There is the decision to cut. It is not a decision. There is a need, and there is a want to make that need go away. To simultaneously want to and not want to cut. How the want is an addiction. I want to talk about the cutting because from all of the stares I get, I know you want to know. And this is what I know: the cutting gives you both a sense of control and also the feeling of letting go. And once I started cutting, I did not want to stop. No, I did want to stop, but couldn’t.
It felt like there was a space between my veins and my skin I had to get to, had to see what was missing, what wasn’t quite fitting. I needed to see what was in there, what was making my skin feel so unattached from my body, from the tissue that lies underneath. I grabbed a razor and tried to find out. Tried to cut deep in order to carve out that emptiness inside of me. What came up was blood. And when I licked it (yes, licked it) the iron tasting liquid momentarily subsided its flow to show translucent flesh mixed with a few globs of yellow—the layer of fat underneath the skin.
Anatomy of skin: The skin is the body’s largest organ as it covers the entire body. In addition to serving as a protective shield against heat, light, injury, and infection, the skin also regulates body temperature and stores water and fat. There are three main layers to the skin. The epidermis is what you can see, the hardened outer layer that does not contain any blood vessels. If you cut through the epidermis, you will run into the dermis. This is the chunk of skin where the blood vessels, the nerves, and the muscles run through. Cut even further down, and you hit the subcutaneous fat layer. Here, it is yellow. Here, the flesh turns pulpy and soft, here there is more blood and more nerves.
My skin did not protect me against injury. As I cut, I went through the epidermis and the dermis, and I could see down into the subcutaneous layer, the pulpy clouds of yellow billowing up. All of me was there, all of that skin layered on top of itself, covered in blood and nerves. I was searching for that empty space I thought I felt, searching for what was missing. I never found what was missing. And each morning I woke up with pieces of torn fabric tied to my skin, an outer layer of cloth to keep what was bleeding underneath stay back there. I would find myself covered in a fresh flesh wound, and I still felt lost.
I cut in many places. Not just on the geography of my skin—arms, wrists, hands, fingers, hips, stomach, ankles, legs—but in different locations as well. Cutting is about ritual, about finding that sense of excitement, then the calm as you put your tools in place and prepare the setting.
First there was my room. The one on Newgard with the cracked windows Scotch taped together. I hid my instruments in my top dresser drawer. The razor, the navy blue fabric strips, the white gauze and surgical tape. But soon staying in the confines of my room wasn’t enough. I craved the cut throughout the day, so I created a traveling kit. A green padded pouch filled with a small razor removed from a surprisingly sharp pencil sharpener, and Band-aids. At work, I would slip into the bathroom stall, clicking the maroon metal door in place behind me. I would lay out my tools on the top of the toilet, roll up my sleeves, and settle into my ritual. Cut. Lick. Dab the blood with toilet paper. Affix Band-aid. Roll down sleeves. A secret all for me.
The pleasure in cutting wasn’t ever about the pain. It was about how I could hide it, how it became a ritual, and how I would watch myself harden, the scab begin to form afterward.
Anatomy of a scab: When there is a deep wound a clot will form. Blood flow increases and many cells move to the wound. This is how a scab forms, the granulated tissue fills the wound, initiates growth of epithelial cells beneath the scab. The scab will fall off when the skin is regenerated, when it returns to its normal thickness.
After a few weeks, the scab would be ready to be removed, removed as in I could pick it off in mostly one piece. A thin section of dried granulated cells torn away from my body. And when I saw that more skin had regenerated itself underneath it, I felt whole for just a second. Enter: anxiety. Anxiety over one whole piece of flesh covering the entirety of my body would settle in, and the addiction to cut into myself, to see what was inside come seeping out would rise up again. I needed that fix, that secret, that something that was all mine.
I eventually had to get stitches, which was a fascinating adventure. The questions at the hospital: Are you suicidal? No. How old are these scars? Years. Did you put all of them there yourself? Of course. Do you have a therapist? Yes.
They never asked if I was drunk.
Because the cutting was done when I was drunk, and it would immediately sober me up. The drink. The ritual. The rush of the cut. Then the hurried drive to the ER. The questions, the assessment, the social worker, then the stitches. Finally, the stitches. The nurses would numb my arm, the skin. Then poke nylon through it and start stitching me back together. I was fascinated by this act, by the ability for the open wound to close in on itself with more elements that pierced through the flesh.
