young woman previous battle with self-harm

I’ve Self-Harmed Since I Was 14—Therapy Helped Me Stop

“It took almost five years to come to terms with my disorder. Black girls don’t cut. But I do—or at least, I did.”

By: Tameka Abraham
Photography: Alec Kugler

You think I’m far from being a mess. I’m the life of the party. I’m the strong friend. The ride-or-die. I show up to every birthday brunch, every celebratory dinner, and every movie night. To you, I’m the comedian. I find every—and any—reason to laugh. I’m a black girl from the Bronx. The funny thing about life is, looks can be deceiving. But the truth is, you don’t know what I’m battling on the inside. I’m a cutter.

It took almost five years to come to terms with my disorder. Black girls don’t cut. But I do—or at least, I did. Admitting that I have an issue to myself would mean admitting to a world that already places so many obstacles on people of color that I am less than perfect. It was another obstacle I never saw myself facing. Some of our battles require more strength and willpower than others—it’s true, lots of us suffer similar pains. But not everyone knows how it feels to be black in America with the lingering ideology of being less than perfect. The transgenerational trauma of slavery, followed by decades of racial discrimination and segregation, have created the illusion that a POC is “less than” (within and outside the community) while at the same time creating an expectation that a POC functions like they are equal to racial groups whose ancestral bloodlines have had an abundance of advantages. It’s that ideology that has taught us to suppress emotions of anger, sadness, and frustration in fear of being labelled an “angry black woman” or irrational. In a study conducted by The University of Manchester, 14,997 women in three cities who attended emergency departments due to self-harming were surveyed. 10.3 percent per every 1,000 were recorded to be self-harming black girls, compared to 6.6 percent per every 1,000 who were recorded as being Caucasian. Young black women are significantly more likely to self-harm in comparison to other ethnic groups, and less likely to receive psychiatric assessment and access to follow-up services after an episode of self-harm—and I’m one of them. My fear that my community wouldn’t be able to see past my weakness has kept me silent for far too long. Until now.

 

The first time I ever cut myself, I was 14 years old. At the time, my parents’ marriage was on the rocks. My mother, a baptized Jehovah’s Witness, married my father, an impish softball player from the island of Aruba who never had any plans of converting. The Bible, interpreted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, frowns on separation and divorce, so they stayed together even though things were tumultuous. Instead, my mother prayed. Her happiness was fading, and somehow, I felt partially responsible. Even at 14, I could tell how badly she wanted out of her marriage. Her unhappiness was spreading to me faster than a virus. I was witnessing what once seemed like love morph into hatred. And I was losing my faith in a God that I believed would protect me from such unbearable pain. I prayed and prayed—just as I had been raised to do. But nothing changed. Every Sunday we went to the Kingdom Hall and smiled and pretended like everything was all right, but back at home, we were breaking, and I was slowly losing my mind.

My father’s temper was intimidating. His ideals of marriage and fatherhood were old-fashioned, toxic patriarchal control. My mother’s petty methods of retaliation became triggering for me. Needless to say, I resented my parents for fighting in front of me, and I resented them for not realizing what it was doing to me. I felt unwanted, and I was disappearing amid their growing hatred. Everything was falling apart, and the two people I loved the most hated each other so much that they forgot how to love me in the process. And they forgot to teach me how to love myself. I punished myself for it and took the brunt of the pain because if it wasn’t for me, my parents would have gone their separate ways long ago.

 

One night I was so upset that the thought of waking up the next day seemed unbearable—but I wasn’t suicidal. I had just returned from the Kingdom Hall on a Sunday, and the months of relentless pain bubbled up to the surface like a volcanic science project. I felt like a huge rock was pressing down onto my chest, and no matter how much air I rushed into my lungs, it wasn’t enough to loosen the grip. I know now that it was a panic attack, but at the time the massive lump in my torso hurled me into a spiral to find any sort of relief of pressure. I wanted to punch something, anything. But punching a hole in my wall would mean a confrontation with my parents. Instead, I pulled a bobby pin out of my hair, bit off the plastic end and scratched my arm with it. It hurt, but it didn’t hurt enough to release the tension inside my chest. I tried again, using the dull metal tip of the pin to cut through my skin, over and over, until the physical pain outweighed the internal pain. It hurt like hell, but I liked it, and I needed to do it again. And again.

By 15, I stopped going to Kingdom Hall. I was drinking, smoking, and cutting. I chased any sensation. I needed to feel anything but my crippling sadness, which eventually turned into anger. If who I was becoming meant I would survive without feeling pain, then so be it. Cutting was the only sensation in my life that I wanted to feel. Physical pain hurt less than all the emotional pain. At the same time, I wanted the happy little girl that lived deep in my core to resurface. I wanted to be cured. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but to me it felt like the only option. There were moments when I wanted to ask for help and wanted my parents to notice and comfort me and to tell me that I would be all right. I wanted to be normal again. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to believe in God and love him again the way I was told he loved me.

 

One night, I had cut myself so badly that I bled all over the bathroom floor. I wanted to cut myself so deep that I would pass out—to just be at ease. I thought it would give me a break from the world that I desperately needed, where nothing hurt and I didn’t have to listen to my own unrelenting thoughts. It sounds crazy, but I didn’t want to die. I definitely didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to; the blood seeped through my shirt from the gash I had self-inflicted just moments earlier, and my mother noticed. I’ll never forget the way her eyes welled up in an ocean of tears as she examined my arm. In this moment, she realized how fucked up I truly was.

