[Content note: description of self-injury]
This is a love story.
That’s the detail I fear will get misunderstood.
* * * * *
I began cutting in April 1991.
I stopped cutting on August 23, 2002.
Then, at 11 pm on April 30, 2014 — which is to say, a late Wednesday night not quite 9 months ago — I relapsed for the duration of a single cut.
Head twisted across my right shoulder, I looked away to ensure I did not lose my nerve and, in one smooth gesture, pulled a razor blade up the length of my left calf.
After so many years away, I expected to inflict minimal damage. I had forgotten how easily still-living flesh splits open beneath a blade.
When I think about that night and what I saw when I turned my head back to look, the picture in my mind splits screens. On one side I see: the dimly lit room; the small black nightstand; both my knees bent, with my lower legs twisted slightly to one side as I sat on the low bed; the side of my right foot, and the whole of my left. Where my left calf should have been is blacked out as if hidden behind a censor bar. The other memory screen shows only the censored calf, now broken apart.
Two immediate thoughts: “shit that needs stitches” and “no way I’m going to an e.r.”
Self-injurers risk iffy treatment in emergency rooms. I still have flashbacks to the time I got cuffed, ankle and wrist, by a night-shift ER nurse angry at the impertinence of my wounded body.
My next thought: “Why isn’t it bleeding?”
With any deep cut, there is always a pause between the severing of flesh and the appearance of blood. A moment when you can look into the meat of you and see striations of skin, tissue, and fat, all pale-pink and white. A single beat of silence — then scarlet floods the tiny chasm, holds for an instant in a bubble of surface tension, and finally releases as a hot rivulet that runs and drips.
This cut did not fill with a bubble of held blood. The gash was too deep, the edges too far apart, to look as I expected. Not until I lifted my leg away from the floor, gingerly drawing it up from the knee like a stringed marionette, and saw the dark pool beneath it spreading as I watched, did I realize blood was pouring off the side of my foot.
In my mind, every movement after I’d pulled the razor happened slowly, as if with deliberation: a film of interpretative dance played back at half-speed. Everything but that black pool of blood.
That pool spread like quicksilver.
I shifted into triage mode. Slid the used blade back into its plastic box, my hands only shaking slightly, and flung the whole box into a trash can. Staggered to the closet where paper towels were stored. Grabbed hand towels from a neighboring cabinet. Pressed wads of toweling hard against my leg, each filling with blood less quickly than the last, until the bleeding slowed enough that I could achieve a field bandage of sorts: paper-towel padding secured with a hand towel that I wrapped around my calf, the whole thing held in place with packaging tape.
At some point, I mopped as much of the congealing mess off the floor as I could. The blood-soaked towels rocked my head back with their fierce iron stench. The next morning, what aftermath remained had dried into rust-colored patches and streaks that stretched across my bedroom floor, interspersed with a few splotchy footprints.
I can’t say how much blood I lost altogether. I tell myself it was a pint, though part of me thinks it was likely more. I’ll probably tell you it was only a half-pint, to be certain I am not exaggerating. Ruler dimensions of the cut are less tricky: length, 7″; depth, ranging from 1/2″ to 1″. By any measurement, the damage I inflicted that night dwarfed the worst injuries of my active cutting years.
Why so much worse? Because I never felt the razor go in.
Never felt my leg as it split open.
The pain that should have shrieked alarms in my head — pain I fully expected and had braced myself against — never occurred. I’d experienced no more sensation than if I’d drawn a knife across a cutting board, or reached out to clasp a stranger’s hand. Under the horror and fear and urgency of that night lay one bedrock certainty: my leg was not part of me in any way that I could make meaningful sense of.
The leg belonged to the body.
The body belonged to itself.
This conviction differed from the suppression of pain that occurs with shock, though shock too played a role by the following morning, as I limped the three blocks to my therapist’s office. Put too much weight on the injured limb, or try to move too quickly — and the whole leg buckled under me. I rocked through each step with a heavy, lurching cadence. After two blocks, my hands were shaking. By the time I eased myself into a chair in the waiting area, sweat lay beaded across my forehead and upper lip. I had not felt the leg once.
I held this knowledge — this queer estrangement of body from mind — in abeyance for the moment. I had practical exigencies to attend to.
