Knives and Self Image

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‘Holy shit,’ my friend commented when I posted a link to the last blog entry in our Facebook group, ‘More exploration around the cutting is needed.’

I did rather refer to it in about three sentences.

The thing is I always felt a bit embarrassed about referring to it as cutting.  I mean it was hardly life threatening and it most certainly wasn’t done with anything serious like a razor blade which always seemed like it would be just too darn painful.  It was more like extreme scratching.  But in that it involved a state of distress, my own body and metal implements causing it to bleed (although not always), I suppose it does count.

I used to do it in moments of such extreme tension, frustratedness or utterly wretched distress when I was at my wits end what else to do or how I could ever feel better.  The sort of stomach-churning mixture of anger and hurt that clenches up your entire abdomen and makes you buckle over at the waist as if you’re trying to vomit out the hurt somehow.  Doubled over, my mind would be whirling; internally howling at me like my very own Banshee.  By taking a sharp ended pair of scissors or a paring knife and scoring a line down my arm or across my stomach, the shock of the sudden pain took away the internal screaming.  Like a self administered slap around the face to a someone who is hysterical.  Because I had been hysterical.  Just not out loud.

With the shock and the feeling of pain transferred to a localised spot, I’d feel calm again.  Tired even.  Then, because I am basically quite sensible when not in extremis, I would make sure that any cuts or grazes were washed properly and annointed with antiseptic cream if I had any.

For as long as it took to heal, I’d have to be careful about what I wore.  I didn’t want to raise the issue and have questions asked.  In fact, as I did it more often, I’d take that into consideration when deciding where to cut.  Where won’t it show?  What will work best with my wardrobe?

A popular site to attack was across my stomach.  It’s a part of my body I never loved.  Or the top of my arms.  On the day I discovered the emails which told me the truth about Eadmund’s affair, I cut down the skin of my breasts, stomach and arms,  I had to wear high necked tops for weeks.  But that was the last time I did it.

When I was younger, when she was tense, my mother used to bite into her fist.  I remember her doing it one time when, thanks to my father’s terrible sense of timekeeping, we were setting off desperately late to go to the theatre…in Bradford.  We made it with seconds to spare and she was wound up like a spring as he drove at approaching a hundred miles an hour down the motorway.  I wasn’t aware of the speed we were going, nor was I hugely aware of how long it should take us to get to Bradford and how long we had lef,t now that he’d made us late.  I was still at the age where I confidently assumed the grown ups had it under control.  I did notice the big bruised indentations on my Mum’s fingers and I remember that I asked her to stop, which, when she had calmed down a little more, she did.

You learn by example and great parents though mine were, no one is perfect.  As a frustrated teen, I used to find that biting down hard onto a thumb or finger did help release tension.  When I’d stopped biting my nails so that they grew long enough, digging them into my skin until I broke it had the same effect. When I hit the self loathing, no one is ever going to find me attractive age, it was a natural progression to scratching the sharp point of a pair of nail scissors down parts of my body I knew would be hidden from the family.  I stopped, grew out of it but would come back to it periodically when the pain of emotion needed a physical release.

Of course, in those early and secretive days with Eadmund, my entire evaluation of myself, my place in the world and moral structures as I had assumed them were falling into pieces as I realised I that my moral compass’s due north is not the same as most people’s. I hadn’t forgiven myself for causing hurt.  I didn’t like myself for having done so.  And in being someone’s secret rather than the person they acknowledged proudly to the world, I was perpetuating my own lack of self worth and feeding my self loathing.

Self image and self loathing are a big part of it.  You have to hate yourself in order to inflict pain on yourself.  Ironically, I don’t actually like pain.  I can put up with it when it happens but I don’t go looking for it normally.  It doesn’t thrill me sexually either.  Jack and I, in our early days had gone through a checklist of trying out most sexual possibilities which covered going through every position in both volumes of The Joy of Sex (despite chuckling over the very 70s illustrations) to shaving to bondage to light pain.  It did absolutely nothing for me in that context.

In terms of why I did it and why it worked, it was very much the slap around the face to the hysteric.  I didn’t neccessarily realise at the time that I was hysterical because it was all internalised.  I was often absolutely silent except for breathing – hyperventilating.

