You're Going to Be OK by R.S. Wynn

I used to cut in the shower. When I finished gently shaving hair from ankle to thigh, I pressed the razor’s warm metal blade down into my leg and slowly carved out thick petals of skin. For a breath there wasn’t any blood, just water gracing the exposed flesh and a pure white sting as deeper layers of my body were washed clean. Then the laceration turned blotchy, variegated as a rose. Finally, blood flowed, snaking around my kneecaps, dripping off the precipice of my calves. Sometimes I’d lean forward to catch the blood in the cup of my palm and I’d examine the pooling red, studious as a jeweler peering through her glass.

I was eleven years old when I started this gory ritual. Once out of the shower, I was careful not to get blood anywhere. I patted the raw skin on my legs dry with toilet paper. Fibers got stuck and I delicately plucked the torn paper from my wounds with my fingernails—if I stained a towel, though, I risked being discovered by my parents. I treated the cuts with Betadine, which dyed my skin crocus yellow, and then tenderly wrapped my legs in bandages. When I went to bed at night, I’d unwrap them to feel the cool, dry air whisper across my skin. By the next morning the pain lessened, and in a few days a layer of crisp, tissue-paper cells formed across the wounds, protecting me anew. My purpose wasn’t to hurt myself. The blade unearthed the pervasive, shapeless ache I felt and gave it a locus, a form. Made it comprehensible. But what I craved most was measurable recovery: proof that I could heal.

In order to truly heal I thought, or maybe I’d been told, I had to identify the source of my inner turmoil. I focused in on my misery, tried to pinpoint where in my short and ordinary life it had come from. My parents loved me, though they’d made mistakes, and I’d had a happy childhood. In sixth grade, when I started cutting, I had clear skin and good teeth. I had a solid group of friends. My hips were rounding out and my stomach was no longer svelte as a child’s. My breasts ached as they grew. More than one boy had a crush on me. Despite all this, I felt I was different from my peers, and often alone. I was alone when I dug into myself for answers. All I unearthed was blood.

I cut my legs because they were easier to conceal than my arms or wrists. Of all the self-harming rituals I engaged in as a teenager—smoking, drinking, shoplifting—I think my parents would have found cutting the most disturbing, but the only adult who saw the cuts on my legs was my sixth-grade gym teacher. I forgot to bring gym pants one day and she loaned me an extra pair of shorts she kept handy in her office for just such an occasion. I didn’t know how to refuse, so I put the shorts on and emerged from the locker room hopeful that maybe no one would notice the intricate patchwork of scars on my legs and seeping bandages that covered new wounds.

When the gym teacher saw me, she dropped the whistle she was about to blow and it bounced against her hard chest on a lariat. “What happened to your legs?” she gasped, stopping me with her hand on my shoulder. “I—I had to turn off an outside light last night,” I said. “It was dark, and I walked through some rose bushes.”

I’d had little cause to lie in my life and I still lied artlessly, like a child. It didn’t look like the gym teacher believed me—who would have?—but what could she do? I never forgot my gym pants again, and she never again spoke about what she’d seen.

In seventh grade—I was twelve then, and had been cutting for a year—I was called out of class one day and directed to the guidance counselor’s office. She asked me the usual questions, or at least what I imagined usual questions were based on therapists I’d seen on TV. How would you describe your mood? Fine— she stared at me expectantly—sad sometimes, I guess. What makes you feel sad? I dunno. Does anyone hurt you? I don’t think so. No?

As I sat in her office, I remember being aware that she too was digging for a source. If I was sad, there must be a reason. If I was in pain, there must be a wound. How could I tell her that I was the only one who hurt me? How could she understand it was what I felt I needed?

