There’s a way to tell this story where I don’t sabotage my character. A way to tell this story that I don’t hurt myself unknowingly. Maybe I hurt myself knowingly instead.
Maybe there’s a way to tell this story where I never get hurt. And everything works out. A way to tell this story where I don’t wind up damaged. Or where I end up scar free.
There’s also a way to tell this story where I can admit that everything is true.
But I can’t write it that way.
There’s a period of time as a young person, when the worst thing that can happen to you is something out of your control. External pain. So many horrible things can and do happen to children at the hands of adults, trauma that they carry with them. Trauma that causes them to destroy themselves, destroy others, when they grow up. But that’s not the pain I’m talking about here, not the pain that makes sense. I’m interested in the trauma of everyday life. Like when you’re thirteen years old and the boy you like doesn’t like you back. Or when the girl you like likes your friend. Those days were easier because they were out of our control. They may have caused pain that we thought would never go away, but they didn’t leave as many scars as we feared. I long for such times that we aren’t all hurting ourselves in different ways, intentionally and unintentionally.
But as life goes, there is an amount of control we have over our actions, over the lives that we find ourselves living. Things do not simply happen to us. We are not victims. I am not a victim of life, I have a role. This is my life. These are my decisions, the decisions that have led me here. Whether I like the decisions I’ve made or not is something to be considered, but not the only part to focus on. The focus is on putting together the puzzle to figure out that A+B=C when you were aiming for D.
How much can we control and how much is out of our control? How can our narrative be manipulated and framed in a way that we prefer? When I find myself saying, “This isn’t my life,” it’s usually because I have taken steps to ensure that my life would not go in the direction that it is going. Maybe unknowingly, or unintentionally I have made choices that have led me to painful solutions, but at the end of these situations I can see why. I am owning my life. I am not childish enough to believe that only good things happen to good people and the reverse, but I have to believe in cause and effect to some extent because I cannot live in a world where there is no control. One in which we are forced to rely on simply the way that life happens to us. I make decisions and those decisions lead me somewhere. Hopefully somewhere I want to go. This belief offers me the release I need to make it through the everyday pain.
Recently my friend Amy told me that she used to cut herself. I knew a Michelle and an Ashley in middle school that were rumored to be “cutters,” but before Amy, I didn’t know any adult women who still hurt themselves by cutting. I made a horribly insensitive joke once that after the age of twenty-one years, you were too old to cut—you just learned to drink. I never knew Amy cut until she told me. Sometimes she likes to talk about it, sometimes she doesn’t.
I feel that way, too. Even if I’ve never cut my skin to find my release.
The Mayo Clinic classifies cutting as a form of nonsuicidal self-injury, going on to explain that this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration. The problem is, this self-injury also brings a great sense of peace and release. But it’s usually followed by guilt and immense shame. Emotional cutters try to mask and cover their own self-injuries with clothing and makeup. It offers a sense of pleasure that makes them feel worse when it’s over. The pain very literally attaches itself to the pleasure that we’re seeking.
Amy said that it felt so good to feel something hurt the way that she did, but immediately after, this good feeling was overshadowed by having to deal with the ramifications of what she had done. She had to learn how to conceal the evidence for the outside world.
Growing up, I didn’t date. I always imagined I would, but I never did. No one ever asked. There are probably a lot of reasons for this like low self-esteem, high standards, virginity, or basically any other fill-in-the-blank reason that girls don’t date—I’ve not spent much time considering why. Sometime between being a bridesmaid in wedding number seven and nine, I decided to take control of my dating life. For me, this meant online dating.
David was the first date. Ever. And was the best foray into first dates that a girl could ask for. The conversation came quickly, the laughter followed and he kissed me under an umbrella at the end of the night. He was the type of guy who remembered an umbrella when he left the house.
Michael was the next date who wound up being a pretentious Mama’s boy.
Jacob seemed to have promise: he was a doctor, close with his family, owned his own house and seemed funny. We met for a drink that turned into dinner the next day that turned into a drink after dinner at his apartment.
Or maybe it was my apartment.
He was so caring, so kind, so put together as we watched a movie and shared a bottle of wine. Until I found myself unwillingly in a bathroom with a man much stronger, much more sober than myself.
“This is not how my life is supposed to go,” I sobbed between heaves as the paramedic stitched up my arm. The police officer was a woman, and her kind eyes were the only comforting object I could focus on. She held my shoulders loosely and listened to me cry hysterically. She told me I just needed to be more careful. Asked if he had raped me, because, if so, we could press charges.
