Drawing of razor bladesBy Debbie Styles

I am at a salon getting a much anticipated massage when the therapist – an older woman with a no-nonsense manner and a bright bubble of yellow hair – runs a finger down the inside of my left wrist, her long pink nail stuttering slightly as it bumps over a small nest of scars.

“You a cutter?” she asks.

The question takes me off guard, and I feel a momentary panic, as I struggle to keep my expression neutral. “No,” I say, and then because she seems to be waiting for something more – some sort of explanation, I suppose – I go on to tell her the story I’ve told countless times before: The long ago car accident. The hand through the windshield. The crowded ER and the bad stitch job.

“Ancient history,” I add by way of conclusion.

The woman is silent for a moment, clearly considering this. “A car accident,” she says, finally, her gaze still trained on the mish-mash of lines criss-crossing my wrist.

In the days that follow, my mind returns again and again to this incident. How dare she ask such a personal question, one part of me would think. What an old busybody! While the other part of me, the more reasonable part, would chastise myself for getting so upset. After all, it wasn’t the first time someone had asked about those scars. I’d fielded my share of questions over the years, mostly from lovers, but also from the occasional friend. Once, a sweet (but shockingly naïve) woman asked me if I had been attacked by something. “Was it one of those feral cats?” she asked, eyes wide with concern.

The occasional query aside, what has shocked me most in the 20-plus years since these scars first appeared is how rare it is that anyone even seems to notice them, much less make a comment. While it’s true that I do my best to keep them covered, it’s also true that, self-consciousness aside, my scars – a four-inch rectangle of spidery white lines on the underbelly of my left arm – are simply not that remarkable looking. They have a hodgepodge, slightly haphazard look that make them easy enough to explain away.

“Ancient history,” I hear myself say, and feel a fresh wave of irritation at the woman in the salon.

Underneath this irritation though, I feel something else entirely. Something old and sad and entirely too familiar: I feel ashamed. Not for the scars themselves – I have more or less learned to accept these as a permanent, if not entirely welcome reminder of past pain, But ashamed at the lie. A lie that had come so effortlessly, so easily, that it all but begged the question: Why? Why, after all these years, could I just not admit the truth? That there had been no car accident. No hand through the windshield. No crowded ER and bad stitch job.

There had just been me. And a package of Stanley Fat Max utility razorblades.

Cutting is a hard thing to explain. To the uninitiated, I imagine, it looks like a bizarre act of violence, one that is both impulsive and irrational, not to mention melodramatic, in a weepy, movie-of-the-week sort of way. For me though, cutting was more an act of self-preservation than self-destruction. Of the long list of bad ideas that often ran through my mind, it was the most benign.

The first time I cut myself, I was housesitting for a couple of retired snow birds in a remote Vermont town. It had been a miserable winter. My boyfriend had broken up with me; I was friendless, jobless, and utterly alone. Beyond the surface hurts though, lay a much deeper hurt: At 23, I’d already buried a father and a brother, and it would be an understatement to say that I wasn’t handling these things well. I spent whole days wandering the cavernous rooms of that old farmhouse, my pale pink pajamas drooping off my rapidly shrinking hips, like a tired ghost drifting aimlessly around the edges of her suddenly too small, too sad life.

I found the package of razorblades in the far corner of the medicine cabinet in the hall bathroom. I can’t recall what, if anything ran through my mind in that instant. I certainly wasn’t looking for razorblades and cutting (this was back in the early 90’s) was not something anyone talked about then. All I remember is that when I drew that blade across my skin for the first time, when I watched, transfixed, as that first drop of blood slipped down my arm, I felt…better. Not happy, or not exactly happy. But calmer. Clearer. And, if I’m being honest, I felt relief, too. Relief at putting on the outside the hurt that had, up until then, only lived on the inside. The hurt was now visible. At night, the sterile white dressing would glow in the dark attic bedroom, the pain underneath like a steady heartbeat lulling me to sleep.

I cut off and on for the next seven years. It was my dirty little secret, and one I was careful to hide under an expanding collection of flannel shirts and cardigan sweaters. Several times over the years I tried to quit. I would take the package of razorblades I kept in the nightstand next to my bed and toss them in the trash, during the kind of spring cleaning that has more to do with the soul than the dust bunnies under the bed. Yet, within a day or two, I would find myself at the local Walgreens, scanning the shaving aisle for a replacement pack.

