BPD As Described By Claudia Boleyn

Trigger Warning: frequent mentions of self harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behaviour. If this is something that you will find triggering or upsetting, please don’t read ahead. Please always put your mental health first.

Given that it’s Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) Awareness Month, I felt I should write at least one post about BPD, although one is all I have time for at the moment, what with my uni workload. This is one of the videos I watched pretty early on after my BPD  diagnosis and it really, really helped me. It’s such a good, informative video, completely free of the stigma that is often attached to this diagnosis.

I really recommend watching the whole thing but I want to talk about some of the points Claudia makes, as well as adding some of my own thoughts.

Borderline Personality Disorder (also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) is a type of personality disorder, a type of mental health problem where your attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours cause you longstanding problems in your life, that impact your life daily. Struggling with how you think and feel about yourself and others – and that causing problems in your life – can lead to an investigation into whether you might have BPD. Having said this, many clinicians are reluctant to diagnose it as there is such stigma attached to it, with many in the health sector seeing those diagnosed with BPD as ‘difficult’ and ‘attention seeking’ (x). Personally, I have been told on numerous occasions that I should consider abandoning the diagnosis to avoid negative assumptions from doctors, a suggestion I find deeply offensive and have ignored. It explains things about me that I can’t otherwise explain and I’m not going to give that up because of other people’s ignorance.

Considering how many misunderstandings and how much stigma there is around BPD, Claudia uses the framework of the diagnostic criteria, as detailed by the Mind website (as of 2016, although the diagnostic criteria listed has not changed), to describe the symptoms of BPD and how she experiences them.

Fear of Abandonment

  • She talks briefly about her parents separating when she was a child and how, while it wasn’t an actual abandonment, it could be perceived that way, especially in the mind of a young child.
  • “I think I do struggle with that feeling that people are gonna leave, that people are gonna leave me.”

I definitely relate to this. I’ve had several people abandon me, intentionally or not, and so I have serious anxiety about people leaving me.

  • “[I’ve struggled with] that feeling of being not good enough and that when people know the real you, they’re not gonna want to stick around and stay with you. I really have struggled with that.”

I also relate to this, although my fear usually stems from feeling like a burden and that one day, the people in my life will feel like I’m just too much of a burden and walk away.

On Feeling Emotions Strongly

  • “I do have very, very strong, very, very intense emotions and I have done since I was younger.”

I most definitely have very strong emotions, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

  • “I don’t seem to have a middle point, for emotions at all. I don’t have a happy setting. I know that sounds odd but I don’t have a happy setting. My happy setting is feeling calm and I rarely manage to feel calm. I either feel very excited, very happy or very agitated or I feel anxious, and depressed, and low, and suicidal. I don’t have that relaxed place.”

This is very true for me too. My emotions tend to be at the extreme ends of the scale with very little middle ground. 

  • “It’s exhausting because everyday I’m going through these hundreds of emotions and I’m feeling the full force of them as if big things are happening when really hardly anything is and it exhausts me. It’s really tiring and it’s really hard to deal with day to day when your emotions can be so easily triggered like that. It says, ‘you can go from feeling very happy and confident in the morning to low and sad in the afternoon,’ and that is so me because I’ll wake up in the morning some days and feel great and… I don’t know… It happens so quickly and suddenly I’m suicidal… Most people assume that something big must’ve happened to make you get that low but with BPD it doesn’t need to be a big thing… I get really big ups and downs and there’s no middle ground for me.”

It can be scary and as Claudia says, exhausting, to have such big emotions that ricochet around inside you, changing every time they collide with something. If that makes sense. When they’re so big and they change so quickly and dramatically that it’s like the ground is constantly rocking until your feet; nothing feels stable or reliable.

  • “I do get really big ups and downs and there’s no middle ground for me emotionally. There is no centre.”

On Having Unstable Sense of Self

  • “I’ve had to develop a sense of who I am because, I think with BPD – just from my experience – I feel very empty and very blank canvas-y and I do struggle with understanding who I am: ‘Am I a good person or a bad person? What do I think about things?’ Sometimes I feel like I’m not even here, everything’s too much, and I just think… ‘What am I? What is this? What’s going on?'”

