‘I cut myself to mask the pain inside’: With courageous honesty KITTY DIMBLEBY gives a devastating personal insight into the epidemic of self-harm, fuelled by social media, that is blighting so many young girls’ lives
The first time I did it, I was sitting in a bath. There was a sharp sting as a red plume of blood curled into the water. It didn’t hurt as much as I’d imagined. In fact, I felt suddenly better — and strangely in control.
Aged 16, I had just calmly slashed a razor across my thigh. It hadn’t been planned: I’d done it almost without thinking. What struck me was how the physical pain instantly cloaked my internal misery.
What had started with pinching the flesh on my left arm, legs and stomach or pulling my hair had escalated within a few months to cutting myself. The more intense the pain, the more effectively it assuaged my tortured mind. Or so it felt.
Kitty Dimbleby (pictured, left, aged 17, and, right, with her mother Bel Mooney) gives devastating impact into self harm
Climbing out of my bath, I found some plasters and dressed the wound (soon the familiarity of that act would comfort me as much as the cutting itself). I could feel the wound throbbing under my clothes for days afterward. This was my secret, strangely consoling. This moment marked the start of around two years of regular self-harming. At certain points I would hurt myself every single day.
Now a woman of 38, I have not thought about my self-harming for years — although the faint scars on my arms and legs are a constant, quiet reminder. I certainly never intended to write publicly about my experience.
But the recent Children’s Society report suggesting that up to one in four 14-year-old girls in the UK have self-harmed compelled me to share my experiences in the hope it might help both parents and those feeling the lonely pain and self-disgust that accompanies it.
The survey of 11,000 children found 22 per cent of the girls, and 9 per cent of the boys, said they had hurt themselves on purpose in the year prior to the questionnaire.
These terrifying statistics are included in the charity’s annual Good Childhood Report, which examines the state of children’s well-being in the UK. Teenagers interviewed by the charity said they did not think they were ‘pretty enough’ or ‘good enough’ and that hurting themselves made them feel better.
In many ways, my reasons for hurting myself were the same, although my circumstances were very different. On the surface, I had everything any 16-year-old could hope for.
I had loving, supportive parents. My father is broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby and my mother is Bel Mooney, this newspaper’s advice columnist. My family had a beautiful home and I had wonderful friends and a kind, handsome boyfriend. Many of those who self-harm are similarly blessed, but that doesn’t stop you berating yourself.
For some, it is anxiety about their looks. For others, it is the stress of school life or exams.
Kitty Dimbleby (pictured with her mother, Bel Mooney) said that self-harm made her feel more in control
My complication was that I was born with Hirschsprung’s disease, a disorder of the abdomen that occurs when part or all of the large intestine has no nerves and so cannot function.
When I was three days old, they operated to remove the segment of my bowel that didn’t work, creating a colostomy that was reversed nine months later.
I was supposed to be cured, but sadly I wasn’t, and major surgery was needed again when I was 12, 16, 17, 19 and, finally, 22. I was at my worst during those tricky teenage years. While my peers were learning to become young adults I was regressing, infantilised because I needed so much looking after.
I was in and out of Bristol Children’s Hospital after doctors realised a segment of my bowel had stopped working.
I became adept at coping with medical procedures and pain; insisting on putting in my own nasal gastric tube (a tube that runs from your nose to your stomach to administer medicine/food or drain the stomach) and learning how to carry out procedures when the toxins in my body were building up, making me bloated, sluggish and grey.
‘I earning how to carry out procedures when the toxins in my body were building up, making me bloated, sluggish and grey,’ writes Kitty Dimbleby
Physical pain became a norm and dealing with the stress and anxiety of it all begin to take its toll. I missed school, parties, my friends, and fell behind in my studies and my life. Looking back, I can see I became very depressed.
I held it together on the outside, but inside I felt like a boiling pan of water. Self-harming became a way to lift the lid and allow the water to simmer down. Being overwhelmed by emotions you can’t cope with is a common experience in puberty, whatever your circumstances.
I can’t recall how I first came up with the idea of inflicting pain on myself. I can only think that physical discomfort, which I had become so good at managing, was easier to cope with than internal agony. By hurting myself when it all became too much, I was externalising the internal.
The relief was immediate, but always short-lived. I remember sitting in lessons, picking my black tights away from the scabs to make them bleed again, the blood hidden by the opaque wool.
I didn’t think anyone would understand, so I was careful to hide it from my friends and parents. Yes, I felt guilty about lying, but it was to protect them as much as myself.
Bel Mooney is pictured with her daughter Kitty Dimbleby at home in Upper Swainswick, Bath
I cut mostly on my legs where it was easier to cover. If I ever did cut my arms, it was always on the inside. I wore long-sleeve tops just in case.
