my injuries I began to realise that in standing tall and sharing my story, I was giving a voice to something bigger, more secret and more prevalent than I had ever suspected.
My work on the topic of self-harm has focused on children and adolescents. The ‘epidemic’ of self-harm faced by our schools is constant fodder for our tabloids and saw me travelling frantically around the UK trying to meet the demand for my expertise on the topic. I was once a child who self-harmed too. I could relate from personal experience. It was in the dim and distant past, but I got it.
But what I NEVER stopped to think about was the issue of adult self-harm. We know that the demographics are changing, that younger and younger children are hurting themselves. But adults.? No. This is not something that affects them is it?
Wrong. So very, very wrong.
As I share my story, I am finding that I am so far from alone. That there are a lot of other adults out there who are using self-harm to manage their thoughts and feelings too. Some of them have done it since childhood – or like me have reverted to a coping mechanism of old. Others have discovered self-harm as a fully fledged adult.
But we’re not talking about it.
Why? I think that it’s because this is not our territory. Self-harm is seen as the domain of the 14 year old emo girl. We are no more likely to bare our arms and our souls than we are to replace our ‘grown up clothes’ with a Slipknot hoody and a badly rolled spliff. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve grown up and out of it. Right?
And so we all paint this picture and try to adhere to it which means that adults who self-harm have nowhere to go. No one to ask, no one to offer them support. And so I found that when I took a step I considered perhaps selfish or short sighted and talked openly from my professional podium about my self-harm, I opened the flood gates for a wide range of adults to come forward and tell me ‘me too’.
The relief in the messages I receive is palpable. Other adults realising ‘I am not the only one’ and in a way I feel relieved too. Despite my knowledge on the topic I felt like perhaps I was the only adult in the room, that understanding and overcoming this was a battle I would have to do alone – because it’s so different from being a younger self-harmer. As an adult we have responsibilities which give rise to big questions – what do we tell our children? Do we need to tell our employer? Are we safe unsupervised? How much can we share with our partner?
There are so many questions yet to be explored. I am an expert in self-harm in children and adolescents and whilst the field evolves and changes and I’m learning all the time, I feel confident answering questions on that topic. But the world of adult self-harm feels like an undiscovered underworld. There are lots of questions to which I do no know the answer yet, but I hope that you will help me find them – because my personal journey will help, of course, but it’s just one story. If we’re to equip others with the support and advice they need, then it needs to be a team effort.
So what points am I meandering to here? I guess in summary there are three things to say. Firstly, self-harm is not a behaviour confined to children and young people, it is afflicting plenty of adults too. Secondly that as adults we feel scared or ashamed of sharing our self-harm. We fear we’ll lose our children, our jobs our partners if we are open about it and so these painful, painful stories go untold. Finally, that self-harm is not easy to fix, for some of us it becomes a deeply embedded coping mechanism which is unlikely to be overcome without appropriate support and help.
But my main point. The point I hope some of you will have the confidence, self-assurance, support or bloody mindedness to follow through on? Let’s talk about it. Let’s stop adult self-harm cowering in a corner, unseen, misunderstood, terrifying. Let’s be open and honest and help each other find some ways forwards. This is not something of which we should feel ashamed – it’s hard to be honest because many people simply do not understand. But, and this is a big but, they will NEVER understand unless we help them. If we share our stories, if we educate those around us and if we stand unafraid in the face of judgement and say ‘I hurt and it shows but I want it to stop’ then those with strength will not judge, will not walk away, will not shame us. They will step forward, they will take our hand, they will listen and they will learn. People can be surprising if you let them.
Good luck and please do consider taking a moment to comment if this is something that has affected your or someone you care about. You can do so anonymously and without logging in.
Thanks for your support and apologies if you message me personally and I do not reply. I read and treasure every message but am somewhat overwhelmed and finding it hard to respond as whilst I may appear quite eloquent on the page right now, when I’m not writing, I’m cowering in a deep, dark hole with anorexia, depression and anxiety grabbing me by the ankles and holding me down.