Slashing became a part of my life at 21. Shocking behavior, some might think, but not so to me. I’d been two decades in a severely-dysfunctional family and I could only guess at what healthy was. Cutting and hurting myself gave me a strange sense of elation. I was alive. I could feel. There was hope.
The first major event that led to what I now know as my non-feeling state, happened when I was in Grade three. Mom had left Dad, so my two brothers, sister and I joined her to live with my grandparents. Overall, this arrangement was not very successful. There wasn’t enough space. People fought. And there wasn’t even a bathroom. How I came to need one.
One night when I was about eight or nine, I awoke to a heavy weight bearing down on me. I was shocked to discover that it was my oldest brother doing something I didn’t understand, rubbing his body against mine.
This was the start of a routine which was to go on for two full years. Each time it was the same. My body’s reaction was spontaneous; it seemed to enjoy the sensation. But I felt horrible. What was happening to me?
Soon I became desperate to be left alone. I couldn’t get clean. There was no private place to wash. And he left his smelly stickiness on me about four times a week. I couldn’t STAND it! But I had to. If I told Mom, she would hate me, he said. I’d be in real trouble. So I blocked out the smell and carried my ugly secret in utter loneliness.
By time I was ten or eleven, Mom had a new husband and we had a new home. The incest was finally over because the boys were living with Dad. But nothing was really different. My stepfather hated me and Mom seemed to feel the same way.
They became sadistic and exercised complete control over us. At home, our mail was read. We were beaten and mocked and told we’d be killed if we ever told anyone. Unwanted food at dinner time was literally forced down our throats. We weren’t allowed privacy of any kind. Bathroom and bedroom doors were to remain open and unlocked at all times; eventually, for absolute control, they removed those doors.
We were under their thumbs at school as well. They ensured we’d be laughed at. We were allowed to wash our hair every fourteen days, so we were labelled ‘greasers.’ To top that off, they chose ridiculous clothes for us that were so gaudy and awful, I slunk around wanting to die. For instance, they made us wear full Ski-doo suits and boots from the first hint of snow all the way up to some time in mid-May. I was always so embarrassed and humiliated.
This environment forced me to split off from my emotions in many ways. I had to hide my every reaction to what went on around me.
“Do you love your mother?” my stepfather asked, baiting me. I sat there remembering the cup that narrowly missed my sister’s head. “DO YOU LOVE YOUR MOTHER?” he roared.
“Sometimes,” I said. Then I was punched hard. I’d given an answer but the wrong one and that required a more serious penalty.
In the midst of this craziness, other seeds of self-hatred began sprouting in my brain. I discovered my mother’s copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and was horrified to find the word ‘incest’ and ‘taboo’ underneath it. That was what my brother had done to me! I was devastated.
What was WRONG with me? I didn’t doubt what was said in the book. But why had my body felt so good? Even my body betrayed me. I couldn’t trust my natural reactions to anything. My head still told me I didn’t deserve to be beaten with my baseball bat for missing my bus home. And that Mom slashing my arm with a knife for forgetting to call, was really bizarre. But I began to think perhaps I was wrong.
Feeling immensely defeated, I began listening to my parents more closely. Women were dirty, they said. Our bodies were revolting in their odours and cycles. I heard it all and let it register. What did I know anyway? They were the adults. I was just an ugly little bitch. That’s what they told me, anyway.
In 1981, I didn’t just learn to slash. I also started to talk. I’d already been in therapy for two years and was tackling a deep and overwhelming depression. Telling someone how I felt was a major task. I’d stopped feeling years and years ago. So I chose my words awkwardly. Sad, mad, glad, confused. I tried each one on for size. “I don’t know” and “I feel confused” became my usual responses. In retrospect, I see myself as an abused child locked away in a dark and empty room. Cut off from all compassion and healthy signs of affection, how could I possibly learn self-nurturing? Even moving out of their home at seventeen didn’t make a huge difference. I was still controlled, taunted and beaten.
