A Modern Leper: Self-injury, stigma and shame

Trigger warning: I talk about self-injury a lot in this post, and one paragraph contains a fairly explicit description of the evidence that someone else had been self-injuring. Please don’t read this post/ that particular paragraph if you think you might be triggered. I wouldn’t want anyone’s mental health to be negatively impacted by reading my posts.

Last week at work, during break, the conversation between two of my colleagues suddenly turned to self-injury. One of my male colleagues said that he’d noticed that someone who works in the bakery had cuts all up his arm. My colleague apparently asked him if it was self-harm. The bakery guy replied that it wasn’t, and that he had cut his arm while using one of the machines in the bakery. My colleague then started going on about how stupid self-injury is, while mocking those who do it, and then suddenly asked another colleague if he was a self-harmer. The second colleague replied that he wasn’t and that self-injury doesn’t solve anything. Maybe I’m just paranoid but it seemed that the first colleague seemed to be looking around the table, trying to work out if anyone sitting there was likely to have self-injured. I felt so nervous just listening to them talk about it in a mocking/ contemptuous way that I started shaking. I hope they never see my scars if this is the attitude they have to people who self-injure/ have self-injured.

Perhaps I’m overreacting a bit, but it seems that this attitude is very common towards people who self-injure. I’ve grown to really dislike the term “self-harmer” because it is almost always used in conjunction with disdain and mockery. It really saddens me how ignorant people are about self-injury and also about mental illness. In response to my colleague’s comment that “It doesn’t solve anything”, self-injury isn’t about solving anything. And contrary to popular belief, it also isn’t for attention (this is such a stupid argument used by those who are ignorant when it comes to self-injury, because as far as I’m aware, no one who self-injures does it for attention, and if someone IS doing it for attention, you have to wonder what is going so badly in their life that they feel injuring themselves is the best way to get other people to pay attention to them). While we’re on the subject of popular myths about self-injury, no it’s not just teenage girls who injure themselves; it’s something that affects people of all ages and genders. It’s not about trying to manipulate other people, and the vast majority of the time, it’s also not a suicide attempt. It’s about surviving. Surviving immense and overwhelming emotional pain by creating a temporary physical pain on which we can focus. The kind of immense emotional pain that leads us to think about suicide, and even to make a suicide plan. Back during the worst depressive episode of my life (October 2011 – early summer 2012), there were times when self-injury was about the only thing standing between me and suicide. We are not freaks. We are not insane. It’s just how we deal/ dealt with overwhelming psychological pain.

I suppose in a way, I’m glad that many people don’t understand why anyone would intentionally injure themselves, as it means that they haven’t experienced the extreme emotional pain (which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy) which leads to self-injury. I remember one evening, before they’d found about my history of self-injury, my sisters were talking and my middle sister said to my youngest sister that she had no idea how people could cut themselves, as she has quite a low pain threshold. My youngest sister also said that she didn’t understand it. My middle sister picked up on the fact that I didn’t say anything, and commented on it, though neither of them talked to me about it/ seemed worried. I’m glad that neither of them has experienced that level of misery, and I hope that they never do. I always tried to protect them and hide my self-injury and suicidality from them as much as possible. I just wish that people who haven’t experienced the misery involved when a person self-injures would try to be a bit more empathetic. I wish they would ask themselves: What could be so painful that someone would willingly cut into their own flesh (or injure themselves in a different way) to feel some temporary relief? What could be so painful that a person would rather end their life than continue on with the hell that they are living?

Trigger warning (next paragraph): Fairly explicit description of the aftermath of someone else self-injuring.

One day, back when I was in my last year of high school, a razor blade and some blood were discovered in one of the school disabled toilets. When my classmates found out about it, they seemed disgusted by it, and acted in a mocking way. I remember wanting to find the person who had injured themselves and just hug them, and try to help and support them. People who self-injure don’t need ignorance and derision. They need love and compassion more than anyone. I really wish that people would realise this. I wish ignorant people would try to be more empathetic and compassionate instead of jumping to conclusions and looking down on others for something that they personally know nothing about. Another thing that many people don’t seem to understand when they mock self-injury is that it’s something that could affect anyone within earshot (the same goes for other sensitive topics such as abuse, sexual assault, mental health conditions, and so on). They seem to think that it’s some rare, obscure, and foreign thing that couldn’t possibly affect anyone that they know. They don’t appear to realise the effect that their words could have on the people affected by the issue that they’re mocking/ making light of.