Adults tend to downplay the emotional distress of children—I do it now too. I remember when my youngest step-daughter was nine I scolded her at a birthday party when she pulled the candles out of her friend’s birthday cake and licked the frosting off them. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t yell. But I grabbed her hand as she reached for another candle and said, “It’s not your birthday and that’s not your cake. That’s not OK.” She ran off, tears bright in her eyes, her cheeks round and red as garnet. I shrugged off her tantrum—I was right about the cake after all—but when I found her sulking and asked her to rejoin the party she said she was too sad and angry, an emotional brew I now recognize as shame. “It’s just cake,” I offered as consolation. “It’s not the end of the world.”

I wonder now if the pain she experienced then was less intense—because she was nine and the incident involved cake—than the pain I’ve felt as an adult over the death of a loved one or a failed marriage? Or maybe, could that pain be greater because she was only nine and for a nine-year-old so much of the world is inscrutable and daunting? W. B. Yeats wrote that the suffering of children is worse than the suffering of adults, “because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end.” * A few weeks after seeing the school counselor, I suddenly stopped cutting. I was worried that teachers might be talking about me, or that friends, maybe, had reported me. I’d like to say I found healthier outlets for my emotions, but really paranoia had spilled over into my self-soothing and cutting no longer offered any release.

In the shower before school one morning, I pressed the hot, steel blade into my leg, but when I started to peel back my skin, my mother knocked loudly on the bathroom door. The school bus would be there soon, she said, I had to hurry. I wondered what she would think if she could see me cutting, so near to her, hidden only by a door. Would she be disgusted? Would she faint or cry at the sight of her daughter’s ravaged skin? Would she blame herself? Water hammered into the new incision and blood dripped onto the shower floor but no calm followed in its wake. Just a hollow sting, and shame.

In some cultures, scarification is a rite of passage. In the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, boys around eleven years old are initiated by elders who slice their backs with bamboo, patterning the scars to look like the skin of a croco-dile. Girls in parts of Ethiopia and Sudan are scarred across their faces, stomachs, and chests starting as young as ten years old, marking major life events from puberty, to marriage, to the birth of their children. But in those cultures, cutting is communal, an open acknowledgement of the difficult road children must navigate to reach adulthood. Here, we like to imagine that our children feel no pain—no real pain.

I’m in my thirties now and like many adults I have forgotten the language of the eleven-year-old psyche. I have little tolerance for pain, my own or the pain of others. I’m a vegetarian. I recycle. I like yin yoga. I love my three step-daughters and I cry when we watch movies together, even animated films. I’m careful with myself. I don’t like to get so much as a paper cut on my finger. Even the angriest of my old scars is gone, as if everything can be made new.

In June, my youngest step-daughter will turn eleven, the age I was when I started cutting. Sometimes she cries and doesn’t know why. Large, heavy tears stream down her face, clinging to the curve of her cheek like moonstone. She wipes them away with the back of her hand and in that innocent gesture she looks five years old again. She could always explain why she was upset when she was five. Because she couldn’t have ice cream for breakfast. Because she’d lost a game and she wanted her friend to lose. Because she feared her beloved stuffed dragon might drown in the washing machine. Her pain was explicit and the cause crystalline. Such is the wisdom of very young children.

What would have been an easy cry a year ago is now overburdened. Shocked by the power of her emotions and frustrated by her inability to grasp their origin, she flies into a frenzy. I wish I could remember something that helped me when I was her age, something that didn’t involve explaining one pain with another. My husband, who already raised his two older daughters through their teenage years, says that all I need to tell her is that I love her, she’s good, and she’s going to be OK. He says it doesn’t matter what she does, just repeat those words like a mantra: I love you. You’re good. You’re going to be OK.

But some nights she takes long showers, singing radio anthems of mean girls and cheating men, which she belts out joyfully because the melodies are catchy and the lyrics are still foreign to her experience. She often rewrites the words for fun, throwing in a couple extra “oh yeahs” and “uh huh, babys” for good measure. Pearls of soap and water burst against the shower curtain as she stomps and claps her hands, almost in rhythm. On the other side of the closed door I listen, waiting to hear if her feet stop moving, if her song falls silent.