I really relate to this, to feeling empty, to feeling like I don’t truly know who I am. I know little things, that my favourite chocolate is milk chocolate and that thunderstorms make me feel alive. But the answers to the big questions about myself continue to elude me: Am I a good person or a selfish person? What do I really think about this issue or that issue? Am I actually good at the things I think I’m good at? What are my strengths? My weaknesses? It’s very confusing.

  • “You might notice I use the name ‘Claudia Boleyn’… It’s not my birth name anyway and I think what I’ve tried to do because of the issues I’ve had with feeling so empty and confused about this kind of thing is I’ve tried to form an identity based on people I admire… Some people think it’s like copying. It’s not necessarily copying; it’s trying to deal with that empty, confused thing. There are things I like and things I don’t like and I can tell you the things I enjoy and the things I don’t enjoy but I couldn’t tell you about me as a person because it changes so much. I couldn’t tell you if I was an introvert or an extrovert… it’s just a million things. I couldn’t describe myself. Or if I were to describe myself, you could ask me the next day or an hour later and it would entirely change… I do change a lot. Fictional characters are important to me and historical characters are important to me because they help me ground myself a little bit. It’s hard because, with BPD, people who don’t have it find it very difficult to understand that. So with the Anne Boleyn thing for me, she represents a lot of what I find admirable and I want to replicate some of those qualities but at the same time I want to be myself. It’s a really hard balance to strike. It’s not that people with BPD don’t have that personality, it’s that they feel so much so much of the time and they can change so often that it gets confusing, you know? What is my stable identity? What is that? It’s really hard to figure out when it’s changing all the time.”

I can definitely understand taking the best of our favourite people or fictional characters and building an identity and personality using those traits. I’ve absolutely done it. When I was younger, I would accidentally take on the whole person with both the traits helpful and unhelpful to me; I’d end up making decisions that weren’t what I wanted at all but were what the person I was emulating would do, which got me into some complicated situations. But now that I’m older and I understand that this is something I do, sometimes unintentionally, I’m better able to use it to strengthen me, rather than completely change me.

On Finding It Hard to Make and Keep Stable Relationships

  • “I haven’t had a super serious romantic relationship… I actually am petrified – I tell you, PETRIFIED – of being in a serious, serious, like, forever relationship because, when you have something like BPD and you have that mindset, everything is very all-or-nothing so I do worry about the state of my emotions when being in love, and being in that sort of intense relationship because just the normal things for people with BPD can be overwhelming so with something like love, which ‘normal people’ find absolutely out there, for someone with BPD, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to deal with. I think I want to be in a really stable place for that.”

This definitely resonates with me. Romantic relationships scare the crap out of me. The only relationship I’d consider significant was late in my teens, before I had my diagnoses of BPD (as well as ASD, depression, anxiety, etc) and it ended very traumatically. While that will always be on the other person, I did really struggle throughout the time we knew each other, especially with the big emotions and fear of abandonment curtesy of the BPD, as well as the social difficulties of ASD. And with no explanation for why I operated that way, it was probably doomed from the start. Still, the other person didn’t need to be such a cruel, manipulative human being…

  • “It’s a lot to deal with if you have BPD. Maintaining those relationships is hard because it means so much to you. It means a lot. That being said, it’s not that I find it hard to keep stable relationships, or maybe I’ve just got lucky with the ones I’ve got… I do a thing where… (*see point below)… because of the BPD, where I do not talk to someone for a very long time and I don’t know why this is but I find it really hard to keep contact with people. So my closest friends are those people who are very understanding and very patient.”

I really relate to what she says about relationships being complicated because of how much you care. I’ve been devastated by the ending of friendships, relationships, etc and that does make maintaining relationships of any type very stressful at times: the idea of saying or doing the wrong thing and that damaging the relationship irreparably (even relationships that, in theory, aren’t so fragile that one mistake would ruin them) is terrifying and that in itself can lead to making bad decisions, saying or doing things, etc that aren’t true to who you are, that could damage the relationship. If that makes any sense.

I also relate to what she says about not being great at continuous contact. For me at least, I think it’s about exhaustion: communication is so loaded and requires so much energy, social energy, emotional energy, etc. Sometimes it all just becomes too much and I have to retreat for a while to recover.

