“Look. Will’s got another new girlfriend,” Mom called to me from where she inspected a Facebook picture on the computer screen.
As I reluctantly glanced over her shoulder, my gaze met the familiar grin and brown eyes of Will, my ex-boyfriend, standing next to a gorgeous brunette with a Crest Whitestrip smile. Immediately, I braced for the pain typically aroused by confronting that part of my past. But the sharp pangs of guilt and regret didn’t rip across my heart as I had expected. In fact, after slowly probing my heart for remaining tender areas, I realized that the old wounds were strangely painless, leaving only the faintest memories of my years as the girl with a blade.
Some people hurt themselves to create a distraction from life’s problems. Trying to forget the pain someone caused them or attempting to punish themselves for mistakes or shortcomings, a growing percent of Americans resort to violent scratching, pulling out hair, cutting, or burning to release emotion that otherwise would drive them insane. The thought of people intentionally harming themselves makes me shudder, but I don’t know why—after all, I cut myself nearly every day for years. Though I never harmed my flesh, I mutilated my heart. Rather than knives or razors, my blades were the memories of past mistakes. Somehow, slashing my soul with painful recollections was easier than forgiving myself for hurting Will.
During our early teen years, Will and I were best friends despite my being three years older. In time, our relationship morphed into more than friendship as Will grew to adore me. While I cared deeply for him, most days I struggled to know whether to treat him like a little brother, a friend, or a boyfriend. But by my eighteenth birthday, with college in the near future, I wondered if a better fit waited for me. Tying myself down to a relationship meant possibly missing my true soul mate later on.
Through my indecision, Will’s passion sustained our relationship. But even his consistent love did nothing to compel me to fully commit to him—or to fully separate from him. For two years my affections fluctuated, abusing his unwavering devotion until finally, one evening right before I returned to college for the spring semester, he called. His voice was low, almost expressionless, as if he had expended his passion or anger in planning this confession. “I could never see myself without you, but I can’t see myself with you because you’re so selfish.”
Year by year, he chronicled our unbalanced relationship, recounting the times I refused to say “I love you;” the evenings I recoiled at his touch; and the moments I instigated his affection, knowing full well my unwillingness to reciprocate it. He punctuated the inventory of my offenses by stating, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
As I lay in bed that night, his list of my mistakes replayed in my mind. He was right—I had been excessively selfish and blind to the extent that my vacillating affections had injured his emotions. Recalling all the love that Will had granted me in spite of my unwillingness to return it, I decided that ‘sorry’ would never be enough to rectify his pain—‘sorry’ was too easy. I needed to suffer too. That night, the cutting began.
The past became my weapon to disfigure my present. Selecting a memory of a time I hurt Will, I would run it across my heart, feeling the serrated blade of guilt and remorse tearing into my soul. Along with the memories, I tucked away the pink ribbon that Will used to bundle my letters when he handed them back to me. I pointedly referred to him as “my ex” rather than “an old friend” when mentioning him in conversation, hoping that someone would ask me to retell the story of our break-up. Sometimes I called him, just to check up, and I even added him as a friend on Facebook. Readily I collected any method to inflict on myself an equal amount of damage that my actions had inflicted on Will. As the years passed, my heart spread into a gaping
wound, expanding each time my offences came to mind.
A time of grief or pain is natural after a break up, but usually people are able to move on with their lives. So why, for years, did I keep hurting myself as punishment for the pain I caused Will? Maybe for the same reasons that many people hurt themselves physically on a regular basis. Although it’s not a simple answer, Susan Bowman, licensed counselor and author of See My Pain: Creative Strategies and Activities for Helping Young People Who Self-Injure, suggests, “When [people] cut themselves, . . . it becomes a control issue.” This certainly described me. I was willing to inflict on myself what humans naturally avoid—pain. Because pain, unlike the mistakes of my past, was something that I could control.
Almost four years after our breakup, my destructive habit climaxed when I called to check up on him. The conversation was going well—until he mentioned Blair, his most recent girlfriend. I’d seen pictures of her on Facebook. Posed in her booty shorts, low-cut tops, bronze tan, and straightened platinum hair, she epitomized all that I was not.
Hearing Will rave about her angered me. Before calculating the consequences of my words, I blurted out, “She looks like a slut, Will.”
In the silence, I sensed his struggle to contain the white hot rage burning inside him. “Don’t you ever say that again.”
“Well, it’s true.” I shot back. “All you have to do is look at her pictures—”
“You’re just jealous.”
I had no defense and no way to reverse the direction the conversation had taken.
“She loves me,” he yelled, “which is a lot more than you ever did.”
As the memories weighted the silence hanging between us, my heart raced from the confrontation and proximity of the past.
Finally, his voice softened. “You’ll never know how much you hurt me.” I knew he wasn’t referring to the comment I had just made.
The conversation provided enough blades to slash myself with for the next two days. Eating seemed irrelevant; sleep eluded me; even at work, I wielded the memories until my soul had no more surface to be abused.
Jill Pertler, in her article “Cutting: A Teen Trend on the Rise,” says that “self-injury is a cry for help. [People] engaging in these behaviors desperately need [people] to provide understanding and a willingness to listen.”
While a self-mutilator of any kind needs to talk about his issues, the healing process extends one step further than just finding someone to listen. People who hurt themselves by cutting their emotions or their body don’t need to be merely consoled or understood, but to be told that wounds can heal, on the skin or the heart, if left to mend without being ripped open repeatedly like a scab.
In the lowest point of my self-destruction, I slowly began to abandon my destructive tendencies by realizing that healing would come only by releasing my past, forgiving myself, and moving on. No one could pry the blades from me, especially since they always hung just a remembrance away. I would have to choose, each day, to cut or carry on, to bleed or bind up, to hurt or heal.
Forgiveness became my recovery room and time my physician as, eventually, I chose to carry on by removing Will from my Facebook page; decided to bind up my wounds by throwing away his letters; and resolved to heal by erasing his number from my phone. When enough time had passed, I sent Will a letter, apologizing for my selfishness in those years, and settled for “sorry” to correct my mistakes.
After seeing the picture of Will with his newest girlfriend on the computer screen, I marveled at my painless response. Yet in the next thought I wondered what Will was up to, wondered if he was really happy going through girlfriend after girlfriend. Perhaps my distant offenses had ruined his trust in women. Maybe my indecision had caused—
Suddenly realizing what was happening, I jerked the guilt away from my heart and hurried out of the room, away from the picture and the memories, choosing, once again, to leave behind the past, and heal.
The pain and memory of the wounds grow fainter every day. With time and right choices, I doubt they’ll even leave a scar—no matter how deep they once were.