15th October 2017.
I was reluctant to opt for that verb “admit” when titling this piece because to admit something implies one of two things: that one has done something wrong – normally of detrimental effect to others, or that one has done something that brings upon shame. If you’re aware of me as a person, or any of the pieces I’ve written in the past you’ll be more-than-aware that I am a fervent advocate of speaking openly about mental health. I hope that you will agree that my candour and, at times, rather raw honesty helps to define my writing. It is therefore reasonable to assume that I am not at all ashamed of my struggles with poor mental health, and, in the main, you’d be correct. In recent weeks I have discovered that there is an aspect, a symptom, of my condition that I was, albeit subconsciously, ashamed of. That aspect: self-harm.
I wish to stress at this juncture that I haven’t cut myself (probably the most common action associated with that broad spectrum of “self-harm”) now for just over two years. For a long time I thought, and indeed have previously written, that my first bout of self-harm in my early-twenties was born from intense anxiety. When I was first consciously aware that my inner struggles were beginning (and rather rapidly beginning) to reveal themselves physically – short temper, frequent crying, increased alcohol intake, thoughts of suicide (the list could go on) – I began to attempt to override heightened panic and fear, curtail the panic attacks and slow my breathing, by transferring the pain to self-orchestrated physical cuts. In the midst of panic the overarching aim is survive the next thirty seconds, the next minute, the next ten any way possible until the panic begins to subside. My method of choice for a period of about a year was to retire to an area where I knew no one would go and scratch, gauge, or slice my arms, but normally legs, with a compass. Little did I know at the time that this was in fact not the first time I had self-harmed through cutting.
June 2017. I was having lunch with two dear friends in London – two friends who have reached the upper echelons of a career in broadcast journalism, two friends who I am honoured to know and proud to dub them “role models.” We reached the point in the conversation when we began discussing my career aspirations and how they wanted to help. The inevitable was uttered. “Nathan, we can only help you if you start to help yourself – you’ve got to stop using social media the way you do. Think about how you’re portraying yourself and just how publicly you do so.” This prompted me to write a piece entitled Managing Your Social Media and Being Aware of Its Effects on Your Mental Health ” in which I wrote ‘Something that has sadly come to define my own online presence is the fact that I prolifically used (and the past tense is very much deliberate) Twitter as a platform to cry out for attention when I was going through a period of poor mental health.’ I was, rightly so, forced to re-evaluate and was pleased when I managed to rather rapidly alter what, and how, I “broadcast” online.
August 2017. I was, once more, in London and coming to the end of a lovely, yet sadly for me relatively infrequent, time with a man to whom I owe my life. He knows I always find parting from him difficult so has been so kind as to learn to “warn” me if he has to leave early, or has other arrangements so I have time (if I need it) to prepare to say goodbye. This was one of the times when he had to leave early – I was aware of this from the outset. Nevertheless, any time I get to spend with him is to be cherished. I thought I was well – that evening, after his departure, it was clear that I was far from it. The last thing I remember of that day is saying goodbye to him around 3pm in the beer garden of a Soho bar. I know I arrived home, back to Hampshire, ten hours later and I know that in the interim period my friend had received a pathetic barrage of text messages pleading for him to confirm our friendship, tell me he’ll never leave, reassure me that he won’t forget me and that he’d see me again very soon. I was terrified, for no concrete reason, that that last meeting would be just that – the very last. I was, once more, absolutely convinced that I was nothing, no one – worthless, pathetically clinging on to those I love desperate to feel love back, desperate to be a priority. I just wanted him to be excited to see, and sad to leave, me. I think – no, I know – he was, but I couldn’t see it. My default setting: I was worthless and he was leaving me. In that moment I had no one.
In my last post I wrote that ‘upsetting [the friend in question is] something for which I will forever find difficult to forgive myself.’ And while this still stands, I have opted to use this to delve further into my mental health; I want to continue to explore, explain and understand it with an aim of reaching substantial periods of stability – some semblance of “recovery.” And so to the crux of this piece. I realised a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time vocalised yesterday, that I’d repressed some early childhood instances of self-harm for over twenty years. I had totally forgotten that between the ages of five or six to ten I used to purposely injure myself. In recent weeks I’ve allowed myself time to, in a safe place, try to remember. Quite specific memories began flooding to the surface of me slicing my knee with a piece of flint at the bottom of my garden – I remember two occasions, one of which occurred when I was approaching my sixth birthday. I recall rubbing both of my wrists on the patio to give the impression that I’d fallen and tried to use my hands to anchor myself. At primary school I would often rub my knuckles, or an elbow on the surface of the playground – once I remember cutting the base of my right leg with a stone and putting little bits of sand and grit into it as if I’d been running and accidentally tripped up. All I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted, was to be picked up – hugged. Even at that young age I’d convinced myself that I was worthless and the only possible way I could find happiness, or safety, or love, or human contact was if I injured myself. The only way I would ever be noticed and valued – just wanted – was if I were some form of victim, a victim who was eligible for pity. I was incapable of being loved. But being loved is all I’ve ever wanted. I still don’t believe that I am worthy of love.
At twenty-seven years of age I am far from comfortable, even able, to say that I love, or value, myself. It’s still difficult, but getting easier, to not look at myself without an overriding sense of revulsion and hate. Feelings of worthlessness were born at a very young age – something, evidently, I have only realised in recent weeks. As I near the end of my third decade it still summons all of my energy to accept that I’m okay (not even handsome, or special, or talented), just “okay,” when friends tell me such. That fear of loss, that fear of being forgotten and that fear of inadequacy is an ever-present thread that has run, and probably will continue to run, through my life. Every day, week, month and year I continue to survive, however, that thread becomes a little more shredded, a little weaker. In the same way that I “cried out” for help back then, I can now see that I unknowingly transferred that behaviour into the ether of social media. What was I hoping to achieve, or receive, when I wrote “I am worthless, I am nothing” on my Twitter feed? Was it for someone, anyone – a stranger, to say “No you’re not”? Would I believe them if they did? Probably not. Would it convince me to carry on if they did? Maybe…but certainly not long-term! I want to reach a place where I can allow myself to believe that I have worth – value – based on my character, that I offer something positive.
Self-harm amongst children is something that I haven’t personally read much about, but I certainly cannot be alone in my experiences. I hope that by writing this it prompts a conversation, but also goes a step further in helping those around me understand my struggles that little bit more and assures them that I am trying to get well, I am trying to get better and find techniques to help me prosper. As Stephen Fry quite rightly said, “It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do.”