When I was 15, I began hurting myself. I’ve discussed this before and the reasons why. It was to cope with emotional pain. A pain so deep it was all I could feel. As I began cutting it was an outlet, a savior of sorts. It was a way I could feel in a cold, uncaring world.
I know it started as an outlet for my pain. Family pretended for a while it was a phase. The therapists said I’d “grow out of it as I learned to feel.” And honestly it’s not uncommon for a child in extreme emotional termoil to cut themselves. But let me add a caution that it’s not healthy, it’s not a phase and it IS a cry for help.
It’s a serious problem that if left unchecked will become a full on addiction.
For me it led me to many different therapists and psychiatrists. Several crisis hospitalizations, multiple suicide attempts, and a six month stay in a hospital program for Alternatives’ Adult Intensive Unit for self-harm right here in Hawaii. It led to a long struggle to quit and it almost took my life. It robbed me of feelings and made me believe pain was all I could feel for more than fifteen years.
So when I speak on this subject I should be considered a professional witness.
While I’m no longer actively self-injuring, the addiction and need to feel shaped my life for half my life. If you’re surprised to hear that “cutting” can get that bad, well, you’re not the only one. I hope this will help you understand the cutter a bit more. Maybe even prompt you to “get involved” if you know someone cutting themselves.
So let’s clear up a few things to help the non-cutter understand:
** Cutting Gets You High — and the high will get you Hooked
The cutter is not being edgy, it’s not a cry for attention. It’s a cry for help even if they don’t see it themselves. I believed there was nothing wrong with me. I believed my cutting was so personal and didn’t affect others so why the big deal. I knew it let me feel in a cold, cruel, empty world. A cry for attention vs a cry for help?
The cutter hides their scars, hides the pain. They don’t want to stop, they can’t see a reason to stop, and they don’t see it as hurting others. You might think they’ve lost their minds and in a way, hasn’t every addict? I lost my mind to the high the pain gave me. The control I had over how much I felt and even when I allowed myself to feel.
But it’s not all that complicated – self-harm releases endorphins, which means it quite literally makes you high.
So if asked why I continued to cut myself. It’s the same reason every addict falls prey to their own vices. I’ve cut myself in anger, when I felt unworthy of love, to punish myself, to reward myself, to feel, and to escape the emotional pain inside. It was my control of feelings and my way to forget.
Like every other drug. The human brain eventually develops a tolerance to self-harm. You then require more and more to feel. When I first began cutting I remember I could scratch myself and draw the least bits of blood. I could go days between cuts. As time went on I needed more and more. The cuts became deeper, more painful and I would be slow about it. They became so bad I was getting stitches for some of them. One got infected so bad I required intervenus antibiotics because I spent days opening and reopening the cut.
With an addiction like self-harm, you still “cope” with the immediate problem. You get the chemical high as well and you also get loads of scarring, shame, and a new secret to keep from everyone around you.
And yes, there are withdrawal symptoms. It is a true addiction and if you try to quit you may get tremors, headaches, or the shakes. Why is this? It’s because endorphins function like heroin. So quitting the thing that gets you high will cause all the same symptoms of a drug addict. When I quit my body got mad at the lose of the high. It began withdrawals and started screaming for that “needle in the arm”, that next high.
** Cutting Isn’t Some Fad and certainly isn’t just a recent thing
News reports tend to treat self-harm as a scary new fad, like planking. The last time self-harm became very visible in the news was when everyone was talking about the “emo” culture. It was treated as if the self-harm was part of the fad, along with the eye makeup, dark hair and dark clothes.
Self harm is an age old problem and predates the current fad mentality. You can find references to self-harm in the writing of frickin’ Herodotus, and with the so-called “needle girls” of 19th Century England — women who’d compulsively stab themselves with sewing needles, over and over.
Considering we know this is an addiction and a symptom of much deeper problems. That news shouldn’t be surprising. We know things used to suck a lot more than they suck now, and their understanding of mental illness was, even more backwards than ours is today.
To this day, the average person is mostly in the dark about self-harm. That doesn’t help the stigma.
** Another thing that doesn’t help is Movies Never Get It Right
There are a ton of great, sweeping epics about addiction. Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, The Lost Weekend … hell, IMDb has a list of the “top 70” alcohol and drug addiction movies. But as far as mature depictions of self-harm, there’s … Girl, Interrupted, and I think that’s it. If I’ve missed any, please let me know.
The point is that when self-harm is depicted in movies and TV, it’s at best afterthought, or worse, something the character gets over instantly.
Take Degrassi which has featured three self-injurers:
Ellie saw a therapist once and got over it
Adam (the transgender character) indulged during his transition to being male (and never again)
Cam, well, it was used to foreshadow his suicide, because what other direction could it possibly take him?
But the worst example is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Secretary — she self-harms until her boss orders her to stop, setting the tone for their future BDSM relationship
In movies, if kinky sex isn’t causing psychiatric problems, it’s curing them, which forces me to conclude that no one in Hollywood has ever had sex nor a cutting addiction.
The point is that the culture has spent an entire generation teaching people to take those addictions seriously, and that made a huge difference. It made a difference in how addictions are treated and viewed and in removing the stigma associated with those addictions. Like it or not, Hollywood depictions goes a long way toward telling us how to feel about things, and movies are full of ruined heroin addicts and alcoholics and tearful interventions. Cutters, well, we’re just going through a rough patch, or doing it for shock value.
That’s why I have to keep reminding people and trying to teach people about another serious and potentially more dangerous addiction that is self-harm aka cutting.
