Learning about self-injury from the woman I love
LifeSIGNS is privileged to publish this involving true-life story of one man’s understanding of self-injury based on his wife’s experiences. You can’t fail to recognise elements of this story, and we are confident you can learn from the experiences shared below.
I’ve known my wife for many years, but I’ve only known about her Self-Injury for a few of those. It may seem difficult to believe, but I honestly thought she was just very accident-prone. When I look back now I’m amazed at how naïve I was, as I remember incidents and ‘explanations’ that I just accepted without question. In many ways I feel stupid to have been taken in by her attempts to cover up what she was doing, and hurt that she never confided in me. She went to great lengths to hide her behaviour, but now I realise some of her excuses were ludicrous.
You may wonder how I could believe that someone could accidentally cut their leg while peeling potatoes – and I wonder that myself now – but I knew nothing about Self-Injury back then. I’d never even heard of it, much less knew what it was, and it never occurred to me not to believe her. The idea that my seemingly happy wife was deliberately hurting herself just to get through the day just wasn’t within my realms of thinking.
I found out the truth when I came home from work early one day and she was washing the dishes with her sleeves rolled up. I saw her arms in the bright light of the kitchen and I don’t know why but I just knew that something was seriously wrong and that the wounds I saw were no accident, but even then I still didn’t think she had done them herself. Or maybe I did. Maybe deep down I knew, I just didn’t want to admit it. I knew she had been suffering from depression and anxiety, but those were words I understood, self-injury wasn’t in my vocabulary and when she first used them I thought she was joking.
Shocked just isn’t a strong enough word to explain how I felt when we sat down that night to talk. I didn’t recognise the person sitting there opposite me as she tried to explain that cutting and burning herself helped her to cope. I felt betrayed. This wasn’t the person I married. No normal person would deliberately hurt themselves, it was unthinkable. I can’t even remember most of that conversation as it was lost in a blur of emotions, arguments, shock and fear.
Over the next few days we discussed the subject time and time again, but none of it made any sense to me. My reactions went from one extreme to the other, sometimes fearful for her, sometimes furious with her. I discovered that she had been taking overdoses to blur out the world. I thought she was trying to kill herself and I hated her for it. I tried everything to reason with her. I tried bribing her to stop, I tried threatening her to stop. I tried removing anything dangerous from the house. I even threatened to try self-injury myself. Nothing worked and I could see I was only increasing her distress. When I asked her to talk to me, she just said she had no words and would retreat into herself.
I was constantly afraid for her. Every time I got home from work I half expected to find her dead and the stress took its toll on my own health. I felt guilty because I thought I must somehow be to blame, and every time she self-injured I took it personally. I eventually confided in a couple of people, but even then I received a mixed response. One tried to understand, the other told me to leave her and get as far away as possible. I was tempted, I have to admit, but I still loved her more than anything in the world and I really did want to try to understand. Eventually, I got home one evening to find a pile of paper left on my chair. They were printed off from a website called FirstSigns. I read every single word, and then read them again. Finally, things were becoming clearer.
I wasn’t alone. More importantly my wife wasn’t a unique freak of nature – there were others out there who did this. Other women and men who hurt themselves in order to cope with overwhelming emotion and pain. Some of whom probably had partners like myself who were scared and confused. I was so grateful for the information FirstSigns and a guy named Wedge had provided and I called my wife downstairs and told her I had read everything and was ready to listen.
This time I understood much better as she explained her feelings, her emotional turmoil and how self-injury was a coping mechanism. I was relieved to understand that far from being suicidal behaviour, my wife was actually trying to keep herself alive.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it, and as with many things, they got worse before they got better. The fact that I now knew what my wife was doing changed things for both of us. I became paranoid about checking her for signs of SI without her noticing, which of course she did. For her, because she no longer had to keep her self-injury a secret, it gave her the freedom to continue without care and her self-injury actually got worse not better.
More than once I ended up driving her to A&E to get stitches or an overdose dealt with. I once spent an entire evening and night sitting next to her in hospital as she lay wired up to machines, and then had to leave and go straight into work in the morning. I eventually had to take time off myself due to stress. I began to resent my wife for the suffering she was causing me. She was being selfish. I didn’t realise the immense pain she was in and that her behaviour was not only a desperate cry for help but a desperate attempt to stay alive.
I hadn’t realised that by doing my best to prevent my wife from self-injuring and by unwittingly making her feel guilty every time she did, I was actually causing a gradual increase in her emotional distress. She was locked in a cycle of self-injury and guilt, and I wasn’t helping, but I didn’t know how to help. When I received a phone call from her psychiatrist one morning informing me that they wanted to admit her to the psychiatric hospital, I was relieved. Those weeks apart helped us both. She got the help she needed and I got the break from her that I needed.
That was some time ago now and things have moved on. My wife has learnt to control her self-injury rather than it controlling her. She hasn’t stopped completely and I don’t have any expectations for the future. She copes the best she can on a day-to-day basis and I do the same. It still hurts every time I see a fresh cut or burn, I hate to think of her suffering, but I know now that it’s just my wife’s way of keeping herself on a relatively even keel. She has come a long away and I know that for now self-injury is only a last resort for her. I’m proud of the efforts she makes to distract herself and find healthier coping mechanisms.
I don’t mention her self-injury when I notice it, but I’ll ask her later on if she is ok. She always says yes, which is frustrating, as I know it’s not always true, but that’s just the way she is. I still worry every time she disappears off into her own world for a time, but I have come some way to realising that only she can know what is going on in her head. I try not to guess anymore. Of course I would love for her to tell me she has stopped for ever and will never hurt herself again, but I’m realistic. I have to trust that if she ever really needs help again that she will ask for it.
I still get frustrated with her, as she does with me, but that’s just part of it and we quickly move on. I will never understand Self-Injury to the same extent that someone who has personal experience of it does, but I do now understand why, and that’s enough.
Some of the things I have learned by being in a long-term relationship with someone who Self-Injures
- There’s no point trying to remove sharp things etc from the house – it’s impossible anyway and just creates more stress for the person;
- Don’t think that by making them feel guilty you will help them to stop – in my experience this just makes things worse. The same goes for promises of rewards – no material things can compensate for the relief of Self-Injury and failure will just increase their distress;
- Remember that Self-Injury is a coping mechanism, not a suicidal behaviour;
- Self-Injury is a physical way of dealing with emotional distress. It’s important that the person seeks help for the emotional side of things before they can be expected to control what may be the only thing keeping them going;
- Encourage your partner/loved one to seek healthier alternatives to Self-Injury;
- Be supportive but don’t crowd. If I push things when my wife is struggling she often ends up retreating into herself completely. It’s better to let them know you are there, and then allow them to come to you if they need to;
- Don’t be offended if your partner/loved one prefers to talk to others instead of you. I know my wife often prefers to talk to her friends and I understand that it’s because I am too close to the situation. Again, let them know you are there, but be happy and grateful they have someone else to talk to and encourage them to do so;
- Don’t take it personally. I spent a long time thinking that if my wife loved me then she wouldn’t do this to herself. It doesn’t work like that;
- Look after yourself. Living with and loving someone who Self-Injures can be challenging to say the least. Take time for yourself and don’t be afraid to put yourself first;
- Remember that your partner/loved one is not a Self-Injurer, but a person who Self-Injures. The Self-Injury is only a small part of who they are and underneath they are still the same person you met and fell in love with.