And you will never know how close I walk to the edge. No past tense, this battle is every day, grief and relief and grief again and round I go until I’m sick from the circles. I long to be loved but I long for love that doesn’t feel like sin. I long for love that doesn’t hurt. I long for love that makes me feel like myself again. I don’t want to be rich. I never wanted a degree. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want a nice car or a fancy house or private healthcare. The true desire, the pit at the bottom of my soul that keeps opening its maw and consuming me inside out, is I just want to be loved. I want to be whole. I want to stand firm in who I am fully and completely and not feel like I’m splitting in half. I want to accept someone else and not feel like I’ve overlooked danger signs in the hope of unconditional love. I want to feel safe, and stable, and held. And that’s why the edge is where I spend most of my time. Because I never find what I’m looking for. The past twenty three years have held more pain than I even know how to verbalise. Nothing works, and I’m tired. Tired of running. Tired of loving. Tired of pushing through. I am exhausted with the weight of the world’s expectations and my own. I am so close to having had enough. Closer than I think I’ve ever been. I’m sick at heart, and the medicine isn’t working. Where’s the joy and the courage I was promised? Where’s the hope for a better tomorrow that hasn’t come? I’m empty. I have nothing.
It was 9am in New Jersey and I stared down at my backpack in dismay.
I had arrived on my flight over from the UK the previous night, and much to my disgruntlement but attempted good humour, my luggage had been lost at my connection and hadn’t made it to the USA with me. Doubtless my poor, abandoned bag, carefully and conscientiously packed full of my holiday clothes, toiletries and belongings, was languishing on an Icelandic runway in the rain and sleet.
And here I was, in my hotel for the night before completing my journey to the camp I was working at, reliant on the scant toiletries I had brought in the tiny airport-approved plastic bags for my flight and a spare t-shirt I had absentmindedly thrown in on top. I had already sink washed my underwear and put them back on, and a quick trip to Walmart the previous night had my basics covered. But that wasn’t the problem. I could survive on miniature tubes of toothpaste, using hand cream as body lotion, and being without my books and photographs, at least for a few days. The issue that faced me now, was my legs.
When I was 15 years old I learned a very clever trick. I learned if I took an apple, a small plate and a sharp knife to my bedroom, no one would question me, and if I was swift and sneaky enough, I could eat my apple and use the knife to make small, blunt lacerations to my arms, without any furore or attention drawn. Sometimes, I used the knife for the apple first, then my arms, and the cuts would go green from the apple juice.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, then. A half-hearted attempt at a coping mechanism, learned from the pages of a popular adolescent website, Tumblr. A copycat of what I saw my best friend doing. A feeble attempt at attention-seeking as I struggled my way through teenage life combined with some of the issues that already loomed. It was a weak effort, but it became a learned behaviour, and it stuck.
I gave up cutting between the ages of 17 and 19. My then boyfriend hated it, which kept my hands from reaching for the knives, and then I did a gap year that kept me on a better path, so the need wasn’t there. When I was 19, I suffered a trauma that changed me forever, and when I was freshly 20 years old, another, and before I knew it, I had spiralled into self destructive habits.
And this time was different. The cuts were bigger, more deliberate. I stayed at a friends’ house for the weekend in a different city and fought with my boyfriend; overnight whilst my friends slept I wept for hours and went to the bathroom and slashed, over and over, my thighs with a used razor.
It went on. I spent the summer in America and when grief and anger and sorrow loomed their heads, I knelt on my bathroom floor and clenched my fists, squeezing and releasing and squeezing and releasing, willing myself not to pick up the razor, begging myself to not hurt myself, to stay calm, to not cause injury to an already hurting human being.
It doesn’t make sense, does it? It wouldn’t, unless you had suffered this particular grief yourself. Unless you had used it once, tasted the pain, smelt the rust and salt scent of the blood, and felt the rush of adrenalin that comes with self injury. Unless you have done it too, self harm is something you will never comprehend.
The story of self harm continued to weave itself in and out of my life. June 2016, approaching my 22nd birthday, and I hurt someone close to me in the most evil of ways, and I can’t forgive myself. Cutting becomes a regular release, a self-punishment or penance, some way to release the guilt and sorrow and shame that bursts from my every pore. I am depressed, lethargic, lacking the will to live, and cutting brings me back to myself. it shocks me awake, startles my system from its dozy existence, like a bucket of ice water over your head on a hot summers day.
Over the next year I don’t, or can’t, stop. Cutting becomes a part of my life, my way of atoning for my sins, making myself feel something when I am spent and broken. Approaching the end of my degree, my 23rd birthday, I hurt someone again, and my bed sheets are stained with spots and spurts of blood from my night time inflictions on myself. One morning, I told someone, and they raced to my flat to try and stop me. They were too late, and my sheets were drenched in blood. He sat down on the floor next to me, and cried.
