Author’s Note: This piece contains graphic depictions of self harm and self mutilation.

You ever scratch an itch until it bleeds? Peel that cuticle a little too far back? Dig your nails into your leg because you can? It’s all so painful, it’s all so addictive.

I’m not exactly sure when the nail picking turned into poking holes in my skin with needles and safety pins, when playing with lighters turned into burning my body for that “spicy” feeling. Not sure how razorblades became my best friends.

Or maybe I do know: 2011 me, fifteen-year-old depressed me, practicing piano until my hands were numb me. That was the me who began all of this nonsense. I was a troubled kid, got detention all the time, wore the wrong shoes, said the wrong things, walked the wrong walk. It was all so much fun! I loved to be hated, and loved to hate myself. Epitome of teen angst much? I used to skip class to hide in the bathroom stalls and draw. I drew the weirdest shit: melting wax creatures and snotty noses and distorted people mid-vomit. One day, I got tired of drawing with my shitty charcoal stub. I wanted to paint, but alas, no paint around. I did have scissors though.

That painting must be old and brown now, but when I first made it, boy was it vibrant! Swirls of slick red paint and cheap charcoal, dirty little teen hands rubbing and scrubbing and caressing in a tiny catholic school bathroom stall. It’s gone now, hopefully it disintegrated back into the earth, where it damn well deserves to be. But I still have my souvenir, right here on the upper left thigh. Gorgeous.

I liked acquiring my little zebra stripes, keeping the trophies of my secret paintings in plain sight. I felt so proud of my work, decorating both page and body simultaneously. That’s when I truly became interested in continuing to make art, and I can very safely say that without discovering that I was the medium, I wouldn’t have gone on to be an artist. Maybe I would’ve been a tired and stressed classical pianist, struggling to find a job. Maybe I’d be a manager at 7-Eleven or Trader Joe’s. Instead I’m just a regular crew member at Trader Joe’s, struggling to finish art school and get a “real” job.

Teen me would be so disappointed in current me. I haven’t made one of my paintings in years, not after I got kicked out of school for it, not after my parents called 911 on me, not after people noticed and hated it. I looked so grotesque, it was magnificent! I transformed into art. And then I just… stopped. Maybe forever, I don’t know, and now I’m back to dull, uninspired, un-significant me. Teen me really knew what I was doing, honestly. I wish I knew what I was doing right now. I miss painting.

There’s a scientific explanation for all of this, I’m not just some crazy, depressed bitch that mutilates themselves for fun and calls it art (actually… that’s debatable), but there’s a legitimate reason it feels the way it feels. According to Some Doctor from Some Website, the thrill of pain and blood raises the heart rate and adrenaline. Pain sends dopamine to the brain. It’s actually an addiction; the same way the brain craves sugar, cigarettes, sex, and love, it can grow accustomed to the joy of pain and blood. More specifically, one’s own blood.

Think of it this way: You walk into school, already a ball of anxiety. Your knockoff uniform is a dead giveaway that you’re not as rich as everyone else there; you get detention within ten minutes for having the wrong shoes (again); you never did your English paper because you sat up all night with your flashlight reading who-knows-what; the one person who sits with you at lunch because you read the same books is absent; and finally, you think about how your parents want to send you to a gay conversion camp all through chemistry. You think, fuck it, none of it matters and life is meaningless! By the time geometry class hits, you’re filled to the brim with all of it. All. Of. It. You take your headphones and your trusty scissors to the bathroom for your regular routine. By now, you don’t even need your sketchbook, because the canvas has shifted from sheets of paper to pliable, brown skin. You turn on some depressing song by the Pixies, and make one slice. It’s wrong, not the right shape, not the right depth, not enough blood. You need to spill more so you’re not so full anymore. You make another one, more careful, more painful, much more satisfying. First there are shiny, red beads. Then, if you’re not too careful, it’ll drip and stain your fake school uniform. There it is, there’s the proof that you’re alive, the proof that there’s a heart beating, the proof that you’re hurting so much. You can feel precious life melting from your wounds. That’s the art, it’s you. It’s always been you.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course, I’ve grown up since then, learned that I live in a free country, but not free enough to screw with my own wellbeing. I have too much responsibility as a citizen, student, child, significant other, employee, consumer, and person. Too much at stake, even for a selfish person like me. I get that, I probably wouldn’t “paint” again unless I really hit a low point in life again. But, man, do I miss being carefree enough to do something so completely for me and no one else!

At least I still have my souvenirs.


Lorelle Pais’s personal essay “PAINt” won second prize in the Sixth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program. Lorelle is a senior majoring in Graphic Design at SVA. Lorelle works at Trader Joe’s and loves doodling, cooking, driving, and playing music.