I’m sure this emotional and cognitive illiteracy, this deep suspicion of opening up, is common to people of my age, gender and socio-cultural background. I was brought up at a time when psychological anguish was seen as self-indulgent, self-absorbed and weak, especially if you were male. Why didn’t you just man up and get on with life, for Christ’s sake? It’s not all about you!
As a teenager, I flirted with self-harm, lightly scoring my wrists and the inside of my lower arms with scratches from kitchen knives. I think I did this to get attention from girls, although I guess it’s significant that, of all the ways to get attention from girls, I chose this one. The easiest to achieve, I suppose.
I don’t know why it occurred to me. Self-harm must have been in its infancy as a culturally defined form of expression, and there was no internet to infect me with its memes. I don’t think the idea came to me spontaneously, though.
Eventually my parents found out and confronted me. I sat, frozen to my core with shame, while they stood over me, upset and threatening. “Do you want to see a psycho-therapist?! Is that what you want?! Hmm?! Because we can arrange it, if you do!” It was obvious that the correct answer was, “No, of course not! I’m not mad!”, an answer which I duly gave and seemed to satisfy them.
I suspect they had no idea where to look for support for either themselves or me, so they wanted me to tell them that they didn’t need to. I also had the impression that they couldn’t afford it. Therapy was for pathetic, self-pitying whiners or madmen. Going to a therapist was either an unjustifiable luxury, a pretence at madness, or it was an admission of complete psychological inadequacy. Honest, decent, hard-working people had the strength and resolve to over-ride these momentary fancies!
I never had the nerve to repeat the scratching. I wasn’t scared of my parents; I was terrified of the mortifying experience of opening my inarticulate inner-self to such alarm and distress. No further attempt was made to address the issue or talk about why I had done it, and we all seemed perfectly content with that. The suggestion seemed to be that if the behaviour could be suppressed, the problem would cease to exist. To them, there was no inner state that had led to this, and thus there was nothing to discuss. These were just whimsical and impulsive actions. Therapy would indulge the whim.
I guess they hoped they could beat it out of me, whatever “it” was. We were both a reserved and a shouty family. When I was around 11, I fell off the garage roof, bruised my spine and temporarily lost the use of my legs. Everyone thought I’d broken my back, and because they loved me (it embarrasses me just to write that), everyone spent the next hour yelling at everyone else.
Poor mum and dad! See how we punish them, for the rest of their lives, for their well-intentioned errors? Who’d be a parent?
It wasn’t just my parents, though, it’s that whole generation. When my Father-in-law was told I had anorexia, he said, “Anorexia? I thought that was something teenage girls got”. I don’t think, for him, acting like a teenage girl is something to be admired.