Not dissociating was my top concern that first morning, as I surveyed the dried blood patterning my floor and felt the bedroom walls begin to pulse around me. Losing myself after a cutting episode could have meant days, more likely weeks, passing as a fog before I returned to this side of my mind’s Looking Glass.
My next priorities — once I’d determined that the leg had stopped actively bleeding — centered around the reactions of others: specific individuals with ample cause and legal responsibility to ask, at a minimum, that I consult a physician and to demand, at a maximum, that I submit to hospitalization. (I will skip over these conversations, observing only that their trust and faith humbles me still.) I was left to respond as I chose.
Cognizant of the magnitude of this injury, and the risks I ran in treating it on my own, I tended to the wound with exquisite and obsessive care. I sluiced it out gently each morning and kept its dressing clean and dry. For months, I bandaged it before every shower, swaddling my calf in enough Saran wrap and tape that my lower leg looked like discount pork loin in a grocery’s refrigerated aisle.
Common wisdom about self-injury points to the ways ritualized aftercare functions as an outlet for self-directed compassion, and I recognized this in my behavior. I was prepared for this aspect of the healing.
What did common wisdom — and more than a decade spent as a cutter — not prepare me for?
How the body tended to me in turn.
At home, alone, in silence, I began to hear the body’s thoughts. Sensed impressions, which I translated into words: how sad the body felt, to realize I was struggling. How it wanted to help carry my burden. (For the first time in months, my sleep improved). How the leg had sacrificed itself, that no other part of me would be hurt. How it had eaten such pain, let the knife bite so deep, to ensure I would stop after only one cut. The body and I regarded each other across a gulf somewhere within my frame, our gaze more intimate and strange than the deepest kiss.
“It feels like love,” I said, describing the experience to someone, then corrected myself.
“It is love.”
Not metaphor. Not facsimile. If this was other than the truest feeling, then never have I loved nor been loved in this lifetime.
I tried not to look too closely at the obvious implication: without trust in those around me, my mind had found another way to ensure it could feel comfort. What pressures must have torqued my soul to break it apart thus? — shorn into twisted shards and left to grope blindly back towards itself. I was certain I’d felt this emotional response to self-injury before, buried under other howling. Finally, a new answer to an old question: what benefit had I taken from cutting during those long years, that made it so seductive and hard to quit.
A week after that gory night, I wrote out the story of what had led me to pick up the razor. In that brief poem’s final lines, the narrator chooses to lay her blade down without cutting. This was, in part, a pledge to my flesh:
I see, at last, how your heart is as broken as my own. Take ease. I will not harm you again.
I gave my body words as the only apology I could offer, even knowing their insufficiency. A poem cannot undo a bloodletting.
* * * * *
You who are now reading, I imagine us in dialog:
“I’m not supposed to take this literally, am I? This must be metaphor. Cartesian mind-body dualism, at most. If not just psychotic reaction to physical shock.”
I am saying that this body has its own mind, as unknowable and separate from my own as yours is.
“You think that your body is literally its own self?”
Of course, this too is metaphor.
* * * * *
My intense awareness of the body’s consciousness began to fade a month after the injury. I almost wept at its loss.
Today I weave subtle blandishments into my writing, attempting to entice the beloved to return: a troubadour’s cansos begging for milady’s favor. The body remains mute. A poem cannot recreate a bloodletting.
A subtle trough now runs the length of my calf. Against my hand, its distorted shape reminds me of the mossy, lumpen fields of Verdun or Belleau Wood, where a century of new growth does not yet hide the Great War’s wounds.
Or shall I describe it in concrete terms? Much of the scarlet welt has formed into scar tissue, tight and shiny new skin that puckers awkwardly when the muscle beneath it flexes. A few scabs still erupt at intervals along this nerveless scar, indicating perhaps where deeper vessels tore and have not yet healed. The whole area tightens into a hard, purple ridge during January’s coldest days, and when a scab broke open yesterday, no more than a smear of blood emerged.
Between language and flesh, the unbridgeable chasm remains.
Each day I run my fingertips along the cracked and ropy surface of my almost-scar — an instinctive and rhythmic compulsion, like stroking a cat or rocking a cradle. I am uncertain what meaning such touch might convey. I am even less certain what message I hope will get through.
I simply haven’t the words.
“Scar” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.
Image credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons