One Cut at a Time
– Nonfiction by Chelsea Grieve – August 7, 2018 –
Nerves danced beneath my skin, prickling and intensifying with each passing moment. The TV droned in the background. I sat in the recliner, legs pulled to my chest, arms wrapped around my calves. Restless, my fingers drummed against my skin, keeping time to the beat of my heart.
Moments passed in excruciating loneliness.
My eyes wandered to the end table. It was cluttered with odds and ends, stained with spilled coffee, beer and ashes. Sweat from my Coke formed on the glass, dripping down the sides.
As the clock ticked, I created fantasies in my mind. I was an adventuress in the Middle Ages, traveling through Europe. I was an Amazon, living wild in the forest of Ancient Greece. I was a time traveller, forced to live in the future.
I was anyone but the lonely girl stuck in a hostile, unwelcoming double-wide trailer belonging to my dad and step-mom.
That afternoon, I felt the weight of unease in the pit of my stomach. It was unsettling, rooted in years of erratic memories – some good…some bad…all tainted with the uncertainty of what might happen next.
Uncertainty tinged the edge of every second.
When the memories are good, they are everything I want in the world. Dad and I laugh, watch movies, and do yard work together. I see the love in my dad’s face; I hear the happiness in his voice. I am desperate for those moments, trained to believe that happiness is found in only the most fleeting of seconds.
That is the reason I never tell my mom what I experience and witness in my dad’s home.
Unfortunately, the memories of time with my dad are tempered by a volatile combination of anger, jealously, bitterness, and alcohol. And, when there is so much negative emotion in one house, fighting is inevitable.
Sometimes, I watched my dad and step-mom fight, wanting it to turn violent, so they finished quickly and moved on to other activities. The guilt of that desire was heavy in my stomach.
But their fighting wasn’t my biggest concern. Instead, it was my step-mom’s hatred and jealousy that sapped my energy. She exerted her power over me, finding creative ways to hurt me in a way that everyone else could ignore. Her signature blend of passive aggressiveness seeped through the walls, even when she was at work.
I did my best to ignore a bad situation, telling myself it wasn’t my problem, even as my emotions simmered beneath the surface of my skin. I wanted to explode in a righteous fury, to destroy that bitch for what she did to me….destroy my step-brother for molesting me…destroy my dad for staying with them.
Exploding wasn’t an option. Not there. Not away from the safety and security of my mom.
Not at dad’s house. At dad’s, the littlest of things upset the equilibrium of the home. A comment or look, sometimes laughter or play. You never knew what might happen next. I developed a keen sense of survival. I remained quiet and behaved; I learned exactly what was needed to keep everyone else happy.
Good girls are seen and not heard – even when they’re abused.
I couldn’t safely express my emotions, a fact I learned the hard way at a young age. So, I locked them away. Over the years, they intensified, building…mingling with loneliness, fear, anger, and insecurity.
Looking back, the outcome seems inevitable. Alone on a summer afternoon, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, my eyes settled on a silver exacto blade that my dad used for rolling cigarettes, discarded on the end table.
I licked my dry and cracked lips, contemplating what it would feel like to press the sharp edge of the blade to my body. After all, feeling the skin on my lips rip felt like a relief, right after the initial sting. Wouldn’t that work elsewhere, too?
Ah, the logic of a child! Boredom, desperation, and a healthy dose of curiosity got the best of me. As if possessed, I found myself holding the exacto blade, testing the tip against a finger. The pain disrupted the unease I felt, relieving the pressure and distracting me from my emotions.
Interesting, I pondered, focusing on the moment rather than my distant fantasies.
Over the next 24 hours, I carved my name in Egyptian hieroglyphics down the front of my left shin, etching the glyphs one painstaking layer at a time.
I chose hieroglyphics, because we were learning about them in my 6th grade class.
I chose my shin, because I needed to easily hide the damage beneath my pants.
I chose my name, because I needed to remember me.
Approximately 15 years later, I sit across from a therapist. My dad had died 4 months earlier, and I was struggling once again with that intense mixture of emotion.
“Why are you here?” Candace asked, resting a clipboard across her knees.
“My dad died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
I shrug dismissively.
“I haven’t seen him in almost 5 years.”