“I just can’t believe…I’ve done…everything…right. My parents are married. I’m a good person. This isn’t my life. These things don’t happen. These things don’t happen to me.” I continued this mantra as the paramedic and the officer tried to calm me down.
My date had seemed so normal until he locked me in his bathroom and put lipstick all over my pursed lips while I begged him to let me go. His pocketknife purposely sliced my arm twice as I pushed him down and kicked him in the face.
Or maybe I said nothing.
Maybe he kept painting on my new face until no one would recognize me and he didn’t have time to notice the blood I was losing.
Maybe I lost too much blood. Maybe this is the way that I found a release. With a new face in the bathroom with someone who had seemed promising.
But it’s usually followed by guilt and immense shame, with the emotional cutters trying to mask and cover their own self-injuries with clothing and makeup.
When I was twenty-two, I found another way to hurt myself in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. I was drunk. And driving. I was followed by an off-duty cop for three miles while I drove to my apartment complex. I was finally pulled over in the parking lot in front of my apartment. I tried to explain to three cops and four firemen that this wasn’t my life.
“This doesn’t happen…I can’t…I’m ok…please, this isn’t how my life goes. I’ve done everything right, always. I just graduated college. I’m a good person. I’m a really good person…This isn’t my life.”
Once again, I hyperventilated. Which explains why the firemen were called to make sure I wasn’t having “an episode.”
Maybe they took a mug shot of a girl with mascara running down her face, a face puffy from crying, unrecognizable to my family and friends. And I spent the night with a woman named Tammy who stared at me and told me her boyfriend was supposed to visit two weeks ago and he still hadn’t come and she was sure he was screwing her sister now.
And maybe I sat in the middle of the concrete cell and wept and sobbed that “I’m not this kind of girl, and I don’t belong here. Because my parents are good people. Because I just graduated summa cum laude. Because this isn’t my life.”
Or maybe that night they let me off with a warning as I cried away my sins and the next time I was drinking too much—not really trying to hurt myself, just trying to feel better. Maybe I took the curve on Northshore Drive too fast and flipped my Isuzu Trooper because I hadn’t learned my lesson and I hadn’t put my seatbelt on even though I knew better. And maybe that’s the way I wound up dead on the side of the road unrecognizable to even my friends and family.
none of these events were real life.
It doesn’t feel like my life.
I don’t know what I expect my life to be like, to feel like. But I imagine it should be better. That I could be better. I hurt myself sometimes. Something to feel a release. I never want life to be over. I’m not trying to end it. I am nonsuicidal. I just want it to hurt a little bit less. I want life to feel a little bit better so I look for a release that hurts as bad as I do.
The only way I live through these events and other pains I put myself through is knowing that everyday that passes is one day further from the things that hurt.
But this release is usually followed by guilt and immense shame.
I am obsessed with the word “proud,” obsessed with the way I hate it. Some people are not lucky enough to have been told that they are worthy of pride and that someone is proud of them. My father was never told this by his mother or father, so he tells me everyday, at least once. Truly: not a single day goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they’re proud of me.
My obsession or rather bitterness toward this affectation began after my grandmother passed away and my uncle told me how proud of me she’d been. Late that night in my hysterical state, fueled by grief and two bottles of wine, I yelled to my boyfriend about what the hell did she have to be proud of. I was no one to be proud of. I’ve done nothing worthy of pride, I sobbed.
I still slip into this cycle of “what-is-there-to-be-proud-of” on the anniversary of her death and sometimes on my regularly scheduled Self-Loathing Mondays.
I’m not sure who I am somedays. I’m not sure whose life this is. But I know parts of me die everyday. The parts I’m not proud of and the parts that I should be proud of. Sometimes when you do all the “right” things throughout your life, you find yourself in your twenties or your thirties or sixties, I’m not sure yet when this ends or really when it begins, with no idea what the right thing is anymore and no idea why you think “right” earns you a good path.
This leads me to a strange kind of life-dysmorphia. It’s like body-dysmorphia only different. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says victims of body-dysmorphia “can’t control their negative thoughts and don’t believe people who tell them that they look fine.” It goes on to describe the obsession that pervades their existence as they compare the small flaw they see—whether real or imagined—and the way they compare themselves to the rest of the world. Noticing only the flaw, not the real person behind the flaw.
Life-dysmorphia feels a lot like this. You can’t see the person that the rest of the world sees, the person that you ARE because all you see are the cuts or the scars that happened to you or that you inflicted on yourself years ago. Or days ago.
