The word "lost" appears on my lower leg, carved out in deep scar tissue. I often forget it's there these days, until I notice someone's eyes travel there, and get stuck. It's obviously self-inflicted, and I know people wonder why I would have done such a thing. It's a strange phenomenon, and I'm certainly not alone, so let's look at why so many human beings, like myself, are prone to self-harm.

A popular misconception is that people who purposely hurt themselves are suicidal. It is true, that approximately half the people who commit suicide have engaged in self-abusive behavior. However, to say that everyone prone to inflicting pain upon themselves wants to die would be completely inaccurate.

Another misconception is that people who cut themselves and scar their bodies are looking for attention. Although this may be true in some case, the majority of us go to great lengths to hide the damage we've done or, at the very least, lie about the origins of our wounds. We cover the telltale markings with clothing or make-up, and we claim cat scratches, clumsy misfortune, and other lavish excuses to explain what can't be easily concealed.

Okay, so why do we do it?

First, self-harm is associated with many psychological disorders and is considered, by most, to be a direct symptom of these issues. Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, and various phobias have all been linked to self-abusive behavior. In addition to disorders, suffering traumas such as child abuse, sexual abuse, and troubled relationships are suspected contributing factors to this widely misunderstood coping skill.

My sister molested me for close to a year during my childhood. I also had an abusive father, lost my mother to breast cancer, and was orphaned and homeless by seventeen years old. As an adult I have been diagnosed with several psychological disorders, including Agoraphobia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and of course Depression. My personal history is a perfect example of the criteria associated with self-injury.

How does hurting oneself help?

For me, due to my traumatic past and the level of my mental health, my emotions can spin wildly out of control and become impossibly overwhelming at times. By cutting, burning, or striking myself at these moments, I'm able to provide a distraction from the relentless and hopeless nature of my state of mind. The injuries provides a focal point that pushes everything else into the peripheral, even if it's just for a short while. My chaotic thoughts, scattered to the wind and impossible to get a grip on, are instantly corralled by the sight of my own blood and the sensation of its release.

Anti-dissociation is another motivating factor for me. There are times when I reach a level of emotional numbness so intense I don't even feel like a human being anymore and the world around me becomes surreal and dreamlike. When I cut or burn myself during these times, the physical feeling grounds me and makes me feel like a real person again. My blurred perception of the world regains its clarity and I'm free from the fog that had enveloped my mind. Afterward, in most cases, I feel better and can function almost normally.

Aren't there better ways to deal with mental or emotional stress?

One could definitely employ healthier coping skills like meditation or going for a walk or run. The problem, however, is that self-abuse easily becomes chronic through operant conditioning. In other words, its habit forming due to the desired results the act yields. Letting go of such a reliable crutch, and replacing it with safer alternatives, can easily take as long to accomplish as it took the problem to develop.

I can go months, or even years, without inflicting intentional pain on myself now, but during times of stress, the temptation always rears its ugly head. At this point in my life, it's been six months since I've drawn my own blood, but I won't be so bold as to say it's over. This is, quite possibly, something I will wrestle with for the rest of my life.

What's the risk?

A major problem, someone who indulges in these acts faces, is an increased tolerance to pain. This results in a need to inflict even more damage in an effort to obtain the desired result. As frequency and intensity build over the years, the practitioner becomes much more susceptible to serious infections as well as accidental death.

A single, one-inch laceration would suffice when I was twelve years old. In my twenties, I recall a particular incident when I made twenty-eight long incisions on my torso in an attempt to still my hostile mind. I was so frightened by my inability to control my own actions, that I committed myself to a mental institution. In my thirties, I became more creative, and graduated from cuts to boiling water and even breaking my own bones on one occasion. Then I started cutting during blackouts, and had to recognize the possibility I would take my own life in a fugue state. I put myself back in the hospital upon that realization.

I'm thirty-seven now, and have put myself through extensive therapy to regain control of a life that was quickly starting to slip through my fingers. My body is riddled with scars of various ages and origins, but none of them are fresh. I do not intend to harm myself again, but must remain realistic about the fact that it could happen. This self-awareness is a crucial part of my recovery, and I know if I have a relapse, I'll acknowledge the danger immediately and seek help.

Self-harm is an extremely misunderstood problem, treading water in an ocean of false stigma. Fortunately, more and more, people enslaved by this dark coping skill are starting to open up about it. Eyes are opening, to not only the problem, but also the reasons behind it. March 1st is now Self-Injury Awareness Day (SIAD), and is recognized around the globe. Awareness is always the first step in understanding and, ultimately, finding solutions.

I have made it my mission to use my life experience, and the written word, to help shatter the misconceptions about self-harm, suicide, and mental illness in general. I want to give voice to those who, like me, have suffered in silence for far too long. I believe we're ready to speak up, and more importantly, perhaps, I believe society is ready to hear us.

Author's Bio: 

Nathan Daniels lives with psychological disorders including Agoraphobia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Insomnia, and OCD. Abused in his youth, orphaned and homeless as a teenager, he became self-abusive and suicidal as an adult. Against all odds he has survived, and now advocates for suicide prevention and awareness through his writing. His new book, Surviving the Fourth Cycle, is a uniquely-told true story about overcoming suicide, for anyone affected by the harsh realities of mental illness. For more information, visit