Why I admitted to self harming in front of 800 strangers

Posted to an RAF Tornado squadron in the mid 80s I was a fresh faced 18 year old, brought up on stories of service life from both my father and grandfather. This was the culmination of an ambition that I’d harboured for as long as I could remember and despite the military life and constant training for a potential nuclear war this was a relatively relaxed and pleasant experience. Inter service jokes about the RAF living in luxury whilst not entirely factual were at least based on truth.

The summer of 1985 was a glorious one for me, the sun shone on our Norfolk airbase and I was loving my work. The gender dysphoria that I’d struggled with all my life was being quiet and whilst I always longed after the elusive real me she stayed hidden deep inside.

As a colleague and I strolled across the squadron’s site the silence of the August afternoon was shattered by the sound of an explosion and we immediately ran to the source of the noise and upon entering the hardened aircraft shelter (HAS) we were met by a scene of utter devastation and horror.

1987 Steve Cook with a Tornado of 20 Sqn, RAF
1987 Steve Cook with a Tornado of 20 Sqn, RAF

The nose wheel on the aircraft had exploded severely injuring the airman who had been inflating it. A 19 year old, barely months older than me, lay in his own blood having lost his arm in the blast.

The commendation that the RAF presented me with later said that despite more senior personnel being present it was I who immediately took charge, placing a tourniquet around his severed limb and tightening it using a spanner from the toolkit, an action which saved his life.

I can’t tell you too much from personal recollection of what happened despite the event being etched into my consciousness, years of post traumatic stress helped to bury the details in an effort to protect me from the psychological impact.

In a misguided attempt to help me the RAF immediately posted me to Germany, effectively removing me from a support network that understood the trauma that I’d been through and placing me with people that had no idea of what had happened. The incident was spoken about in rumours and I was in no fit state to admit that I’d been there and correct them.

During this time, despite having first attempted suicide at the age of 12 due to my gender confusion, I began self harming. Whilst out drinking with my workmates I would go into the toilets, lock myself away and hurt myself.

I’d go into more detail but it’s generally assumed by those in the know that you can say that you harmed yourself but not how, apparently it might give people ideas. As someone that’s been there, I didn’t need other people giving me ideas, I showed imagination enough without outside influences.

This behaviour remained as my dark, guilty secret for three decades until I finally shared it with my former colleagues at my first RAF reunion as my true self, telling them of my journey to become Sophie, the suicide attempts, the pain and the self harming. The response was one of incredulity and compassion, they’d never realised that I’d been in so much pain and the wished that I’d been able to share it with them.


So why, after keeping those episodes a secret for more than half of my life, did I feel that it was important to open up about the fact that after 30 years without incident that I’d self harmed again recently to a conference of 800 business leaders?

Since my transition in the summer of 2015 and subsequent public profile I’d felt the need to share my story in an effort to help others and raise awareness of the issues that transgender people face. I’ve spoken at numerous conferences this year and it was in front of my biggest audience yet, talking about mental health at the Stonewall Workplace Conference last week that I opened up.

Sharing my story of coming out in Premier League football and my history of post traumatic stress, suicide attempts and self harming, all things that I’d spoken about historically in the past, I felt that it was important to be open about my recent experience in order to fight the stigma around it.

I freely admit that whilst my transition from male to female has finally seen me come to peace with myself and who I am it’s virtually impossible to go through a lifetime of pain and trauma entirely unscathed. I still have my demons and they choose manifest themselves at times of personal crisis.

And so it was a few weeks ago, a misunderstanding and lack of communication led to the potential loss of two very important relationships in my life. The situation exploded and I was left emotionally damaged and without the very people that were my support network.

When you find yourself in this deep it’s very difficult to step back and find the logical, safe course of action.

I’ve developed a system of trying to take the action with the least worse consequences. In the past this has included me deleting large numbers of friends on Facebook, working on the knowledge that this is hurting me by removing the very support network that I need at that moment. I recently went from 500 friends down to 200, and then again with this incident that was further reduced to just 20.

In the first example this helped me to avoid self harming, on the night that I did do it the trauma and despair that I faced meant that this wasn’t enough to alleviate the pain. Distraught, alone and ready to do something much more serious, for there are actions that are more serious than self harming, I stared at my hands.

I’d already deleted everyone on Facebook whilst sat on the bus, hiding my pain from the other passengers, and the prospect of being alone filled my very soul, stripping it of any positive thoughts.

Then, for the first time in three decades I hurt myself physically.

I’d already had a lifetime of hurting myself mentally with negative self talk and internal hatred, unable to come to terms with my gender dysphoria. 60% of transgender people attempt suicide and I wasn’t the exception.

Immediately I looked at the wounds and through the fog in my mind asked myself ‘how the hell are you going to hide that?’

That was the point that I realised that I had to actually take responsibility for what I’d done. I’d already spoken openly about my history of self harming and suicide attempts in an effort to reduce the stigma around them and make it easier for people in pain to share it with their loved ones and to get the help they need. If I tried to hide what I’d done then I’d have been reinforcing the stigma around mental health and self harming rather than fighting it.

It’s vitally important that the emotional anguish that people that struggle with suicidal feelings and self harming isn’t compounded by feelings of guilt and stigma. For people to share their feelings and ask for help this needs to be recognised as something that people have no control over. They aren’t attention seeking or drama queens, these are human beings in the worst kind of emotional pain and it won’t get better just because you think they should ‘man up’ or ‘pull themselves together.’

I wasn’t proud of what I had done but I also felt that I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. This was a battle won, rather than one lost, I was still here and like all of the other pain in my life I would use it to fuel my need to help educate people.

And so, Sophie Cook, transgender, ex-RAF, motorbike racer, newspaper editor, rock and sports photographer, stood up in the QEII Convention Centre and declared that she was also a self harm and suicide survivor.