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We were laying down side by side on her bed mid-afternoon. It was muggy in her small and untidy bedroom because her window unit A/C wasn’t working properly. She was naked and I was resting my left hand on her mons pubis, as if it were the lacquered mahogany end of an arm rest. This was the first time she exhibited her naked body to me under the shadowless light of daytime. Every dimple and flaw she no doubt imbued with outsized importance was freely visible to my appreciative eyes. Before this moment, sex was a nighttime activity only.
As we lied on the bed staring at the ceiling and her collection of carved giraffes on her bookshelf, my hand wandered down her thigh. A geometric pattern of tiny raised obstacles tickled my palm. I looked over at her leg where my hand was perched and saw three thin reddish-purple lines, barely a millimeter in width but each more than three inches long, carved into the flank of her thigh and hip like claw marks from the angry swipe of a cat.
“Yep. It looks like a cat got you.”
She steadied her gaze and paused, an odd hesitation that told me she was quickly weighing the options of lying or telling the truth. “I… they’re cut marks.”
“Not from anything. I did them to myself.”
“You cut yourself? With a razor blade?”
“Yeah, I use a blade from my leg razor.”
“Oookay.” I moved my hand away and focused on her slim vulva and then her face. “That’s strange. Why?”
“It helps when I’m feeling crappy. I get into these moods, and the only way I can feel better is by cutting myself.”
“So hurting yourself makes you feel better.”
“Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. Don’t be a judgy jerk about this.”
“It is crazy. Why not try running to lift your mood? Or alcohol? It won’t leave scars.”
“There are no scars. I make sure not to do it too deep to leave a scar.”
“Does anyone else know about this?”
“No, just you. Although my mom once saw the marks and I lied to her about them.”
I fingered the congealed blood of the narrow cuts. “You do them on parts of your body that won’t normally be seen in public.”
“And you’ve been doing this a long time?”
“Since ninth grade.”
“Are you depressed?”
“You know I get depressed sometimes.” She waved a hand at her superficial wounds. “This helps me cope.”
“We need to find you a new coping mechanism. I like your skin to stay silky smooth.”
I never talked about the cutting with her again. Fact is, it didn’t much bother me. We were together for another nine months or so, and the sex was always hot. She was up for it anywhere, anytime. Like me, she especially liked doing it in front of mirrors. She had an incredibly high libido even for a crazy chick. I briefly wondered if it was the inherent drama in our relationship and my flirtatious ways with other women which caused her to cut, but she never did it again while we were together, as far as I could tell. (The possibility exists she found a harder-to-locate patch of land somewhere in the nooks of her body to hide her cutting from me. But I’m pretty thorough when it comes to exploring the savannah of a lover’s body.) I believed her when she said she cut to feel better. As a man, I can understand the impulse. We men often relish the pain of crunching blows from fights or sports or body blows from self-discovery adventures gone awry. Testosterone makes us men want to feel life for all it’s worth, and there’s no better mental stimulant than the physical stimulants of pain and sex.
But not too much pain. We’ve got our pretty boy faces to keep in mind.
Pain takes us men out of our minds, away from debilitating introspection and toward living in the moment. Maybe for some women, pain from cutting performs a similar psychological analgesic for them, taking them away from worries and stress and into their exquisite bodies where their truest womanhood resides.
Do women, then, cut because of negative emotions filling their hearts? A study states it is so, drawing relevance with ancient religious practices of self-flagellation to cleanse the soul of impurities.
Psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia and his colleagues recruited a group of young men and women under the guise they were part of a study of mental and physical acuity. Under this pretense, they asked them to write short essays about a time in their lives when they had ostracized someone; this memory of being unkind was intended to prime their personal sense of immorality—and make them feel guilty. A control group merely wrote about a routine event in their lives.
Afterward, the scientists told some of the volunteers—both “immoral” volunteers and controls—to stick their hand into a bucket of ice water and keep it there as long as they could. Others did the same, only with a soothing bucket of warm water. Finally, all the volunteers rated the pain they had just experienced—if any—and they completed an emotional inventory that included feelings of guilt.
The idea was to see if immoral thinking caused the volunteers to subject themselves to more pain, and if this pain did indeed alleviate their resulting feelings of guilt. And that’s exactly what the researchers found. Those who were primed to think of their own unethical nature not only kept their hands in the ice bath longer, they also rated the experience as more painful than did controls. What’s more, experiencing pain did reduce these volunteers’ feelings of guilt—more than the comparable but painless experience with warm water.
According to the scientists, although we think of pain as purely physical in nature, in fact we imbue the unpleasant sensation with meaning. Humans have been socialized over ages to think of pain in terms of justice. We equate it with punishment, and as the experimental results suggest, the experience has the psychological effect of rebalancing the scales of justice—and therefore resolving guilt.
Guilt is one emotion that can be absolved by the self-administration of pain. I wouldn’t be surprised if pain lessened the burden of other negative emotions as well. My cutter lover may have felt guilt about spending the best years of her life with a man who gave no hint of driving the relationship toward a marital resolution, and being unable to extricate herself because of her attachment to me. Or she may have just been a naturally depressive person, inherited from some long ago depressed ancestor, and cutting was her cheap Prozac.
The most important lesson I took away from that relationship was that cutters are a great lay. I now look for the telltale signs on all first dates. If the cuts are on her face, I know she’ll be wearing no panties underneath her skirt and will be ready to fuck in an alleyway before we’re even halfway home.