From the American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse:
"Approximately 1% of the United States population uses physical self-injury as a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings or situations, often using it to speak when no words will come. Despite the fact that self-injury is far from rare, myths and misunderstanding surround this psychological ailment -- mistaken ideas that often result in self-harmers being treated badly by police, doctors, therapists, and emergency room personnel.
Self-harm scares people. The behavior can be disturbing and difficult to understand, and it is often treated in a simplistic or sensational manner by the press. As a result, friends and loved ones of people who self-injure often feel frightened, isolated, and helpless. Sometimes they resort to demands or ultimatums as a way of trying to regain some control over the situation, only to see things deteriorate further.
The first step toward coping with self-injurious behavior is education: bringing reliable information about who self-injures, why they do it, and how they can learn to stop to people who self-injure and to their friends, loved ones, and medical caregivers. ASHIC was founded to meet this need for honest, accurate information.
In response to society's mistaken ideas about self-harm, the American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse was created to educate and inform medical and mental health professionals, the media, and the general public, sorting myth from fact and explaining what is known about self-harm. One of ASHIC's major projects is National Self-Injury Awareness Day. In this grassroots effort, people across the country and the world whose lives have been affected by self-injury deliver fact sheets, reports, and brochures to those who make decisions about the treatment of those who self-harm."
I wrote a blog post back in December on glamorizing self-harm (here) and in that post I also touch a little on my own history with self-harm.
I used to cut. A lot. It's kind of funny how open I am about it now considering when I cut, I went to so much trouble to keep the marks hidden and keep anyone from finding out. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about self-harm and the people who use it.
- Self- harm is a failed suicide attempt.
- People who self-harm are looking for attention or pity from others.
- Self-harm is just a manipulation tool.
- Only deeply depressed people self-harm.
- Only teenagers self-harm.
- Only "emo" or "goth" kids self-harm.
- People only self-harm while high or drunk.
- Only people with a drug/alcohol problem self-harm.
- Only people who are psychotic self-harm.
- Cutting is the only way people self-harm.
- People who self-harm want to die.
- Temporary relief and/or distraction from emotional pain, overwhelming/intense negative feelings, panic, anxiety, etc.
- Punishment. For what? Depends on the person. I used to have a friend who cut himself every time he smoked a cigarette after he had said he was quitting. Whenever he slipped up and had one, he cut as a way to punish himself. He's been cigarette free for 3 years now but hasn't cut in 5.
- Expression of thoughts or feelings in which the person cutting doesn't understand or can't verbally express.
- Some use it as a coping mechanism for things they can't or won't talk about it.
- Some people do use it for expression of their issues in hopes that it will get some one's attention, possibly to seek out help or support that they may be unable to bring themselves to ask for.
- To feel something instead of just feeling numb.
- And sadly, there are some people who do it for the wrong reasons. Such as just to get attention from any and everyone, because they think it's cool, because people they know are doing it, because it's been grossly glamorized, etc.
When I used to self-harm, I cut. I usually used a small, sharp kitchen knife but a razor blade would do the trick if I wasn't around a knife or wasn't able to go get one. It took me a while before I realized I could just buy a small pocket knife and hide that so I wouldn't have to use razorblades and wouldn't have to worry about sneaking to the kitchen for a knife and then cleaning and sterilizing it once I was done with it. I mostly cut on my thighs so no one would see them and sometimes on my stomach and upper arms. Anywhere I could keep hidden in regular clothes worked best for me when I was cutting because I didn't want anyone to see what I was doing. I wanted what I got out of it without having anyone know because I knew it wasn't healthy and wasn't good for me to be doing. I knew if people saw the cuts and the scars they would question how it happened because it's not fun, cute, silly, romantic, sweet, pretty or anything other than ugly, dangerous and harmful. I also knew if I cut where people could see, I'd end up making excuses for how I got the mark on my skin and it wouldn't take long for someone to realize I wasn't having as many mishaps as I was saying. So, I kept it all hidden the best that I could. My ex-boyfriend Luke saw them but he also cut and had issues with depression so he didn't judge me or freak out about them.
From Studies have suggested that when people who self-injure get emotionally overwhelmed, an act of self-harm brings their levels of psychological and physiological tension back to a bearable baseline level almost immediately. In other words, they feel a strong uncomfortable emotion, don't know how to handle it (indeed, often do not have a name for it), and know that hurting themselves will reduce the emotional discomfort extremely quickly. They may still feel bad afterward but they don't have that panicky jittery trapped feeling.