Cutting / Scratching my arms was handy because they were easy to access.  What was less easy was hiding it later.  Cutting my stomach would happen because it was the seat of everything I hated about my appearance and coincidentally the clenched diaphragm in my hunched-over state of distress was there too.  Sometimes in the back of my head, when I was that upset, I would imagine that if I could just cut myself open, perhaps I could reach in and straighten out the clenched and tensed up internal organs inside my abdomen that were the physical manifestation of the hurt, frustration and anger I was feeling and then I would feel relief.  Sometimes I visualised a hand reaching into my chest and pulling out my heart, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the fucked-up thing was, the idea of removing my heart from my body made me feel better.

My issue with my stomach has been there ever since I entered puberty.  Just before I started to grow breasts and have periods, which happened when I was twelve, I put on a lot of weight.  I suddenly weighed about two stone more than any of my friends, even the ones who were taller than me.  Obviously it didn’t happen overnight. My dad had taken a sabbatical from his job at the University and we spent three months in Italy during which time I became permanently ravenously hungry.  I ate a lot of pasta to gain those two stone.  But I did come back from holiday looking like a small barrel.  Then, almost equally quickly, I began to redistribute the fat stores, developed a waist, breasts and hips and needed to be bought a bra.  I loved developing a woman’s shape.  I felt grown up and powerful and glamorous although I most certainly didn’t look it yet – my idea of fashion still involved knee high socks in a completely non ironic way.  But I still felt that my stomach made me look fat.

In vain, my Mum told me I had a lovely figure and that it was much better than hers had been.  I liked my curves…except one.

As I got older, I somehow managed to make friends with taller, thinner girls.  When we changed for sports or swimming lessons, I knew that my stomach stuck out, where theirs lay flat.  When my friends and I started to act out our extremely amateur theatrical ambitions, again in the changing rooms I sneaked a look to my left and right and there again was confirmation.  They had flat stomachs.  I didn’t.

I have an overly flexible lower back that curves in and is naturally a little concave rather than dead straightave.  I also have lazy abdominal muscles.  It might have helped if I’d known that at the time.  Mind you, I’m not so sure that knowing the biology of it would neccessarily have helped me much with the psychology of it.  It looked different and it stuck out.

When I went to university, I managed to put on nine pounds.  I felt enormous.  I didn’t realise it’s pretty common to put on weight when you leave home.  I just thought I must be a pig.  I went on stupid diets of meal replacement milkshakes that I had first tried in my late teens and a particularly ill-advised detox cleanse which left my blood sugar so low I woke up to find the room spinning and spinning before my eyes.  I lurched to the university nurse who told me to not be so stupid and go eat a sandwich.  Ever conscious of what a fat pig I was, I bought one from the diet range all the same.

It was a boost to the ego that Jack found me attractive of course, but he warned me that he didn’t go for fat girls.  If I put on a lot of weight, he wouldn’t still find me attractive regardless.

In the end it was Eadmund who told me he loved every inch of my body whatever size or weight it was.  When I still hated my stomach, he loved it.  It wasn’t flat.  Neither was his and he’d never cared.  He positively loved the curving shape of mine.

‘You aren’t flabby.  You aren’t small but you’re taut and powerful.’

When we were in bed together, he would whisper to me how strong I felt as I moved on him and with him inside me.  He told me how controlled and powerful my hips felt, moving up and down on him.  He marveled over every curve of my body above him.  And then he’d say the same thing after orgasm too.  Gradually, over the course of our seven years together, it began to sink in.  Part of me felt that he was the only man in the world who would ever feel that way about the shape that I am.  But part of me began to believe that I really was attractive.

Cutting myself was about more than just my body.  It was a response to hysteria and feelings of self negation brought on by a challenging set of circumstances which I wasn’t entirely equal to.  Already existing feelings that I wasn’t good enough, insecurities about my body and about my abilities were magnified by being his secret girlfriend – not good enough to admit to the children.  But if I hadn’t hated my body at times, I would not have felt a release by hurting it.  Confirming in that moment that it really was hateful and deserved pain even as the shock of the pain brought on a sense of calm.  Being in a relationship with Eadmund was hurting my sense of self very badly on both emotional and physical levels.  And yet at the same time, he told me I was amazing.  He told me I was beautiful.

After telling the children what was really going on and when we could finally be open about what we were to each other, I could finally begin to listen properly to all the positive things he kept telling me.  And in the end I started to believe him.

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