  • *”Can I just say… if you’re a friend of mine and you’ve been a friend of mine once, I consider you a friend for my whole life. I just wanna put that out there.”

This is definitely a trait of mine. If you’re a friend once, you’re a friend forever (barring a serious falling out). It’s one of the things that I find very confusing in other people: when they don’t feel the same way about friendships. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

On Acting Impulsively

  • She explains that, with BPD, acting impulsively often involves doing harmful, dangerous, and risky behaviours, anything from shoplifting to taking drugs.
  • She, understandably, doesn’t want to discuss her personal risky behaviours on the internet but does elaborate on the feelings involved.
  • “The impulse control is bad with me. With BPD, because of the high emotions and feeling everything so intensely, obviously you feel so out of control and it can be really hard to control your impulses sometimes.”

I don’t consider myself a particularly impulsive person. In fact, I’ve always been terrified of not being in control of myself or making thoughtless decision. That’s probably partly why I’m such an overthinker. 

On Suicidal Thoughts and Self Harming Behaviour

  • “I am constantly suicidal and I have been as long as I can remember. Now that sounds odd. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m going to actively go out and do it constantly 24/7. I just mean that there is a constant undercurrent with me… I think it’s called suicidal ideation, it’s sort of being passively suicidal. It’s that feeling of, even when you’re at your best, thinking, ‘well, I’m not going to do it but if a car hit me right now, I wouldn’t complain.’ It’s hard to exist like that. I think it’s hard for people who don’t understand that [to get it].”

I’ve been meaning to write a post about being passively suicidal for ages; I just haven’t had the time that I would want to dedicate to it, given how important it is. But I’ve definitely experienced this and continue to have phases of feeling this way, some that last for days and some that last for months.

  • “I think it’s to do with the huge emotions and the exhaustion and being so confused and things can feel like so much and there is a lot of pain that comes with BPD because being so emotional, reacting  to stuff so strongly can make you feel like you’ve got no skin. It’s like you’ve got no emotional skin, nothing to protect you, and it’s painful and it’s hard and it’s tiring and it’s exhausting and it leaves you with this, for me, this undercurrent of suicidal ideation.”

The ‘no emotional skin’ leapt out at me immediately. I really relate to that. Sometimes everything is just so overwhelming and painful; it can all feel like just too much to cope with, to survive, to live a life that isn’t unbearably painful.

  • She briefly mentions two suicide attempts but again, completely understandably, doesn’t want to share the details with the internet.
  • “I’ve been a self harmer since I was about twelve years old. I began self harming before I knew what self harming was… It just came as a sort of reaction to me. I used to scratch my thumb with a safety pin because I felt so upset and angry and when I felt a big emotion, I would just scratch until my thumb bled. I didn’t know self harm was a thing. It was a response to the emotions and feeling too much and feeling completely trapped in my body and not knowing what to do.”

I’ve self harmed on and off since I was about thirteen. To be honest, I never really thought about it as self harm – not for a long time at least: I didn’t think of it as harm myself because that wasn’t the primary motivation for doing it. I did it (and sometimes still do it) when I got so overwhelmed, so full of feeling that I had to get it out of me. I didn’t know how I would survive if I didn’t do it; it was a coping mechanism, like a pressure valve that helped me regulate the intensity of my emotions. I’m obviously aware now that it is self harm but after much discussion with my therapist, we’re not worried about it on it’s own. If it’s a coping mechanism (and one that I use relatively rarely), then the best use of our time is working on helping me to regulate my emotions so I don’t need to do it rather than stop me from using the only coping mechanism I currently have.

Feeling Empty and Lonely A Lot of the Time

  • “I do feel very empty and this sounds incredibly emo and angsty but it’s just a default setting for me, as it can be for other people with BPD. I just feel very empty and alone and just scared really. I think, living with BPD, you’re in a constant state of low fear, you know… terror sometimes and you get so used to it that it’s just there and it’s only when you come to think about it, you think, ‘wow, I’m living with this in me all the time.’ It’s quite hard to think about actually but it also makes me feel proud of myself for still being here and fighting through and getting the help that I needed and sorting myself out.”