That's pretty accurate. It can be calming, albeit a horrible way of getting yourself calm but it's true. It's a very fast fix. The fix isn't a real fix, it's similar to someone who uses drugs or alcohol to cope actually. As someone who used to use drugs as well as cutting to help cope with depression, anxiety, etc; I understand perfectly well that you're not really fixing anything. You're just making it feel better for the moment and then it sucks again later. Then you do your quick temporary fix that feels so good in that moment and for a little while. Then you're back to it not being better again so you keep going back for more. It's a vicious cycle.
It's also just easier to focus on and deal with physical pain than it is to deal with emotional pain or trauma sometimes. It's like an escape in a way. You can live in that moment in the pain and that's all you feel. That's the same as using it as a distraction, though. It doesn't last.
I self-harmed for several reasons. Sometimes it was because I just felt numb and wanted to feel something. Sometimes I was just so overwhelmed with painful thoughts and negative emotion that I sought out relief through self-harm. Sometimes it was about control. Because I hurt so much and was in such a bad place and I didn't know what to do or how to fix it. I couldn't control how I felt and couldn't find a solution. I could control the cutting though and that gave me a calming effect and the illusion that I still had some control over something, that I wasn't just completely out of control in every aspect of my life.
I finally decided one day that I was sick of being miserable. I was sick of being a mess. I was sick of hurting myself. I was sick of self-medicating with drugs. I was just sick of the person I had let myself become by not dealing with things and by letting my problems and issues own me. I can't remember for the life of me what it was that made me snap and say, "that's it, I've had enough." I stopped using drugs and stopped cutting. I struggled with both but I was determined I was going to become a better person and be happy.
When I was in an armed robbery the first time I lived in Northern CA, that set my progress back a little bit. I was having nightmares a lot after that happened. Having a gun held to the back of your head and another aimed at the side of your head with a group of guys in masks screaming at you and threatening your life will do that to a person. I was afraid to seek help for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after that, so I didn't. I started having panic attacks because every little thing freaked me out the first few weeks. The nightmares were horrible and caused me more panic and anxiety. I was angry at myself for handing it so poorly. I thought I should have been stronger than that, should have not let it get to me as badly as it did. I started cutting again for a while after that because it was the only thing I knew to do to help relieve some of the overwhelming feelings and tension I was facing. I stopped cutting again after a few months. I went through this downward spiral again after that where I drank way too much, started taking pain killers when I didn't need them and then I'd cut once in a while when everything got to be too much.
I was 23 the last time I cut. I'll be 27 this June. Shane was amazingly helpful as I went through this. We've been together almost 6 years now and knew each other for a year before we started dating. I was open with him about it and if he saw a scar or mark on me, I'd be honest and say that I'd cut. He never yelled or got angry, he'd just be upset. And that hurt more than if he had just been angry and yelled. I'd want to cut and then end up sitting in the floor in tears, crying because I didn't know what else to do because everything hurt so much but I didn't want to cut. I got to a point where I'd just talk to Shane whenever I wanted to cut. I've always had a problem being able to talk to people about my emotions and feelings. I hate feeling vulnerable so I keep a lot of stuff inside. Sometimes it didn't help but most of the time, it did. He understood. He'd also dealt with depression and some other issues before I'd met him. He wasn't judgmental, he didn't try to force me into getting help, he didn't yell, he didn't talk down to me, he just listened and together, we worked through it. Then I started talking about it after a while, with other people who had some similar issues and gone through similar things I had gone through. It sounds cheesy but all that soul searching ended up being very healing.
I used to think going for 3 or 4 days without self-harm was a good thing. When I'd go for weeks at a time before crashing again, I'd lie to myself and say I had it under control more and that it wasn't as big of an issue anymore. Which wasn't true. It doesn't matter if you do it every day, once a week or just a few times a month.
I haven't cut in almost 4 years now and I don't even have the urges to do so anymore. Back when I was going through this, I felt desperate at times, like there would never be a time where I wouldn't need to cut to feel better.
I know it's hard to get help but please, don't be afraid to. The hardest part is admitting you have a problem and then having the courage to ask for help in getting through it. There are people out there that can help, that won't judge you and won't treat you like an attention starved person without any real problems. You can even seek help online. There are chat rooms, message boards and online support groups to help. There are some great resources out there. Reaching out for help is a scary thing but just know that you can get help if you want to from somewhere.
Some links for self-harm information, support, etc: Scar Tissue.net, TheSite, Recover Your Life, Facts about Self-Injury, Help Guide: Cutting and Self-Harm, S.A.F.E. Alternatives, ReachOut.com: Self Harm.
If you think someone in your life is self-harming, please, talk to them. It doesn't hurt to ask if you think you have even the slightest inclination to be worried about someone in your life. You never know what the people in your life might be silently going through and an awkward question might mean more than you could ever realize.