Conversation with Gemma
Dan: When did you first cut yourself?
Gemma: When I was 6 but only a small amount and then again a lot more when I was 15.
Dan: Why did you start so young?
Gemma: I think a lot of it stems from being adopted. I was frustrated about a lot of different things and wanted to get it out. But I couldn’t say it.
My parents didn’t deal with my self harm well, they kept me home from school, locked up all the sharp objects and made me sleep just outside their room. I felt like a prisoner. Though admittedly it kinda worked. But I wish they’d just asked me why i was doing it.
My parents have given me so much and I felt kinda of like I didn’t deserve it.
Dan: You felt guilty for them supporting you?
Gemma: Felt guilty towards my parents when I had any negative feelings or doubts. I felt indebted to them for giving me a second chance. I felt it was selfish and like I was throwing away my privilege whenever I wished I could have had a normal upbringing. I think more than anything I wanted to be their natural child, and I couldn't have that, so that creates a lot of frustration. When I started self harming I felt like it was a reflection of them. Like it would suggest that they didn't give me enough, love me enough. Or that they got a 'damaged one.' There is this idea that if you're adopted then you could be 'sent back' like a product from a shop that's faulty. Maybe they won't love me unconditionally. I think that creates a lot of guilt, shame and fear. And that's a pretty impossible conversation to have with your parents. I was obsessed with the fact that it would upset them as they'd given me everything I had and I couldn't be happy for them.
Dan: Other people I’ve spoken to who have self harmed have also felt guilty, usualy because they don’t feel like they have enough reasons for feeling so bad and that others have it much worse but manage to keep it together. This can then lead to them wanting to cut more.
Gemma: I dunno, I felt like I had plenty of reason at the time. But I do remember my parents taking in this guy from africa who had lost his entire family and lost his leg. He still managed to keep it together and be positive. That did make me feel guilty as I felt I should also be keeping it together.
Dan: Did you have any friends who also self harmed at the same time you did?
Gemma: Yeah, In school.
Dan: Another thing I’ve noticed with self harmers is a tendency to get competitive with others, was this the case with you and your friend?
Gemma: It wasn't so much competition as it was a sense of connection. We both self harmed and in a way we had a connection. We both wrote to each other a lot about a lot of the things we were feeling and I can see that it sort of helped but I also think misery attracts misery and it can sort of perpetuate the situation. I think I enjoyed the sympathy as well. I was a bit of an outsider at school so having this connection with someone in a time where I was at a low made me feel loved. One thing I noticed is that there were a lot of people self harming at school and no one would ever talk to them about it. You would judge them. The old "what do they have to be sad about?" phrase comes to mind. In a way, that's a pretty competitive state of mind, like I have real problems and they have nothing to cut themselves over. I think it's a part of being in that bubble, that you don't extend the hand to others that you actually need at that time too. It's pretty awful.
I did cut myself again once a few years ago. I was in a bad relationship with a guy who had his own mental health problems. He didn’t like me expressing emotion or talking about how I was feeling. Even though that’s how I deal with it, I vent. When I couldn’t do that I tried cutting again. But it was just once as I realised I couldn’t do it any more.
Strangely it hurt a lot more that time.
Dan: That’s interesting, why would it?
Gemma: I felt less numb at the time.
Dan: That’s one of the main reasons I self harmed. I think I suffer from something called Dissociative disorder.
Gemma: Me too. Certainly one of the reasons I cut myself was to try feel something.
Dan: I actually relate a little to how your ex reacted to you trying to be open about your emotions. It was a negative feature of myself I wasn’t once aware of. It stemmed from feeling weak about my depression and when I saw people I thought were also being weak (I was wrong) I felt threatened by that, insecure.
Gemma: I believe it was the same for him. When I opened up about my emotions I think he saw that as weak and probably was afraid of doing the same.
Dan: Can we go back to discussing your history and what we may have not touched on?
Gemma: Ha, yeah, there’s A lot. My birth mother died when i was 11, she overdosed on heroin. My sister self harmed as well, I lived with her. She took a lot of pills and was always trying to kill herself and ran away from a really young age. When she ran away it escalated a lot of stuff for me. She was the only family i had.
My older brother, he killed himself. I feel like there’s a certain element of heritage… actually I don’t know if its nature or nurture. This is something I think about all the time. Is it because mental health problems are in my family or is it because of all that’s happened?
Dan: I think some people are more susceptible than others.
Gemma: I wonder if you could do a brain scan and physically see a difference? If you could I believe people would be more empathetic to mental health issues. Because it’s “invisible”, that’s where self harm comes in because you are trying to make something internal external.
I’m reminded of selfish behavior. My sister's husband died last year of cancer and everyone was so self absorbed and like “our loss, our loss” and I was just thinking “someone fucking died”, you never asked how he was. But in that case he had a physical illness, it was more visible. Even with it being more apparent, people were still inconsiderate.
A lot of people blame the victim, people didn’t want something to do with an ill person. In a way it’s the same with self harm, this idea of sickness really disgusts people, they’ve got no time for it, they don’t want to be around.
Dan: A sort of outing the lepa?
Dan: I’m certainly not agreeing with that behaviour but I do understand. Especially when you yourself are depressed, it can be really hard to be around other people with mental health issues, when you’re trying so hard to remain stable. In that way, it sometimes can be a little contagious.