I can absolutely understand the feeling of emptiness; I relate to it a lot. Sometimes I wonder if the emotions in me and around me are just so big and so overwhelming that that part of my brain just shuts down to keep me from being constantly overwhelmed, to keep all the fuses in my brain from blowing. Maybe empty is safe. I don’t know. But ‘feeling empty’ is definitely something that resonates with me. 

  • “I do have a constant sense of emptiness and just feeling like nothing is ever enough. Everything is too much for me and yet it’s simultaneously never enough for me, it’s never enough to fill that empty feeling.”

‘Everything is too much for me and yet it’s simultaneously never enough for me’ is a phrase that could sum up my relationship with my emotions. My emotions are so big that they’re overwhelming but they also don’t feel quite enough. I can’t really explain it; I don’t know if there are words for it. It’s so deeply emotional that I’m not sure it would translate. I guess it’s kind of like sucking in so much air you feel sick but none of it is actually getting to your lungs. Maybe? I think that’s the best analogy I’ve got. Right now, at least.

Getting Angry and Struggling to Control Anger

  • “Yeah, I’ve had some issues with anger… [but] I’m not a violent person at all. Whenever I get the extreme upset and anger, I’ve always taken it out on myself. I’m a self harmer. I can be truly cruel to myself sometimes and when I feel that intense anger, I’ve always acted more inwardly.”

I don’t often get angry. I don’t think I ever even felt angry until I was twenty. I always just jumped straight to sad. So anger is a strange and confusing emotion for me. I only ever really let it out when in the midst of an autistic meltdown. As I’ve already talked about, I have a lot of fear around saying or doing the wrong thing and the chances of that happening, in the heat of an angry moment, make that a lot more likely to happen. Plus I really hate confrontation. I can do it but I hate it.

Paranoia, Psychotic Experiences, or Feeling Numb When Anxious

  • She talks about having had psychotic experiences and that they’re triggered either by feeling really low or by very intense emotion.
  • “I’ve had some very scary things happen before because of psychosis.”
  • She talks about a period of time where she genuinely believed that there would be a school shooting.
  • She goes on to talk about how, after talking about it with her psychologist, she learned that it was her brain’s response to extreme stress and “thankfully, [her] life is different now” so she hasn’t been experiencing that level of stress and the resulting psychotic episodes.

Fortunately, I’ve never experienced a psychotic episode and hopefully my mental health never reaches that point. They sound incredibly scary and I feel for anyone who has them.

  • “I get depersonalisation and derealisation, where I don’t feel like I’m a real person and I feel like the world is not real. Sometimes I get that when I’m getting towards psychosis because I feel like nothing is real and I’m not convinced… sometimes it feels like this is all some virtual reality or something and I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not and ‘Am I alive? Am I imagining this?’ and it can get really  scary and it spirals out of control quite fast. But yeah, I do get very numb and checked out and when I get ‘bad,’ sometimes I will sit down for a while and lose a huge chunk of time…”

I’ve definitely experienced periods of feeling like I’m not really here or like I’m really far away from everything and everyone, separated by something intangible but powerful. I’ve struggled to believe that I’m real and that the world is real. It’s confusing and difficult and lonely. I usually only experience it when I’m deeply depressed but it does appear on other occasions. 

She talks about the stigma similarly to the way I described it at the top of this post but says that she wanted to share her experience with it in the hopes that it will help people and lessen that stigma. She also talks about the impact that her mental illness has had on her life: she’s studying for a degree at home because that’s the path most conducive to her mental health and that’s something she’s proud of because she’s still working to achieve the things she wants to achieve, even if she has to go about it in a less than traditional way.

“I really am working on structuring my life now; like how some people structure healthy eating in their lives and they think about what they’re gonna eat in their diet, I think about myself emotionally and giving myself time and all these kind of weird emotional things that I have to think about, like that. But yeah, having my diagnosis was a huge weight off my shoulders because it feels real and you feel very validated… And like I said, some people don’t like a diagnosis and that’s fine. That’s up to them but for me, it felt validating and I’m not ashamed of it. At all.”

