My self-harm started in early childhood. I’m still trying to overcome it.
“Do it again,” my mother said, “and I’ll show you what it feels like to be bitten.”
I was probably five or six and had just bitten my brother — we were fighting over a toy, if I remember right, and he wouldn’t let go. Of course, it had hurt him and he’d cried out; little imprints of my teeth lingered on the meat of his palm, below the thumb. When my mom heard him cry out, she did what she did best — disciplined and controlled with threats, usually of physical violence, though generally it didn’t get to that unless I kept “pushing it” or talked back.
This wasn’t the first threat of violence I heard as a child; my childhood was punctuated with do it again, do you want the belt, I’ll wash that mouth out with soap, and keep it up’s. These threats are probably fairly common in households other than the one in which I grew up, but the message was clear: don’t test me, or you’ll be sorry. Verbal threats or name calling were generally enough to keep us obedient.
Quit your crying. You want something to cry about?
Get off your ass!
You ungrateful bitch.
You want the belt again?
For some reason, I was still surprised when my mom threatened to bite me. I wondered how she’d do it — would it be the hand? My arm? Would it leave marks? A bruise? How long would she hold on?
What my mother didn’t know, though, is that I already knew what it felt like to be bitten, and not because of her or my brother.
I had started biting myself.
When the yelling got to be too much, I’d run to my room, slam the door, bite into my hand, arm, or wrist. I’d bite hard, and sometimes bang my head against the door if my parents were far enough away that they wouldn’t hear.
At times, I’d scream into my arm and try to stop crying or bite hard enough to bleed or bruise. I generally tried to avoid leaving marks behind, though. I didn’t want my brother to be blamed. And I sure didn’t want the belt.
So I’d sit there, after I’d bitten, rub out the bumps. Push down on the middle of the circles, try and bring the marks back up to the surface of the skin. I’d push and press, put on long sleeves.
I’d quit crying.
I don’t remember exactly when the biting and the headbanging started, but I imagine it was around when I was five or six. I learned to be quiet, push my feelings into bubbles on my skin. I’d count the marks, examine the differences — incisors left thin, long marks, canines left circles. Molars usually didn’t touch the skin, at least not enough to leave marks. Sometimes, I’d push my teeth back into the marks, see if I could make them fit again. Pushed until I could feel bone against my tooth, until the old marks moved, widened, threatened to bleed.
I had started to punish myself for my feelings.
My parents never caught me.
The biting and the headbanging stuck with me throughout my childhood. When I was angry, I could rebel in quiet. I’d learned that I shouldn’t be angry — any expression of my anger was “acting up” in my parents’ household. Biting and headbanging squelched anger like mud on a fire. I was instantly calm.
I had shaped up.
Eventually, when I was a teenager, I graduated to other types of self-harm. Cutting, burning, alcohol abuse, though I still bit or banged my head when I couldn’t use other methods or when I was nervous my parents might notice. The environment, of course, became more unstable. I started to think it was my fault, that I was a bad child. Maybe it’s not them, I thought. It’s me.
It has to be me.
These struggles continued on throughout college, and even grad school. Self-harm was all at once a coping mechanism and a way to punish myself for feelings, shortcomings, and other events in my life for which I blamed myself. I don’t blame my parents for my self-harm; I harm/ed myself for a lot of other reasons not limited to them. I don’t know if there is anyone to blame for it. I think my self-harm was a response to my environment, yes, but I think it grew out of an inability to express feelings, and a culture that enabled disciplining with fear.
Now, after a lot of therapy, I’ve been able to largely overcome self-harm and express emotions more effectively. I’ve been able to become more assertive, to live my life in less fear.
Sometimes, though, I regress back to the child I was, in my bedroom where my parents couldn’t hear me be angry. Sometimes, in conflicts, after shortcomings, or when I want to take out anger on myself, I down a beer, try not bite my wrist, imagine pushing down on bubbles on my arm. I press my palms, hard, against my temples, punch my head with my fists.
I don’t cry.