Always the same. Never in a visible place – usually my thighs, the tops of my legs, my lower stomach. Never dangerous – not near arteries and no risk of accidental suicide. I know anatomy, I know how to avoid and how to cause pain without ending my life.
I got extremely drunk at a friends’ barbecue and while going to the bathroom with a friend, she notices – questions me. They all do. My oldest best friends, aghast at the extent of my self injury. One sits down with my mum at 1am and tells her she is afraid for me. I don’t know what to say.
Flash forward a few months and I am in that New Jersey hotel room about to meet a room full of new people and I am petrified and stony because all I have are shorts. My travel clothes aren’t suitable and this is all I have. I put them on. Gaze in the mirror, all angles, chew my lip anxiously.
These people don’t know me. They have never met me or heard of me, they don’t know my life, don’t know what I’ve done. What they will see is a young woman with messy hair, bright blue eyes, and countless scars up her thighs.
The fear of that moment, of the unknown, of the unspoken request for acceptance and compassion, almost stalled me in that hotel room forever. The anxiety of it pulled the breath from my lungs. How should I play this? Acknowledge it, or ignore it? Let the unspoken messages do their bidding and simply float through?
In the end, my concerns were unfounded. No one brought them up. My boyfriend – then a stranger – was sat in that very first room I walked into, and he noticed – he told me later he knew exactly what they were, and without knowing me, was immediately afraid for my wellbeing. Just the sight of scars.
I understand. Scars bring a certain fear with them. They mark the person forever with a reminder of a great pain, a trauma, or an injury. They are the body’s memory, the physical marks inflicted by the past. Some scars are humorous. The little mark where the family dog bit them, the knife skidded off the tomato, the bike accident. Dinner party stories, anecdotes, memories.
What we forget about scars is they show something else. Healing. Scars show that you have healed. The skin has formed over the injury, it has itched and scabbed, then it has passed. The body has gone through its miraculous healing process from start to finish. The time of great pain has gone, now all that is left is the memory.
Today, I have not cut myself since July. It is nearing the end of October. I feel no inclination to mark my skin with my errors and mistakes. I feel no need to make a physical representation of an emotion I feel, I know differently. I know that I could cover my entire body in razor blade cuts and it wouldn’t help. I know that cutting myself and harming myself does not ease the ache of sorrow or guilt or depression or shame.
I know that there is no fear in my scars, just a memory. And while mine will never be dinner party anecdotes, I am not afraid to show them. Look, I will say. I have healed.
This week, I got a new tattoo. It’s ‘Beloved’, on my collarbone. It’s based on a verse in Song of Solomon 7:10 that goes “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me” (ESV). Another translation writes “I am my lover’s, and he claims me as his own” (NLV).
Intimacy has never been a strong point of mine, and the word Beloved struck me as far too intimate. Who was I, a filthy and undeserving sinner, to be called God’s beloved? Who was I to claim such a title or accolade, soaked in my shame and guilt, devoid of any righteousness or holiness? Who was this God who called me beloved? And why?
The answer, I am learning, is Jesus.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we are beckoned near to the throne. Because of His blood covering us, right here right now, we are citizens of heaven. His righteousness and goodness is sufficient for us, and standing in His victory, we are victorious. Through no good works of our own and even in the depths of undeserving, we are God’s beloved. All of this I knew.
But I had misunderstood. I still considered myself unworthy because of my sin, and in need of change before I was worthy to call myself a Christ follower and be a part of His church. But His love doesn’t put those expectations and conditions on us. It doesn’t say ‘Be this/don’t be this and I will love you’ or ‘Stop doing this/do this and I will love you’. It says, ‘I see you in all you are, right now and in years to come, all you will ever be, the best and worst of your heart, and I died to bring that person home’.
His love is all about intimacy because it is all about closeness and openness and honesty. It is built upon truth and reality and doesn’t rely on projections and progress and future selves. His love knows our hearts and seeks them out, still, because Jesus has made the way. Sin was like a raging river between us and God, and Jesus built a bridge, brick by brick, with the blood He shed on the cross.
Because of that, and only that, we can call ourselves Beloved of the Living God.
