Note, in case the title is not a giveaway: May disturb the blood/injury-squeamish.
I am an avid practitioner of self-injury of various forms. It’s pleasurable; it’s calming; it’s actually relatively safe; and it enrages just about everyone.
It’s perfectly socially acceptable, of course, to admit to self-injury, provided one sticks to the script: it’s a devastating mental illness, a symptom of severe emotional distress, a reenactment of childhood trauma, a form of self-punishment, and/or a slippery slope to suicide. Sufferers can recover through psychotherapy, drugs, and possibly institutionalization. Less orthodox means are sometimes permitted, so long as the end result is recovery.
But to defy the script and claim that no emotional distress is involved (and recovery is unnecessary) is inexcusable. Unforgivable. I’ve had more vehement hatred directed at me, and lost more friends, over this topic than any other. The rage frustrates, fascinates, and occasionally amuses me. Under the (rare) right circumstances, I don’t mind deliberately provoking it. But even so, I don’t entirely understand it. Why should this topic, this behavior, be met with such intensity of apparently visceral revulsion?
What’s obvious is that the stigma against self-injury can’t be defended logically, especially in contrast to comparable but non-stigmatized (or much less stigmatized) behaviors–physical sports, for instance, can often involve muscle strain and injuries far more severe than the average sensation-seeker typically self-inflicts. Athletes can boast about the pain of their training, and the energy-boosting and mood-elevating endorphins that follow, without being classified as mentally ill.
Many other behaviors could also fall under the descriptive heading “pleasurable, but somewhat physically unhealthy or risky,” none of which carry the degree of stigma or presumption of emotional dysfunction as self-injury does. Consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food come to mind. But the comparisons that most clearly highlight the self-injury double standard are those involving the same action performed by a second party. Body modification, for instance. Among contemporary Americans, earlobe piercing is so mainstream as to be acceptable even for young children, and other pierced parts have moved from fringe rebellion to the moderately acceptable realm. In no case is body piercing classified as institutionalization-worthy mental illness.
Some of the most vehement opposition I’ve encountered in this is from advocates and practitioners of sadomasochistic sex, who are quick to take offense at any analogy between kinkiness and self-injury. While hurting one’s partner and enjoying it, or being hurt by one’s partner and enjoying it, are valid, healthy, empowering expressions of love, hurting oneself and enjoying it is a maladaptive response caused by damage and trauma, motivated by punishment and self-hatred (the same arguments, of course, used by outsiders to pathologize their sexuality). I suspect some of the rage from this demographic stems from their ongoing struggle for their own social and psychiatric acceptance, and a reluctance to be yoked to an even more unpopular group. BDSM practices are stigmatized, and paraphilia is still classified as a mental disorder, treatable with reparative therapy. But people rarely suffer psychiatric abuse for sexual deviance alone, and having one’s colleagues whisper judgmentally about perversion and neurosis is very different from being strapped to a hospital bed and forcibly sedated. Frowned-upon and misunderstood though they may be, BDSM practices are generally, and with no logical justification, considered less intrinsically disordered than self-injurious ones (this is actually the plot premise of the widely-praised-for-accuracy cult movie Secretary ).
So if the stigma against self-injury is illogical, why does questioning it, or even voicing a contrary experience, provoke such rage? Part of it seems to be the omnipresent threat used to stifle all opposition to psychiatric norms—that planting any seeds of doubt about the necessity of psychiatric treatments will discourage the dangerously insane from “getting help.” Industry defenders are vague about what, exactly, are the feared consequences of neurodivergent people’s failure to receive “the help they need,” though they heavily imply that it involves the untreated neurodivergent becoming, at best, an unemployable burden on the taxpayers, and at worst, criminally violent. But the other reason, I suspect, is that self-injury is (or is perceived as) an openly defiant gesture asserting ownership of one’s own body. This differentiates it from body modification rituals signifying tribal membership. Instead of the community taking a member’s flesh, the individual is reclaiming her flesh from the community. Perhaps nothing is scarier, or more rage-inducing, than neurodivergent people holding power over their own bodies.
Up next, Part 2: therapies for self-injury, what they get wrong, and why they do more harm than good.