The summer before 7th grade, on a gloomy day in June, my foster mother yelled at me. I can’t even remember why, but I went to my room, upset. I didn’t have much emotional control: I was only 12 and had already gone through too much.
My biological mother had horribly mistreated me. I went into care twice, first when I was 3. I was returned to my mother two years later. When I was 7, she locked me in the bathroom for two days, along with other acts of physical and psychological abuse. Soon after that, I was removed from her home for the second, and last, time.
My mother’s abuse left me scarred and full of self-hatred. I believed that I wasn’t beautiful or worthwhile. That I deserved to die. Being bullied throughout elementary and middle school further crushed my self-worth and made me feel alone and insignificant.
Foster care didn’t help. I lived in that home for six years, until I was 14, and I never felt safe or welcome. I never expressed my opinions—about politics, TV shows, even my favorite color—for fear of being judged. When I was 10, my older foster sister (the biological child of my foster parents) began to physically and emotionally abuse me. My foster parents would break up a fight, but they never punished her or stopped her.
That day my foster mom yelled at me, I sat on my bed crying. I looked at the blue walls of my room, then into the mirror, where I watched myself cry. The tears did not stop, no matter what I tried to calm myself down.
Then, I felt myself disconnect from my body and move to the side of the room. I watched the body on the bed, crying and looking around at the room. Suddenly my body stood up, and I could only watch as it walked to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Under the clothes was an iPad with a shattered screen that exposed some of its insides. The body held the iPad and picked at the broken screen.
The body, still crying, pulled a small piece of the glass from the screen and put the iPad back. It sat back down on the bed with the sliver of glass in hand. I wanted to stop it, but I was trapped and utterly helpless.
Suddenly I stopped struggling to control the situation and just watched what unfolded, like a scene in a movie.
My hand dragged the piece of glass across my right thigh, making X’s and then other shapes as if painting a masterpiece. Then it moved to the left thigh, making similar shapes.
I only felt a small amount of pain, like a pinch. That pinch took me partially back into my own body each time, but mostly I remained outside, watching.
I later learned this out-of-body experience is called dissociation. It happens to people who have experienced severe trauma. But even though I know that, I’m not sure what triggered that dissociation or the other episodes I’ve had since.
The sight of the blood did not frighten me; it was beautiful, almost mesmerizing. At that moment, I felt in control and serene. The tears finally stopped. I didn’t know why I cut, or why it made me feel better, but it did.
Soothing the Sorrow
At the beginning of 7th grade, I told my best friend, Dezire, that I’d cut myself. She made me promise to tell my counselor, which I did. That led to a trip to the psych ward.
My foster mother acted like I was inconveniencing her. I sensed that she would prefer my problems stayed hidden. I wanted to stay in the hospital and get help, but I felt pressured to say I felt good enough to go home.
My foster mother bought me food from Five Guys after we left the hospital, which made me feel like she cared a little. But when we got home, her oldest daughter called me crazy. That made me feel ashamed and alone.
I cut myself again in November, and then every month or so after that. Each time I felt disconnected from reality, as if I were there but not there. I waited until the previous cuts healed before I cut again.
Usually, before I cut, I felt like I was drowning in my thoughts and sorrow. Cutting made me feel peaceful and safe. It made me feel in control. When I cut, it was like I could finally breathe.
But at the same time, there was also an element of self-punishment. From cutting my thighs, I moved to the outside of my left arm, which hurt more. I think I wanted to feel more pain, to remind myself that everything that was wrong with my life was my fault and that I deserved to suffer. By cutting, I could both punish and soothe myself.
I also wanted someone to notice the cuts. In November of 7th grade, I purposely didn’t wear a sweater over my short-sleeved school uniform, so my cuts would show.
Not Sure What I Wanted Them to Say
I wanted someone to say something sympathetic, but I dreaded that the response would be angry or annoyed, which would make me feel more alone. Dezire, my best friend, did ask where the cuts on my arm came from. Instead of answering, I walked away and when I came back, she and my friend had moved on to other topics. I wish she had given me a hug and somehow helped me—I’m not sure how.