She didn’t hesitate and took me a couple days later to Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, and we began attending family counseling once a week. I was also attending one-on-one sessions with a social worker on an additional day. It took a while and many sessions and deep, often uncomfortable conversations, but eventually I understood the implications of my decisions and why I was in therapy. Prior to therapy, I never saw or experienced healthy ways of coping, understood the power of positive affirmations, or had a loving environment that allowed me to express and process my sadness in a way that didn’t feel patronizing. I never allowed myself to feel, and that was the root of my issues. Therapy was a chance for me to change it all. Instead of fighting being vulnerable, I learned to embrace it. To feel and deal with it in a constructed way that resulted in a positive outcome. Therapy saved my life. I needed a friend; I needed support; I needed to know that someone was there and was listening. But most of all, I needed someone who looked like me and understood what being black and admitting having a mental disorder meant for me—my therapist was what I needed most. Some days we gabbed over Drake, others days we went deep and dissected my long-repressed memories, which helped me pinpoint when my sadness began and understand my triggers. Talking to someone who understood the pressure of being a black woman in America not only gave me the comfort that I needed to open up, but alleviated my fear of being unheard and overlooked. I didn’t have to put up a front or act stronger than I actually was. For once, I didn’t feel like the black girl with secret mental health issues—I felt human. For the most part.

 

Don’t get me wrong; going into adulthood, I still struggled with my disorder. It truly prevented me from forming deep friendships—I could never open up with this lingering secret. I had a hard time letting people in out of fear they’d think I was just this crazy lady. It prevented me from loving myself. And that’s how I found myself stuck in a three-year (too) long toxic relationship that made me feel inadequate, unappreciated, and worthless, and only catapulted me back into old habits. I let my insecurities push people away because I was too afraid to let them see me in this fragile state.

I’ll never forget the day when I was 19 and in my sophomore year of college, and I relapsed for the first time after six months of progress. I thought this year was life-changing—I finally built the confidence to want more for myself, despite my disorder percolating just under the surface. I wanted to be normal so badly that I actually managed to convince myself that I was.

I made plans to go on a date with a guy who I was casually seeing on and off for about a year. I often ghosted him for months at a time in fear he’d discover my markings, but there was something about our conversation that was so easy, and I wanted to be around him. We ended up in my room, sitting on my bed talking about life things. I had just applied for a fashion PR job that I was desperate to land, and he was supportive and said things like, “You’ve got this. I don’t know another girl who could do what you do.” With every word I felt better, like this rock that lived in the pit of my chest for years was finally crumbling away into a grain of sand. But each time he inched closer to me on the bed, I inched away. He reached for my hand, and I’d pull mine back. I thought I’d been cured, but the visible scars were like my hall of shame, and I couldn’t let him in. He looked at me and said, “Wow, you haven’t changed a bit,” and all I could think was “Fuck. I did it again.” I had a mental disorder, and pretending that I didn’t was making everything worse.

 

As soon as he left, I shuffled through my dresser looking for a trusty bobby pin, rolled up my sleeve, and dug two-inch notches on my forearm. I didn’t cry, if you can believe—I didn’t even wince. I was emotionless. But let me be clear, it wasn’t his fault—I cut myself because I felt responsible for pushing him away. I couldn’t be this desirable girl that he thought I was. After all, who would want a black girl with half a decade’s worth of cuts across her arms and legs?

It took a lot more therapy, but I made it through that dark day. The girl who cut herself that night and the woman I am today are two completely different people existing in the same body. I haven’t cut myself in almost a year. I landed a dream gig at a beauty communications agency that brings together women of all races, nationalities, and sizes. I have a freelance writing side-hustle, dreaming up stories in publications I fantasized about. I finally learned to let go and have racked up a solid network of friends whom I rely on and who rely on me just to get through this bizarre thing we call life. Every so often that girl’s rage and anger resurface, but today I’m able to fight back and not succumb to my temptation to mutilate my skin. I know now that my disorder doesn’t have to change who I am or who I will be in the future. Yes, I may always be categorized as a cutter, and yes, it does affect who I allow into my life and what I need in terms of self-care. However, it doesn’t define me. My disorder exists, but ultimately I control my actions. I can proudly admit that I am not strong enough to cope with whatever life throws at me, but it doesn’t make me weak. It makes me human.

To the black girl reading this that has ever cut herself, stopped loving herself, or is afraid to tell the world she’s unhappy, I love you; we love you, and we are listening. I thank people like Kehlani, Selena Gomez, and Taraji P. Henson (who recently started The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation) for using their platforms to start a conversation that has been kept under the covers for quite some time. It wasn’t easy for me to come out as a cutter. But I felt it was important to tell my story, to show the power of speaking out for other black women who are hiding their mental health issues behind closed doors. We’re all human, fighting similar battles—but we shouldn’t have to fight it alone. If you or someone you know is suicidal or suffering from depression, cutting, or any other mental disorder or illness, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It’s never too early or too late to get help, and you are never too perfect or imperfect to get the support you need.

 

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