Monday, 18 May 2020

The social life of self-harm, in lockdown

This blog was written by Liv*, an MSc student who has experience with self-harm, who keeps her contribution anonymous, with additional content by Baptiste Brossard, Lecturer in Sociology at Australian National University and Amy Chandler, Lecturer in Health in Social Science, and one of CRFR’s co-directors.

The social life of self-harm, in lockdown

There has been much written recently on the effects of the lock down on mental health. How do people react to being alone? How does isolation reinforce previous vulnerabilities, and give rise to the perceived need to reinvent one's everyday life in the face of rampant anxiety? 

Some of these questions may play out in particular ways for those who self-harm, or who have self-harmed in the past, and keep with them this "inclination" to self-harming. 

Sociological research on self-injury has shown how this practice is embedded within social situations, social contexts, socially-situated methods of coping and the material condition of living (Brossard 2018, Chandler 2016, Steggals et al 2020). In a state of lockdown, all of these are shifted and changed. It is too early to know how the lockdowns specifically affect those who self-injure, but we can get a sense of it from early testimonies. 

In this blog Liv shares her experience with us as an early step forward, not only towards better understanding the effects of the lock down, but also providing people who are concerned by self-harm with elements of reflection and, at least, the assurance that they are not alone in facing some of these difficulties. 


“I’m a European history Masters student studying the history of sexuality in the UK. I will start my PhD at one of the world’s best universities later this year. In my free-time I run, write, play music, and build model buildings. When there’s not a lockdown, I spend time with my friends and attend performing arts shows. 

I started self-harming when I was 17. Having felt different most of my life, and having moved school multiple times due to bullying, being different became even more apparent during my teen years. I play the bass, and I play even more when I go through rough periods because it’s my haven. My hands started getting sore from the many hours, and I started getting blood blisters around my nails. I felt such relief when they popped. Gradually, I intentionally held my hand in a position that could lead to bleeding just to feel that sensation. Later, I started hitting walls too. 

I stopped when I started university because things were great. Occasionally, I had thoughts, but they weren’t strong enough for me to act on them. I had been seeing someone for two years. We were great when things worked, but most of the time it was very unhealthy: love-bombing and manipulative. During our breakup they said: ‘you wouldn’t have to hurt yourself if you didn’t always fuck everything up’, even though they knew I had been clean for two years. They added: ‘if you ever hurt yourself again, I will never talk to you again’. That night, I cut myself for the first time with a knife. I think it was my way of telling myself they couldn’t come back into my life, and I fell back into my coping mechanism. I usually cut once per semester. I have the desire more often, but I can control it. It’s always more surface wounds so they are never deep, and I know where the safe spots are so that I don’t hurt myself too much. 

As a social scientist, I firmly believe our lockdown experience is shaped by our personal state when we enter isolation. Right before the lockdown, the person I had been dating for months ended things completely out of the blue. They broke up in public and in a place where I didn’t feel safe. Because it was unexpected, I didn’t know how to react. Next to me was a pinecone, and after sitting in silence, I picked it up and walked to a place where there weren’t people. For the first time in my life I cut in public and broad daylight. The pinecone was surprisingly sharp when I added pressure. Later, I had my first ever panic attack. The breakup didn’t cause it; the emotional trauma that it triggered did. 

I couldn’t settle in the lockdown before I had processed this. In the beginning, I had a blanket fort in my living room to shut out the world and care for myself. I was overwhelmed by thoughts – especially that I research sexuality but I continuously fail in my own life, I blamed myself, I re-played the breakup scene, and I couldn’t sleep. With the lockdown, I lost some of the structure that helped me manage my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t have my part-time job or classes, and I couldn’t meet up with friends either. With the virus, additional emotions arose. I got worried about when I can see my friends and family again (especially since I live abroad), I had concerns about living alone and getting sick – or my family getting sick. I have stronger urges, and I have definitely cut many more times than I usually do. I spent more time on social media to stay up to date. And it mainly made me more worried. So, I added app restrictions to my phone so that I’m not as exposed. I can text, but I have time restrictions on ‘scrolling’ apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This has significantly improved my mood. 

