Desperation in the City of Dreaming Spires

Part of the “breaking the code of silence” series

lonely girlSociety has strict ideas about what is acceptable to talk about, and what isn’t. When you chose to break this code of silence, you run the risk of being ridiculed, ostracised, even threatened. If your words make people uncomfortable, to protect themselves – they judge. Suddenly, you find yourself on the outside looking in. This is how the culture of shame keeps its victims mute.

But secrets eat away at you. They weigh you down and, like a cancer, spread to other areas of your life, contaminating, changing, so that eventually, you become a different person. The only way out is to break your silence before the silence breaks you.


I was 15 the first time I took a blade to myself. It’s amazing what a person can withstand when it occurs incrementally. Things that initially feel wrong or shocking become part of our everyday landscape. Like an aching limb whose pain is constant, they become unremarkable. By the time things have ramped up to “seriously bad” our sensitivity is no longer there to warn us. We’ve “learnt to live with it”.

My father bought a Bed and Breakfast in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires. It was an unforeseen move. During a period of mania, he had become obsessed with it, despite having more experience of hospitals than Hospitality. He would leave it, bankrupt and divorced, within three years. The badness built to a terrifying, deafening crescendo, before the world as we knew it came crashing down.

Life there was dismal and quickly became worse. Privacy was minimal; we shared our living space with strangers. If the dining room was full we ate breakfast standing up. I spent Christmas Day waving a hairdryer over a mattress a guest had urinated on. I stripped and made beds, my sister cleaned the sinks and bathrooms. My father schmoozed the guests, cooked the breakfasts and took frequent trips to the Cash and Carry. It was a miserable time, during which his mood-swings and temper reached new heights. He thought nothing of marching both of us (my sister and I) from our draughty room in the basement, up through the low-ceilinged, narrow corridors in the bowels of the house – at two or three in the morning – to the kitchen, to put away ONE item we had neglected to dry up after dinner. “I need it clear for when I make the breakfasts in the morning” he blustered. The “guests” and their needs were paramount.

I drew his wrath on a near-daily basis. It seemed I could do nothing right. He would disappear out with my mother and leave me in charge, with stern instructions to carry the phone and the bookings diary with me from room to room. Because he changed the prices of rooms according to the level of demand, I would inevitably quote the wrong amount to prospective guests. He would quiz me on the calls when he returned, angry that too high a quote had resulted in no call-back or too low had lost him money. I grew to hate answering the phone. It’s still something I find difficult today.

Everything I said or did resulted in rage and reprimands. Violence hung in the air, an ever-present threat, exploding into reality at unknowable moments. It was like being forced to take part in Russian roulette. “If you just kept your mouth shut everything would be fine” was my mother’s advice, but my child’s sense of justice wouldn’t let me accept the blame for things I hadn’t done. She used to tell us everything would be ok if he had a fatal accident, “then the bank would pay off the mortgage and we could sell up and leave.”

I would escape to my basement bedroom, sometimes running from a thrown glass or bottle. I spent a lot of time with Jess, our yellow labrador, talking to her and soaking her fur with useless tears. On weekends I would to go into the town centre and roam bookshops, reading between the shelves like some homeless, literary addict. My confidence and self-esteem were severely eroded. I remember wishing I could be invisible, I felt uncomfortable when people looked at me. I was eaten up by self-loathing. My posture became hunched as I subconsciously tried to shrink out of sight. Sometimes, I was unable get off the bus at my stop because I couldn’t face people’s eyes on me as I stood to press the bell and move to the door. I would sit, anonymous amongst the other passengers, waiting for the bus to empty a little while I worked up the courage to stand.

In spite of this, I still went to school, did my homework, and sat my exams – on the surface my life appeared conventional. But behind the façade of normalcy, my strength was faltering, and a fresh terror lay just around the corner…

Mid-morning on the weekend found me standing in the tiny ill-lit basement room, ironing. I was working my way through a pile of bed sheets when my parents entered and announced that they had arranged work experience for me with their solicitor’s legal firm. I know this will seem inconsequential to anyone else but me, but I’ll try to explain why the prospect filled me with fear:

My mother placed a high value on academic excellence and had big plans for her children. I lost count of the number of times I was reminded of the sacrifices that had been made for our private schooling. She made no secret of her resentment of this and how her deprivation was our fault (the fact that the choice had been hers was neither here nor there.) But there was a plan in place. I was to become a solicitor, my sister a doctor… well, you get the picture…
In our household, my father took care of all the Paperwork; my mother was vociferous about her complete inability to have any part due to the confusing nature of it all. Her fear of Paperwork had transferred to me, melding easily with my non-existent confidence in my ability. If she, as an adult, found it bewildering, what hope would I have? My fifteen-year-old understanding of a solicitor’s job was that it was mostly, yup, you’ve guessed it: Paperwork. In a life that was one long reminder of my inadequacy, this work experience not only seemed like a brick in the wall of a future career not of my choosing, but a showcase for my incompetence that would be witnessed outside my home by capable professionals. The thought made me feel physically sick.

