Keeping it hidden

Those who build walls are their own prisoners.

Ursula K. Le Guin, from “The Dispossessed”

So after that first cut there of course came more. It was my coping mechanism, somehow. And it was pretty addictive. I didn’t have any intentions of escalating it. I didn’t actually want to properly maim or incapacitate myself. I just wanted to feel the sting on my skin. I didn’t want it to stop me from going to school or doing stuff. So, that first cut at the tip of my finger. Well, it was getting in the way. I didn’t have a computer then, so it wasn’t like I had to use my fingers to type. But it got in the way of playing guitar. You see, I was learning to play the guitar. And the cut was at the tip of my left index finger. I needed that finger to press the guitar strings. That wouldn’t do. It had to be somewhere else that didn’t interfere with my everyday life. So I found other places to cut. First, the palm of my hand, but that turned out to get in the way too. So then my forearm: the inside of my forearm. That was pretty good. I wore lots of bangles at the time (it was the eighties), so that served to both hide my cuts but also every time I moved my arms around the bangles would rub against the cuts, hurting me, reminding me they were there but not getting in the way of my actually doing stuff. Just a constant refreshing of pain, without having to reapply the incisions, until they eventually healed. Perfect. That became my location of choice for quite some time.

So, they weren’t particularly well-hidden. I mean, I didn’t show them to anyone, but I didn’t go out of my way to hide them either. Like, I didn’t do them on my legs ‘coz, well, I couldn’t see them all the time. I wanted that visual reminder, as well as the physical feeling. I didn’t want to hide them from myself. Bizarrely, no one noticed. Actually, I think my sister saw them once and asked what had happened. I lied and said I got scratched by the cats that were taking refuge in our garden. That seemed to satisfy her. Or if it didn’t, she didn’t raise any alarms or anything. Fine by me. It was my personal secret. It had nothing to do with her. Oh, but it did. It’s not like I did it for fun. The sting on my arm was the physical representation of the pain she was causing me inside – the pain I didn’t know how to cope with, the pain I couldn’t see.

Where were my parents in all of this? My therapist asked me this. They were around. They were physically present. But they knew nothing of this. They had no idea the power dynamics between my sister and me. They didn’t exactly encourage us to speak out, remember. Don’t point fingers. Don’t make a fuss. Listen when your elders are speaking. Sit still and pay attention. I don’t remember them ever asking us questions like How are you feeling or What are you thinking? They never seemed to want to know how we actually felt. It was more like This is how you should think or It doesn’t matter how you feel, you shouldn’t show it or make a fuss.

I became really good at keeping things to myself. I learned to become an obstinate little child, then teenager, then adult. I learned not to argue back but I also would not concede. When my sister and I had disagreements, she would scream at me and demand all sorts of things from me. But she was also expecting a response. I didn’t give it to her. I would sit there, tight lipped, silent. That really infuriated her and made her scream at me even more. It could go on for hours. She would screech and scream, repeating the same things over and over, trying to get a response. But I would not give it to her. It was my way of fighting back. Little did I know that it wasn’t actually fighting. Or was it? I don’t know. My therapist said that when people are screaming at you like that, it’s often not worth talking back. I’ve also read that people who do that want a response, they want you to talk or shout back so that they could have the last word. I couldn’t analyse my reasons at the time, but that was my resistance: staying silent, refusing to respond. She got to have the last word … over and over and over again. But it didn’t satisfy her. And it didn’t help me. My obstinacy pissed her off, which was somehow satisfying to me. But at the same time, every stroke of her voice, every note, every word she flung at me hit me. It cut, and scraped, and bruised and wounded. I was only a child. I wasn’t some hardened old crone toughened by years of cynicism. I didn’t have to means to protect myself. I was not made of diamond. I was a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood child who was constantly being verbally shred to pieces. Even so, I would not cry in front of her. I did not cry in front of her. I just sat there, stone-faced, resisting. She would not have the pleasure of making me cry, of seeing me cry. That would be for later, for when I was in the shower, by myself. That was the only place I could be by myself away from their words. Away from them all. It was my only haven. No, that’s not true. It was my only physical haven. My mind was my true haven. The only place I could keep hidden away from them. The only place that was truly mine, that they could not share. They could not touch me there … or so I thought. But of course they could touch my mind. Keeping it hidden from them didn’t prevent it from being untouched, unblemished. They just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it. The pain, the hurt that was being thrown around. It has had far-reaching effects on my psyche and has left some lasting impressions. I was building a wall around my mind, but all the while a trench was being carved by an invisible blade. Deeper, deeper, deeper. My mental wall kept them out, but it didn’t protect me. I got stuck inside in my own head, falling further and further down the pit of my mind. They could not get in, but I too could not get out.