Many of the things I’ve talked about personally are very much inline with Quiet BPD, a less well known presentation of the disorder – sometimes people don’t initially believe me when I say I have BPD because I don’t fit neatly into the classic presentation. I read about it before my diagnosis and after investigating it with my psychiatrist, it’s always been accepted that this is the form that my BPD takes. I really want to write a longer, more personal piece on BPD and on my experience of Quiet BPD but I just haven’t got the time at the moment, being in the home stretch of my Masters. It’s also something that I feel is so important to get right and I just haven’t felt like I’ve been in the right space to do it justice. But these days I do feel more confident in my experience and, maybe when the stress of the Masters is over, I’ll feel able to write that post.

Claudia Boleyn on BPD and Obsessions

EDIT: Since writing this post, I’ve learned a lot about the language around mental health and I no longer think that the word ‘obsession’ is necessarily a helpful one. I think something like ‘subject of intense interest’ or ‘specialised interest,’ not dissimilar to language used when describing ‘special interests’ in Autism. Having said that, I’m reluctant to change the language in this post because it’s the language that Claudia uses and because I think it’s potentially important to leave the post in its original form. Also, the negative connotations of the word ‘obsession’ are potentially relevant in the context of BPD as it’s a condition that can have unhealthy (a word often linked to obsession) and damaging behaviours for both the person living with it and the people who surround them (and I say this as someone who struggles with BPD).

I’ve written about Claudia Boleyn’s videos before but this is another great one that I think really clearly explains something that happens with Borderline Personality Disorder (also becoming known as Emotional Intensity Disorder) and various other mental health problems. I really recommend watching it.

In this video, Claudia talks about how, when you’re struggling with your mental health, you can develop obsessions with certain things, particularly fandom related things: fictional characters, books, TV shows, etc. These special interests can overlap with autistic special interests but they can also come about as a coping mechanism; they can become an escape from the difficulties of the real world.

She talks about how she can categorise her life by her obsessions, including Emmerdale and Anne Boleyn and certain areas of art history. She talks in particular about her obsession with Anne Boleyn, how it strengthens her and gets her through the really tough times. She even uses Boleyn as a surname: “I use it to exist in the world.” She talks about how she uses this obsession and others to understand herself. All of this makes those obsessions really special and important. I can definitely relate to this. My life can be divided up by my obsessions: animals but particularly horses – I obsessively read the Animal Ark and Saddle Club book series – Harry Potter, crime dramas, Taylor Swift, certain youtubers, anything superhero related…

“My identity and my life is sort of filled up with the stories of other people rather than stories of my own.”

With BPD, there’s the extra layer of struggling with your identity and your sense of self. Claudia talks about how she would go to school dressed as her favourite characters and how a teacher once asked her, ‘When will you come to school dressed as yourself?’ But that’s really hard when you don’t know who you are. I’ve always found it very easy to lose myself in fandoms or characters because I don’t know who I am to begin with and I’ve had a couple of experiences where I’ve done things I didn’t actually want to do because I thought that’s what a character would do, i.e. what I should do to embody those good characteristics.

“I’ve never felt like I have a proper identity in myself so I’ve sort of constructed one in a way based on what I admire and what I want to be and what will make me as good a person as I can be and what will make me contribute to the world but it’s really tough.”

It can be a good, helpful strategy – until it starts to dictate your emotional state.

“I think this isn’t spoken about enough with BPD, especially because we can struggle with identity and who we are and what sort of people we are. I think we often construct ourselves based around fiction and around those characters we admire and I think it matters a lot to us. It feels like it becomes a part of our identity in a way, so when it goes wrong, it feels like we’re falling apart. Yeah, it’s difficult.”

Another problem in BPD is that of regulating your emotions. Small things – day to day things – can have massive impacts on your mood. It can be exhausting and stressful to go through such ups and downs and it’s constant; there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty involved. So escaping into an obsession or fandom can be helpful and soothing but then, when something goes wrong in or around that fandom, for example, it can cause really negative emotions because your escape, your safe place, has been threatened. It might seem extreme from the outside but it’s very real and personal if you’re going through it.

I really relate to this video and I’m really grateful to Claudia for putting it out into the world. We need to talk about all parts of living with mental health, not just the relatively straightforward ones.

Surviving Is Better Than Not Surviving

Trigger warning for self harm. Please don’t read this if it’s something that will upset you or trigger you. I only want this to be helpful, never harmful. I also want to add that, while I’m not promoting or endorsing it, I’m never going to say, “Just don’t do it.” It’s just not that simple. My hope is that more openness on this subject will make it easier for people to access support and therefore not feel the need to do it.

