Thursday, March 1, 2012

National Self-Injury Awareness Day

March 1st is National Self-Injury Awareness Day. This is a subject I feel deeply about as I have a lot of personal experience with it. In this post, the only things I will be talking about is Self-Harm Awareness and my own personal experiences with it. The first half of the post is mostly information and awareness on self-harm, the second half is where things get personal. It's a really long post but please take the time to read it. Self-harm is a more serious issue than people tend to realize and isn't something that should be taken lightly or treated as if it were just a minor annoyance instead of an actual problem that needs to be addressed.

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.
I think y'all get the idea. The fact is, there are a lot of reasons people self harm.
  • 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.
It's a personal thing and most cases where the person isn't doing it to act out or get attention, there are plenty or reasons that are driving them to physically inflict pain and hurt themselves. It's different for everyone from the reasons they do it to what they get out of it. It's more complex than most people realize and it is a serious problem.

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, TheSite, Recover Your Life, Facts about Self-Injury, Help Guide: Cutting and Self-Harm, S.A.F.E. Alternatives, 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.


Jack and Jill said...

Thanks for posting this. When I was younger - I hate to say "a teenager" because I realize that self-harm isn't something that can be isolated to youth - cutting, burning, etc. wasn't on my radar. I wasn't aware that people were doing it (technically I don't know that anyone in my social circle or even my high school did it, but this isn't a new trend so I'm guessing people were doing it). Now, it's a much more publicized issue than it was there, and I often sorry that my younger cousins, nephews, nieces, etc. might be considering it or actually doing it. I appreciate you spreading the word.


Eric said...

Thank you for posting this. As a person that struggles with cutting and depression (but I'm getting better every day) it really helps to read stories from people who have been there and been able to stop and reach a point where it's not a mental fight for them to not cut anywhere. It gives me hope for myself that one day I won't cut anymore and that one day I won't even have it in my mind as an out. Thank you again.

Courtney said...

I've read your blog for I guess a year or a little more now I don't remember exactly but this is my first time coming out of lurking mode to comment on something.

Thank you for writing this. So many people don't take depression or self-harm seriously at all. They don't even realize they probably know at least one person in their life who self-harms and sits in silent agony because no one knows.

I admire the courage you had to admit your problem and reach out to someone for help and support. That's always been the hardest part for me and I really don't know that I'll ever have the strength to go to someone in my real life and ask for help. I;ve tried before but like, I guess I chicken out is the easiest way to put it. I'm terrified I'll reach out to someone and they'll just laugh it off or tell me I'm going through a phase or accuse me of looking for attention. I'm just so scared of judgment and being brushed off that I can't bring myself speak out to anyone. This may sound kind of odd I guess but I was wondering if you had an email address I could reach you at? I'm not trying to be a weirdo or anything but I feel like you might be a good person that I could talk to? If not it's okay I understand.

Wonderful blog post. I appreciate you trying to spread awareness and try to dispelling the myths about self harm.

Alice In Puckland said...

Thank you for posting this. I love how open, honest and fearless of judgment and ridicule you are, Ash.

You helped me so much when my sister was going through her issues before she went to rehab where she was cutting a lot. I didn't understand it at all and I'm so glad I had you around to help me try to understand what Chelsea couldn't put in to words and to help talk to her. You're a big part of the reason why she even considered seeking treatment in the first place. People don't realize sometimes how much one person speaking out can help another person. If you had always stayed silent on issues like this I never would have known to come to you for help when I (and Chels) needed it.

Thank you for being able to write so openly and honestly about these types of issues. If you can reach out and even only a few people really listen and hear what you're saying and it makes a difference then it's worth it to me.

Sexy Smile said...

What an important and deeply personal post. I admire your courage in sharing this to help enlighten others. I have a teenage cousin who was cutting for awhile and it's an issue the whole family struggles with.

Anonymous said...

we got a day to remind us to keep fighting. By the way is not national, is ineternacional

Advizor54 said...

My wife's best friend was a cutter and it took me a long time to get my head around it. Thanks to some understanding friends who knew how to capture the issues in a way that I could process, I was able to join her support circle and aid her along in her healing.

Articles like yours are powerful medicine for people like me who need to understand what our friends are going through. Congratulations on your recovery and your continued work in this area.