The Emo stereotype. Release the pain! Buy those clothes from Hot Topic, wear those skinny jeans, and cry tears of eyeliner while listening to some appropriately depressing music, because nobody understands, right?
I admit, cutting is a teenage cliche that is rarely taken seriously in fiction (in my limited experience), because there is just too much of it, written too badly, from too many attention whores (aka, Suethors).
But it’s not just about how nobody understands, or about getting attention, although they can be involved. Nor is it just about releasing pain.
Once upon a time when I was in Young Women (that’s the Mormon program for girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen), my leader told a story about a girl who always had cuts and bruises on her arms. So, she asked where they came from. The girl replied, “That’s what I do when I’m mad at someone.”
My leader shook her head, saying, “I couldn’t believe that she didn’t understand God’s plan for her.”
I didn’t understand, though I said nothing. I mean, sure, I got that our bodies were basically on loan from God. But wasn’t it better to hurt yourself than to hurt others? When I was angry, and I wanted to hurt someone, I’d always hurt myself, because it was bad of me to think that way about them. Slaps across the face, punches in the abdomen, biting until I couldn’t stand it. Pulling my hair. No marks ever left, and nobody’d ever ask any questions, because nobody got hurt, and nothing got damaged. Because this was between me and myself. Sometimes Stupid just had to be put in line.
Long before I’d had enough access to the Internet to realize that self-harm was common enough to be cliche, I cut myself once, too. And, for me, it was not about how nobody understood me, or about consciously releasing my pain. It was about not understanding myself. I’d been yelled at again, because I wasn’t even in eighth grade yet, and I couldn’t handle online high school classes. I was an intelligent girl, I’d been told. I was smart enough. My parents weren’t going to pay my way through college. I needed to get off my lazy butt and get to work. Stop lying to myself. Why couldn’t I do it?
It was about punishing myself. Because I was messing up, just like I always did. The lesson needed to be harsh, and I needed to make it sink in. It was about toughening up. Learning not to be the pathetic little crybaby who broke down every time I got yelled at. About taking in all the pain of life without comment. Being the hero of the story, not the little girl hiding in the corner, who exists solely to show that the hero is heroic.
So what did I do? I sat in a tree, repeatedly digging into my arm with a sharp little piece of wood. Never went deep enough to draw blood, but it’s still my only visible scar.
Sure, I’ve deliberately cut myself since that day. For valid reasons: cleaning an infection, getting out a splinter, a thorn, a piece of glass, and other foreign objects. But I still look forward to it with that same adrenaline as that day in a different lifetime, when I gave myself that scar. I’m still making myself stronger. Increasing my pain tolerance. Proving to myself that I’m not a sissy. It’s all the same, right? And when I need someone to take out my anger on, sometimes I regress to the old habit: harmless punches and slaps that won’t leave any marks, because I don’t have the guts to bruise myself.
But now, with those yelling voices no longer present, I can understand what that leader from long ago meant. It wasn’t about how our bodies are temples, which are God’s property, and how terrible it is to damage things that belong to someone else. It was about individual worth. About how I am a child of God, and it’s not always me that’s the problem. After all, the worth of souls is great in the sight of God. Just as I shouldn’t judge others, I shouldn’t judge myself.
The yelling voices don’t exist anymore, except inside my own mind. Every move I make, they’re right there, telling me how stupid I am, how whiny, how useless, how unlikable, how ugly, how background character. And I’m finally beginning to learn to tell them to shut up. I’m not perfect, but I know I’m better than that. And every time I feel the need to punish myself again, I have every right to decline the invitation.
To anyone out there who might be subject to the yelling voices and punishing themselves, or trying to make themselves stronger, I want to say that you don’t need to. When you’re angry and don’t know how to deal with it, turn it to some positive use. Exercise can be physically punishing and testing, too. And it will definitely make you stronger. When you’re depressed, find something to laugh at. Above all, realize that it’s this crazy, screwed-up world that’s the problem, not you. You are a child of God, who loves you, is there to help, and will never forsake you. If you don’t choose to believe that, believe this one: you have the potential to be something wonderful. There are people out there who want the best for you, and want you to be happy, even though they’ve never known you and maybe never will. You have the power to overcome–all you have to do is use it.
Another awesome alternative (and tasty too!) is eating ice cream, as seen here, and in the greatest fanfiction of all time. Partially thanks to that, I prefer Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey (pictured above, in all its magical glory), myself.
Cheers, and happy eating!