Soon cutting in the bath was not enough. I felt the need to do it during the day, too — while at school or at friends’ houses. I made a kit, disguised in a pencil case with a small Stanley knife (the tiny ones designed for cutting paper), disinfectant wipes and plasters, and when I got overwhelmed at school I would go to the toilets and slash my own thighs.
It’s hard to write this as it seems alien to the confident, happy woman I have become today. But, at the time, it was my reality and felt as though it would always be so.
Things got worse before they got better. Just after my GCSE exams, my paediatric surgeon decided to operate and remove the segment of bowel that wasn’t working.
I was told I would need an ileostomy bag, where the small bowel is diverted through an opening in the abdomen to create a stoma through which bodily waste passes into a bag, while the bowel healed, before they would (hopefully) operate to rejoin the healthy bowel that remained. I was horrified.
That summer, the wait for the operation was awful. There was a genuine risk I could die during surgery, so I was afraid and angry. I started punishing my poor little body whenever I got the opportunity.
I’ve since discovered that it was at this point that friends started to notice something was wrong. I would go off on my own more, became increasingly subdued and, of course, constantly covered my arms and legs no matter the weather.
My friends didn’t confront me, but took steps to protect me from myself — refusing to allow me to be on my own too much, making excuses to accompany me to the toilet or bathroom. In their own, innocent way they made a huge difference — without words or judgment — showing me how much they loved me.
I hid it from my parents for much longer. A year after the big operation — having continued to yo-yo in and out of hospital — my consultant grew very worried about how low I had become, and referred me to a child psychotherapist.
Finally, I was able to tell someone what I was doing. Then, encouraged by him, I told my parents, who were devastated but amazing. Mum tells me now that she felt incredibly guilty that, despite our closeness, she hadn’t realised what I was doing.
But they understood that I couldn’t deal with the emotional pain of being in hospital and that’s why I turned it into something physical, tangible, which I could put a plaster over to heal. They knew I hated my body — of course I did, because it caused me almost constant pain and looked so different; all those scars from surgery, when all I wanted was to be ‘normal’.
Looking back, I realise that it helped (me and my parents) that my terrible health problems gave me as good a ‘reason’ as there can be to self-harm.
And yet, if I’m honest, that was only part of the story. I can see now that a sense of isolation, the fear of being thought ‘ugly’, the cumulative stress of exams and friendships were also a large factor.
And they are all as much a part of teenage life today.
In the late Nineties, self-harming was quite rare. Today, it is terrifyingly commonplace: NHS data published a year ago showed a 68 per cent rise in hospital admissions because of self-harm among girls under 17 in the past decade in England.
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, the chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘There is a growing crisis in children and young people’s mental health, and, in particular, a gathering crisis in mental distress and depression among girls and young women. Emotional problems in young girls have been significantly, and very worryingly, on the rise over the past few years.’
It is no surprise that these mental health problems have soared in the same period in which young people’s use of social media has exploded.
I don’t know any woman who doesn’t feel at least a glimmer of disapproval of her own body after time spent looking at the honed, toned (surgically enhanced) beauties who grace our TV and smartphone screens. If grown women feel this way, what hope do vulnerable teens have?
Young women today need the ‘reassurance’ of likes and shares online, and are faced with images of ‘perfect’ bodies.
I raged against my imperfect, sick body like today’s teens are raging against theirs as social media convinces them they are in some way imperfect. Not only that, but a quick search of the self-harm hashtag on Instagram reveals square after square of pain.
Teens can now get advice on how to cut deeper or abuse a peer for being weak enough to harm themselves in the first place. Such photos show me that my harming was lightweight compared with others, and the faint scars I now bare relatively minor.
But to be honest, I couldn’t bear to delve too deeply online. It brings back too many bad memories. I’m just grateful I didn’t have access to anything like that when I was unwell. So not only is social media helping to create these issues, but also giving sufferers a platform to share images which will only exacerbate their problems. It’s out of control and makes me fear for my children having to grow up in a world were online image is paramount.
And I want to weep for a generation of young women who can’t see how beautiful they are and how wonderful life really is.
Thanks to the support of my parents, friends and skilled doctors I got better, gradually, both mentally and physically.
I got rid of all sharp objects and, when I felt the urge to harm myself, I would either call a friend or squeeze my fists tightly shut, which is uncomfortable enough without causing any real damage. Over time the urge dissipated.
I stopped physically harming myself before I turned 18, I don’t remember exactly why, but I think, thanks to the help and support I received from my loved ones, I just outgrew it. Because I no longer hurt as much inside, I didn’t need to externalise my pain. Then, like so many of my peers, I drank and smoked too much during my university years. But that, at least, was ‘normal’.
Now I am healthy and the happily married mother of two beautiful children. That desperately ill, sad teenage girl is a distant memory.
I wish I could reassure her that one day it would all be OK, that she was loved then and would be loved in the future. I wish I could tell her what all of us must tell ourselves in our darkest moments: ‘This too shall pass.’