In that tiny, low-ceilinged box of a room, the air sticky and damp from the iron, with my parents blocking the doorway as they told me of yet another experience I had to endure against my will, sheer desperation began to take over.

I never resorted easily to begging my parents. Experience had taught me it changed nothing, my desperate prostrations just erased what little dignity I had left. I remembered the last time I had abandoned my self-respect to plead with them; three years before, when I was twelve and couldn’t face returning to the boarding school where I was being bullied. My pleas fell on deaf ears then as now, but once again, I had reached the point where dignity no longer seemed important.

I cried and implored them, explaining my distress in gulping sobs, but they were immovable, “It’s only for a week. You’re going and that’s that!” A trivial matter to them, but it felt cataclysmic to me.

Then they left me alone, the bitter taste of fear in my mouth, my hands still guiding the sheets through the iron, my foot still on the pedal, but my mind engulfed in a maelström of increasing terror. It didn’t take long for the panic to completely overwhelm me. Unable to stay in that little room any longer, I went upstairs to the deserted kitchen. I felt like an actor in a bad B movie – somehow removed from myself – as I took the small vegetable knife out of the knife block, pulled my sleeve back and pressed the blade down on the inside of my left wrist. My heart was crashing in my ribs as I pulled it across, the serrated edge catching and pulling the thin skin like a jagged surface causes pulls and runs in silk.

I had never done anything like this before. The first cut was experimental, testing how much pressure was needed, and how much damage could be tolerated. The second and the third grew in force and speed. The act was all-consuming; my focus shifted from the panic I had felt moments earlier, to the calm of silent absorption with the effect the knife was having on my body. I was fascinated, enthralled. THIS was something I had control over. I felt like I had regained ownership of myself somehow. I watched the beads of blood pop up, grow, then merge together, mesmerised by the awful-yet-beautiful ruby-red slash. The sight of it seemed to have a grounding effect, and I felt re-connected to myself again. Then, the door across the room opened and my mother appeared. Our eyes met, both of us froze. Time slowed and I recall feeling in a state of suspension, knowing I had done something unspeakable but so needful of a sign of love. At that moment, more than anything else in the world, I needed to be understood. A beat passed before the normal speed of time resumed. She looked at me, the anger plain in her face, and spat, “What are you doing, you stupid girl?” Then she turned on her heel and left me there.

Suddenly, I was back in the unforgiving glare of reality. I was filled with a deep sense of shame. I had done something that couldn’t be undone. I didn’t yet understand why I had done it, but I would never be the same person I was ten minutes before. It was an instinctive reaction, not a premeditated act. Looking back, it was a cry for help, but it morphed into a guilty, disgraceful secret. I kept it hidden from my friends at school, only daring to look at the scabbing, throbbing wound I’d clumsily dressed, in the spacious quiet of the library. My mother was cold and distant towards me for the next two weeks, only speaking to me when it was unavoidable, and the incident was never mentioned. Her distance and lack of concern, caused me to feel the shame that should have been hers. I never mentioned the incident and neither did she. That misplaced sense of shame would ensure it stayed that way until now.



Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. So eloquently written and utterly compelling to read, thank you for sharing.
    As someone who has self harmed – but in later life – I totally recognise the feeling of shame that surrounds it.
    Just looking at how you have grown since then into the lovely strong woman that you are today is an inspiration to anyone in a situation they are desperate to be free from.
    Much love and even more respect to you c

  2. Your childhood sounds dreadful and I can only imagine the weight of shame you’ve been carrying around because of the way your mum dealt with this incident. An ex of mine was discovered cutting himself by his mother but her reaction was the total opposite of what you describe. She was distraught and blamed herself, even though it wasn’t her fault. I’m so sorry you didn’t get even a fleeting look of love or concern from your mum. But I am glad you’re strong enough to talk about these things publicly now.

    1. Thanks Julie. It’s all about getting the shame in perspective. It’s all too easy for someone who’s beaten down to take all the blame onto themselves. It then becomes almost impossible to talk about it because no-one wants to put themselves in a bad light. Yet so often, they were blameless in the first place.

  3. It is unimaginable how much you have been through, and yet you are a truly amazing woman, mother and wife! What a blessing you are to your family and friends!

  4. Wow. Fabulous writing as always and am so sorry for what you had to go through. But the courage to write about it helps those who have not encountered it to understand.

  5. Beautiful writing, it had me spellbound from start to finish despite the awful subject.
    I had my own period of self harming, also as a teenager, and you described the feelings that surround it so well, so much better than I have ever been able too.
    It is definitely a little discussed, little understood subject but at the same time something that can be a huge part of life for some people. For me it was almost like an addiction, I had to do it because I had to feel and to have the release that it offered me.
    Thank you for sharing

    1. I’m glad I was able to put it into words for you. It’s taken some years to reach that point! Thank you for taking the time and courage to comment so personally on a difficult and misunderstood subject.

