Today’s prompt in the 30 Day Self Harm Awareness Challenge asks
What is the most vivid memory you have of self harm.
The year, 2004.
The month, December.
It had been a rough month. The person with whom I was co-managing a backpacker hostel was on extended medical leave, placing me solely in charge of the hostel in her absence. Although stressful, I grasped the opportunity with both hands to prove to all and sundry that I was magnificent in my fated profession. Day-in, day-out, I cycled the ten kilometers to work the 12 hour shifts that I was rostered to work. Day-in, day-out, I threw myself into my job. Serving customers. Making reservations. Marketing the hostel. Ensuring everything was running smoothly. The odd bit of maintenance. Room checks. My job was part manager, part receptionist and part general dogsbody, but at the time I loved it. I relished the challenge and loved spending time in the hostel that, over twelve months, I had slowly made my own.
But working 12 hour shifts day-in, day-out started to take their toll. Being on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week was exhausting. When I wasn’t in the building, I was on the phone to people who were, extinguishing spot fires and making sure everything was ticking over nicely. Although I didn’t let on to the staff how stressed I was becoming, it wouldn’t have taken a genius to work it out. I hadn’t had a day off in nearly a month, every day was spent at the hostel, or on the phone for hours on end to the staff on duty, or attending meetings at head office with management. And it was after one of these meetings that I snapped.
Four and a half weeks of working every single day, sometimes as much as eighty hours a week, had frazzled my synapses. All I wanted was a day off. All I wanted was a little time to myself. No hostel. No guests. No staff. Just me and my thoughts. But it wasn’t to be. For on the one day off I had organised for myself, I was called in to head office for an ‘urgent’ meeting with the marketing department. So instead of relaxing in my unit, I was cycling the ten kilometers to head office to have a meeting with a staff member I despised, a staff member who never took my comments or opinion seriously. For nearly an hour we bickered about the best strategy for advertising the hostel, all of my suggestions falling on deaf ears, all of her suggestions being treated as if they had been spoken by the second coming of the messiah. After ten minutes I knew it was pointless being at the meeting, but being manager in my co-manager’s absence, I wanted to prove I could handle whatever was thrown at me.
At this point in my life it had been nearly four years since I’d last self-harmed. I was in a happy, fulfilling relationship. I had people to talk to, people to spend time with. Aside from overwork, everything in my life was rosy, everything in my life was as I wanted it to be. But something triggered in me during that meeting, that fateful meeting of conflicted minds. After four and a half weeks with no day off the emotional turmoil was at its peak. Something had to give. Something had to ease the tension. And with no other option, I fell back into old habits. As I left that meeting, stressed, tense, emotionally unstable, I realised I not only wanted to self harm, I needed to self harm. Not later. Not hours after the event. But right then.
I walked from head office to a 7-11 convenience store. I purchased a pack of smokes (at the time I was a non-smoker), a box of matches, and left the store knowing full well what I was going to do. I was going to take a cigarette from the pack, place it in my mouth, light a match, light the cigarette, and then place the lit match back into the box. So I did. And as soon as the match was back in the box I closed it, gripped my hand around it, and waited for the inevitable. Within seconds the lit match ignited the other matches in the box, and in that split second, the entire box exploded in my hand. The pain was instant. The fire burning into my flesh. I immediately dropped the flaming box and stamped it out with my foot, ignoring my fellow pedestrians who had witnessed the incident during their busy lunch hour. I stood in the street, the city moving quickly around me, and stared at my hand. A large blister had erupted on the palm of my hand, smaller blisters popping up on my fingers and thumb. It burned. It hurt. But the pain wasn’t intolerable; it was beautiful. In that moment, as I stood amidst the hustle-bustle of city life, I felt completely and totally at peace. All of the stress. All of the frustration. All of the emotional distress. All of it ceased to be. In that moment I was lost to the magnificent pain that throbbed on my flesh. It was just me and my pain; me and myself.
I stood in the street for nearly five minutes, smoking my first cigarette in over a year, flexing my left hand, enjoying the pain that burned on my skin. After finishing the cigarette I walked to a bin, disposed of the butt, and casually began walking to a nearby public convenience. I could have run. I could have walked briskly. But I wanted the journey to be as slow as possible. I wanted to feel the pain for as long as possible. Eventually I reached the toilet and began drenching the blisters with cold water. It still hurt. It was still beautiful. But it helped ease the pain a little. After several minutes I left the toilet and visited a chemist, purchasing some plasters that are intended to cover burnt skin. I had self-harmed enough to know you should take care of yourself after an incident. After all, the moment had passed, I had relieved the emotional distress, and was focused on self-care.
That night I told my girlfriend that I had burnt myself on a stove. She didn’t know about my self harm, no-one did back then. It was something I had kept to myself, my own little secret, my own little coping mechanism. She didn’t suspect my lie. She had no reason to. She merely scolded me for being an idiot and carried on with her day. A week later, on Christmas day, the blister was still prominent so I showed it to my girlfriend’s mother, a GP, and she passed on some self-care tips and once again chastised me for being so stupid. For placing my hand on a lit stove top. She didn’t suspect my actions either. Why would she? I had never given her, or anyone, reason to suspect my secret methods of relaxation and psychological coping.
Even though other events have been more painful (the infamous self-flagellation incident of 2000, the even-more-infamous knocking myself unconscious on a tree incident of 2007), that moment, that blissful, beautiful explosion in my hand has remained my most vivid memory of self-harm.
I have never repeated the action, I have never even considered it. That moment was the only time I have ever ignited a box of matches in my hand. At the time it was exactly what I needed. It was exactly what I deserved. And I have never – ever – regretted doing it. If I hadn’t done it my emotional distress would have overtaken me, I would have been flooded with suicidal thoughts and rendered unable to do my job, the job I was so desperately trying to prove I could succeed in. It is a moment in my life that I will never apologise for. However much I dislike self harm, however much I hate who it turns me into, I will never apologise for doing something that, at the time, felt so right, so perfect. But I will, until my dying days, urge others not to repeat my actions.
So if you’re thinking about it. If you’re sitting there thinking now there’s an idea I could implement. Don’t. It really isn’t worth it. You deserve better.