The Secret Society of Self-Harm

Vice

The Secret Society of Self-Harm

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

T

he first time Ahana cut herself it was “beautiful”.

As she sat on the cool seat of the commode in her bathroom, thinking about the boy who had broken her heart, the blade hovered over her clean, smooth skin. Her heart raced and the adrenaline shot through her body, as the blade sliced through her skin and tissue, ruby-red blood spilling on the white, gleaming tiles.

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It was a light cut; the others that would follow would be harsher. As the blood began flowing, a delicious light-headedness took over the young girl. She would later learn to call it a “high” but when she started, Ahana didn’t have the vocabulary to match this feeling that she would grow to love.

A few months later, this savage, solitary sport took another turn. She found soulmates, who chased the same high, without shame, without judgement, and a secret pact was formed. Four of them would sit in Ahana’s room, united by their silenced voices and hungry demons, passing a blade around, acknowledging the darkness within them that the world refused to acknowledge.

The cutting continued for ten long years. The slashes became deeper. Together they formed white slivers of raised flesh like a serrated carpet that would forever remind her of a decade spent expressing anger, sadness, and confusion.

***

Blood has always been a testament to human emotions. Anger, love, bravery, loss, grief… the letting of blood seems to exorcise it all. It’s no wonder that cutting then seems almost a rite of passage for the angsty teenage soul.

A 2006 study conducted by Princeton and Cornell found that 17 per cent of its student population had cut themselves. An Oprah episode that same year resulted in national panic. The experts had spoken, 23 per cent of adolescents had self-mutilated, a behaviour which tends to become a habit because the body responds to the pain by releasing opiate-like chemicals. It gives you a high, the dangerous high that Ahana spoke of.

While a lot of Ahana’s peers walked with bandaged wrists and became part of a “cool, subversive” current of counter culture that was emo without the Green Day record, others like Ananya had no such aspirations. Ananya barely had any idea of cool and uncool when she began cutting. She was all of 10.

He took to the madness with a method, researching the best blades and the most painful processes.

She had just moved to a new school, a Bengali-medium one, where her tendency to speak in English and her stuttering Bengali, was sneered at. She found herself alone at school and the solitude followed her home. With busy parents and no siblings, Ananya had no one to vent to. She turned to herself. One day while alone at home, she took the paper cutter to her arm.

“I did not know then that this was a thing because my cultural references were more Rabindra Sangeet than Hollywood. It was just an impulse,” she says. Later when she held her bleeding arm under the tap and saw the blood swirl down the drain with the water, she felt a sense of calm. The anger, the angst, the bullying at school, the absent parents, all bled out of her. At the end of it, she was empty, devoid of emotion, and at peace with herself.

The reasons behind self-harm can range from heartbreak to sexual assault, from bullying to loneliness. For Sagar, it was his sexuality. As a gay teenager growing up in provincial Gujarat, holding the doors of his closet firmly shut, was an exercise in self-hatred and secrecy. His only outlet was the internet, which told him of the pleasures of both the male body and mutilation.

He took to the madness with a method, researching the best blades and the most painful processes. It was all there on the internet – pro self-injury websites which invite cutters to detail their routines and exhibit their cuts, proudly. So when a bout of intense desire took control of his body, he wrested back the control by inflicting pain on it. He cut with rage, bitterness, and confusion. He hated how different it was. The external pain helped relieve the internal agony. Sagar only stopped cutting once he moved away from the domestic fold to a city where he could express his sexuality.

Ahana stopped cutting after her friend, who’d noticed the gashes, sat her down. Unlike Ananya, she’s not proud of what she did. Ananya has stopped cutting but she still remains enchanted with death. The image of a dead Ophelia floating in her watery grave is still one of her all-time favourites and in her free time she reads up on the intricacies of hara-kiri, the Japanese ritual of suicide.

But this enchantment with death is not what marks all cutters. They never cut near the wrist, close to the major veins. The cut is absolution; the silent scream is a shout for help.

Cutters don’t want to die. They only need to bleed.

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