Spoiler/trigger alert: not that first time. Get your mind out of the gutter.
It was cold: February, 2011. I don’t know what happened – an argument, maybe, or some crisis. We’d set me up a desk in the room that wasn’t bright, in the house that wasn’t mine. I was in some reverie of worry, reeling through visions of death and sadness that hadn’t happened but might. Was there an argument? I wanted out. Needed to stew, needed to escape, needed some kind of feeling that wasn’t ‘this’.
I chose cold. Cold seemed like a good idea. Maybe I’d die out there. It was February; cold. Negative 15, maybe negative 20. Dusk had settled in as I settled into a chair on the porch, buried in two or three blankets. In the dimming light, no one on the street fifteen feet away would have seen me, unless they were really looking.
I could see them. I watched them walking home, bundled in coats and hats, carrying groceries. Lights warmly began to glow from the living rooms and kitchens up and down the street. A train went by. We lived about five houses from the train tracks, towards the end of the road. There was no snow, and little ice. It was just a cold city winter, lifeless, blue coloured, and dark. I thought about them all, how they must have lives. I watched someone come home with a few dogs. I thought about the chaos that was our kitchen, littered with the forgotten plates of one of our truly untidy roommates.
I sat there for hours, watching the light slowly peel itself away from the sky. The clouds were pretty. I thought about nothing at all, really. I felt as void and still as the air – on pause from living. I never wanted to move. It was not relieving or peaceful, but it was nothing, and nothing was better than ‘this’. My life: summed up in being unable to do dishes for the clutter in the sink, and spending each meal in a cereal box and the microwave. Apparently the worries didn’t like the cold. They stuck their noses against the window behind my head, steaming in the warm room, too hyper and too stupid to want to join me.
Long after dark, long after Patrick had checked on me and departed to the workshop in the garage, long after a worry or two trickled out the front door, I began to wish for something to do. In three face-smacking revelations I had a plan and did not know what to do about it. 1) I had to do something, anything. 2) I had to do it. 3) I could cut.
These thoughts came out of nowhere, and nearly stirred me from my spot immediately. Of course, I thought. I could cut. Why didn’t I think of that?
It would solve nothing. It was meaningless. It was foolish. It was something I could do.
Some part of me must have thought it was a bad idea, because I sat there for another half hour pondering this choice of activity. Really I think I was just trying to sort out where this idea had come from and what demon had passed by to give it to me. Truly, I will never know why that idea came to me then. A mischievous spirit seemed to have chosen that day to randomly walk down my street and remind me that it was a possibility, and really, what else was I doing right now.
Years and years before, when the land was young, and people listened to dialup tones to use the internet, I spent an enormous part of my after-school hours in front of the computer, typing into instant messaging. My two best friends lived too far to see regularly, and we no longer went to school together, so we hung out online together. We’d do homework while the conversation lulled, or write, or share things we found on the net, or listen to music. But their presence was constant.
Perhaps it was just our time of life coincided with this technology, perhaps it was the lack of visual or aural contact that spurred us to talk about what otherwise would never have been spoken – whatever it was, it became clear that my two best friends were cutting. Each for different reasons, they harmed themselves to stave off emotional pain. All-encompassing as their presence was in my life, I felt insufficient as a person for not doing it, and for not understanding. Why one would do such a thing, and why it would help, were beyond me. I was too innocent and too young to understand. I did my best to listen and to talk them through their problems, and I really, really wanted to understand and help in any way I could. But the simple fact that I did not feel the same emotional pain that they did meant that they turned to each other increasingly for empathy, and I felt less and less worthy to be their friends. It was my fault I didn’t understand. To this day, I am sorry for whatever pain I caused.
The way they spoke about cutting, everyone did it. I was the bizarre exception who clearly had a life blessed beyond reckoning. Although I am phrasing this with some hyperbole, they were not entirely wrong; to not know that pain is a blessing indeed, although it is certainly a bliss that comes of ignorance.
