By Naomi N.
Trigger warning: Includes references to sexual abuse, self-harm and suicide
I only felt able to talk openly about my past to anyone other than professionals in the last year. Sometimes, I can even do so confidently. I am not afraid of sharing my story, as vulnerable as it makes me. Giving light to our experiences, as difficult as they may be is a way of helping others get through their own struggles. I have nothing to lose. So I have decided that I would no longer hide it; I can’t change what happened, but I can certainly change how it affects me now. It’s given me a huge sense of ownership: this ‘secret’ no longer owns me, it’s no longer something I’m going to try to hide away- now, I own it.
Homelife was tough for one reason or another, and school life wasn’t much better. When I first began secondary school, I was bullied for a year. The majority of the kids in my year group just decided to target me. I still had some friends, but I didn’t feel safe at school. I was 12, I had no safe place, so I began to self-harm.
Absolutely nobody knew about my self-harm for four years, it was a complete secret. I really want to reiterate that because so many people think of self-harm as attention-seeking. I self-harmed for several reasons: I hated myself, I felt like I needed to punish myself for being such a bad person, I used it to distract myself from flashbacks of my past, which happened often. The flashbacks were of sexual abuse that occurred during my childhood, by my paternal grandfather.
My mum noticed that I wasn’t acting like a normal child because I seemed sad all the time, and I didn’t laugh or play. My grandfather threatened that if I told anyone about what he was doing to me, bad things would happen to my family and me. My mum somehow knew what to ask, and I disclosed to her what he was doing to me, which I didn’t fully understand was so wrong - I just knew it hurt me. I went to court, spoke about the abuse, and I never saw him again. Sadly, despite being accused of a large number of crimes, he didn’t go to prison. He was simply put on the sex offenders register for life and was no longer allowed near under 18s.
Only Becca, my best friend at the time, knew about my self-harm. The bullying stopped, I had a great friend group, and I left with good grades, and Becca did even better. We both went to college and went separate ways, remaining in contact but not as close. She graduated and became a teacher, despite many health issues along the way. She was diagnosed with POTS, EDS and Addisons. All rare diseases that made her life extremely difficult, eventually leaving her bound to a wheelchair.
I dropped out of college. I had opted for alcohol and drugs over my education. Now I understand myself a little better, I realise that I had replaced self-harm with drugs and alcohol, which were a lot more socially acceptable for teenagers. I had never received trauma therapy as it was believed it would affect the court case at the time, why I didn’t receive it after I don’t know. I’m certain that if I did get the therapy I needed, I wouldn’t have struggled secretly for so long.
Drawn as a way of self-healing, this is a self-portrait of Naomi representing herself going back to her 6-year-old self to protect her
I met my husband, Reece, in 2010 and found a stable job as a mental health care worker. I stopped drugs altogether easily, it was only ever recreational anyway, and my drinking went from daily to fortnightly. I was myself around Reece, I wasn’t looking for a relationship because all of my previous ones were toxic, so I wasn’t bothered if I put him off. In fact, I thought being myself would scare him away, but it backfired, and we fell in love. We travelled the world for most of 5 years.
We lived and worked in 5 countries across four continents, and we have explored over 20 countries together. I think in a lot of ways, travel healed me. It taught me that most of the people in this world are good, and that our planet is absolutely stunning. It reminded me that life is so short, and so unfair that when it seems to be going your way, you must seize it and feel grateful for what you have. It also taught me that if I want something enough, I get it. I never knew what I wanted to do for a career and that always left me feeling like I had no determination, but I always knew I wanted to travel and see as much of the world as I could see, so once I did that my self-confidence started to grow.
In 2019, we got married and had our son, River. Six months into my pregnancy with River, I got scared at work, and it threw me into a flashback of the sexual abuse. This wasn’t the first time it had happened, they’ve always been there, but this time I felt more afraid because I wanted to protect my baby. The flashbacks became more frequent once I had River, sheer exhaustion, and hormones just made me very unwell. I got constant intrusive thoughts of other people or me killing or sexually abusing River. Reece knew I had these thoughts, and so did my community mental health team. They assured me I wouldn’t act on them, but that didn’t stop me from hating myself for having those thoughts in the first place.
I hid all of this so well that I don’t even think I realised how poorly I’d become, I felt suicidal and just knew that I was going to kill myself eventually. I started to hear voices that told me to kill myself and had beliefs that people had put cameras in my house, had bugged my phone and were planning on stealing River. I tried to destroy relationships with the people who were closest to me, I guess I was subconsciously trying to make it easier to leave this world behind by ruining anything that helped me. Eventually, as I continued to deteriorate and was finding it harder and harder to hide it, I became hospitalised. I spent a total of 6 months in a mother and baby unit over two admissions.
