Shirley Manson: The First Time I Cut Myself
I didn’t know I was a cutter until the first time I chose to cut. I didn’t even know it was a “thing.”
I had never heard the phrase “self-harm” back then, in the mid-80s in Scotland. There were no support groups for people like me or any progressive, sympathetic op-ed pieces about the practice of cutting in my local newspaper. It was something I came to naturally, privately, covertly. I didn’t tell a soul about it.
It was a secret. A secret that was mine to keep.
I was in my late teens, darkly in love with someone who wasn’t in love with me. I was having sex with multiple partners, experimenting with drugs and drinking copious, alarming amounts of alcohol. I would often fall foul of crushing depression, struggling to get out of my bed before 4 in the afternoon. Having flunked out of school, I had no set future in mind.
I was holding down a mindless part-time job at a teen fashion store, playing keyboards in a band more or less on the weekends and generally feeling pretty miserable about my lot in life.
I met a strange, tightly wound boy one night at a club called the Hoochie Coochie. He was tall and handsome and harbored some serious, unresolved anger issues toward women. I should have run for the hills, but I didn’t.
He refused to wear a condom when we had sex. He didn’t care how I managed our protection. “I’m not the one who is going to get pregnant,” he sneered. I resentfully went on the pill.
I grew to loathe him for his selfish sexism, but I continued to sleep with him anyway.
He started seeing other girls behind my back. I knew this was going on because I wasn’t stupid. For some inexplicable reason, not quite clear to me even now, I tolerated this peculiar, joyless relationship. I smoked a cigarette, dropped an Ecstasy and said nothing more to anyone about any of it.
It was around this period that I became an ardent fan of the local Edinburgh band the Finitribe, whose members often used the symbol of a fish to identify themselves and their fans.
I tied a small silver penknife in the shape of a fish onto the laces of my Dr. Martens. I thought it was cool to tie a little knife to my shoe. Most people found it a little odd.
I wore my hair in a rockabilly quiff. Painted my lips bright red. Wore seamed stockings hooked to a suspender belt, tight pencil skirts and soft, brightly colored cashmere sweaters.
I was acutely aware of the attention I attracted, but I was entirely uninterested in anyone who was ever interested in me. I wanted someone I couldn’t have and was otherwise completely paralyzed. I had a desire to speak but could not find my voice. I wanted to change the world for girls like me, girls who didn’t fit in or want to conform, but I didn’t know how or where to start.
And all of it drove me mad with rage.
My fury was such that I knew intuitively if I directed it at any one person, I would more than likely land myself in jail. It was a natural, practical step to turn that rage inward, toward myself.
The first time I cut myself, I was sitting on the edge of a bed inside my boyfriend’s flat.
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.
I looked dispassionately at the three thin red lines I had made and watched as tiny little bubbles of my blood oozed to the surface.
My boyfriend snorted in disdain and called me some nasty, misogynistic names before turning his back and immediately falling asleep. I felt somewhat elated, as I imagine a scientist might while working on an experiment that suddenly, after much persistence, has yielded favorable results.
In that room at that moment, I felt untouchable and powerful. I was a woman in charge.
More than that, I felt a warm surge of comfort and relief. Relief from the rage. A relief from the powerlessness. Something had happened that didn’t feel right, and here were lines of my blood to bear witness to it and speak of it on my behalf.
My silver pen knife, now discarded on the floor, glimmered in the soft yellow glow from an old Edinburgh streetlight shining in from outside the window.
I suddenly felt I was part of something much bigger than this stupid situation I had found myself in. To my mind, my life had just immediately become more grand and expansive. I was salved. The connection to my little silver fish was forged.
I had an enemy. I had a knife. And the future was ours.
The problem of course with any practice of self-harm is that once you choose to indulge in it, you get better, more efficient, at it. I started to hurt myself more regularly. The cuts got deeper. I hid the scars under my stockings and never breathed a word about it to anyone.
Fortunately for me, the incredibly unhealthy relationship ran its inevitable course. I started dating a loving, respectful person who also happened to be an incredible communicator. The cutting abruptly stopped.
It wasn’t until much later in my life, in the middle of a European tour in support of the second Garbage album, “Version 2.0,” that I experienced the strong impulse to hurt myself again, and the pull was as compelling as it had ever been.
I was under immense physical and mental pressure. 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. 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. I muscled my way through the frustrations, the sick, unhealthy comparisons and the peculiar, destructive feelings that drove me to believe I wasn’t enough.
Today I try to remain vigilant against these old thought patterns.
I vow to hold my ground. I choose to speak up. I attempt to be kind, not only to myself but also to other people. I surround myself with those who treat me well. I strive to be creative and determine to do things that make me happy. I believe it is not what we look like that is important, but who we are. It is how we choose to move through this bewildering world of ours that truly matters. And when I struggle with my sense of self, as I often do, I summon to mind “The Layers,” a poem by the great Stanley Kunitz:
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
And then I force myself to breathe.
Breathe in. Breathe out. I breathe in. I breathe out.
I leave the knife where it is.
I breathe again.