Behind closed doors: My story of self harm

By Caitriona McMahon

I thought a lot about writing this article and refrained a couple of times but I can no longer sit and watch as others are in deep emotional pain thinking they are alone.

The reality is that right now, as you read this, your family or friends could be sitting in a corner as I was, hiding from the world and all the pain it resembles. Thinking about what lies on the other side of the door is terrifying for people in that situation.

Self harm is still very much an unspoken taboo subject in Ireland. It’s an instant conversation stopper. The reality many may not believe, the reality being that it is mostly a last resort coping mechanism. At least for me that was the case.

An unhealthy coping mechanism but still it was one. It was a way to cope without others knowing I was breaking down underneath feeling like an outsider in my own life.  

My biggest fear was that if those close to me knew, it would panic them or they might react shouting or even judge me. Thoughts like, “what if they make me stop and it’s my only way of coping?”

Although extremely upset, I didn’t want to die when I self harmed. I know some may find that hard to understand but for someone in such a dark place it was about survival. Admittedly if self harm is left unnoticed after a period of time it may result in thoughts of suicide.

But the assumption that every time someone self harms they must want to die by suicide that is untrue. A person’s reasons for self harming can be different each time.

Luckily I spoke to someone about what I was going through and thankfully they reacted different to what I thought. Instead of roaring they took my hand and said, “Okay, thank you for telling me. I am going to help you through this.”

That reaction made all the difference it provided an open door of communication a safe place where I could say how I felt. We came up with a code word for when I felt I needed to self harm that way, even if others were present, my friend and I would know and leave the room to talk about what was happening for me at that moment.

That code word helped more than you can imagine. Eventually I spoke with a counsellor, who explained that I wasn’t a freak or a loser as I had convinced myself I was.

Instead, I was brave for sharing what was happening. She introduced new ways for me to cope, little changes that in time changed my thinking patterns.

Lack of education and knowledge around the subject means everyday under long sleeves, pants and smiles our friends and family are suffering unnoticed.

In 2014, 8,708 people presented to emergency departments in Ireland with self harm injuries. Let’s think about this for a moment.

Those who attended voluntary services, GP’s or did not attend a service at all are absent from these national registry statistics. Considering Ireland had a population of over four and a half million people in 2014, the actual figure is most likely closer to sixty thousand.

Sixty thousand hidden cases of self harm in a country Ireland’s size. Two aspects of the last sentence worry me. The first is the quantity and the second is the word ‘Hidden’.

Another point to note is that self harm doesn’t always present as physical wounds. Intentionally practising activities that put one’s safety at risk and neglecting oneself are among many types .

Discovering a loved one or friend is in this much distress can be very concerning, however the focus needs to be kept on the emotional pain.

Avoid over-reacting or questioning, instead show support, create an open channel of communication and reassure. You see the scars are but the surface of what’s actually happening for that person.

It is the suffering, the pain of uncontrollable emotions, memories and thoughts that are the root cause. These will take time to heal.

If you are struggling with self harm there is help available call the below numbers now

Samaritans 116123

Pieta House 1800 247 247

Teenline Ireland 1800 833 634

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