The most controversally discussed symptom of BPD is self-harm and the most “popular” form of it is cutting. Even though I know quite a few borderliners who have never once cut themselves on purpose, it seems that people always think that cutting and BPD go together in every case.
First of all, I want to stress that self-harm doesn’t begin with a razorblade touching skin. It can be so much more: sabotaging job interviews, getting drunk and driving afterwards, spending too much money or having non-safer sex are only some of the ways that a borderline personality might use to harm themselves. So not everyone who cuts is a borderliner (although anyone who does so should probably talk to a therapist anyway) and not every borderliner cuts!
Another popular assumption is that people cut just in order to get attention. Even if that was the case, it should worry people if somebody has to use such drastic measures in order to be heard. But I know from personal experience that I never once cut myself in order to get attention: I did it because I wanted to feel something again after days of being disconnected with my body. I did it to regain control when I was on the brink of getting really psychotic. I did it when I hadn’t been able to cry a single tear for 4 (!) years – and that was in my teenage years which are renown for being the easiest in a persons life (attention: sarcasm).
I got incredibly creative concerning finding explanations for my injuries and I am really good at doing things that nobody will think of as a self-inflicted wound: cutting fingers during woodwork class, cutting armpits “accidentely” while shaving and so on. But also, hiding the wounds is an art that I consider myself an expert in: Biting the inner side of my cheeks, scratching my scalp until it bleeds, cutting parts of the body that nobody ever looks at…it is shocking, how many of my partners have neither felt nor seen cuts under my pants because they were too busy at the moments in question.
To be fair, my body doesn’t look like what people expect from a borderliner: Not a single scar on my forearms. I remember about 40-50 occasions where I hurt myself and at the moment, I only count about ten visible scars on my tanned skin – not bad, ey?
I already talked about occasions for cutting, but not about reasons. My first try was a situation in which I was completely disconnected from my body. I felt the urge to see blood in order to know that I was still alive. And it helped. An injury gets the body into a sort of alarm mode which means that I can get back into my body by feeling pain and/or seeing blood. Because of the hormones that are produced in that process, it gets kind of addictive.
I have never been addicted to any substances (save for chocolate maybe) but what addicts describe sounds very much like what I feel about self-harm: Getting relieve from doing it, but later feeling ashamed because it happened again. A sense of freedom and superiority first and the cold turkey later. I am absolutely capable of keeping myself away from knives. But sooner or later, there will be a situatuon in which I don’t know what I’m trying for to avoid cutting. Why not do it when everybody else would get drunk or violent, shout or smash something? It is really comparable in my eyes.
What also reminds me of an addiction is that I can have enough for a while: As long as I have a fresh cut that hasn’t closed yet, I feel no urge to hurt myself again. The first few days with a new scar might still be fine but with every hour that goes by, self-harm takes a larger and larger amount of my attention. It builds up, the longer I don’t do it, the worse the withdrawal gets and sooner or later I end up doing it again. Not because of a small annoyance but maybe when my night terrors get too bad again…
I realise that this is a difficult topic and if you cannot understand why anyone would cut themselves at all, that is a great thing because it probably means that you are mentally stable and healthy. If somebody cuts in a way that is actually dangerous, intervention is incredibly important, of course. And everyone who does it deserve a chance to get a therapist and support from their family and friends.
The worst thing that can happen are people who tell a borderliner to “just stop” and “try a little harder” – do they really think that anyone cuts themselves for fun?
Talking for myself, I only cut when somebody else would probably get really, really drunk. None of those is a good solution but then again, nobody is perfect, right?