by: Darick Taylor
Equating self-harm with a ploy for attention is a common mistake, for what lurks below the physical manifestation of the wound is a hidden mental pain often misunderstood…
My therapist introduced me to one of her clients, a woman in her mid-forties with a history of self-injury. She had a kind of loose-skinned thinness to her frame, brought about not by her age, but by the incessant self-tanning she hoped would camouflage her scars. It was clear, upon first meeting her, that she had replaced her natural teeth with dentures, a feature which made her seem much, much older.
We would meet at her cottage and walk along Cerridwen Island’s main beach. Or we would drive around in her sea-foam green Pontiac, smoking Marlboro Reds and flicking our ashes into a faded Sprite can tucked into her car’s center cup holder.
We had in common a love, both familial and romantic, that had eluded us our entire lives and which unavoidably produced between us a palpable tension. Only the most tenuous of boundaries prevented our falling into a more thoroughly unhealthy way of relating to one another.
I received a call on a muggy twilight one day from the therapist my new friend and I had in common. Our therapist began to calmly explain that she had recently landed on a return flight from Jamaica, and my friend had called to say she was not doing well. When our therapist implored that I go check on her, I knew intuitively that things had gone sideways. But genuinely concerned for her welfare, I pushed the absurd inappropriateness of our relationship back into my subconscious, and climbed into my truck.
When I arrived at her cottage, the front door was open, and I could see through the screen door’s latticed mesh a figure huddled up on a cheap, white dining room chair. She was wearing a black windbreaker turned slightly grey by time and a black baseball cap, new looking by comparison to the jacket. Its bill had been bent down low over her face.
I pulled the hollow metal screen door open with a strained squeak to find my friend dramatically sobbing. She noticed me quickly and bounded quickly my way, dark streaks of blood dripping down her face and reddish discolorations smeared across her chest. Shock rooted me in place, and it felt like hours before I was able to compose myself enough to exhale a plaintive, “What did you do?”
Over and over my friend apologized to me through an influx of freshly shed tears. She showed me the pale yellow mini wine bottles that rested atop a nearly full trashcan. There were numerous lacerations across her chest and forehead, several with “x” shaped patterns to them, with many more appearing to be randomly shaped tears to her flesh. A few of the cuts fanned out over her forearms, and unlike the others, these had been sealed with superglue, leading me to believe they had been created earlier in the day.
“Give it to me,” I implored sternly.
I do not know how I could be so authoritative in such a surreal, grotesque situation. I could only explain away my urgent demands by the flood of adrenaline that threatened to overwhelm me.
She pulled out a box cutter, a simple safety blade tinged slightly red by her blood, from the front pocket of her windbreaker and handed it to me.
“I have to pee,” she said softly.
“I can’t let you go in there. If you’re hiding another razor blade and hurt yourself while I’m standing out here, you have no idea what that would do to me.”
She agreed to leave the door open, and I watched her sit and urinate. I pulled out my phone to call our therapist, keeping my friend in my peripheral vision, too terrified to fully look away.
“Okay. Thank you for checking on her. You should go home now,” our therapist said to my surprise.
“No! I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving her alone!” I barked.
Our therapist put me at ease some, letting me know she was calling the police, and as luck would have it, she arrived moments before the three-ring circus of first responders consisting of two police cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance, roared up to the front of the house.
As I stood on the porch, watching our therapist lean over my friend, I began to feel shame. My friend had tried to embrace me; she needed that reassurance of her humanity, and I denied her that one gesture, keeping her at arm’s length. Looking away from her, I could see her blood as it began to clot on my sky-blue t-shirt. In that moment, I was my most selfish.
To add to the spectacle, a friend of the therapist showed up in an oversized gray SUV, the hallmark of the white bourgeoisie on the island where my friend resided, and as if drawn to it, I walked across the street and sat in its passenger seat. That is where the police officer found me.
He was absurdly short and squat. His head only reached the top of my shoulder even though I was a scant 5’7” tall. He handed me an unremarkable clipboard with a form affixed to its surface and sternly admonished me to fill out a report. I developed the feeling that I had done something obscene, or possibly committed an illicit act myself. I wrote out the night’s narrative with gruesome accuracy and filled out my personal information in minute detail before climbing down from the SUV and clambering into my own modest, dirt-stained white pickup truck. I could hear the wails of my friend screaming that she did not want to leave her home, and our therapist imploring her that she must.
A couple of days later, I met my friend on her front porch. She had spent a single night in a bed at a local hospital and been let go the next morning. The reason for her quick departure was possibly more depressing than the events of her self-mutilation: hospitals only have enough beds for those in immediate danger of killing themselves.
Aside from small butterfly-style bandages affixed here and there upon her skin, I could see that more of her wounds had been self-sealed by superglue. My friend was back to being the cheery but desperately disconnected person I knew her to be. However, something had been shaken loose in me following the previous night’s experience. I felt like I had helped her in some small, tangible way. In that moment, as we sat in silence on the front porch, I knew that our friendship was on the verge of fizzling out. Since then we have drifted apart, and I have no idea how many fearful nights with a thin blade she has since endured alone.
I do not regret showing up that night. I have thought that my being there served to curtail the further harm she intended to do to herself, if only for those few hours. Whether or not that is true, I know that self-harm is not a ploy for attention. It is the physical manifestation of a hidden mental pain most people do not know exists or refuse to acknowledge. I would certainly try to help again if called upon, this time more selflessly, however the trauma of that night will always stay with me.