It’s been on my to do list to write more about self harm ever since I posted the first piece. It’s one of those things that I will never get tired of talking about, never get tired of raising awareness for. There are so many misconceptions around it. I mean, I get it: there’s something inherently un-understandable about wanting to hurt yourself, unless you’ve gone through it. And even then, it’s massively complicated. Feelings are weird and pain is weird; it’s not surprising that people struggle to make sense of it. But I’d like to think that things will get better, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I was inspired to write this post after watching a YouTube video, ‘Living With Self Harm Scars’ by Claudia Boleyn. I’ve been watching her videos for more than a year now and I particularly love her videos about mental health. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and self harm still aren’t commonly talked about so to find someone describing their experience, both positive and negative, and giving advice is invaluable. And to find someone so thoughtful and eloquent is even better. I really relate to a lot of what she says.

She’d posted a video in which she wore a short sleeve shirt that exposed some scars from self harming and had received several messages about how validating it was to see someone with visible self harm scars, without shame or drama. So, as a response, she’d decided to make a video discussing the importance of living with these types of scars, which I found both interesting and useful, even as someone with ten years of experience with self harm. She put into words so many emotions that I’ve felt but for a long time couldn’t vocalize. Had I had something like this when I was younger, life would’ve been very different.

The video isn’t necessary for the rest of the post to make sense but I really recommend watching it:

(EDIT: The video has now been made private but as I said, it’s not necessary for the rest of the post. I’ll update if this changes.)

Some of the things she says are so true it’s painful.

One of the biggest things about self harm is the release you get from doing it. My emotions get so strong sometimes that I feel like there isn’t space for anything else in my body, in my brain. There isn’t the space for my lungs to expand; I can’t breathe. It almost feels like the emotion is crushing me and the only way to survive is to open up my skin so that it can escape. It’s like a pressure valve. Once I’ve done it, I feel like everything stabilises and I can think more clearly. If there’s a problem, I can deal with it and if there isn’t and it’s just an overload of emotion, I can take care of myself a little better than I could if I hadn’t. As heavy as it sounds, Claudia describes it as ‘a way of not killing herself,’ which is a feeling I can empathise with. I’m sure many others can too. I’m not saying it’s a good thing and I’m not encouraging it. It is NOT a healthy coping mechanism. But that logic isn’t very persuasive when you’re dealing with such overwhelming emotions. Claudia also talks about this: “It’s not good for you in any sense… but it’s something. It felt like doing that at least proved that there was something there… And it just felt like this huge build up of feelings and I had to do something to get rid of it and doing that… was something.” I can completely relate to that and I think that’s a feeling that is often exacerbated by how difficult it is to get a diagnosis because having something is better than having nothing.

In my experience at least, trying to cut myself off cold from the only thing that helps me get through doesn’t help; it just makes the need worse and then there’s potential for me to do more damage. So I do my best to be safe while working on my issues in therapy so that one day, I can stop because I’m okay and not because I’m suppressing the urge. Because if that’s the case, I’ll always come back to it. To quote Claudia: “If you’re a self harmer then I think it’s always in the back of your mind as, like, a coping mechanism… The problem is: it’s always there so you always have to avoid it and avoid triggering it.” To give up self harming is a really big ask, and an even bigger one if you’re trying to do it without support. And if it’s too much for you, or for you to do all at once, that’s okay. I don’t feel ready to stop but one step at a time. The fact that my therapist supports this is a huge deal to me and it’s one of the things that told me that she was the right person. This has greatly lessened the pressure on me and has helped both me and my family to work through it a bit. I used to feel so guilty that I was hurting or upsetting them so I hid it and that was doing it’s own kind of damage. But now that we have a plan, now that we’re moving in a forwards-like direction even if it isn’t always easy, everyone seems to be coping with it better. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see me in that place but you can’t put that on top of the emotion that makes you want to do it; it will eat you alive. I think the only way forward is to try and talk about it with someone and do what you can to avoid it if possible.

I don’t have quite the same experience as Claudia does. That’s fine. Every response to self harm is a valid response. However you feel about it is okay; it’s your struggle. She talks about feeling annoyed and upset about having self harmed and wishes she hadn’t done it whereas I’m not (yet?) in that place. She talks about how it releases all that feeling but then you wake up the next day and feel like you’ve let yourself down. But, while that is quite a negative response, the way she talks to herself is very positive: “I’m just taking it as a stepping stone and saying, ‘Okay, you took a step backwards but you can take five hundred more steps forward. It’s fine.’” She talks about having a certain pride about them because they’re proof that she got through a really tough time. She can look at them and feel compassion and forgiveness for the version of herself in those moments: “It’s a part of me and it’s a part of my past and that’s okay. And I wouldn’t erase it and in a way, I wouldn’t want to because I’ve learned so much going forward.”

For me, self harm is usually a survival strategy. It’s getting through a moment that I feel like I can’t possibly get through. Maybe it’s the worst possible way to get through it but it’s better than not. So when I look at the mark the next day, or the next month, or the next year, I remember that moment: I remember getting through. I remember feeling like I can’t survive another second and then I remember the calm afterwards. I remember that I did what I had to do to survive. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that – or proud of the scars – but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Maybe one day I’ll find something that gives me that feeling without doing any damage to myself. How wild and glorious would that be?! But that’s the end goal, not the next step.

My other use for self harm is to mark a traumatic event. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is the fact that people often can’t see what you’re going through and I needed it to be seen. I felt so traumatised by the strength of the emotions and by the meltdowns and I just couldn’t process that without a physical, identifiable injury to associate it with. Again, I’m not saying that this is a good method of coping but it was all I had at the time. Now, I have other things to try. I haven’t yet found anything that works but what’s important is that I’m trying, even if I don’t want to sometimes. This is a whole other issue that I do want to talk about at some point: to someone who hasn’t ever self harmed, the idea of not wanting to stop doing something that is so bad for you is weird, but is a feeling that is often associated with self harm. That feeling can be very isolating because many people don’t understand it, and many more react badly to begin with. And feeling misunderstood can really exacerbate the feelings that lead a person to self harming. I think that discussing self harm and learning about it can only help with that. There will be people who say that bringing awareness to it will encourage people to self harm and while that may be true to a certain extent, the amount of people it could help would massively outnumber that.

People do ask about the scars. I’ve personally never had an unkind response to them; it’s usually just awkward. Even if someone doesn’t actually bring them up, I see them notice and it can get really uncomfortable because no one knows how to handle it. Claudia mentions being embarrassed about people seeing them and talks about how she has tried in the past to cover them up. Sometimes that’s just easier. It’s so complicated and it’s hard when people don’t get it or jump to conclusions. There’s the typical, “You’re asking for attention,” which has always frustrated me no end. I’m not sure when asking for attention became such a negative thing. Of course, there will always be people who abuse the compassion of others, but I would hope that our first reaction would still always be to try and help. If someone is asking for attention in some way, they probably need it, even if the reason why isn’t immediately apparent. I never tried particularly hard to hide what I was doing because I think that, subconsciously, I wanted someone to draw attention to it and see what I was going through. But at the same time I didn’t feel able to talk about it.

Sometimes people see the scars and assume that you’re ‘showing them off’ when you don’t cover them up, which is weird to me. I’m not sure why you’d want to ‘show off’ or ‘flaunt’ the evidence of a moment where you’d gotten so low that you had to physically take it out on your body. When you think about the lengths people go to to hide their scars – wearing long sleeves in a heat wave, making endless excuses as to why you can’t go swimming, hiding them with make up or bracelets or tattoos, spending every second thinking about your scars and how you’re going to make sure that no one sees them – it’s clearly not a straightforward issue. And as Claudia says, it’s not showing off; it’s a form of body positivity, of learning to be comfortable in your skin, regardless of what that skin looks like. That is a hard thing; it’s something that should be supported, not torn down.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when it comes to self harm but this is already a lot longer than I’d originally intended it to be! This is something that makes me really emotional and fired up so I could probably write a book on it. It’s so important to talk about and talk about openly and honestly. I wish I’d found someone writing about it or recording YouTube videos about it when I’d started struggling with all the things I talk about on this blog. Had I, and the people around me, had more knowledge and awareness about all of this stuff, my ‘mental health journey’ would’ve been very different.