Multiple times in the past few weeks I have seen things on social media about self-harm. The most touching was a post by a father who had just discovered that his child had been cutting herself. This poor man was shocked, confused, angry, and bewildered. He had no idea what to say or do, and he was on social media begging for help. He wanted to know why she would do such a “crazy thing” and what he could do to make her stop. The girl’s mother said she was going to ground the girl for the rest of the summer and take away her cell phone as punishment.
That man isn’t alone. According to Crisis Text Line, there are more than 2,000,000 cases of self-injury reported every year. Pay attention to that word “reported” and consider that most people try their best to keep their injuries hidden and therefore it goes unreported. I was one in that latter group and I’ve not admitted that to many people until today. The truth is, however, I cannot continue to be quiet. The above referenced post along with way too many others have been showered with so much false information that it infuriates me. During this week and next I want to clear up some myths, tell my own story, and answer that man’s question about what he, and others like him, should do about their child or teenager who are purposely causing harm to their bodies.
I have to say here I paused staring at my screen for several minutes before I ever began typing. This is a very difficult, emotional topic to share and I am struggling to find the words to express my experiences with self-harm. I guess the best thing I can do is to simply start at the beginning.
As I’ve mentioned in my post about childhood anxiety, I have always had a lot of emotional and mental struggles. Around the age of six or seven my anxiety began resulting in me being destructive. I started tearing up pens, chewing on pencils, destroying paper clips, picking at wallpaper, etc. In addition to those habits, however, I also started subconsciously picking at my skin, especially on my head. I regularly had sores there but few people knew as my hair covered it well. I would also occasionally press my thumbnails deeply enough that it would break the skin on my arms, legs, and chest. The old “eraser game” (where you rub an eraser on your skin as long as you can, was one of my favorites to play. I always won.
Over time these things weren’t so subconscious anymore. I began to realize that the small amount of discomfort these things brought, also supplied a certain amount of relief. It became a way to let go of negative emotions without having to cry which made me feel weak and out of control. It gave me the ability to regulate and to control my own feelings which were normally spinning out of control.
After a while, I began to crave that feeling and so I increased the amount of pain I inflicted upon myself in order to increase the amount of peace I felt about my life. At the time, I didn’t truly understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. All that I knew was that it helped me to feel better in times of stress.
While self-harm did bring an emotional relief, however, it also brought a sense of confusion and even guilt. I had never heard or seen anything about self-harm. As a result, I truly believed I was the only person on the face of the planet who received emotional relief from physical pain. Having social anxiety, this made it even more important for me to hide what I was doing. I felt that if others found out, they would label me as “weird” or “strange” and that scared me.
Isolation and Addiction To Self-Harm
To avoid anyone finding out, I began to isolate myself more and more. I pushed away the few friends I had. My room became my whole life. I began avoiding people, including my family, more than I ever had before. My cravings increased more and more. I found new ways to inflict pain upon myself, sometimes very dangerous ways that I’m not comfortable discussing.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, self-injury had become like a drug to me. I had to feel pain. If I was in a situation where I couldn’t achieve it, it was all I could think about. I began to realize this probably wasn’t healthy and that I should stop but I didn’t know how. In all honesty, I didn’t even really want to.
Revelation To My Parents
I believe I was about 12 years old when I went to the doctor and they discovered I had a heart murmur. At the cardiologist’s office I was expected to undress in front of my mom to put on a hospital gown so they could perform a few tests. I was terrified and began shaking and crying. I was so afraid the doctors would see the marks from my self-injury. Completely overwhelmed with emotions, I told my mom about my scars. She had had no idea.
To her credit, she was AWESOME. She didn’t overreact. She assured me everything would be okay and that if the doctors asked I could just tell them it wasn’t related to why I was there that day. Later she and my dad talked about it and she told me I needed to talk to my father. I don’t remember if I did or not. But I will say I am so grateful she didn’t get angry, yell, or scream at me.
My parents didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Looking back they probably just thought it was some weird, pre-teen thing and I would out grow it. They had no way of knowing it was related to my inability to cope with negative emotions. In general, they thought I was doing better emotionally than I had for years. Mental health problems weren’t something regularly talked about and they honestly had no clue. So it really wasn’t brought up much after that although they made attempts to not allow me as much time to myself.
After realizing how concerned my parents were about my addiction, the struggle actually became worse. While I had previously assumed I was weird for doing it, now I knew for sure that I had a problem. But I had zero idea how to go about fixing that said problem. You see, I now felt like harming myself was harming my parents. While harming me didn’t seem that big of a deal, I didn’t want to hurt them. But I still had all of these emotions that I just didn’t know how to deal with.