I let men paw at me. I was too afraid to say “No” and didn’t know what my body-boundaries were. How could it have been any other way? When people made fun of me for weight problems, a lateral lisp or other insecurities, I joined in. There really was no choice. I developed a sick obsession with putting myself down in every possible way.
My process of therapy and healing was not an easy one, while mixed up with slashing and hating myself. Pulling the plug on my ‘deadness’ could never have created just one ripple. Not only did I experience joy, excitement and awe. Lots of other feelings surfaced as well — bewilderment, sadness, envy and rage, just to name a few.
Sometimes the whole thing exhausted me so completely that I took the steps to good health only half-heartedly. I’d call a friend when I felt like cutting myself and together we’d deal with the thoughts and feelings of the moment. Often I’d cut myself anyway. Other times, the voice at the other end of the phone soothed me. I would get through a crisis unharmed.
Once in awhile, I felt I’d been really cheated. Nobody ever loved me, I swore. My therapist was being paid to support me. She didn’t really like me. She probably thought I was disgusting, pathetic. When she suggested exercise as a means of dealing with the really intense times, I was further enraged. She was minimizing it all, I decided, wanting to smash things around me. I wanted to rage at her and my family and everybody who ever thought they knew anything about me. The angry little girl inside me sometimes went on like this for weeks. Adult Terry was nowhere to be seen.
This was when slashing was like a rare treat. Venting all that emotion was really invigorating. It was somewhat similar to freely jumping out of work-clothes the instant I got home, letting myself overstep social niceties and be an obnoxious jerk at a party, or wolfing down food without guilt.
Inevitably, I acted out my suicide impulses as well. The last time was a year ago. I overdosed on amitryptline (my anti-depressant) and woke up in an intensive care unit. I was hooked up to a respirator, had a collapsed left lung, pneumonia and tubes coming out of me everywhere. Amazingly enough, I survived and have grown up an awful lot since then.
Recently, I became a member of an Adult Children of Alcoholics group. Making this commitment couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d been stuck in my therapy process for about six months. I’d analyzed the events, ugly as they were, and gained an adult perspective on them. Then I thought I should be done with the past. So why did I continue to feel so awful?
The answer: I’d been using my ability to rationalize as yet another way to deny or minimize my feelings. I had been setting up my failure all over again.
Why did I do this? I was terrified of getting healthy and succeeding.
When I realized this, I got really stubborn. In a personal inventory, I looked at the following issues–my feelings, power and control, my relationships with family, coworkers, ex-boyfriends and friends, my and their addictions; defensive behaviors, how terrified I was of all conflict; what I liked and didn’t like about myself, direct and indirect ways of communicating, words (the only tools I had to make myself understood), sexual abuse, sexuality, and the child, adult, and critical parent inside of me.
I discovered a lot in all of this. I found that the most sensitive issue was about slashing. My therapist suggested this meant I really was healing. I now know that to be true.
I needed it before because it made me feel in my body again. It seemed the only way to handle the intensity of my rage and, at the same time, was also an indirect way of communicating the danger I was in. While it worked for a time, I’ve now given it up for good. I’m finally moving forward in my life.
Over many years, I have been in the hands of incredible therapists. As I never hurt anyone and never would, the total focus was on stopping my self-loathing and harming. However, I soon found myself aware of my first anniversary without slashing. Two years and then three. Now, it is so long ago, I can’t even remember the last time I held a razor blade.
We have almost completely stopped my suicide ideation. I still think about it sometimes, but those thoughts are like visitors who were old friends; you spend time together but know you don’t want to do it again.
Lingering still are the hard-to-erase ‘tapes’ filled with horrible words and pronouncements branded into my brain when I was too young to do anything but absorb it all. The struggle continues.
Today, on May 6, 2012, I can honestly say that I am happier than I would have ever imagined. I miss my real father and youngest brother dearly, but I know they would share in my joy to be alive and applaud my unexpected transformation.