I finally stopped, more or less for good, when my daughter was born. I can’t say why, exactly, except to say that it is a terrible feeling to look down at the perfect infant sleeping in your arms and wonder how you are going to protect them – not from strangers or illness or accident – but from your own sad mind. I knew I didn’t want to be “that kind” of mother. The kind who routinely forgets school lunches and permission slips. The kind that makes other mothers think twice about playdates. The kind that allows (selfishly, carelessly) that tiny wormhole of panic in her heart to spread into every corner of her children’s lives, until they are afraid all the time. Just like her.

So I became that other kind of mother. The kind who, through sheer force of will, manages to keep her sadness (mostly) in check. It wasn’t so hard…motherhood came naturally to me in a way nothing else ever had. I found joy in tending to my daughter, a joy that pulled me away from the temptation to cut, to self-destruct, like a small but persistent tide.

Once, when my daughter was in Kindergarten, she pointed to my wrist and asked, “What’s those,” in a voice so full of shy concern that it was clear to me that, in some important way, she already knew.

“Just some old scars,” I’d replied, kissing her cheek. “Ask me again when you’re older.”

She never did. But six years on I sometimes catch her looking at my wrist, a curious wondering in her green eyes. Someday, I think. Maybe someday.

By the time Christmas comes, I’ve managed to put the incident at the spa behind me. The day itself is almost perfect: A snowfall, a crackling fire, good food, good friends, and to my surprise and delight, a set of imported German cooking knives from my husband.

“Wow,” I say, holding one of the knives up to the light, marveling at its sleek precision. “I love them.”

My husband ducks his head, pleased. “I know how you love to cook.”

I do love to cook. And it is with the vague idea of whipping something up that I find myself in the kitchen after everyone else has gone to bed. The knives are still on the counter, right where I left them. Carefully, I slide the smallest of the knives from the box and then, without any real thought or feeling, I do something I haven’t done in years: I press the length of the blade against the inside of my forearm and slowly, carefully draw it across the skin. Instantly a long diagonal cut appears, and I brace myself against that familiar flash of pain. But the knife is so exquisitely sharp, so precise in its design, that there is none. There is only a hot sensation, followed almost immediately by a succession of drops that slide, tear-like, down my arm, hitting the tile countertop with a faint tink.

I set the knife back on the counter and grab a clean towel from under the sink, pressing it firmly against my cut. I watch, feeling very little, as the white cloth blooms red under my fingertips. When the bleeding finally stops, I ball up the rag and stuff it inside the trash can, taking care to bury it under a pile of coffee grounds and dinner scraps. The ritual is a familiar one – the scrubbing, the cleaning, the tending – and I perform each task quickly, easily, with very little thought.

As I slide the knife back into its box, I catch my reflection in the large picture window, momentarily startled by the apparent ordinariness of the scene: An almost middle-aged woman tidying up her kitchen. My eyes move past my reflection and for a long moment, I just stare out the window, my gaze taking in the snow, glimmering like a mound of diamonds beneath the soft cream sky. Though I know I should feel disgusted with myself, furious even, I don’t.

Perhaps this is just how it will be, I think. A part of me living securely, happily, in the light. The grateful mother. The wife. The sister, the daughter, the friend. While another part of me, a thankfully much smaller part of me now, lingers forever in the shadows. Never quite able to relax. Never quite able to trust her own happiness, her own amazing good fortune. Always wanting, if only to settle some internal score, some persistent sense of fear, dislocation, and unease, to know that there is another way out. That the sharp edge is still there. In the drawer. Solid. Predictable. Right where I left it.


Author’s Note: I spent two months trying to write an entirely different story — one where I seemed happier, healthier, more in control. I couldn’t make it work. I wrote this story immediately after that experience, mostly just to see what it felt like to tell the truth about myself. The end result is an essay that makes me cringe  inside, much the way one does when looking at a photograph that manages to be both slightly unflattering and totally accurate. 

River Holmes-Miller lives and works in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Memoirs Ink, The Front Range Review, and other publications.  Her story, “What is There, What is Missing,” has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.