  6. What and excellent read, all be it a horible subject. I really feel for you to have had to deal with all that unhappiness alone. I have self harmed, but in later life not as a teenager, but I can still understand the shame that it comes with. It is great that you have felt strong enough to be open about all this. X

    1. Thank you Mrs Shortie, it’s something so many of us have in common but it springs from a place of such loneliness where it feels as though no other person could possibly understand us.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story. It send shivers down my spine as so many times i felt like you but never had the courage to go further.
    Big hugs

    1. Big hugs to you too. I hope things are better now and you have someone you can turn to for support xxx I wouldn’t say it was courage that enabled me to do what I did. That first time it was as though I was watching someone else, there was no decision involved on my part. In later years I did become involved in a tug-of-war in my head about cutting myself. A part of me didn’t want to and the other part would taunt that I was a coward. It was like playing Chicken with myself. Usually I would go through with it to prove to myself that I wasn’t a failure in that area of my life too. Later still, I learnt to ignore the taunts and that I was showing greater strength by doing so.

  8. I too was spellbound. Your writing does that to me. Today, it made me think of a book by my author and good friend, Niamh Ni Bhroin, of who also suffered abuse, of different kinds, and who has come through it. It only goes to show that good writing can sustain the reader enough to read through the pain, for the joy of the writing, for the pace and because, Aisha, we care. You make us care, and that is a gift indeed… keep writing.

  9. This, and the other posts on similar subjects, are very welcome and make for rather thoughtful reading. As someone who went through a rather dark period (a long time ago, but still) I can relate to some of these thoughts and points.

    Great stuff!

  10. You are a woman of courage. I give thanks for reading your blog today-thanks to a tweet from Jo Parfitt. I do see a book some where…you have a gift and for all that will benefit from reading your story it is a shower of blessing. I also wrote my story, but this reply is to say thank you for sharing yours.

    1. Thank you Kathleen, courage doesn’t come into it. I just follow my instincts. Your praise and encouragement are very kind and I appreciate both. It’s good that so much positivity is now coming out of such a dark time in my life. Who would have thought?

  11. Wow thanks for sharing this on Mrs Shorties Carnival (my post is up there too). It’s really helpful to understand why someone might start self-harming. It makes sense, without being totally logical.

    1. Actually I’m going to change that – reading mental health cops post after yours in the carnival pointed out to me how totally ‘logical’ it is, when he compared it to pushing yourself so far in sports that you hurt or throw up.
      My experience of wanting to commit suicide is very different, as that was wanting an ending, rather than wanting to deal with or cope with what was happening.
      I have a good friend who self-harms; your post has helped me to understand what might have led her to it xx

      1. I read the policeman’s post too. His blog is very helpful in understanding the issues from a service-providers point of view – the factors that influence their decisions and the shocking lack of guidance that many of them are given. The analogy of people participating in sport is an excellent one, as it’s something everyone understands.
        When I first used to get the urge to harm myself, I mistook it for suicide, but I understand now, that I didn’t really want to die – I just wanted what was happening to stop, but I had no power to make that happen. Over a period of time, my resolve became worn down and although I didn’t want a permanent ending, I didn’t see any other option. My self-confidence was such that, even if I could have magically been placed in a normal situation, I doubted my ability to function in it and was ashamed of my perceived shortcomings. Help, support and understanding can turn that around and bring you back from the brink. With a little more understanding in society, think of all the people whose suffering could be relieved, all those lives that could be saved and turned around.

        1. In the past I used to bite my nails until they bled – is it the same sort of thing. They would then hurt for days and I’d wonder why I did it, and then go back to it. Or is that more of a nervous thing – to be fair in my twenties I could drink, smoke, twiddle my hair and bite my nails pretty much all at once ;o)

          1. I know that, for me, self-destructive or devaluing behaviour occurred because I had such a low opinion of myself. It was born out of a lack of self-esteem that translated into “you deserve the pain/punishment”, then I got a sense of satisfaction from delivering the appropriate treatment to myself. It can take many forms of varying severity; from scratching until the skin becomes raw, pulling off scabs before a wound has healed properly to burning or cutting. That’s not to say that anyone who pulls off a scab too soon is mentally ill, I’m just trying to show how everyday situations can become fuel for a person’s self-loathing.

          2. Hmmm my instinct would say that the nail biting etc was a stress response to a difficult childhood with lots of responsibilities. I don’t think that the tendency has continued for the same reason – I think it might be a response to not always being quite myself and fitting in with other people too much. Hence creating a subtle and constant stress for a long time. It’s something I plan on looking at in more depth this year – so by the end of the year I might know more! I’ll keep my eye on my opinion of myself – maybe that’s the key to fitting in too much (I’m talking about relationships, rather than my ‘public persona’).
            Thanks – it’s helpful to brainstorm with someone who has first hand experience xxx

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I had friend over last week and after talking about my mental health problems two admitted to self harming in the past. Both had done it for different reasons and had never spoke about it before.

    1. You see? This is what I mean when I say we all have some kind of experience of these issues, whether directly or indirectly. We just need to get that dialogue going, bring it out into the open so we can help and support one another instead of suffering in silence. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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