It took the first month of my lockdown to settle because I first had to process my feelings. I wasn’t ready to learn yoga or various breathing techniques because the world around me had changed so much that I had to calm myself with something I knew worked. One day, I had worked by my sunny window all day. By the evening, I felt a bit warm, and I started freaking myself out, which physiologically didn’t help. I have not coughed at all, but I suddenly got very scared. I couldn’t focus on my essay. A shower didn’t help. Netflix didn’t help. I went to bed, but my thoughts kept racing. I put on a guided meditation to quiet my thoughts. It helped a bit. I rolled around for hours. I then said ‘right, you have 5 minutes and no tools’. I put on my headphones and started scratching my arm. When the time was up, I felt so calm that I fell asleep right away. The following morning, I felt so at peace that I could finish my essay. Now, I have about four good days and then a low day. I haven’t cut in 3.5 weeks. 

One of the things about being in isolation is that there are limitations to what is happening in our lives. We no longer talk about concerts, cinema trips, dinners, or theatre because that’s not happening. There’s a tendency to start conversations with ‘how are you coping?’ or ‘how’s lockdown life?’. For all of us, it can be exhausting to answer that question multiple times a day. Not because we don’t care, but because we might not want to talk about our feelings all the time. I have a friend who is older than me, and she used to struggle with self-harm in her 20s, and I know the lockdown also really affects her. Without planning it, we started sending songs to each other almost every day. That way, we don’t need to start a long conversation about our feelings. Sometimes, the song reflects our mood and other days we hear a song that reminds us of each other. It’s our way of saying ‘I’m here’ while giving each other space. With our moods dimmed in this world, intimacy can be negotiated differently. 

A close friend and I Skype watch movies together. We have Netflix on, and we do a countdown to synchronise the movie and talk while watching it. Both of us are in our mid-20s, and we watch animation movies and those family movies with talking animals because even though we are very close we just need something lighter than discussing our feelings. For me, it’s important that we feel what we need to feel and take one day at the time, but it’s also to not get overwhelmed by these things and thereby find ways to communicate without feeling a pressure to constantly discuss my inner life” 

Liv’s narrative is one of many lockdown stories, and many self-harm stories. The challenges faced, and the partial solutions found are likely to be familiar to many. What is particularly important to highlight, is the significance for Liv of her life before lockdown, of the way in which relationships with others so closely shape ‘self-harm’ itself, as well as attempts to live with and alongside the practice. Indeed, as we (Baptiste and Amy) have both found in our respective studies, self-harm can – for some – form a meaningful and valuable way of being in the world; and Liv shows some ways this has played out for her in conditions of lockdown, whilst also navigating a relationship breakdown.

Some of the solutions and ways of being Liv raises also underline the need for innovative ways of being together, maintaining relationships and intimacy virtually, or creatively. As we slowly settle into what seems like it will be a new normal, such approaches will be necessary – are necessary – for many of us. 

These points also raise the challenges that some may face – those already isolated, living the world as a place of isolation, or struggling with social connections before lockdown, are likely to bring these into this ‘new normal’. Situations will differ, as much as sharing some similarities; and as Liv notes, for those who self-harm, there may be many moments where self-harm is turned to more often, or in different ways, in order to navigate the lockdown world. 

Such challenges make the work of charities such as Self Injury Support ever more vital; in the links below you can find more information about self-harm in general, but also a package of materials developed by Self Injury Support, in collaboration and consultation with people who self-harm, which speaks directly to these issues. We’ve also included a link to the National Service User Network, which is putting together a whole series of videos by people with lived experience of mental health problems, talking about the impact of lockdown, including one with Naomi Salisbury, of SIS. 

*Liv chose to contribute her story anonymously, so this is a pseudonym. 

References and further reading 

https://www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk/experience-led-self-help-resource
https://www.nsun.org.uk/naomi-talks-about-self-injury-support

Brossard, B. (2018). Why do we hurt ourselves?: University of Indiana Press.

Chandler, A. (2016). Self-injury, medicine and society: authentic bodies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Steggals, P., Lawler, S., & Graham, R. (2020). The social life of self-injury: exploring the communicative dimension of a very personal practice. Sociology of Health & Illness, 42, 157-170.

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