I never tried cutting at the time; the issue that I saw, in terms of connecting with my friends, was that I did not understand the emotional pain, so cutting for the sake of it would not help. It remained a mysterious activity, to be hidden from adults, to be suffered alone.
One thing was clear, though: while it born of suffering, it was done to ease the same. There was a purpose to it, that I simply could not see, but surely it was there. It helped. It soothed. It did something. It was better than doing nothing. It was better than whatever it was my friends were experiencing.
I peered out the back door to the garage – Patrick and his friend were busy. I snuck back into the kitchen, literally on tiptoe. I did not know why I needed to be secret, only that I did. I had a hunch that Patrick would kill me if he found out.
I’d just spent an additional half hour trying to decide where exactly to cut. Arms were the classic location; at the time I did not even consider my legs. But I used my arms for rock climbing, one of the few activities that I still valued. What if I made a mistake and cut too deep? Memories of the injuries at the gym circled my brain – of torn tendons and muscles that had literally ripped off of bone, rendering their owner useless and invalid for six months, or even a year. That was too long to bear.
Flexors – nixed, then. Extensors – well, they were just as important for grip. Nix. Anatomical details and names were ripe in my mind from my final few years at university. I knew where all the vessels, tendons, and nerves were. I was not sure what would happen if I sliced the belly of a muscle. I raged in my mind for a place that was largely fat and bone – how irritatingly compact and useful the body was!
Ah. Forearm, but the lateral edge, where the radius lay almost directly beneath the skin. Most vessels wove around the other side. I was safe there.
I selected a knife from the block. It was stupidly large, but I couldn’t find the paring knife. I raised it, looking at different angles, not certain how to approach this foreign creature that was my own skin. As macabre as this all might sound, I imagine I looked extremely silly, like someone who has boasted they can do open heart surgery, was then suddenly presented with the opportunity, and was now trying to figure out a way to save face whilst asking for instruction.
I chose to lower it to my skin, where I feebly attempted to saw. Several times, back and forth.
It wouldn’t cut. It was too dull.
Frustrated and furious and embarrassed, I put the knife back, went to my desk, and burst into tears. It wasn’t that I had been stopped from Committing an Act so much as that I now had no plan. I couldn’t even do the one thing that I thought I could just do. I was useless. Helpless. Absolutely worthless and stupid. I couldn’t do anything. I was stuck, probably forever. A kitchen, in all its horribleness, had bested me.
And in the midst of all of this crying and embarrassment and shame, I remembered that I had paper scissors in my desk that I saved for paper cutting only. They were sharp. They were not unwieldy and huge. They were not in the kitchen. So I pulled them out.
I made a cut on my arm, lateral edge of the forearm, two inches proximal to the wrist. It was less of a cut and more of a whack, actually. I was afraid of how much it would hurt. It did hurt, and after about thirty seconds, it stung. But it was not bad. Examining it, I could see I had done something. I could see blood, I could see an effect. I had done that. Me. I had actually done something and done it myself and something worked. Rapidly, I made more and more cuts, painful, but rejoicing in the real-ness of the sting, the awake-ness, the action. I was finally doing something.
After about twenty cuts, I stopped, and realized I was breathing quickly. I calmed down easily, blotted the blood, and rolled down my sleeve. I went back to work, finally.
Patrick eventually came in the house and I could not keep it a secret. I do not know if shame or pride motivated me more, or simply a determination to see his reaction, but after dropping hints unsuccessfully I finally showed him, and explained. I apologized, as I could see he was hurt. The worst of his horror came from my confession that I had originally tried a kitchen knife. “But I keep those sharp!” he cried. I laughed a cold laugh and explained that part too. He asked that if I should do it again, to please never use those, in the event that they had been sharpened. Patrick never asked me stop, only that I talk about it at group therapy. He is a gift.
My cutting continued for a while until other problems escalated and lead to me attempting medication. But that is another story, for another week.