Candace nodded, waiting for me to continue. I tapped my foot restlessly against my shin, the same one I cut so many years ago.
“That’s not why I’m here,” I clarified. “I’m here because I want to cut. But I don’t want to.”
It’s easier to remember our first of something with clarity, and that is the moment I first verbalized my desire.
As a pre-teen, I never considered cutting a problem. I only felt the urge to self-harm while visiting my dad’s home, where I would carve symbols into my skin, hold my hands over candle flames, and tear skin from my body. Other times, I ate until I was sick.
Mostly, I lived with my mom. Cutting wasn’t a problem in her home, thus it was incredibly easy to lock away. I became an expert in compartmentalization. At my dad’s, I did whatever I could to remain stable. At my mom’s, I threw myself into homework and extracurricular activities.
So, I tell Candace:
“It’s never been a problem. I know how to control it. I just need help right now. It’s the grief, I think, and I’m not sleeping.”
“I see,” Candace says. “Tell me about your dad.”
The dreaded question I have explained to at least three different therapists over the past 6 years. I roll my eyes.
“It’s complicated,” I said “A long story.”
“Start at the beginning.”
Telling the story is exhausting, but it’s a familiar narrative. I explained each trauma, starting with the divorce of my parents. I filled in the blanks of the next two decades of alcohol and violence. I recounted my molestation. I recalled the moment my paternal grandmother confessed to knowing about the molestation, acknowledging the pain of betrayal upon discovering she had the power to stop the violation but chose not to instead. I recounted the feelings of hunger in the pit of my stomach when I was too afraid to eat…or not allowed to. I acknowledged the guilt I internalized over all those years of not telling.
When I finished, I reiterated:
“I don’t want to cut.”
Those words became my mantra over the next several months.
Part of my healing process involved telling the people closest to me that I wanted to self-harm. I disclosed to only a few people, and I was too wrapped in my own grief to register their responses. I moved forward through the days, visiting Candace every other week and merely existing between our visits.
I went through the motions of living, chanting to myself, “I don’t want to cut.”
Still, the desire to do so built. When it did, I rubbed my left forearm lightly with my right hand. For some reason, that left forearm is where the desire to cut manifests the strongest. If rubbing didn’t work, I itched the skin. If itching didn’t work, I hit the skin. If hitting didn’t work, I used the corner of a wall or table to press deeply into my skin. That tended to do the trick, at least for a little bit.
“I can do this,” I told myself each morning, gazing at my exhausted reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“I can do this,” I told myself each night as I swallowed another sleeping pill, slipping into a nightmare riddled slumber.
Fake it till you make it, an idiom often tossed about lightly.
I faked it, for my own sanity – because I couldn’t let my tormenters win.
After 4 months of “faking it” and the inclusion of anti-depression pills into my daily routine, I realized the desire to self-harm had vanished. I was relieved, once again assured of my own strength. I was finally able to focus on other concerns in my life.
As I began to move on, it occurred to me – I felt healed for the first time in my life.
It wasn’t therapy, I realized, but instead it was the acceptance. For two decades, I’d convinced myself being a survivor meant I couldn’t be weak. In the moments I lived in his home, weakness was a vulnerability I couldn’t afford. When I returned to my mom, I couldn’t let her see the vulnerability, either.
With the death of my father, I faced my weakness and accepted it as part of the strength that allowed me survive.
I am content with my life. I have a job I adore. I have a beautiful relationship. I have created a network of friends in the Arizona desert, so far away from the shores of the Great Lakes I played in as a child.
Part of my job is teaching parents on topics such as child development, discipline, and anger management. I am enthusiastic about interacting with parents. It is a pleasure to stand in front of a classroom, providing insight into child behavior. The parents I work with are eager to learn, and it is beautiful to watch them care.
My own dad would have scoffed at the idea of attending a parenting class. He, of course, needed them desperately.
One evening, I stood before a group of parents at the beginning of a class about anger management for children. The parents each introduced themselves, explaining why they were attending. They had children who yelled, hit, lied, slammed doors, and more. All of their issues were standard child behaviors; nothing they said surprised me.
At the end, an exhausted woman looked up at me. Her hair was perfect. Her nails were perfect. Her clothes were perfect. Still, the exhaustion settled around her eyes, and I recognized the fake it till you make it mask.
