From the Sanguinary Files, Part One

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.

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8 Responses to From the Sanguinary Files, Part One

  1. Heather says:

    I always enjoy your posts and hope you do write more consistently in the future.

    One thought came to mind: isn’t self-injury kind of a masturbation for those who are involved in BDSM? So why should they take such an offense of it?

    • adkyriolexy says:

      You’d think. But no. Hurting yourself and liking it is completely and in every way different from hurting your partner/being hurt by your partner and liking it. And how dare I compare the two.

      I was explicitly told on one such site that people who enjoy it aren’t real self-injurers, they’re… something else entirely, and everybody knows that. They were genuinely angry that I seemed to be pulling a fast one by claiming to be a self-injurer, because “true” self-injury is “by definition” motivated by emotional distress. Apparently I was unsuccessful in explaining that it’s a description of a behavior, not a state of mind, and therefore isn’t “by definition” motivated by anything.

  2. tielserrath says:

    I’d be interested to know what are the emotions surrounding the self-injury you describe.

    I still spend a lot of time trying to explain to colleagues the difference between someone cutting due to distress and slitting their wrists as a suicide attempt; it frustrates me that so many people who work in a healthcare environment cannot grasp this simple concept. Of course, the majority of cutting I see is related to frustration and distress, so I’m curious to understand your experience.

    I can understand the endorphin theory – anything painful creates an endorphin rush, and I could see the same mechanism working in both distress- and non-distress-cutting, but that still doesn’t tell me anything about the actual thinking.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      It’s not really an endorphin thing in my case. It’s physically pleasurable and calming. In much the same way that some people bite their fingernails or twirl their hair, some people go further. It can also be an intense physical craving that does not go away until it’s satisfied.

      Based on my own experience and talking to others with similar experiences, I think many (not all, but many) cases of distress-related self-injury do not start out as distress-related. They start out as physical cravings/physical pleasure, but because of the intense stigma, they become associated with distress… i.e. some people who hurt themselves and feel bad about themselves aren’t hurting themselves because they feel bad about themselves; they’re feeling bad about themselves because they can’t suppress their intense desires to hurt themselves, which they’ve been taught is a horrible thing. This is intensified by psychotherapists who tell them (often impressionable young children) that self-injury is always caused by distress, refuse to believe any other explanation (dismissing other explanations, by the patients themselves, as “denial” and “rationalization”), and interrogate them until they “accept” that their behavior is caused by distress.

      Of course, all of this causes distress and further intensifies the injury/distress link in the person’s mind.

      All of which is a really long-winded way of saying that I’m skeptical that all of the people currently viewed/classified as “self-injuring due to distress” necessarily had that as an original condition.

      That said, there are people who genuinely would not have any interest in painful sensation except that it is a relief from distress for them.

      I’m not sure whether any of this is answering your question or not.

      In my case, at least, it’s not really a “thinking” thing. It’s a physical craving, but it can also relieve distress in the same way that, I suppose, chewing gum would.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      That covers a big chunk of what I was going to cover in my follow-up post, actually. Which I haven’t written yet. See how much more prolific I am in response to a direct question?

  3. tielserrath says:


  4. Pingback: From the Sanguinary Files, Part Two | Kyriolexy

  5. Pingback: Beyond fear itself: a healthy relationship with fear « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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