It's difficult to explain the compulsion to self-harm. In some ways it makes no sense at all to cut away at the skin; to puncture the protective shell that keeps us whole. In many others, it often feels like the only thing that makes sense when your emotions are eating you alive from the inside out. And HBO's latest prestige drama centers on Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a journalist investigating the deaths of two young girls in her hometown, who also has an extensive history of self-harm. Each episode is named for a word she has etched into her flesh.
It's been a couple years since I last took a blade to my forearm. It used to happen quite frequently. If you look long enough you can still see the scars. It started when I was around 14. I'm still not sure where I got the idea from, I just know that for many years, it was the only thing that kept me feeling whole. Over the years I had periods of abstinence, but I always came back to my weapon of choice. I cut when I was sad. I cut when I was angry. I cut when I was depressed, and overwhelmed and heartbroken and when I just needed to force myself to feel something. It was methodical and I had rules about how frequently I allowed myself release, but it was a poorly kept secret because it's hard to get away with long sleeves in a tropical climate.
When my high school boyfriend found out what I was doing, he eventually refused to talk about it. He didn't understand it and didn't want to. It scared him, and all he wanted to know was that I would stop. His concerns were reasonable, but I resented him for not letting me share this part of my life with him. He didn't get it because he wasn't trying. He didn't know that when I felt like I would burst, seeing that thin red line of blood spring up before my eyes would give me something to focus on. The pain was a small price to pay for a means to channel emotions I was too overwhelmed to process. He didn't know that the scars gave me clarity.
In Sharp Objects, Camille has spent time in an in-patient facility because of her self-harm. In the third episode "Fix" we see the aftermath of a violent night. When Camille finds that her teenage roommate Alice (Sydney Sweeney) has committed suicide, Camille dislodges a screw from the toilet in their shared bathroom and viciously rips into her own skin. The image is messy and terrifying and bloody and indelibly seared into my mind. It was the first time in a while I'd felt that familiar itch in my palm. Even as someone with a low tolerance for onscreen violence, I didn't realize until later that the itching was a trigger. Even as I type this I have to keep pausing to wiggle my fingers; it's the only thing that keeps that familiar sensation at bay.
Without divulging too much of the plot, it is safe to say that Camille has suffered enough trauma in her life to warrant some erratic behaviour, but it also made me feel guilty for succumbing to self-harm for so much less. Once in college at the height of a Boston winter, my loneliness (and what I now suspect was Seasonal Affective Disorder) took hold and I called the campus emergency hotline. When I heard the voice on the other end of the line I panicked, hung up and decided my old vice would have to do. Later, the office sent someone to check on me in the morning (presumably to make sure I wasn't dead); my arm had been split open. No, I had split my arm open. Angry red lines crept up from my wrist to my elbow and I was embarrassed that they could see them. Here were more people who now knew that I couldn't cope. That I was overwhelmed and incapable of regulating my emotions. I refused to go with them to a doctor but they threatened to call my parents if I didn't see the school shrink. I went to two appointments. It was the only time I've ever been in therapy.
The things about Sharp Objects is that it gets the essence of it right. The way the memories intrude and leave you feeling just a little bit more helpless than you were before. Camille is an alcoholic actively struggling to survive, but the scars ground her. I felt like that too. The way my skin grew tightly over my wounds was a reminder that I was still here, tethered to this world. While Camille left reminders of specific hurts on her body, I never did. I somehow though that random scars were less "crazy" than an intentional effort to brand myself with my aching. I don't think it made a difference in the long run. All I wanted was the pain. If I could focus all my energy on an identifiable injury, I didn't have to think about all the ways in which my depression was consuming me. In the fallow periods when I'd let my skin heal, I'd run my fingers over the wounds to feel them sting and tingle; a second chance at the same high.
I used to say that I have always been depressed, but never suicidal. Then I found out that what I'd been feeling for so long had a name: passive suicidal ideation. I never made any plans or ever cut deeper than needed to bleed, but I neglected myself, and I was reckless with my life. I would stand too close to subway platforms or step into the street a beat too early with my eyes closed just to feel the wind rush past. The danger was exhilarating and it forced me to remember that I was alive, even if I wasn't particularly keen on the experience. I've had lovers physically restrain me while I was in tears so that I wouldn't break the flesh. It never ends. The possibilities are always sitting right at the back of my mind like a warped daytime fantasy. All it ever takes is a couple bad days to for the fog to roll in. The inevitability sets in, and suddenly I'm back where I started. The itching returns.
I'm not sure that a trigger warning would have helped me. I have a desperate need to never feel left out of anything and since I write about television for a living, there was nothing that would have stopped me from watching Sharp Objects. And to be fair, I tend to ignore trigger warnings anyway. I see them as a challenge of endurance. What vile thing can I stomach today? But this is the first time since the season one finale of 13 Reasons Why that I have felt slightly undone by something ostensibly meant to entertain. Even though I know I would have pushed through anyway, I would have liked to know to steel my nerves. I haven't been able to stop thinking about how easily the itching came back and how deeply the memory of sweet release has buried itself into my brain again.
It's been several years since I cut away at myself, but I still know where all the blades are.