Self-injuring/ having self-injury scars is like being a modern leper, or wearing a modern scarlet letter. The negative comments by other people on the subject only fuel my feelings of alienation and my feelings that other people would never accept me or even want to be seen with me if they knew about my scars. They only fuel my belief that no one would ever accept me if they knew the ‘real’ me. Of course, it’s not that I’d ever tell my colleagues about my history of self-harm (and unless I’m forced to wear short sleeves at some point, it’s very unlikely that any of them would ever find out) for fear of stigma/ discrimination, but I worry about what will happen if I am lucky enough to make some close friends in the future. Would they still accept me/ want to be my friend if they found out?

Speaking of my colleagues being unlikely to find out that I have a history of self-injury, I love my new uniform. Before I got my uniform, I had to be very careful when reaching for objects on the top shelves, as my sleeves would often slide down. Thankfully, I was able to order long-sleeved blouses as part of my uniform (hopefully without anyone getting suspicious), and the cuffs on the sleeves prevent my scars from being revealed.

I have so much shame and regret when it comes to my scars. The thought of the ways in which they may limit me (particularly in terms of a career) make me feel awful, and even almost suicidal at times. I also sometimes worry about my scars making me even more unlikely to ever be in a relationship, though if someone can’t accept my scars, it’s probably unlikely that he’d accept all of the other stuff, so I probably wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with that person anyway. Sometimes I wish that I could’ve at least scarred myself in a less obvious place, but for some reason, cutting my thighs/ legs/ stomach never felt as “good” (in terms of the emotional relief) as cutting my forearms did. Although I haven’t intentionally injured myself in over three years, scarring myself is something that I will regret for the rest of my life.

End of trigger warning

Anyway, I felt bad about not speaking up and trying to educate my colleagues about self-injury, and I also felt angry after hearing them mock people who self-injure, so I decided to write this post instead.


I’ve had a bad couple of days at work, which have left me feeling utterly useless and incompetent. I made another stupid mistake today and feel that I can’t do anything right. I’m still convinced that I will end up losing this job, and that I will never be able to last in any job. I also still feel that all of my colleagues dislike me and that there must be something universally unlikeable about me. I hope CBT can help.

I observe my colleagues making small talk and building working relationships with each other and I wonder how they can do it with such ease. There is one woman in particular (who started a couple of weeks after I did) who is so friendly and seems to know everyone in the building already. She talks to customers with such ease as well. I want to tell her: “Do you know that you’re amazing?” I want to ask her how she does it. It’s like she doesn’t know that interacting with other people is the most difficult thing in the world.

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4 Responses to A Modern Leper: Self-injury, stigma and shame

  1. Clementine says:

    Compassion is a rare virtue in this world, and you have been blessed with an abundance. I look for it often, but rarely find it, so thank you for this beautiful post. Your scars tell the story of your strength and ability to survive. I know it’s hard to believe, but it doesn’t matter what others think, it only matters what you think! Try to turn that powerful and deep compassion inward. Take a few minutes each day to focus on your scars, look at them, touch them, with love and compassion in your heart. Tell yourself they are a badge of honor and strength, and you are so proud to have them. It will feel awkward and forced at first, and then it won’t. And please know that your light comes shining through in your writing. If you can’t see it now, just know that it exists inside of you!
    It may never be an easy thing for you to make friends and be social, as the woman you admired can do. But your gifts are different, and just as valuable. Thank you for sharing them here!

    • Gemma says:

      Thank you for such a lovely/ kind comment. 🙂 I think I could perhaps learn to see my scars as a sign of the strength it took to get through depression, though I don’t think I could ever see them as a badge of honour/ something to be proud of, especially as I don’t want to glorify self-injury. Thank you once again for your kind words. They made my day.

  2. I’m sure there are qualities in you that Ms. Personality would envy.

    I think we are living in the equivalent of the times of bloodletting, when it comes to mental health. I suspect that in a few decades not only will we have better treatments for depression, anxiety and related disorders but attitudes will also have shifted, so that we think of mental illness like we’d think of any physical affliction. I can only hope this is the direction we’re moving in, at least.

    Everyone screws up at work. Try not to focus too much on it and instead look at everything you’re doing right. I hope the CBT course helps you with shifting your perspective and quieting those critical voices.

    • Gemma says:

      I want to believe you, but for now I will just say “maybe”.

      I agree. It’s ridiculous how underfunded and under-researched mental health conditions are, especially as depression will apparently be the second leading cause of disability by the year 2020. I hope you’re right about things being a lot better in a few decades.

      Thank you. It’s not easy but I will try.

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