Self-harm doesn’t always look the same. It isn’t always gashes down your arms or slits through your thighs, it isn’t always lowering your head into the toilet, or not eating for days. We too often make the mistake that self-harm has to do with physical pain so we try looking for bruises and scrapes and when we find none, we assume everything is okay, forgetting that self-harm can be any dark insidious secret carefully kept tucked away.
You started growing your stash thirteen years ago. Back when you were only fourteen years old, you came home with a handful of papers scrawled upon with grades that were only meant to determine that semester but you took them to your grave. Grades that spoke to you only to say that you weren’t at the top of your game. That regardless of how hard you tried, you fell somewhere in between again and again. In between friends who would show their parents these grades and then everyone would gather for dinner under the pretense of friendship only to boast about their own kids while putting others to shame. In between the backbench kids who, throughout the year, proudly wore their armor of disdain, so it didn’t matter to them if they aced the exam or failed. They weren’t coming home and trying to live up to the ‘big brother’ name, while a sister much younger was somehow effortlessly bagging As and although you were always proud of me, but to live in the shadow of someone who belonged under your wing must have been strange.
Grades that were supposed to be nothing more than numbers and few flippant ticks, but you gave them a lot more weight. I remember seeing your face on such days, sullen and irate as our parents clamoured on about the importance of studying and you would nod, waiting for the conversation to finally abate. You were a regular teenager who sometimes bunked class and sometimes became the teacher’s favourite; a teenager that eventually made it through the confusing academic maze only to pack your bags one day and move to the States. Without the added baggage of competing for good grades and letting them define your worth, I saw you blossoming in your new space. Your sullen expressions softened as you began expanding outside of the stencil within which you had been contained. I could swear I visibly saw the shackles fall off your feet and you began to elevate, and just when we believed you were no longer carrying any weight, you hatched a plan to escape.
We’ve spent the last two and a half years revisiting every memory looking for signs and combing through moments otherwise mundane. Sometimes instances pop up suddenly washed in clarity while others remain a haze but until last week, I could stand by firmly and say, no you never self-harmed to this day.
But self-harm doesn’t always look the same. It isn’t always gashes down your arms or slits through your thighs, it isn’t always lowering your head into the toilet, or not eating for days. Sometimes it’s a random drawer in the back of your cupboard stuffed with old boxers as a disguise only to reveal stacks and stacks of neatly folded papers scrawled upon with grades. Grades that were frivolously given out by teachers that retired years ago, grades that didn’t determine any more than that one bad week in 2008. Grades that no one would care about in a few days but every time you held one in your hands, it chipped away at your self-worth and your faith. Flimsy pieces of recycled paper that carried so much weight, even ten years later you were never able to lift them again. Instead, they continued to sink to the bottom of that drawer, and while you tried to build a life on top of it all, you knew what lay at the base.
Last week I reached into the drawer and saw some of the places you had been maimed. I saw the scars that you still bore despite all the long sleeves you wore. Last week I learned a little more about the signs I had missed but knew there was still something I could do to ease the pain even if it was too late. So I reached into the drawer and did what you couldn’t do for the past thirteen years - I lifted all that weight and finally threw it away.