IT would be impossible to count all the scars on Clare Canning’s arms, chest and legs.

There are hundreds of self-inflicted healed wounds, a stark reminder of dark times for the now happy mother of two and businesswoman.

Clare, from Southampton, began deliberately cutting herself when she was around 15.

“I was very unhappy. I was being bullied at school and it was around the time that my parents divorced,” she remembers.

It started by accident.

“I remember nicking myself when I was shaving in the bath and at the sight of the blood there was an absolute stillness in my mind. It was the trigger. It became my way of coping and it became quite addictive.”

This accident led to years of deliberately cutting herself.

She remembers the first time she did it on purpose, using a cheap plastic razor to cut her arm and feeling fascinated and calmed by the sight of her own blood.

But she went on to cut herself so many times that it’s impossible for her to remember them all.

Some of the worst injuries required a trip to accident and emergency and stitches. Others should have – as well as the thin scars across her forearms, there are some much larger scars, left by wounds that were left untreated and took weeks to heal.

“It was bonkers that I left them, but it’s testament to how not really in touch with reality I was a lot of the time,” she says.

Clare explains that self harm was not an attempt on her life.

“It was a way of coping with life, even though I knew it was very maladaptive. It felt really abhorrent,” she continues.

“I felt disgusted by it, but that didn’t make it easy to stop.

“It’s not a suicide attempt. It’s the polar opposite – it’s about survival.

To cut yourself goes against every human instinct; self preservation is a fundamental part of us and it seems to go against that. But it really is self preservation. If I hadn’t had self injury, I really don’t know if I would be here.”

With time, self injury came to define her.

“My experience, and there’s a lot of research that backs this up, is that as it goes on, it moves from being a habit to a syndrome, where your whole identity is shaped by cutting, thinking about when you’re going to do it and so on, and your world shrinks to that.

“Everything felt very superficial compared to that.

“It grew, so that by the time I was in college, I was completely insane!” says Clare.

“I hid it quite well. I wore long sleeves all the time and would be in the toilets at college cutting myself seven, eight, nine times a day and I’d be in my bedroom in the evening doing it.

“Everytime I felt overwhelmed, then I’d feel guilty, exhilarated – lots of extremes of emotions.”

Clare cut herself for a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes I wasn’t feeling anything at all. I’d feel really out of touch with the world,” she says.

“Other times, I would cut myself because I wanted to punish myself for things that I felt I’d done wrong.

“I used to carry round a tiny purse of razor blades. I didn’t have any contact with mental health services, and my greatest fear was being hospitalised and not having access to that. That fear stopped me from reaching out for support.”

Clare cut herself regularly from the ages of around 16 to 22.

“It went on at its worst for quite a long time,” she says.

“There would be days when I wouldn’t cut myself, then for months and months it would be every day again.”

During this time, at around the age of 18, she stopped hiding what she was doing.

“It was almost too exhausting to keep it hidden,” she says.

“I went out for an evening with friends and I didn’t wear a cardigan. People were quite shocked, because some of the cuts were very fresh. Unfortunately, I think letting people know about my cutting reinforced a difference between me and other people, when I was just trying to be honest about myself.

“But it just didn’t feel authentic to never show my arms. I love the sun and being outside, and having to cover up to make other people feel OK didn’t feel OK anymore.

“I didn’t deliberately want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I’m not going to hide my scars to make other people feel OK. It felt like coming out, in a sense.”

Fortunately for Clare, she discovered meditation and mindfulness, and found this helped her to stop self injuring.

“My view is that self injury is a lot about bringing yourself back into your body.” she says.

“The more grounded in your body you are, the less you are able to self injure. That’s certainly been my experience.

“I think they help because they make you concentrate on your physical experience of the world. rather than just being in your mind all the time.

“It was a way of developing a relationship with myself. I think I’d spent my whole life trying to escape myself.

“I am a thousand percent accepting of every part of my body now,” she adds.

“I’m probably seven or eight stone heavier than I was before I had my second daughter, but I’m so much more OK with my body.”

Clare knows that the scars will be with her for life and that they still draw strangers’ attention. While she is comfortable with this, she is aware the talking to her two daughters about them needs handling with some delicacy.

“People used to ask if I’d been in a car crash but now I think people recognise the scars for what they are. It’s easier not having to explain, but it’s like walking round saying ‘hello, yes, I’ve been to some really difficult places.’

“One thing I’ve found difficult is how to talk to my girls (aged seven and nine) about the scars. They accept them as part of me and ask questions and I try to give them age appropriate answers. When they were a lot younger, a friend’s child asked what they were and it took me by surprise.

“I said they were scars from a long time ago, when I’d been really unhappy and he just accepted that. That’s the kind of level my girls are at.

“It’s really difficult, because I don’t want to condone it, but can’t deny my experience.”

One thing that has helped Clare to cope with being open and honest about her scars is her work in setting up and running Embodied, a social enterprise which provides support for young people and parents affected by self harm and professionals supporting them.

“It’s important to take self injury seriously,” she says.

“There has been a move towards dismissing it, for instance thinking that someone is just doing it because a friend is, and that’s dreadful. People don’t cut themselves unless they feel very bad.

“Acknowledging people’s pain is important. It makes sense of my experience and suffering, if I can use it to help other people. It gives meaning and value to what I went through.”