“My name is Sara,” She said, swallowing audibly. “I’m here because my son, Chris, hurts himself when he gets angry. We have a therapist. But I need more help. I don’t like to see him hurt himself.”
The collective gasp in the room startled me. I could feel their judgement and confusion as sure as I could see the unease.
“He self-harms,” I said, labeling the action. “I’m sorry to hear that, Sara, but I’m glad to hear Chris has a therapist. Self-harm is a lot more common than many people believe, and it takes many forms. That is why we have anger rules. Can anyone guess what our anger rules are?”
“Don’t hit?” Sara offered tentatively.
“Absolutely,” I nodded, holding up my hand and using my fingers to tick off each rule. “We don’t hurt others. We don’t hurt ourselves. We don’t hurt our environment.”
All the parents nodded understanding, and Sara relaxed.
“We all know what hurting others looks like. Hitting, biting, kicking – these are all common examples. We also know what hurting our environment looks like. Breaking things, slamming doors, throwing items, and other destructive actions.”
The group nodded understanding.
“The reality is that some people self-harm as a way of managing or expressing their emotions. A common example is cutting, which is when you use a sharp tool – like a knife or exacto blade – to cut your skin. It can also be pulling your hair, hitting your head against the wall, or burning your skin.”
A woman in the corner raised her hand and asked:
“Why would you do that? Isn’t there something seriously wrong with you if you do that? I mean, mentally.”
Sara watched me closely. I thought back to the feeling of euphoria the first time I carved symbols into my skin.
“Not necessarily,” I replied with caution. “As someone who self-harmed, I can tell you that it feels like a release. It was a coping mechanism I developed to deal with my anger, and it felt amazing. The emotion would bubble inside my body, desperate for some release. The only way I could provide it was to hurt myself. Although I don’t do that anymore, I certainly understand how it feels.”
I have heard many other women use similar words to shamefully confess their own experiences with self-harm. The shame, I discovered, is from misconceptions surrounding self-harm.
“You grew out of it?” Sara asked hopefully.
“No,” I corrected. “I got help. I attended anger management classes. I went to therapy. I threw myself into work. I drank too much. I self-reflected. I have a great support system and no longer feel the urge to harm myself very often. When I do, I know how to handle it effectively…without drinking alcohol or shoving 15 cupcakes into my face.”
The room burst into laughter.
Later that night, I thought about the shame I witnessed in Sara’s eyes. I contemplated that feeling, traveling back in time to the years I, too, felt shame.
Shame is pointless, I shrugged, cuddling my cats and opening my computer to write.
“Haku…Calcifer…” I said, looking at the two bundles of fur romping around my bedroom. “I used to cut and burn myself. I wanted you to know.”
Of course, Haku and Calcifer didn’t give a damn. They continued to play, lost in their own feline world that had no room for mundane human problems, such as shame.
But, for the first time in my life, I confessed my perceived weakness with no shame at all.
I felt liberated.
Sometimes, I slip into a warm bath filled with bubbles. My painted toes stick out against the white tile, and I admire the bright color next to the stark whiteness. Wine or tea rests on the edge of the tub. A book waits nearby. Haku and Calcifer walk around the ledge carefully, poking their curious noses into bubbles and batting at the water that drips from the faucet.
As I relax, my eyes wander to my left shin. I recall the euphoria of the first cuts, imagining the blade parting the delicate skin with precision. Although it no longer stirs a desire to repeat the physical act, the memory is a memorial to the pain I once felt – both physical and emotional.
I look upon my own skin with academic curiosity, contemplating the moments that have taken me from scared child to survivor. I offer that child forgiveness and understanding, honoring her in those small moments. I assure her that she did the best she could with the tools she had. I hug her, smoothing her blond hair away from her face and kissing her forehead gently.
“I don’t want to cut,” I smile, sinking further into the warm water and closing my eyes. “I can do this.”
About the Author – Chelsea Grieve
Originally from Michigan, Chelsea Grieve now writes from the desert of Arizona. She won first place for her poem “Freediving for Pearls” in the 2016 Arizona Literary Contest, and published a humorous essay on mother/daughter relationships in the anthology Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee: The Crazy, Brilliant, and Unforgettable Lessons We’ve Learned from Our Mothers.
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