At first I said I was allergic to cats. Then I blamed a food allergy. Then mosquitoes. But it was all a lie. My crusts – usually red and raw – were there because I made them.
From the age of 8 I scratched myself. I scratched my forearms, my calves, and my knees. I scratched and scratched until the skin tore and bleeding and left a scab.
Why? One day while I was sitting alone in the school cafeteria, children were making fun of me at another table. They mocked me for being small and having a strong nose. Another time they made fun of my high-pitched voice or my love of opera. I pretended not to hear, but unfortunately I could. I felt humiliated.
I always felt like an outsider. Most of the kids I went to school with were more interested in playing video games, playing soccer, or just having fun. I had few friends. When kids had game dates after school, I would go home and do my homework or take singing lessons.
I kept the bullying a secret and felt embarrassed.
"People who harm themselves often get very creative at hiding their behavior from others," said Allison Kress, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Seattle and California who specializes in self-harm.
She said some of the red flags are when the person “starts offering weak or the same excuses for wounds and becomes anxious, upset, or vague when you ask for details. Sample excuses are things like a cat scratch, sports injury, or awkward accident that would not happen to that person. "
When I was around 11 I finally confessed to my mother. She went to the headmaster, who said that one of the children who molested me had a hard time at home, so his actions should be excused.
That answer was unacceptable, my mother told him. She said that if he was unable to handle the situation, she was ready to go over his head. The headmaster called this child and his parents to school and that particular child stopped harassing me. But other kids in my class stuck to it.
This naming and bullying remained the norm for the next three years. I continued to sit quietly alone in class until the bell rang so I could leave school and find peace at home. And scratch.
My mother caught me out of the corner of her eye, even if I didn't know I was doing it. You, my father, and my brother asked me to recognize the harm I was doing to myself and to take control of my own actions. They urged me to stop letting the cruel behavior of others determine how I saw and treated myself.
I tried very hard to stop. I wore gloves in bed so as not to scratch myself while sleeping. I tried to keep my hands busy, often by cooking or, for example, painting my nails. But nothing seemed to help. I always managed to scratch again, usually when I was alone in my room, awake or asleep.
Scars covered my body now, dozens and dozen of scars on my arms and legs. Scars I made myself.
"People don't stop hurting until they're ready to stop injuring them," said Janis Whitlock, director of Cornell University's Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and co-author of Healing Self Injury: A Compassionate Guide for "parents and other loved ones. "
"You can't make anyone stop. People have to be at the point where they're ready to get the job done."
I started seeing a therapist when I was 13. She asked after school if I have any problems at home (no), if I have friends (a few), what I like to do for fun (reading, dancing and singing). . She also asked me about the scars. I admitted scratching myself but she dismissed the problem as no big deal. I kept scratching during my therapy.
One day at school a concerned teacher called me aside after class. He noticed my scars and asked if everything was okay. He clearly thought they were a sign of abuse. I assured him that I was fine and I blamed my allergies to cats.
Why did I intentionally hurt myself? Did I believe what the other kids said about me – that I was incredibly small and had a big nose and that I was weird because I liked classical music? Did I literally let the teasing get under my skin?
Self-harm like hair pulling, plucking, and hitting yourself are usually a way to relieve emotional stress. "People hurt themselves as a desperate way to deal with excruciating emotional pain," said Dr. Kress.
She often said, "The person has difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings, so they end up acting out their feelings instead of expressing them with words."
Adolescent girls are two to four times more likely to abuse than boys. Everyone who has these problems is encouraged to find a support system, whether they are family, friends or teachers.
"The best protection is to involve the family, even if it is frightening and even if the family has somehow helped start or keep it going," said Dr. Whitlock. "I now recommend family involvement at an early stage unless it is very clear that it will be dangerous."
Fortunately, when I enrolled in a special theater arts high school at age 14, I found a supportive environment. My fellow students shared my love for music, dance and theater. I no longer sat alone at lunch and nobody made fun of me. Instead, I was accepted for who I was and made friends. I finally found a safe place.
But I never stopped scratching myself during high school. I still had the habit of this nervous 13 year old. And now I've got the scars to prove it. It's no longer a secret habit and the scars will never go away.
As an adult and now as a parent myself, I have stopped scratching, although I still indulge in a holdover of the old habit of just gently touching the surface of my skin without causing damage.
I turned 30 last year and I still feel confident about my scars. I often see people looking at them. You're probably wondering what happened to me. For years I lied to everyone who asked.
But I'm done with lies One day my daughter will notice my scars and wonder how they got there. And I'll tell her the truth. I'll also make sure she knows that she never has to keep secrets to herself, least of all from me.
I want her to grow up strong and confident. Most of all, I want her to refuse to be harmed by what others say about her. I want her to know that life can hurt enough without us harming ourselves.
Caroline Chirichella is a former New Yorker who now works as a cook and freelance writer in southern Italy.