During my second admission, I found out that Becca had passed away, two days before her 28th birthday. I felt broken; it was the most challenging time of my life. I thought I was at rock bottom before, but this just completely destroyed me. I don’t remember most of it now. What I do remember is just wanting to end my pain. I completely believed that me dying was the best solution for everyone. I thought that Reece and River would be better off without me. I hated being alive so much it just made sense that I ended it.
People say suicide is selfish, but they don’t realise how selfish they are being by sharing this one-sided opinion. People become so unwell that they are driven to suicide, at least have some respect for them and try to empathise, try to understand how hard their life must’ve been to act on that. I am so defensive over it because I know that pain. But I remember a kind nurse saying to me, “there’s still a tiny spark inside of you, hold on to that”. She was right; if that spark weren’t there, I would’ve already killed myself. So I did, I held on to it, I questioned it, at times I hated it because I wanted to die, but eventually, I realised I wanted to get better, for River and Reece.
I knew River needed a mum that loved herself, so I learned to do that too, and in doing so, I realised I needed to love myself for me as well as him. Throughout my recovery, professionals would always tell me the benefits of self-care, but they missed out an essential part: I didn’t want to practice self-care because I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I needed to learn how to love myself before I learned how to care for myself. My self-care had always actually been self-destructive - it was usually drinking. I drank to escape myself- to give myself a break from me.
I was discharged from the hospital in April this year, and fortunately, I’ve continued to get better at home. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and recurrent depressive disorder. I have been doing a lot of artwork to help my mental health, and I am currently receiving therapy to, hopefully, overcome my traumas once and for all.
I am covered in tattoos that cover my self-harm scars. I find it hard to talk openly about my self-harm scars because although no one should be ashamed of them, I know they can be triggering for others still fighting the urge, so I feel I must be careful not to ‘flaunt’ them. But I also want to embrace them, so it’s a bit of a catch 22.
I don’t love my scars; they remind me of dark times. But I do love my tattoos, they cover the scars and make me want to show off my flesh instead of covering it up, for the first time in my adult life (unless I was drunk). I will eventually get all my scars covered, but that’s just my personal feelings towards them. If I see them on other people the last thing I think is “attention seeker”: it’s more “they’re so brave for showing them off, they are so strong for going through whatever hell drove them to do that in the first place”, perhaps one day I’ll have those feelings towards myself. But for now, I’m just happy to have had the opportunity to share my story, in the hope of helping others feel less alone. I am also glad to have had the courage to stand in my underwear and not be self consciously trying to cover my scars and be paranoid about who can see them and what they must think of me.
Reece has always called me his tiger because I’m stripey. He has helped me learn to be ok with them over the last decade and realise that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, those who matter or rather who should matter will accept me for who I am. I don’t say they should ‘understand’, because I think it is quite difficult for a lot of people to understand self-harm. Hopefully, with more people being open and honest about it, we can make it easier for others to learn and end the stigma attached to it.
We all seem to be more and more accepting of mental illnesses, but self-harm still seems to be one thing that nobody ‘gets’, and it gets judged so quickly. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is the best response to this, just because someone has them on display doesn’t mean they want people to notice them. I remember always being boiling at school and college throughout the summer because I would always wear long sleeves no matter what the temperature as I was petrified of anyone seeing them. I wore black tights under my bikini because I’d rather stand out by wearing tights to the swimming pool than to have people see my scars. I wore five pairs of tights to my prom to cover my legs, I tried to cover them with every brand of foundation going, but nothing really worked.
My only friend who truly understood what I went through and was there for me from day one, who I’d still speak to regularly about the struggles, was Becca. I would give anything to be able to fill her in on everything that’s happened. I didn’t realise just how important those conversations were until I lost her. I still think “oh, I must tell Becca this” and I can’t. She was a true friend to me, from childhood to the end, and I wish I told her what she meant to me before it was too late. But I’ll continue to recover, share my story and do my artwork. She’s my biggest motivation, she didn’t have an easy life, and she still achieved so much. When I find it tough, I think about Becca and how much she wanted life to go well for me, and that keeps me going. She was one of my biggest fans, and she did so much more for me than I realised when she was alive. I need to be grateful that I was blessed with having her in my life, even if I lost her too early.