At the time I was going through a bad hygiene phase, which had started in elementary school and lasted until I finally hit puberty. Other kids in my classes made a big deal of not wanting to sit next to me. I heard girls talking about my family situation behind my back, but I pretended I didn’t hear.
I was also the only White girl in my school, my neighborhood, and my home. (My foster family was African American.) I think being the only White kid was partly why I was an outcast and bullied. Dezire was my only real friend.
I thought that any kind of attention, even for cutting myself, would be better than sitting alone during classes. I thought anything would be better than that loneliness, those insults, and the pity about my home life.
Figuring It Out By Writing
I wrote about cutting several times before writing this story. Now I see I was writing to figure it out.
The first time was in an 8th grade class. My teacher asked me why I cut, and I told her that I didn’t know. She said my body was a temple and that I am the goddess who lives within. I could tell she meant well, but her words didn’t help me.
The second time I wrote about it, I found myself writing about my deep solitude. That was when I realized that I wanted someone to notice the cuts and give me love. I thought maybe if someone understood my pain, I could escape that loneliness.
Taking Actions to Love Myself
Understanding that led me to start dating. Some guys helped me feel less alone; others made it worse. I realized after a couple of heartbreaks that I needed to learn to be satisfied with myself, and not just because a boy liked me.
The loneliness pushed me to connect, and some bad connections taught me the importance of self-respect.
To teach me that I am beautiful, deserving of love, and a good person, I began taking better care of my body. I showered more. I took up kickboxing. I got into makeup and fashion, and even posted makeup tutorials on Instagram and TikTok (like this, this, and this).
Then I cut off people who made me feel inadequate and unlovable. My first boyfriend manipulated me, insulted me, and belittled my struggles. I broke up with him right after 8th grade.
I began to do more productive things like continuing writing or getting my working papers in order. That summer, I got a job through New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The program for 14- and 15-year-olds taught us things like how credit works and ways to better our community, which was fun and empowering. Working was a liberating experience: I finally felt like an independent person.
Not My Fault; I Deserve Better
One day at work, I got a call from my foster sister. She told me to change my work schedule or she wouldn’t let me work anymore. That threat to the job that was helping me so much was my breaking point. I contacted my sociotherapist and told her what my foster sister was doing. I told about how she’d abused me and that my foster family had not stopped her.
The agency moved me to a better foster home. Making that call was one of the best things I ever did. I realized that I had denied parts of myself so I wouldn’t inconvenience my foster family.
When I got to high school, I decided to make friends and be unapologetically me. I was loud, outspoken, and funny. I decided not to care what anyone said about me. It was such a relief to not feel insecure or paranoid.
I still experience depression and I still dissociate sometimes. But instead of cutting, I write letters and notes about the girl who cut, as if she were someone else.
For she does not see her beauty and perfection
She only sees her flaws and imperfections,
that make her unique, which she hates with all her heart.
I think that if I was loved, I wouldn’t have cut. I needed a hug, and someone to tell me that everything was going to be OK. Instead, I was told I was crazy or that I was lying about the way I felt, or that I was causing trouble.
Besides writing, I also figured out how to reach out when I feel the old feelings. Just this week, I was organizing my dresser when I accidentally broke a glass object and cut my left wrist. When I saw the blood, I froze. I threw away the larger pieces of glass but not the last small sliver. I sat and looked at the blood and the glass, on the verge of dissociating.
Then I called a friend who knows my history. I broke down crying and told him what happened. He told me to clean up the blood and talked to me until I calmed down. I eventually was able to throw away that last piece of glass.
Now, writing about it for the third time, I understand more about why I cut. I finally understand that the suffering I went through was not my fault, that I was just a little girl who felt alone and discarded. I was not the reason for every bad thing that happened to me. I did not deserve to suffer, I deserved to thrive. I can reach out when I feel that way to kind people who will help me, not judge me. And I can love myself.
- What experiences do you think are traumatic for Naitalya and ultimately contribute to her dissociation and cutting? What makes those experiences so traumatic?
- For Naitalya, writing helps her “figure it out.” What helps you figure things out when you’re having trouble expressing yourself or making a decision?
- Naitalya finally finds other coping strategies and support that doesn’t involve cutting. How does she find these resources? What does it take to change a behavior and find support in others?