** It’s Not Just for Moody Teenagers
Recently, I tried to kill myself. It’s no secret and I don’t hide it. It landed me in the hospital for a very long time.
It wasn’t until the knowledge of Robin Williams suicide that the struggle of mental illness and addiction because main stream. You see, suddenly everyone was talking about suicide, and that made it easier for others suffering from the thoughts of suicide and self-harm to come forward. I was doing it before this but more people are now coming forward and there is less shame. After all if it could take Robin Williams from us it could take your mother, sister, daughter, son or father just as easily. Self-harm became a center focus as early intervention to prevent the inevitable suicide attempt.
That’s the way our culture works. These taboo subjects don’t come up around the dinner table until there’s a famous case to tie it to. The conversations about suicide after Williams’ death were some of the most important in my life, and I know I’m not alone.
There has never been the equivalent for self-harm and it remains in the shadows too often. It’s time those who struggle could come forward and get help before it ends in suicide.
Please don’t think I am praying for some famous self-harm sufferer to come out. I don’t want anyone to have to “take one for the team” to bring the focus we need to this addiction. I want to make it easier for people to come forward. Today it’s all to easy for a bystander to either panic and declare it a suicide attempt, or worse to write it off as a cry for attention. And everyone sees it as an adolescent thing, a “temporary phase” caused by too many hormones or just a need for attention.
Well, when I was at the hospital program, I was in the adult unit because I was over the age of 18. Approximately half of the people in our group sessions were adults. Most of the adults in these groups started self-harming when they were younger, but a few had started as recently as that year. Studies show that there are plenty of full-on grown-ups, with boobs and beards and everything, who self-harm. There are esimates and they very widely. It is known that somewhere between 400 and 1400 out of every 100,000 adults self-injure every year, but this estimate is based largely on hospital attendance, so it’s not counting the people who don’t “get caught.” And while some of these people have been self-harming since they were young (like me), some don’t even start until they are adults.
The main reason self-harm is so much more visible among the young is that it’s much harder to hide self-injury as a kid than as an adult. Parents, teachers, siblings all watching makes it harder to hide it.
But once you leave school and live on your own, no one is looking at your wrists. Your employers don’t care what you do to yourself as long as you’re still getting your work done. It’s fairly easy to slip under the radar for a cutter.
To get help, you have to want to get it. Or have it forced upon you and that’s only when it becomes way to bad to control.
** The Stigma Makes It Impossible to Talk About
The world is full of addiction and suicide help hotlines. The resources for these are nearly endless and staffed with people willing and able to help. Insurance companies now recognize alcohol and drugs as a sickness and even cover much if not all the cost of treatment programs. Employers give leave to those seeking help and many even have resources for employees stuggling with these addictions and suicidal thoughts.
But if you’re addicted to self-harm, your options are far, far more limited. The only one that really exists is 1-800-DON’T-CUT and several problems exist here. One no TTY for hearing impaired and two no real staff so someone in crisis must leave a message and when staff is available (days later sometimes) they call back.
That’s not terribly helpful for somebody calling in the middle of a crisis at 3 a.m.
In that case, your only hope is the suicide lines — but then it’s the hotline worker’s turn to be confused when you explain that you’re not actually suicidal. They don’t have a script for that and often become hostile and tell you to stop wasting their time.
It’s worse though when you call an addiction line or group for help. People still don’t see cutting and self-harm as a real addiction.
To be fair most of them do try to help anyway, but their suggestions usually boil down to finding ways to distract yourself. Which, gee, why didn’t I think of that?
One counselor suggested to me some form of self-harm that won’t do permanent damage, like holding an ice cube. I’ve gotten advice to put a rubber band on my wrist to snap when I got the urge. I got bigger rubber bands and snapping harder and harder. So … problem solved? Not really because it didn’t work and I always went back to cutting.
You can try talking to your friends, but that’s tough when your addiction is still stigmatized as a plea for attention and not the addiction it really is.
Well, let me offer this as advice: if someone you love is pleading for attention, there’s nothing pathetic about that. It’s part of being human. Ignoring them is the pathetic thing.
When I was at hospitalized this last time, I had to fill out these logs whenever I wanted to hurt myself. One of the questions was “What are you trying to communicate?”
This seemed insane to me because I had hide things for so long.
How could it be about communication if I was spending so much energy keeping it secret? I discovered by doing them though that somethings have no words. Some needs are deeper than a need to communicate. In my case I wanted to feel so badly that I’d do anything just to feel. You know what we found? Hugs work to feel. A warm body against yours, a heart beating to tell you that you’re not alone.
Try asking your loved one or your friend if they can tell you what it is they need to communicate. It’s a start. Try going with them to get help, maybe even be their “cutting” support line. Does this mean you my get a call at 3am? Yup. But the life you save maybe one you love.
All action is a a form of communication, even if it’s only to yourself. One of the most gratifying things anyone ever told me was that attention is a basic human necessity. All people have social needs, and if they’re not met, we fall apart.
My self-harm was a desperate need to have a problem solved. One I couldn’t communicate. Cutting was the only thing I could figure out to do. Fear of being seen as a pathetic cry for attention made me hide it more and turned the whole thing into a (pardon the language) A cluster F***.
But hopefully society will come around on this, the same as it has on other addictions. So if you find out somebody close to you is doing this, don’t freak out about it, but don’t ignore it, either. After all, there’s more of us than you think.
Addiction is not a pathetic cry for attention; it’s a call to it that you should personally answer when you see it. One person can change the downward spiral and stop it cold. Be that person please.