The Girl Who Has It Together

By Brittany TinsleyMarch 1, 2021

This piece discusses the topic of self-injury in detail. Please use your discretion.

The second hand on the clock clicked too loudly, a drumbeat marching me towards my impending doom. Class ended and other students gathered their notes while I lagged behind, resigned to my fate. I had made a lesser-of-two-evils deal with the devil and my day of reckoning had arrived. My professor picked up his laptop and walked across the hall to his office. A few minutes later, my friend and I followed.

My professor’s door was open, so my friend rapped on its black metal frame and unceremoniously declared with a sweeping gesture in my direction,

“She has something she needs to tell you.”

Sitting behind his desk, my professor stared at me with his head cocked and eyebrows raised, waiting for some sort of explanation. I realized I was at the point of no return and paused for a moment before stepping into his office. Overstuffed bookshelves lined his walls and the smell of freshly brewed coffee hung in the air. I closed the door as he motioned me towards a seat I had taken many times before. Perching on its edge nervously, I kept my left arm folded against my body like a broken wing. I prayed for the earth to split in two and swallow me whole, but nothing happened. My heart pounded and throbbed in my ears. I wondered if he could hear it too.

Planting my eyes on my shoes, I took a deep breath and said in a waterfall of words,

“I cut myself and I think it might be infected and I don’t know what to do and I can’t go to the hospital or tell anyone so here I am.”

Heavy silence filled the room. I smiled weakly and raised my eyes to meet his, trying to assess the damage I had just done to my image as “The Girl Who Has It Together.” My entire existence revolved around my performance of that part, and the world was my stage. I had hidden my self-injury for years, and I learned how to present myself so that no one would suspect that the honors student on track to graduate early was also hiding in her car in the darkened corner of the parking lot at night to injure in private. And, I was mostly successful. My parents and friends and my professor bought the perfect-for-consumption version of myself I sold.

He had joined the faculty my freshman year, and it was by chance I ended up in his Old and New Testament classes. Twice, I found myself on trips he led to the Amazon Basin of Peru, where we sat in huts lit only by candles and the stars as he told stories about his troubled teenage years and helped me parse irregular Greek verbs. I babysat his children, and my friends and I helped him move when he bought a house across town. I knew him well, which meant I had everything to lose.

His chair groaned as he leaned forward, and I shared its sentiment. I stiffened in anticipation of the tidal wave of judgment that was sure to wash over me, but it never came. His eyes became soft as he searched my face.

“Can I see it?” he gently asked.

To show him was dangerous and terrifying and went against my every instinct for self-preservation. It was asking me to jump into shark-infested waters without a cage. I was sure I was going to be eaten alive.

I hesitated, and he sensed my internal debate.

“I can’t tell you what you need to do if you don’t let me see it,” he added.

With a nod and a sigh, I scooted towards the desk until my knees were pressed into its hard, mahogany face. Bending my elbow to keep my forearm hidden from his view until the last possible second, I tugged the sleeve of my sweatshirt up. I took one final look hoping, by some miracle, the injury would look better than it had an hour before. It didn’t. Pain radiated up my arm as I unfolded it out towards him, a broken offering.

He reached out and tenderly cradled my arm suspended in mid-air. I studied his face for any sign of disgust or disappointment or disillusionment. None came. He peered at the wound, feeling it with the back of his hand as he asked a few questions. I didn’t respond; I couldn’t force myself to utter a single syllable. Every shred of bravado I possessed had disappeared, and all that was left was the deep shame I had been living with as my constant companion. That shame was the voice in my head and the reason in my heart and the feeling in my gut. I thought it was my birthright and my inheritance and my penance, and now my professor was in on the secret. The thought nearly broke me.

I watched him scan the rest of my arm, tracing the map of raised, angry scars with his fingertips.

He lifted his eyes, filled with tears, to mine and asked, “These other lines, did you do that too?”

My face flooded red, betraying me. It was enough to give him the answer he sought.

With a slow, knowing nod, he released my arm. I jerked it away, shoving my sleeve down to hide the marks. He sat back in his chair, his eyes never leaving my face. I squirmed in my seat, uncomfortable under his scrutiny and unsure what to do in this new space where he knew the very worst thing about me.

I steeled myself and braced for his anger or an outpouring of condemnation. It would have been no match for the litany of defensive responses I had stowed away for just such an occasion. Instead, though, he wiped his eyes and whispered my name. It sounded like a sorrow-filled question, like a heartbroken embrace, and it caught me off-guard. The genuineness in his voice took the wind out of my sails.

A lump rose in my throat, and I found all sorts of other places to look—the stacks of papers covering his desk, the books piled precariously on the edge of the window sill, my hands that had started trembling from exposure and embarrassment and guilt.

My professor waited patiently until I found the courage to meet his gaze again and said with a quiver in his voice,

“This doesn’t change anything.”

I believed him.

You are worthy of love and grace, from others and yourself. You are enough, here and now. If you’re dealing with self-injury or self-harm, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].

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Comments (10)

  1. Helen

    Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply  |  
  2. Elaine

    Ive injured before. When my Mom was killed I injured.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA


      We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother and the emotional turmoil that must have caused. We hope that you have been able to find peace and support in your grief. You are always welcome to reach out to our team at [email protected] for encouragement or for help when it comes to connecting to a professional resource. You deserve to know healing and love, from others and yourself.

      You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor for free. Please don’t hesitate to ask for the help you deserve.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
  3. Carol

    I am nearly 53 years old. I used to injure myself when I was a teenager and young adult. This was in the mid 1980s. I knew of no one else who self injured but the relief it brought was immense. Eventually I learned other ways to cope with my inner pain. It is wonderful that you received such compassion in response when you shared your secret. It gives me hope. Hopefully compassionate understanding will continue to grow vin the world. May you be blessed. May you be safe. May you always be held in love and compassion. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Reply  |  
  4. Katie

    I am super proud of you! I have loved ones who self-injure, so I have but a hint of an idea about their shame. I’m proud of your courage! Judge’y people aren’t deserving of me. Of you.

    Reply  |  
  5. Greg

    At first this was triggering but then it helped. Just a tiny tiny very small bit but it does. I do it too.

    Reply  |  
  6. Vanesa Nater

    You are amazing. My 13 year old admitted almost 1 year ago that she was self-harming. All I can say is you are not alone. You are needed, you are wanted, you are loved. Keep looking up.

    Reply  |  
  7. Kaylee

    Thanks for sharing. I too have struggled with self-harming for over a decade. It takes courage to share the truth with another person when you’re put together and can let it slip out like a casual comment. It takes that much more courage to admit how bad things are when you’re scared and things are at their worst. Your story bears the weight of all the pain you’ve been through and it also bears the immense hope for your life because of the courage and vulnerability you show when you show up in those scary moments. Keep being brave and keep sharing!

    Reply  |  
  8. Leah B

    My skin is covered with self harm scars, some more faded than others, but all still visible after growing from the behavior that ruined so much. My story is similar; college was the worst of it. This is my second time reading this and marveling at the beauty and authenticity with which it was written. I feel you, Brittany, and I wish you peace and healing. Xox

    Reply  |  
  9. K.

    I found out about you as a writer from listening to Davey Blackburn’s podcast. I followed TWLOHA closely as a teenager. It helped me get past this part of my life that we share. Thank you for having the courage to voice this experience, as well as your story, with the world. You’re helping people like me, who you’ve never met. That’s huge.

    Reply  |  
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