Shirley Manson’s honest take on self harm is refreshing – if only more people could be as candid as her, says freelance writer Emily Reynolds.
If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering.
Most of us know Shirley Manson as the iconic frontwoman of indie band Garbage. Her no bulls**t attitude made her seem like the most confident person in the world.
But, beneath the surface, Manson was not always so happy – something she’s now written about for the first time for the New York Times.
“The first time I cut myself, I was sitting on the edge of a bed inside my boyfriend’s flat,” she writes. “It was late. He and I had been arguing for some time, our voices gradually becoming more and more raised. I was concerned that we might wake his flat-mates, and in a moment of utter exasperation, I reached across for my little silver penknife, pulled it from the lace of my shoe and ran the tiny blade across the skin of one ankle.
“It didn’t hurt. I did it again. And then I did it again.”
After stopping for a period, Manson experienced the “strong impulse” to hurt herself again during the European tour of the second Garbage album, Version 2.0, describing the “immense physical and mental pressure” she was under.
“I was a media “it” girl, and as a result I was lucky enough to be invited to grace the covers of newspapers and fashion magazines all over the world,” she writes. “Perversely, the downside of attracting so much attention was that I began to develop a self-consciousness about myself, the intensity of which I hadn’t experienced since I was a young woman in the throes of puberty.
“I was suffering from extreme impostor syndrome, constantly measuring myself against my peers, sincerely believing that they had gotten everything right and I had gotten everything so very wrong.
“The mental anguish I was inflicting on myself was extreme and drove me half out of my mind. In hysterical, extreme moments, I thought if I could just get my hands upon a tiny little knife it would bring some relief and I would be able to handle the stress. Mercifully, most likely because of the rigorous demands of touring and an understanding that cutting myself was not something I really wanted to get back into, I managed to resist the compulsion to harm myself again.”
The UK has an incredibly high rate of self harm; the highest in Europe, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Around 400 in 100,000 people are estimated to self harm – and this is a conservative estimate, with many who do self harm never reporting it.
But despite this – and despite a current mental health discourse that encourages openness – self harm is still a deeply stigmatised topic. Misrepresentative stereotypes abound: that self harmers are attention seeking, that it’s childish, that people who do it are a danger to others.
This all makes Manson’s open, honest and incredibly blunt approach to talking about her self harm even more impressive. Her writing is pragmatic; self harm has no moral value, and is treated as a mere fact.
Importantly, there’s no shame involved whatsoever. Manson writes that she’s in a better place – which is great. But when she describes her self harm, it’s presented as a coping mechanism; something she needed to survive at a particular time.
This is deeply important. Alongside the complex feelings that lead many of us to self harm, we usually have to contend with guilt and embarrassment, too. The number of times I’ve covered my arms because of fresh or old scars is countless. In the past, I felt that showing them was to show a basic part of myself to the world that was shameful and sordid; I couldn’t accept that what I was doing was necessary for my survival, and instead felt as if I was displaying some kind of weakness.
I no longer feel this shame – and, like Manson, believe it’s important to talk about self harm in as honest and unsentimental a way as possible. This destigmatises self harm – and, importantly, helps people who do it feel less guilty.
I understand why people are frightened of self harm, or why they find it upsetting to think or talk about – especially when it involves someone they care about. But to truly understand self harm and those who do it, it’s vital we all talk as openly and unflinchingly as we can. If we say we care about mental illness, that means accepting people as they are – scars and all.
Mind agrees that we need to be less judgemental of self-harm. In their advice to friends and family of those who self-harm, the charity says: “Whether someone tells you directly, or you suspect that someone is hurting themselves, it can be difficult to know what to say and how best to approach the situation.
“You might feel shocked, angry, helpless, responsible or any number of other difficult emotions… [but] your attitude and how you relate to them is one of the key things that can help them feel supported.”
The mental health charity goes on to share a number of things we all need to keep in mind if we learn a loved one has been self-harming:
- Try to be non-judgemental.
- Try not to panic or overreact. The way you respond to your friend or family member will have an impact on how much they open up to you and other people about their self-harm in the future.
- Remember that self-harm is usually someone’s way of managing very hard feelings or experiences, and that in the majority of cases it is different to suicidal feelings.
- Let the person know that you are there for them.
- Relate to them as a whole person, not just their self-harm.
- Try to have empathy and understanding about what they are doing.
- Let them be in control of their decisions.
- Offer to help them find support
- Remind them of their positive qualities and things they do well.
- Try to have honest communication, where you take responsibility for any fears you have.
If you need help with self harm, or want to help a friend, click here for Mind’s guide.