The first time I cut myself was in 1995. I was 13.
I can’t tell you why I did it. I don’t even remember making the first cut, only that it was there afterwards, red and screaming. I’ve tried and tried to remember why, or even how, depression started to creep in, but I can’t. Maybe part of it comes from having tried and tried to black out so many memories and experiences that came to be associated with that year and everything it led to, tried to train my mind into selective amnesia.
It didn’t work, of course. I tried prayer. I tried alcohol, lots of and lots of alcohol. I aimed for endless hours and sleep and dreams but life kept getting in the way of that approach, too.
No matter what I did to forget and ignore and repress, there were certain thoughts that I just couldn’t keep away.
And so even though I can’t remember why I made that first cut, I do remember why I kept self-harming for years afterwards. There was something about the sting of a cut that could distract me for hours, take my head away from what I didn’t want to acknowledge and let me focus on something physical.
And even though I can’t pinpoint the start of my depression, only that it kicked in around the spring of ’95, I can trace the beginning of a deeper, stronger spiral back to the fall of that same year when, that November, the principal of my school called Children’s Aid for recommendations on how the school should address my self-harming.
And when I walk in the principal says, “Elizabeth, show the officer what you’ve done to yourself.” And he made me show him my cuts and the principal’s saying, “See? See what she’s done? She’s mutilated herself.”
I was in the principal’s office a lot those days. I’d skip class, steal tequila from my parents’ liquor cabinet, and hang out in a parking lot down the road from school, smoking cigarettes and talking to high school boys. At one point, I was walking around with deep cuts in the palm of my left hand and people had started to notice.
Children’s Aid had recommended the school get me into sessions at Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. The principal had gone ahead with those arrangements. He hadn’t talked to me about it until then, and he hadn’t talked to my parents. We didn’t have a choice about when the appointments were scheduled, or whether there were other treatment options that we could explore.
“I have to call your mom to tell her what’s happening,” he said. As he picked up the receiver I asked him not to. I’d already been in trouble so much that year. I’d also felt my cutting was something personal. I didn’t want my parents involved – not that I wanted my school involved, either.
When my parents took me home from school that day, I remember my mom asking, “why are you doing this to us?” My parents, both born in 1936, came from a time when people didn’t talk about their problems.
My dad worked shifts and only made it out to one of the sessions at Sick Kids. The rest of the time it was just me and my mom. Even though we went through six weeks of sessions together, we never talked about what was going on.
The resentment, anger, and shame I was left with after the school’s intervention compounded my depression, and my self-harm only increased afterwards. Finally, in 2011, my mom and I sat down to talk about it all.
Liz Worth: We’re talking about something that happened 16 years ago. Why haven’t we talked about it before?
Mary Worth: You seemed to not to want to talk about it. You didn’t admit to [self-harming] but I knew you were doing something. You just wouldn’t cooperate. I couldn’t force it out of you. What could I do? I could just wait till you were ready to talk about it, or stop doing it altogether.
LW: I didn’t feel like I could talk about anything because I felt like something really personal was being invaded by other people. The school intervened without asking me what I wanted. I wasn’t close to those people, with my school’s guidance counselor and principal. I had no relationships with them so why would I be expected to open up and trust them? So for them to make this decision for me without asking me or you or dad first, my impression was that they’d just made this phone call and decided that this was what was going to happen. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody because their reaction was so strong, I felt like I had to protect myself. I didn’t want these people in my life and so I had to defend what I was doing, or hide it. I was scared. I felt like I had no control.
MW: Well you know, Liz, the thing is, I don’t even recall the school calling me about this problem. All of a sudden we were going on a bus to Sick Kids hospital.
LW: But you don’t remember the phone call at all.
MW: No, I do not, but I do know it happened.
LW: But you just never replayed it in your head.
MW: No, I’ve been trying to think: did they call me? Or was there a note? Did the principal call me?
LW: Well, I can tell you what happened. I got called into the office, which was normal at the time because I got called into the office a lot. They told me that they knew what was going on. They told me that they had called Children’s Aid and asked them what they should do, and the school was told to call Sick Kids hospital right away and arrange for sessions there. They told me that they were doing this and they said, “we have to call your mom now.” And I said no, I don’t want you to. And the principal said “no, we have to.” And he’s dialing your work number as he’s saying this and I was just like, “I don’t want this to happen.” He didn’t ask me what I wanted. He didn’t ask you anything first. You were the last person he’d told.
MW: Yes, that was the wrong thing to do.
LW: And I was like fuck this, I’m leaving. I didn’t have a jacket, I didn’t have my bag because I’d been called out of class. But I had to get out of there, so I walked out of the school. I walked around for a while and had no money, no jacket, so eventually I just went back to the school. And when I got there a teacher was waiting outside for me and as soon as he saw me he said, “you have to have to come back inside, they’ve called the police.”
So I go inside and there’s this police officer there, standing in the guidance office talking to the principal. And when I walk in the principal says, “Elizabeth, show the officer what you’ve done to yourself.” And he made me show him my cuts and the principal’s saying, “See? See what she’s done? She’s mutilated herself.”
