This piece mentions the topic of self-injury. Please use your discretion.
When I said, “I don’t know,” I wasn’t lying. That’s the thing about mental illness—it’s at least partially rooted in emotional neglect: You don’t have the skills to recognize, accept, or understand your own emotional experiences.
The first time I said it, I typed it.
Into a digital box—a gleaming white square on my computer screen. That was how angsty teenagers talked about things back then, when the internet era was still unfolding: in online journals, on forums, or through instant messenger. It was the summer after my sophomore year in high school—the year that I broke. I had a part-time job at a grocery store and a tension in my jaw. I made myself scarce at home, and when I was home, I spent it online, with friends and strangers alike.
I was talking with a friend, and I don’t remember how he found out, but he did: another friend and I had been harming ourselves. Me on my palms, her on the tops of her feet. Our friend was concerned; he asked why. “I don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything.” We came up with the idea while we sat on the brown carpet of another friend’s house, our limbs loose and bent as we languished in the summer heat. “Let’s just see,” we agreed. Me and her, we were always doing things to our bodies. Are these bodies really ours, we wondered. What control do we have? I could have said we were experimenting, but even I could see right through that. Regardless, his concern didn’t really concern me; it was obvious that it was more about her than me, which was fine. He and I were just friends, and they would end up getting married 15 years later.
The second time, I said it aloud.
In the dark of night, mid-autumn cool. I was a junior in college, walking around the lakes on campus with my own future husband. He said seen, craved, touched my body, and I knew he would again; I wanted him to. But I no longer wanted to clench my abdominal muscles every time he smoothed his hands over my rippled thighs. “You know the scars on my leg?” I said, under a tree. “I did that.” He was frantic; he asked why. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know, but I wanted to be honest with you.”
I know now that there was so much I didn’t know, couldn’t know. Like how I felt I was both too much for this world and not enough for the people in it; how my childhood was painful in deep ways. How I had been suffering from depression and anxiety for years; how I was in a near-constant state of freeze. Numb. Dissociative. Not quite real. What I thought I knew felt very different: I grew up upper-middle class, with two parents. I was attending an elite university, taking on the world. I was in love.
But I was just a kid—of course, I didn’t know anything about trauma. Isn’t that the whole problem here anyway—that I was just a kid who wasn’t allowed to be? That I was still forming and then malforming, when I was told to let go of every emotion I ever felt? That it was nothing to cry about. That I was being a baby and needed to grow up and “show some respect for the rules of this house!” That—at five, ten, fifteen years old—the world was so much bigger than I could even comprehend, and yet, I am also not safe even in my own body.
The third time, I wrote it.
In my thirties, in my journal, in my tiny, uniform handwriting, over and over again: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know why I can’t hike along ridges, can’t look out from clifftops; I don’t know why my body shakes to be thrown off of them.
I don’t know why I can’t seem to bear this life.
I don’t know why I’m still here.
Then one day, I say it in my head, to no one in particular—or maybe to the universe. To the void. To anything, anything at all. I have hit a new rock bottom and I read somewhere that it is possible to not know the truth of your own life, and in this moment—when I don’t know if I need to call someone, or if anyone can even help anyway—that feels like the only option I have left. “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know anything. I am willing to be wrong about everything I think I know. Everything—take it all.”
In the days that follow—first gradually and then suddenly—all of it starts to fall away. All of the scaffolding I had unknowingly built around my trauma—the gratitude, the privilege, the success, the denial, the stress responses, the coping mechanisms—falls back and down, weightless, cardboard cutouts of a life.
I can finally see my own beating heart.
I can finally feel the hurt.
I can finally know.
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].