Anatomy of sutures: There are numerous suture kits in every hospital. Inside the kit there are precise instruments used to suture the skin back together. They are: curved hemostat, sterile scalpel blade, surgical probe, operating and suture lip scissors, pointed forceps, non-suture wound closure strips, tincture of benzoin swabs, antiseptic towelettes, black nylon sutures. Hemostats are scissor-looking clamps that hold onto the skin while the sutures are sewn in. Once the wound is numbed by injecting an anesthetic, the nurse will begin to prepare the sterile instruments to bring the skin back together. While the anesthetic does work, you are still able to feel the pull and tug of the skin surrounding the cut.
The nurses never asked if I could feel it. Perhaps they did not want to know, did not want for me to answer with an ecstatic, yes.
I write this to tell you what it’s like to purposefully disfigure your body. To alter your flesh in the way a tattoo does, but the scars are not celebrated as art. They are tally marks for moments that felt hard.
I do not know why I first started cutting. I had randomly done it as a teenager, a nick here, a small scrape on my wrist, the cuts barely enough to indent my flesh. There were never any scabs, just the flesh as it quickly healed over night. Think paper cuts. As a teen, I somehow knew that cutting was a way to relieve some inner pain. I don’t remember what movies I saw or books I read that lead me onto this notion. But I somehow knew that self-harm was a way to get to it, a way to express that deeper level of pain.
I never tried to burn myself, because, ironically, that sounded painful. And there wouldn’t be the blood to see, the layers of epidermis for my eyes to crawl into. I did not want to see my skin pucker up. I wanted to dive into it, to separate it apart in order to find a way in.
As an adult, what started it all were the memories. Memories of a drunken father, an unstable childhood, and a sexual assault in my twenties had all one way or another terrorized my skin, skin that then wanted to crack open in order to let the anxiety over these events seep out.
Anatomy of a cutter: the behavior of those who self-harm is believed to be a morbid form of self-help. For people whose emotions are hyper-reactive or for those raised in an emotional chaotic environment, cutting or creating physical pain feels like the bast way to silence the anxiety, to shut out the memories. After surviving a traumatic situation, a person will often relieve the anxiety that the trauma produced by creating physical harm. Like popping a balloon, the anxiety seems to just go away. 
I do not remember the first cut. And I do not know what made me take that first swipe. I know I must have been drunk, as most bad ideas sounded fabulous when I was wasted. So for a few years I made it my nightly routine to drink and cut.
And then I cut so badly, again, that I needed to get stitches, again. This would be the fifth time in a year that I had to get stitches. By now, the fascination of it had worn off. I was sick of the questions, the assessments, the social workers. Although watching the suturing of my skin was still interesting. This time, though, I wasn’t drunk when I cut, but hungover. I drank the night before. And I cut the night before. When I woke up hungover, bleeding, and in a well of depression, I did what I thought would heal it all, I cut.
And not being drunk, the cut finally hurt.
This has to stop, I screamed at my skin, shouting at the scars that had piled up on my arms.
Hospital, stitches, then off to the psych ward. I was there for ten days, and in those ten days I got sober and stayed sober.
But I did not fully stop the cutting.
In sobriety, the cuts lessened, became smaller. I could fully feel the pain, and it didn’t feel relieving, but harsh. The frequency of the cutting faded away long before the scars did. I have fair skin, skin that does not look good dressed in purple clothes, let alone skin that looks good with purple scars snaking up my arms. I had to stop cutting in order to start living, to start enjoying the flesh in which I lived.
How this could end: I tell you I regret it all, that I look at my eighty-eight scars in horror.
I do not. I see them, and I see me. I have twelve tattoos, and while as an adult I wouldn’t get some of them now, I do not regret any of the art. At one point the images were important enough to me to get them permanently imprinted on my body. They are mile markers to me, showing me who I have been. Same with the scars. Those scares were me for three years, were what I identified with. Sometimes, like during job interviews or around my young nieces and nephew, I wish they weren’t there, wish that my past pain wasn’t published on my flesh. But there is no deleting of this past, no erasing or editing who I have been.
Here is the part on healing: my skin feels attached now, the hollow somehow removed. Did the cutting do it? No. But the reckoning with the trauma of cutting did. I got sober and got over it. I still live with the scars, but I no longer crave making them. I now yearn to live in this skin, this body, this space I have found and call my own.
Here is the part on reality: there is a decision to cut. It is not a decision.
________________________________________________________________________ The “Anatomy of a cutter” section references an NPR segment about the history of self-mutilation.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.