And the officer’s there saying, “Oh I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Thirteen-year-olds are smart. They know cops have seen everything. Why would he say that? I felt like a freak. I felt like I was on display, like, “oh, look what she’s done.” Like they were shaming me. I wanted to say, “first you called Children’s Aid, then the hospital, then my mom, and now you’ve called the police and they all know.” But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t even talk.
MW: Yeah, so it had really escalated.
LW: If you were diagnosed with cancer they would talk you through your treatment options before doing anything. But in this case they were just instantly reacting. I don’t know if any of those people ever thought how it would affect me as an adult, or even just in the rest of my teenage years.
The depression and the self-harm were never dealt with because I was so scared, and felt so vulnerable. I was offered help, but I was never offered help in a way that I could take advantage of.
MW: That’s very true. And actually speaking, I needed help, too, because I had never experienced that, either.
But the one thing that you must have always known is that you were very much loved, and that has never changed. I think that your whole life you’ve proven that you can overcome almost anything. I could be wrong on that, but you know yourself that people would be totally amazed. I’m sorry for all those things that happened to you.
I guess they thought you were going to take your life.
LW: I remember you didn’t want to tell anyone, any of our family or friends.
MW: No, I didn’t tell anyone because I knew what people thought about you, and I wanted them to still think those good things.
LW: So you were afraid that they would judge me.
MW: Maybe. Maybe I thought they would think, “what’s she going to do?” Was your [self-harm] an attempt for attention?
LW: No. I can’t even tell you that I know why I did it. I knew that you could hurt yourself. I don’t know if there were things that happened when I was younger that might have affected me without knowing. But it wasn’t for attention; I had feelings and I didn’t know where they were coming from.
LW: Was it hard for you to keep all this a secret from people?
MW: No, it wasn’t hard. I preferred not to discuss our family life with anybody.
LW: Do you think that reluctance comes from the generation you come from?
MW: You didn’t talk about your problems outside of your home. And even if somebody knew that something had happened, they wouldn’t mention it to you. In my house, where I was the oldest of 10, we were always fighting for equality. We didn’t always get time with our parents, and the man of the house always worked so you don’t burden him with a lot of stories.
LW: But that’s how you see it, though – you see it as a burden.
MW: Yes, yes, exactly.
LW: So how do you feel about the possibility that people might read this?
MW: That’s fine. Maybe they had similar things happen in their own life and had preferred not to talk about it. And if they’re depressed or their kids were depressed, well, we know that things do happen to some people.
LW: It happens a lot. These things happen a lot.
MW: Yes, they do. And when you left home [at 17], that was terrible. I had to tell people that you had left home. There was no choice. I had to because you weren’t here when they came around. And of course everybody was totally shocked that you would leave home.
The worst time was at nighttime, because that’s when everything’s quiet and families get together and eat. And your dad, he’d just sit and cry at the dinner table. And then I’d sit and cry. It was awful. That was awful. To this day I still don’t know why you left home.
LW: It was hard for me, as a teenager. I had a lot of resentment towards how my problems were handled.
I don’t know anyone who’s ever had such personal, sensitive problems escalated to a government agency, a hospital, and even shared with a police officer. I still don’t know anybody that’s ever happened to.
And when I was growing up as a teenager I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I was afraid no one was going to understand. So I was always alone. I was more afraid of people not understanding how much this had affected me than I was about being judged by it.
And if you and I had a fight, for me it wasn’t just the thing we were fighting about at the time: we were fighting about everything that had happened before, too. Living here, living in this neighbourhood, everything reminded me of the past. It was like I couldn’t get away from it, and I’d always felt like you thought I was cutting myself to get back at you. Like it was all about you. Whether it was true or not, that’s how I felt.
MW: But I don’t know what you expected to happen when you left. Were you happy leaving?
MW: No. It probably made things worse, because you lived out of a garbage bag.
LW: I wasn’t dealing with things, and I had no stability.
MW: I didn’t know anybody like you, and I didn’t have friends who had the same experiences with their kids.
LW: So if you could go back to 1995 and we had to go through this all over again, would you do anything differently?
MW: I can honestly say that I feel I always did the right thing for you. Whether you thought so at the time is another thing, because I think most young people growing up find fault with their parents at one time or another. How do you feel about it? Do you feel like we should have been different than we were?
LW: I always felt like as I got older, there was such a generation gap between us. That was always hard on its own, but what was harder was I remember you saying things like, “why are you doing this to us?”
Like you were trying to make my cutting all about you, like it was your fault. I didn’t know how to explain it. And dad would say, “you’ve got to keep your nose clean. You should keep your mouth shut.”
I also wished you’d had more control over the situation. What would have happened if you’d said to the school, “no, you’re not in charge of this. I’ll deal with it.”
MW: But you see, these people intimidate you, so even parents feel like they don’t have an option. It’s really not fair how things are thrown at you. And like I said, I did ask you questions but I got no response.
LW: But again, I felt intimidated by you, too. And I was mad. But I’m not mad, now.
MW: No, there’s no point in being mad. We’re all getting older. We want to remain friends. If there’s a problem we have to look at it and try to solve it. That’s all we can do. Because our life is not the same if you’re not in it. That’s all there is to it.