Gemma: I think it is, I was so unhappy because my ex was unhappy. I was reading about adoption. You can start to relearn behaviours through your new mother. You learn how to emotionally respond to these new people who are around you. So I find when I’m around people who are depressed I copy it. I’m very emotionally receptive. I think a lot of people feel that way though, emotions can be really contagious.
Dan: A lot of my emotional regression came from being like that, I just rejected a lot of my feelings. It was a self defense mechanism, one i was a little conscious of actually, I remember at 17 one day just thinking “I’m done with feelings now, they’re stupid and just tell me what to do”. Then I learn’t that hard way it’s much better to deal with them instead of blocking them out.
Gemma: That’s a big thing with people who self harm. You wouldn’t self harm if you could express your emotions, your sadness, your rage, the emotions you lock up, build up and then explode. If you could talk about them, tell people, you wouldn’t cut yourself. If people would show more compassion to each other and ask how they were. Like i said I didn’t get any of that when i cut myself, no one asked, it was such a clinical response. To come out with it, to say “I’ve been miserable for 15 years, i might kill myself” is a big thing to come out and say to someone.
Dan: If you’re weren’t cutting do you feel you may have tried taking it out on someone else?
Gemma: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of rage. I have tried hitting people before. I feel like I want to be in control and when i don’t feel in control it just turns into anger. A lot of it also comes from grief, losing people and losing your identity. I could be quite vicious to people.
Dan: I relate to that, when I’ve been depressed I’ve tried to self destruct my relationships.
Did you ever rely on drugs instead of cutting?
Gemma: No, I was so black and white. Again my mum was a drug addict so i decided i was never going to do that. I used to hate drugs, actively hate them.
Dan: When I was 16 I quit drinking and yet still had the need to damage myself somehow, so found cutting. It sounds like your sister went down the other route.
Gemma: Yeah we both had similar problems. I think what I was doing upset her a lot and that kinda… I feel a lot of guilt for where she is now. She saw I was going through a tough time and was brought up in the exact same situation i had and started thinking “I should probably be really upset as well”. I think she wanted to replicate her past, her mum's past.
Dan: I don’t think it’s your fault.
Gemma: It’s complex to think about it but I feel some guilt. Because nobody helped her, looking back all I needed was some compassion, love. From your family mainly, I think that’s most important. I didn’t have that within my family and she didn’t either. I feel I could of at least been that person for her and I wasn’t.
Dan: I’m very glad you used the word love because it’s a word people have forgotten what it really means. Love isn’t a soppy emotion, it requires thoughtfulness-
Gemma: And openness, consideration. Just taking someone as they are.
Dan: A massive thing I’m interested in is public opinion regarding self harm. One of my main reasons for doing this project. I don’t think there’s enough conversation taking place. Maybe that’s why your parents reacted as they did.
Gemma: They had never heard of it before. My initial reaction when i heard you were doing the project was “no one will come forward, no one wants to talk about it”, I didn’t want to talk about it. You put it behind you once you’ve stopped and when you’re doing it you’re not really in the right mind to consider it. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past week, quite analytically but it also brought up a lot of angry emotions.
There’s also a lot of fear that other people know you do it, the scars stay with you forever, when you go to job interviews people are judging you, they’re thinking “is she of stable mind”. I don’t want to get my arms out infront of my parents because it will make them sad.
It’s a private thing, you do it on your own. It’s hard to talk about because it’s upsetting, I though I couldn’t do this because it might upset me.
Dan: Don’t you think that’s quite circular?
Gemma: Yeah, I need to talk about it, that’s why i did decide to come. The thing i needed to do is talk about it, what i need to do is say to my parents that I want to talk about it.
My mum brought it up the other day it was really weird, she just asked “why did you used to cut yourself?”
I didn’t have a big talk about it, I just briefly explained it without getting too involved and then changed the subject. But actually if i took them aside and said “you’ve said a lot of things that upset me” and I never told them when they have. If I had just done that I wouldn’t of stored it away and that just becomes self loathing.
Dan: Do you feel this conversation is a hump and when it’s over there will be a sense of relief? Also if your mum had asked “why” at the beginning do you feel things would have worked out better?
Gemma: Yeah, if I had been open enough to respond to that question. I don’t know if i could of been at that age. People can’t force you to open up.
Dan: When I started to open up things started to change but it was very gradual. But I’m hoping more people will start to see they can make that first step.
Depression isn’t like a cold, a goey virus that passes in a week. Depression is a concrete monument and requires a lot of chipping away.
Gemma: When you stop cutting it’s a funny thing, because when you stop you stop. Then people think that’s the end and assume you’re fine.
The last time i cut myself was quite disgusting, seeing under the skin. I tried wrapping my arm up but I was still feeling really faint, so i had to grab my brother. He said you have to get my mum but obviously i didn’t want to. We did in the end and the whole thing felt really traumatic.
Dan: I remember cutting myself really deep for the first time and I went down to the fat. I had never seen myself that injured before and it was a bit shocking. But what was more shocking is that I did that to myself.
Gemma: Yeah, you kinda get an adrenaline rush. Like trying to do a handstand for the first time, you try and try and try and when you do it you really surprise yourself. That shock kinda wakes you up, it makes you feel alive.
Dan: What you said about people assuming you’re back to normal just because you stop cutting. When the reality is those “invisible” feelings are still there.
Gemma: The depression and sadness is worse than the cutting. People would be shocked by that but not by what i was going though. When I stopped cutting things actually got worse because I had to learn to express my emotions again.