It wasn’t the first time I’d cut, it wasn’t even the worst, but I still found myself biking to the emergency room at 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday. My original intention had been to call my company’s Employee Assistance Program so that they would help me find a counselor. I wanted to get back on antidepressants; I wanted to spend fewer nights crying in the dark with a box cutter. While my intentions were clear, though, I had no ability to make plans, let alone to see them through. I was cutting nearly every day and aghast at the relentless tailspin of my life. The worst part of depression is always the dizzying moment when I remember that rock-bottom is a myth; there’s no end unless I carve it out myself.
I don’t remember exactly what happened the day of my emergency room trip, but the basic shape of my life was something like this: I was working as a manager in a high-turnover call center, making too much money to do something which I felt was irrelevant to society and in which I took no pride. I lived alone in the town where I’d graduated from college with an English degree, another “accomplishment” that I felt ambivalent toward on the best days and angry with on the worst. Almost a year prior I’d stopped taking the latest in a string of antidepressants, and I’d spent the intervening months socially isolating myself by getting high and binge-watching Netflix with my cat.
So, I called the Employee Assistance Program, an over-the-phone counseling service offered by my employer. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a polite, insistent representative named Mike. He was almost certainly reading from a script when he told me to go to the emergency room. I’ve worked in call centers, too, and I recognize the hollow concern that comes from repeating the same handful of sentences dozens of times a day. Regardless of his sincerity, I would have done anything that he asked. My own decisions, when I was capable of making them, were a clear disaster. I was more than ready to let someone else be in charge.
When I told the woman who checked me in to the ER that I’d biked over, she gave me a hard look that made me want to disappear. In reality, there'd be no disappearing; I left her my keys, my clothes, and my cell phone and settled in to wait for a doctor.
The first time I cut was in high school. I don’t remember why, just that I scraped a dull pair of manicure scissors across my forearm until it bled. I didn’t flaunt my injuries but neither did I make any special effort to hide them; my mom noticed the scratches on my arms and made me promise to stop, and by calling me out at strategic times, my brother used them as leverage to get our parents off of his back. No one took my self-injury seriously, and least of all me. Cutting is the purview of angsty teenagers whose problems are readily blamed on their age, and I’d graduated from college before I finally accepted that my self-injury and depression were terminal, not the folly of a misguided youth.
Almost no one knows that I have been cutting for over a decade because I know that cutting is either used as a punchline or misunderstood as a failed attempt at suicide; it is almost always seen as a cry for attention. None of that is right, but these ideas are so predominant that it’s choked out real discourse about self-injury. I never mention cutting, even if I’ve finally learned to talk about depression. I can’t find the words to express that my preferred coping method is taking a razor to my own skin, and there is no reason to say that anyway. I know better than anyone how little I want the kind of attention that cutting brings, although I’m not sure whether it’s the scorn I dread, or the burden I’d be putting on my friends.
I’m forever trying to answer a question that I don’t give anyone the opportunity to ask: Why do I cut? It’s almost like a cigarette craving. I feel trapped in my own skin, I can’t focus, and I can’t sit still. I’m not usually violent but I want to hit someone in the teeth; I want to tear my skin off and shatter my bones. I want to cry, not because I’m sad but because I’m filled with toxic energy that needs to escape. I answer it with razors or scissors or safety pins, box cutters, anything heavy enough to leave bruises. Once I got a piercing, thanks to the coincidence of payday with my directionless rage, and I’m drawn to the giddy high of big tattoos, the needles in my skin and the permanent marks they leave.
I can’t rid myself of that noxious energy, but I’ve tried to relieve the pressure with more socially acceptable forms of self-destruction. I smoke cigarettes as a personal reward for good behavior and as a palliative to the myriad anxieties of day-to-day life. I wander my neighborhood for hours at night when I should be at home asleep. I drink a lot of whiskey.
Comparatively, cutting is better for me than any of those things: it is purely cosmetic and unlikely to give me cancer or rot my liver, but the stigma associated with self-injury is different. I may be occasionally terrified at my own propensity for self-destruction, but it’s just a backdrop for my life: It is always there but it’s only gut-wrenching when I consciously think about it. Despite that, I understand how frightening it can be see the physical manifestations of someone else’s disease.
I’ve quit cutting time and time again, and now I look at it like an addiction. Even if you’re currently sober, you’re an alcoholic for life, and I’m a cutter even if I’m not actively bleeding. I will always have these scars, even if I lie about them whenever someone notices.
When I was younger, I did not have to take my cutting seriously. Everyone I knew and all of the media I consumed were complicit in letting me believe that nothing I thought mattered and that nothing I felt was real. I didn’t identify as a cutter, even to myself; I identified as a teenager. Later I saw a therapist through my college health center, and she nearly convinced me that my depression was situational and that a prescription would set me right. I’ve taken Prozac, Celexa and Effexor, and after the emergency room, after I realized how far down I could slip without bottoming out, I went back and got a new prescription for Wellbutrin. They had different doses and different side effects and I cut while I was on every one of those pills.
The last time I cut was nearly two months ago. I left my friends at the bar so I could be alone and I stayed up until dawn, chain-smoking in my room with a towel wedged under the door. When I woke up with swollen eyes and a sore throat there was blood on my sheets from slashes that I didn’t clean or bandage. This is how it is now: I cut more infrequently, but I can’t view it as progress. It’s not the first time I’ve slowed down. The urge seems to have whims of its own.
This winter I turned 26 years old. I haven’t lived with my parents since I was 18; I put myself through college, and I have a job. I don't really know what it means that I still cut, however infrequently.
I don’t remember how long I waited at the ER. The room was dim and dingy; I wore paper clothes and sat on a bench built into the wall. There was no clock but there was an old issue of US Weekly that I was too wired to read. When the doctor came to see me, he just cleaned me up and tried to reassure me that I wasn’t wasting his time or the hospital’s resources with my benign injuries. I didn’t believe him and knew he wasn’t meant to provide the long-term care that I needed.
It was after four in the morning when I left with bandaged legs and a $500 bill that my insurance company wouldn’t pay. I biked slowly, weighed down by the knowledge that I’d wake up in a few hours to go back to work, and that having done so once I’d keep slogging through my life indefinitely. It was an epiphany, it just wasn’t the one that I wanted.