When I see other people my age, I think they have their life together so much more than I do. Usually for no other reason than I imagine they don’t hurt themselves on a regular basis like I do. As if I can tell as much by the way they order their coffee, or the way he wears goofy socks, or the way she carries her purse.
Maybe she orders a Manhattan straight up with Templeton Rye and I take this to mean she has a steady, fulfilling 9-5 job and a boyfriend that loves her immensely and will probably have a beautiful wedding and colonial home with four bedrooms in three years.
Or maybe he sits on the train with his legs crossed just so, with perfect brown, tassled, leather shoes that compliment the gray in his suit, and he doesn’t listen to headphones but instead stares straight ahead and I know that he is happy with his job and the friends he yachts with on the weekends and a job that makes him feel like he is changing the world for the better and a sense of pride in the apartment that he’s furnished on his own with only the most modern furniture and stainless steel appliances.
none of these inferred facts are true. But these things tell me all I need to know: I am less than. These are people worthy of pride. Someone should definitely be proud of them. In a mediocre movie I saw once, the mom tells her fuck-up of a daughter, “Maybe your low self-esteem lately is just good common sense.” I carry this sentiment with me always.
And then I need a release.
But it’s usually followed with a need to mask and cover my own self-injuries with clothing and makeup.
When I was learning to read, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. She had a yellow refrigerator with hundreds of magnets that had Native American women on them that she had gotten on her many trips to Arizona to visit her sister. These magnets held up various newspaper clippings that she took from the local paper, many from her favorite Miss Manners. I still remember reading the tattered paper aloud to her in order to practice my reading skills.
“Never do anything that is unpleasant to others.”
“A note or flower or both would be a charming way to apologize for having inadvertently caused another person discomfort.”
Can you make it through life never causing discomfort to anyone? Can you make it through your life never hurting yourself? Can you send yourself a note or flowers to apologize for causing yourself discomfort? And by you, I mean me. And by me, I mean we.
When you get a third degree burn the biggest risk is infection. Over 10,000 people in the US died of infections caused by third degree burns in 2013. The epidermis and the dermis protect us from the world and the bad bacteria that live in it. The third degree burn destroys both layers of skin, leaving everything hidden underneath exposed.
If clothing or another material has burned onto your skin, they do not remove it right away.
They can’t rip it off like a band-aid. It’s much more serious than that. What’s connected to your skin has to remain there for everyone to see. There is no way to cover the injury with clothing or makeup.
The pain, the injury, becomes a part of you.
It requires a surgical procedure called debridement, during which they remove the material to determine if your real skin needs to be grafted in order to cover the nerve endings.
But either way, they have to cover the nerve endings up so that the skin can heal itself. The more the air touches the affected area, the greater the risk of infection. Skin grafts provide a way for doctors to replace your skin with some other healthy skin so that you can hopefully have less scarring and live a more normal life. After they graft it, they cover it back up.
Do you see? Intentionality between pain and injury is not always the most interesting or most important part of the puzzle. The control or lack of control is less important than the effect: The pain becomes a part of you either way.
Almost all victims of third degree burns and skin grafts require psychological treatment afterward. No one can see your layers and your lack of layers. But it’s a really long process and is extremely painful. The injury is too deep to ignore. The pain is a part of you and can’t be removed, only grafted over.
There is no process to remove the things that hurt us. There is no surgery that can help us lead a more normal life. We have to find ways to heal ourselves, I suppose.
Maybe Amy gets a tattoo to cover her scars, drawing attention to and transforming them at the same time. We all have skin grafts of different sizes, made of different things. Mine are made of believing in cause and effect.
And never discussing the things that may or may not have happened to me along the way that aren’t perfect. The pain that I may or may not have caused myself along the way that still hurts.
There’s a way to tell this story where I don’t feel guilt and immense shame and cover them up with clothing and makeup. And a way where I’m actually proud of myself.
Maybe there’s a way to tell this story where none of us hurt each other or ourselves. Where this story isn’t about me at all.
There’s also a way to tell this story where everything is true.
But I don’t know how that story goes.
Cassandra Morrison received her MFA in creative non-fiction from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. She has just finished a book of hybrid fiction and non-fiction that discusses Southern culture, femininity and social neuroses. Her work has appeared in Chicago Literati, The Stockholm Review and LitroNY. She is from the South, gets lost frequently and is a little bit basic.
Featured Image Credit: Big Copper Kettle and Fish by William Merritt Chase via Oceansbridge