First, I said I was allergic to cats. Then I blamed a food allergy. Then mosquitoes. But this was all a lie. My scabs — usually red and raw — were there because I made them.
From age 8, I scratched myself. I scratched my forearms, my calves and my knees. I scratched and scratched until I tore the skin and bled and left a scab.
Why? One day while I was sitting by myself in the school cafeteria, kids at another table made fun of me. They mocked me for being short, and for having a strong nose. Other times they made fun of my high-pitched voice or my love of opera. I pretended not to hear, but unfortunately I could. I felt humiliated.
I had always felt like an outsider. Most kids I went to school with were more interested in playing video games, playing soccer or just joking around. I had few friends. When kids had play dates after school, I went home and did my homework or went for voice lessons.
I kept the bullying a secret, feeling embarrassed.
“People who self-injure often become very creative at hiding their behavior from others, “ said Allison Kress, a licensed clinical psychologist who serves Seattle and California and whose specialty is self-harm.
She said some of the warning signs are when the person “starts to offer flimsy or the same excuses for wounds and gets anxious, annoyed or vague when you ask for details. Example excuses are things like a cat scratch, sports injury or a clumsy accident that doesn’t seem like it would happen to that person.”
When I was around 11, I finally confessed to my mom. She went to see the principal, who said that one of the kids harassing me was having a hard time at home, so his actions should be excused.
That response was unacceptable, my mom told him. She said that if he was unable to handle the situation, she was prepared to go over his head. The principal called that child and his parents into school and that specific kid stopped bothering me. But other children in my class kept at it.
This name-calling and bullying remained the norm for the next three years. I continued to sit quietly by myself in class until the bell rang so I could leave school and find peace at home. And scratch.
My mother would catch me at it out of the corner of her eye, even when I was unaware I was doing it. She and my father and brother begged me to recognize the damage I was doing to myself and take control over my own actions. They urged me to stop letting the cruel behavior of others dictate how I saw and treated myself.
I tried really hard to stop. I wore gloves to bed to avoid scratching myself in my sleep. I tried to keep my hands occupied, often by cooking or, say, painting my nails. But nothing seemed to help. I always managed to get back to my scratching, usually when I was alone in my room, awake or sleeping.
Scars now covered my body, dozens and dozens of scars all over my arms and legs. Scars that I made myself.
“People don’t stop injuring until they’re ready to stop injuring,” said Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program at Cornell University on Self-Injury and Recovery and co-author of “Healing Self Injury: A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones.”
“You can’t make someone stop. People have to be at that point that they’re willing to do the work.”
I began to see a therapist when I was 13. She asked about school, whether I had any problems at home (no), if I had friends (a few), what I liked to do for fun (reading, dancing and singing). She also asked me about the scars. I admitted to scratching myself, but she dismissed the issue as no big deal. Throughout my therapy, I kept scratching away.
One day in school, a concerned teacher called me aside after class. He had noticed my scars and had asked if everything was OK. He clearly thought they were a sign of abuse. I assured him I was fine and I blamed my allergies to cats.
Why did I deliberately hurt myself? Did I believe what the other kids said about me — that I was freakishly short and had a big nose and was weird because I liked classical music? Did I literally let teasing get under my skin?
Self-injury such as hair-pulling, picking and self-hitting is usually a way to relieve emotional stress. “People self-harm as a desperate way to cope with what feels like unbearable emotional pain,” Dr. Kress said.
Often, she said, “the person has a difficult time communicating their thoughts and feelings, so they end up acting out their feelings rather than expressing them using words.”
Adolescent girls are two to four times more likely than boys to engage in self-abuse. Anyone with these issues is encouraged to find a support system, whether family, friends or a teacher.
“The best protection comes from involving the family, even if that’s scary and even if the family somehow contributed to the onset or maintenance,” Dr. Whitlock said. “I now recommend early family involvement unless it’s completely clear that it’s going to be dangerous.”
Fortunately for me, once I enrolled in a special high school for theater arts at 14, I found a supportive environment. My fellow students shared my love of music, dance and theater. I no longer sat at the lunch table alone and no one made fun of me. Instead, I was accepted as I was and made friends. I finally found a safe place.
Yet through high school I never stopped scratching myself. I still had the habit of that nervous 13-year-old. And now I have the scars to prove it. It’s no longer a secret habit, and the scars will never go away.
As an adult, and now a parent myself, I have stopped scratching, though I still indulge in a vestige of the old habit by just gently touching the surface of my skin without doing any harm.
I turned 30 last year and still feel self-conscious about my scars. I often see people look at them. They’re probably wondering what happened to me. For years, I lied to anyone who asked.
But I’m done lying. One day my daughter is going to notice my scars and ask me how they got there. And I’ll tell her the truth. I’ll also make sure she knows she never needs to keep any secrets, least of all from me.
I want her to grow up to be strong and confident. Most of all, I want her to refuse to let what others say about her bring her any harm. I want her to know that life can hurt enough without our hurting ourselves.
Caroline Chirichella is a former New Yorker now working as a chef and freelance writer in Southern Italy.