As a result of this conflict, a cycle began between anxiety, self-harm, and depression. I would become extremely anxious and unsure how to handle the thoughts and emotions so I would harm myself. Immediately afterwards I would feel extremely guilty for upsetting my parents. Depression would take hold and I would be convinced I was a horrible person. Of course, that low self-esteem would worsen my anxiety and it would start all over again.
Wanting To Stop
Around the age of 15 I began to realize just how far into this I was and I decided I wanted to stop. At least, a part of me wanted to stop. I realized the power of addiction and knew it wasn’t good that I was so dependent on self-inflicted pain. I also saw the progression and feared how much worse it would get. But while I knew I should stop and I wanted to be “normal” I was also very afraid.
By this point I had been harming myself as a way to cope with my emotions for about half of my life. I wasn’t sure if I could find other ways to manage my thoughts. For my entire life, I had prided myself in not being a “crier”. I told myself I was “strong” and that emotions were overrated. Truthfully, however, I was way more emotional and sensitive than others. I was so weak that I had to mask the emotional pain by inflicting physical pain upon myself. Despite what I told others, I knew this truth and it scared me.
I began to wonder how I would manage without injuring myself. What would I do when my emotions were out of control? How would I react when I was sad, upset, or angry? A part of me wanted to stop, but a very big part of me (anxiety) was afraid. And the worst part was, I was completely alone. I was way too embarrassed to let my parents know it was still an issue. They hadn’t mentioned it for years and I didn’t want to upset them again. Friends would just think I was weird. So I wrestled with the decision entirely on my own.
The following year, I developed a close, maybe more than a friend type of relationship with a boy. Through a lot of conversation and strange circumstances, I learned that he also received stress relief from harming himself. I was in complete shock as I had never known anyone like me in that regard before. Having someone to talk to about my feelings who actually understood was completely amazing. Even though he had the same problem, he told me, for the first time, that I deserved better for myself. Those words changed me. But I couldn’t change him.
He confided in me, and I confided in my parents, and they contacted his. Just as had happened with me years before, no one recognized the emotional pain behind the physical scars. Because his injuries were much more visible than mine had been, he was unable to minimize the physical effects of what he had done. His family was much more strict than mine and he was made to feel completely horrible for the marks on his skin. But from my understanding, no one ever took the time to help his heart heal.
I’m no longer in regular contact with him, although we have crossed paths a time or two. I have no idea how he’s doing in regards to his emotions or his self-injury addiction today. But what I do know is that thanks to our conversations and his help, I was able to break my addiction.
Breaking my addiction was not easy. I failed many, many times. But each and every day that I made it through without harming myself, I counted as a victory. In next week’s post I’ll include some information on the steps I took to break out, but right now I just want to say that there were a lot of changes in my life from the age of 16 to 18. During that time, I actually learned how to cry from emotional pain. It was embarrassing to me and the first few times it happened, it honestly made me afraid.
Eventually, however, I began to understand that tears were a normal reaction to pain, while my previous methods were anything but normal. Armed with that fact, I was able to begin to accept my outward emotions. I became able to see what I used to view as weakness as an incredible, amazing strength.
By the time I entered into college, I thought self-injury was behind me. I made it through my freshman year without even a thought about it. But in my sophomore year a lot of struggles took place, including the unexpected loss of my oldest brother. I was devastated. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel a need to cry, although I did force myself a time or two as a way to “mourn” as others expected. In fact, the opposite was true. I actually recall laughing while in the church for his funeral. Darkness overtook me and it just seemed as though I was numb and that scared me. I needed to feel something, and so I found a way to do so.
Anger and guilt took hold of me afterwards and I went to a pastor at the church I attended near my college for help. He was only the third person I had ever confided in about my problem. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much help. He told me a lot of things I had already figured out the hard way. But I was so glad to know others understood that the problem wasn’t the self-injury but that that was only a symptom.
I struggled a lot that year but managed to regain control. As I got married, had children, and moved on with my life, I would love to say I have never had that thought again. But that would be a lie. I can say, however, that I have been able to defeat the desire every time since then. My husband is a great supporter and I am so thankful I am able to express my thoughts to him in order to help process them and move on, safely, away from the dangers of self-injury.
Be Sure To Check Out Part II!
If you know someone who struggles with cutting or self-injury and don’t know how to help them, check out the second part of this article here.