TIL: Self-Harm Comes in Many Forms

This isn’t a story about finally learning to love yourself.

This isn’t a story about triumphing over mental illness.

This is just my story, and it’s still going.

Two days ago, I came upon a photo on Facebook’s “On This Day” page–you know, where you see your posts from this day in 2008 and wonder why you allowed yourself to have a social media presence at 15.

It was from my senior year of college, just a few days before graduation. I’m smiling in the picture, but it doesn’t reach my eyes. I’m wearing shorts where you can see clear, razorblade-length cuts decorating my thighs. It took me back to a time in my life that I barely recognize three years on, a time where it felt like someone else was controlling my body and the words on my mouth and the thoughts screaming in my head.

On my walk to work yesterday, I caught up on the newest episode of Dylan Marron’s podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Mein which he helps foster a dialogue between himself and people who have attacked him on the Internet, or in which he serves as a mediator for two parties that shared hateful words online. (I highly recommend it.) This episode, entitled “Digital Self-Harm,” made me realize that my self-harm tendencies went much further back than I thought, and extended far beyond the physical. In the episode, Dylan speaks to Alyson, quoting some of the anonymous hate messages she’d received in the course of her time online as a teen–things like “You’re an ugly dyke,” and “You should kill yourself.”

He then asks, “Alyson, who was it who wrote that to you?”

She replies, “Unfortunately…It was me who wrote it to myself.”

I nearly froze in front of South Station, feeling my stomach sink to my feet. As it turns out, even when you’re really convinced there couldn’t possibly be anyone else who understands what you’ve been through, the world is a bigger place than you can fathom.

Consider this my confession: I used to write hateful messages to myself online.

It started when I was around 15, when Tumblr was in its heyday and popularity was measured by follower count (which I’d argue remains the case on platforms like Instagram). I invested myself heavily in the Buffy and Merlin fandoms, making friends from around the world. That’s something I’ll never regret about my online experiences. I’ve met some amazing people, some of whom I’m still in touch with years later, and I continue to meet some great folks. Social media is a powerful tool. But I didn’t realize how much it allowed for me to let self-harm into my life so early on.

If you’ve used Tumblr, you know you can send private messages to other accounts, and those can be posted publicly when the account answers them. When composing a message, you have the option to check off a box that lets you ask a question anonymously.

Back in 2010, you didn’t have the option to respond privately to someone’s question, and there also wasn’t a chat function. So you’d have to post your response publicly to any question or comment you received, and anyone who followed you could see it on their dashboards. About a year into my Tumblr phase, I realized I could use this to my advantage.

I’d come home from school and immediately hop online, immersing myself in unreal worlds to escape my own. I did really well in school, and I had a few friends, but there was always a voice gnawing at my brain telling me I wasn’t good enough. That I was too fat, not a good enough dancer at my studio, not popular enough, nothing enough or everything too much.

Everyone hates themselves at least a little bit in high school, but I engaged in a platform where anonymous hate mail was rampant, and everyone projected a different version of themselves behind an avatar depending on the day. It was so easy to overthink my sense of self, to find those other personalities online with which to compare myself. To see the plethora of content–writing, graphics, all that–and think I could never make anything as good. These popular accounts got all sorts of positive messages praising their work or praising them in general. The next logical step seemed obvious.

I was an avid fanfiction writer, and so the first thing I went after in myself was my writing.

I opened up my own Tumblr page, and clicked the little Message icon. Checking off the anonymous box, I typed into the field:

“Your writing sucks.”

It doesn’t seem like much, but once I submitted it and navigated to the dashboard where a little pop-up indicated I had a new message, I can’t really explain the thrill I got. It’s entirely nonsensical. I opened the message, seeing my own words glaring at me. But it felt like someone else had sent them. It felt real.

For every message you receive on Tumblr, you’ve always had the option to ignore it. Or better, delete it. You’re not obligated to answer.

But I did. I typed out a frowny face, replying, “I’m sorry.”

Let’s pause here for a moment to reiterate: I was apologizing to myself.

I got a reaction, which I thought was what I wanted. People responded to the post, saying things like, “You’re a great writer!” and “That person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Which you’d think would be enough. But it wasn’t.

I sent more messages to myself in the coming months, like, “Nobody cares,” and “You’re ugly.” And no matter how many times online friends came to my defense, their words blew past me. All I saw were the messages in dark gray over blinding white, telling me everything that was wrong about me.

And every once in a while, I actually got similar mail from others, anything from “Your eyebrows look like a man’s” to “Your opinion doesn’t matter.” And I considered those proof that what I thought of myself–and, thus, what I wrote to myself–was completely true.

Of course, I grew out of this after about a year or so. And looking back, on the surface, it seems like something typical a teen would do for attention. Except getting the attention didn’t matter. All I needed was that small sliver of validation that I wasn’t good enough, even if it was mostly coming from me. And going forward, that was all I needed to justify hating myself. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

As my brain developed, so did the very clear signs of depression and anxiety. And because I’d surrounded myself with a culture of low self-worth–it was part of my “brand” at this point–it snowballed until by senior year of college, it became all I knew.

Just as digital self-harm is a real thing I engaged in, so was self-deprecation, which, I’d argue, is another form of self-harm. I couldn’t be part of any conversation during my high school years unless I managed to find a way to put myself down. The trend continued through college, though I was able to grow in a safe and encouraging environment where the necessity to hate myself as part of my repertoire became less and less prominent.

But while college, in many ways, allowed me to gain some confidence, I took a gigantic step backwards my senior year. The pressure of graduating, in tandem with severe social anxiety ringing in my ears at all times, telling me how everyone I’d established strong friendships with had secretly hated me, and of course in light of the fact that I was so used to harming myself verbally due to my low self-esteem…it all became too much. I started abusing myself physically.

I can’t go back in time, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not enabling self-harming behaviors back in high school, however briefly, led me to this. But because of Conversations, I realized that my breakdown senior year was not the first time I’d harmed myself–even if I didn’t know it at the time.

And it won’t be the last. Like I said, this isn’t a story with a particular conclusion. It’s more of an uphill climb.

The thoughts are always there. No matter how much you try, you can’t escape mental illness completely. I wish more people knew that. It’s been such a huge part of my life for so many years that, unfortunately, I can’t imagine life without it.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve realized is that although I haven’t cut myself in three years, which I’m proud of, saying I haven’t self-harmed at all would be lying. These intrusive thoughts, making me believe I’m worthless, come in and out of my consciousness through a revolving door. And sometimes I believe them. I slip back into that self-deprecating mode, despite how far I’ve come and how much I’ve achieved.

And now that I know that these verbal forms of self-harm can be just as dangerous in the long run as anything physical, I know I need to work harder to adjust my attitude and be kinder to myself. I need to make sure those nasty thoughts don’t manifest into abusive, isolating behaviors. And when they do, I need to be aware of it and know what I can do better.

I wanted to write this, to post this, because I want other people to understand that, if they’ve been where I was or where I am, you’ll always make new discoveries about your illness and what you can do to lessen its heavy weight. For me this week, it was knowing that self-harm isn’t alway physical. I hope you’ve learned something too. I imagine more people than not are self-harming in non-physical ways without realizing it.

In the end, I think we can all be kinder to ourselves.

I’m starting now. Will you?

2 thoughts on “TIL: Self-Harm Comes in Many Forms

  1. Wow, Jenna. I’m in awe of your writing skill, your voice, and your honesty. This is such a beautiful and important piece, I wish it could be published in The Globe or heard on a podcast or radio program. Thank you so much for sharing it.


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