If there’s any advice I would give to a younger me, its guard your heart. The people you love will mark you and leave their scent on you, until you will look down at your battered and weary self at 22 and want it all to end. I have loved deeply and been loved deeply, and every moment of those loves took something from me. I thought I was receiving. I wasn’t. I lost time and energy and parts of myself I can’t get back, to love that wasn’t born to last. I threw my whole heart and spirit in to falling in love and I didn’t look before I jumped. If I’d had any sense of self-preservation I would have paused. Thought. Measured. Waited. But I didn’t. I launched myself at love the way a rocket leaps into space. There is so much light and sound and excitement. But I found only darkness when I got there, just like outer space. Only silence. Love has wounded me deeper than any crime or assault ever could. Because it is the creepy, hulking figure that stalks you through the graveyard that you expect to hurt you. He seems like danger. You didn’t. None of you did. In your own little ways, all of you felt like home to me. I found peace and comfort and security in your arms and I rested there. But then you hurt me. You all did. You cheated or left or wouldn’t compromise or couldn’t see the real me. Some of the wounds are my fault, I know. I’ve left terrible wounds on others, too, and the blame lies with me. But if I had known what I know now… I would tell myself to run, run away screaming from any relationship that required my vulnerability, I would close my heart to those men who did not know how to love me the way I needed to be loved. None of you ever did. So while I know ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘never regret something that once made you smile’ I can’t not. Every love I’ve known has broken me further and if I could go back I would run away from all of you and all of it.
I breathe in pain, and I breathe out grace. I bring suffering and the heavy load of life, and He brings me freedom. I bring my weakness and He meets me with strength. I bring my failures and He loves me with endless faithfulness. When my body betrays me, when my spirit is downcast, when my mind is clouded by depression and sorrow, when I cannot find the strength to face the day – You are with me. Here in this broken, torn-up, traumatised, tormented place. You kneel with me in the dust and the ashes of my life and lift my face to the sunlight. You turn my eyes from myself to You. You love me with an everlasting love that is not based on perfection and performance but on Your sacrifice and Your heart for me. I can run away, I can try and ease the ache elsewhere, but You stand unchanging, never ceasing in pursuit of me. Because You know. You know I am helpless and purposeless and alone without you. You know You are everything I need to heal. You know in your kingdom and generosity everything I could ever need is supplied. You bandage my wounds, restore my soul, rebuild my walls, bring rain where there was only drought. Your presence is my guiding light, my only light, with which I navigate this confusing and illogical life. My only hope is in You and Your power. The power that tore the veil, broke death, emptied the power of the grave and released us back to You. This is not it. These earthly bodies with earthly infirmities, these broken minds that see so little; Earth is not a full stop. It is a transit point. We are here, for a time, and then we will move on to be with our Father. This is not it. There is so much more.
I think there is a lot to be learned about life, from running and exercise.
You always think you can’t go on any longer. But you can, and do. You are so much more resilient than you give yourself credit for, in mind and body and spirit. One more step. Just a bit longer.
It feels awful at the time, but it is so worth it afterwards. You feel like your lungs are going to split and your muscles are burning and sweat is running down your forehead but… ten minutes later and the world is calm again. Your head stops spinning. And you feel good. What is easy will never be worth it, but what is hard will be deeply satisfying in the long run.
It’s easy when it’s easy… but then it starts to be sore, or boring. Your feet ache, and your mind wanders. You are tempted to stop. And its only through sheer discipline you don’t. You are capable of so much more than you achieve when you’re undisciplined. With determination and resolve, you can achieve amazing things – so much more than you think you can.
You can’t go from the occasional jog to running a marathon in a day. It doesn’t work like that. Your strength is made in the everyday pushes and practices, in growing and developing your muscles. You have to do it to get better. You can’t be an expert without putting in the time and effort.
How hard is it to understand? You lose the right to speak in my life if you leave. You don’t get to lecture me. You don’t get to act the concerned parent. You weren’t there. You don’t know how I felt when you left, you don’t know how I felt when you didn’t want custody of me. You don’t know how betrayed and unloved I felt when you walked out on us. You don’t know how distant I felt from you all those years. You missed so many moments. Me leaving high school, prom, my first time getting drunk, my birthday parties, Christmases, my low moments when depression reared its head. You weren’t there. You barely know me; you know what I show or tell you, nothing more. And that was your choice, not mine. I would have loved to have had a dad who was there. Washed the car with on a Saturday morning. Cry to about boys and heartbreak. Be bought a corsage for my prom. But my mum was there. She always has, day in day out, no matter what, she was there, and the failure I have known is not her fault or cross to bear, because she has given me everything she had. She did everything she could. You didn’t. You chose and prioritised otherwise. So the consequences of your choice are these. You don’t know me. You don’t know the places I’ve been and come back from. You don’t know why I do the things I do or how deep these issues go. You see what I display to you. And for the rest of it, you don’t get to question that. Its nothing to do with you.