By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Self-injurious thoughts and behaviors are a major public health problem that traditional interventions have been unable to address on a large scale, reports the American Psychological Association. More and more cases are being detected and this article shares a story of one local student’s perspective on self-injury. Her name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy.
It’s the end of another day for Emma.
“You get to that part (of the day) where it’s quiet. I’ve got no more noise to take up space in my head. And here I am again — it was a great day but now I’m feeling bad, back at that same place.”
Instead of reading a book, texting with a friend, watching YouTube videos or even just crying herself to sleep, Emma, alone in her bedroom, performs a ritual form of self-medication that she first tried in the 9th grade: she cuts herself.
In the beginning, Emma used whatever she could find that was sharp, afraid to cut too deeply. She favored the blades from pencil sharpeners, which were easily removed. Then this past year she started using old razor blades, even her own fingernails.
She used to cut on her wrist, where she could easily hide it under her watch band. Then she switched to her arms, which could be concealed with long sleeves. But one cut on her arm left such a bad scar that she then tried to burn it off, figuring it would be easier to explain the mark as an accident with a curling iron.
Now she cuts high on her hip where the cuts can’t be easily seen. She makes multiple cuts just until they bleed then stops.
The pain she describes as something akin to a stubbed toe, with a throbbing pain that unlike a stubbed toe continues for days. “I cut, I wait until it stops throbbing a couple of days later, then I cut again. So it’s that constant physical pain,” she said.
“For me at least… it’s something to take the mental pain and make it a physical pain, so you can focus on something else.”
To her it feels like, “the only release that I have,” for her emotional pain.
“Someone gets me.”
For Emma, self-injury had its roots in depression. Her mom suffers from depression and also faced a life-threatening illness while Emma was still in elementary school, which shaped her still-forming perspective on life. “It changed my perspective on a lot of things. From 3rd grade I was like, the world’s a bad place.”
Then in 9th grade, this self-described extrovert realized she was, “feeling lonely in groups of people.” She had body-image issues. She knew she had been feeling sad since around the 6th grade, “but didn’t ever put a label on it. In middle school they don’t ever say the word depression. And so then in 9th grade when i was in my health class and they were talking about being depressed, I realized, oh, maybe that’s what it is.”
Rather than talking to her parents about how she was feeling, Emma chalked up a lot of what she was feeling to normal adolescent mood swings.
The idea to hurt herself as a means of dealing with her depression came from an unexpected source. “I was on Tumblr a lot. And Tumblr’s the one social media that doesn’t really filter (content for appropriateness)… stuff would show up about self-harm and almost glorify being sad. So I was like, oh cool, someone gets me.”
“When you’re depressed you have that idea planted in your head of ‘What if I hurt myself?’ Or ‘What if I didn’t exist?’ You know, those super dark thoughts… Usually if you have enough serotonin in your head or you’re not crazy — that’s what my mom says, ‘If you’re not crazy…’ — you just kind of shake it off.”
But once she knew a friend was cutting herself, it became a viable solution. “I don’t think it’s peer pressure as much as you convince yourself to do it. And once you start doing it, it’s a habit,” akin to an addiction.
During all of 9th grade, Emma cut on and off, then more heavily her sophomore year and first half of her junior year. Then she stopped for a full year in 2015 after a suicide attempt. But a depressive episode her senior year triggered Emma to start again.
“A physical way to keep a secret”
Emma’s family was unable to help Emma mostly because they were unaware of the depths of her pain.
When finally she did reveal her depression to her mom sophomore year, Emma felt interrogated instead of heard. She decided then that, “Well, if that’s the way my mom is going to react every time, I won’t tell her.”
“They tried to get me to go to the doctor,” describes Emma of her parents’ response. Though an appropriate and safe choice, to Emma, “I felt like they were kidnapping me,” imposing their own solution instead of asking her what she felt she needed.
A panic attack at school her junior year sent her fleeing back home. Once there, her parents helped to calm her and, handing her a glass of water with her anti-anxiety medication, noticed cuts on her arm.
This was the realization of Emma’s worst fears. “You never want parents to find out… It’s the fear of the reaction.”
True to her fears, according to Emma her parents initially, “freaked out.”
“I don’t know how I would react if I were in the same position… I wish they would have seen it and immediately started asking how I was and what brought it on and asking my story. But instead, it felt like I was in trouble. They were mad at me. I was so sick to my stomach.”
That does not mean she blames them for their reaction. “I understand how surprised they were and how terrified they were. They weren’t thinking, ‘Okay, what would be the most helpful way for me to react right now?’”
Fearing the consequences of being honest, Emma chose to lie and told her parents it was only time it had happened. They believed her.
But even after assuring Emma that she could tell them anything, the encounter and her parents’ response, much like when she disclosed her depression, made her withdraw even further into her secret.
Ever since, Emma feels like her parents walk around as though on eggshells around their daughter. “It isn’t the same relationship.”
All of this Emma uses, in part, as justification for continuing to keep her secret — and continuing to cut herself.
“It’s just a habit.”
Self-injury is not something Emma always considers to be a problem. “It’s almost like a recreational thing. Sometimes it’s a hobby. Sometimes it’s like a ritual and I need to do this… It’s just a habit.”
While the resulting pain has the effect of making her want to tell someone, her anxiety about the unknown outcome prevents it.
Emma was open with a couple of friends throughout her struggle with depression and would try to get them to notice the cutting, taking off her watch or rolling up her sleeves at school.
“I saw people look, but no one ever said anything. Really the only people who notice are the ones who have done it,” she said. “Which sucks, because the people who have done it, who have been through bad things, are usually pretty self-destructive. Are they really going to be able to help you?”
Once Emma realized she had friends who also self-injure they become a support network for each other. When one would stop, the other would stop to support her. But if one one started, it also gave Emma permission to start.
More than anything, Emma has struggled with knowing where to look for help in the absence of an appropriate person noticing. Part of her wishes that any of her friends who knew had told her parents.
“Oh, that’s not my kid.”
Emma feels more than anything that, “someone has to talk about it.” She feels a certain strength in sharing her story anonymously, because Emma — a high-achieving student and who is active in her church and community — wants every parent who reads this article to consider, even for a minute, that this could be their own child and to have the conversation.
At the same time, she acknowledges that, “There’s nothing that my parents could have done that would have prevented it. And that’s so important for parents to know… Even if you ask all the right questions. My parents sometimes ask the right questions and I straight-up lie to their faces. There’s not anything you can do or not do.”
Nor can parents cut-proof their homes. “It’s really easy (to find object with which to cut). No matter how much you take away, you can’t prevent it.”
Emma sees prevention in parents keeping their eyes wide open to the truth of their kids’ lives. “Parents just always assume, ‘Oh, that’s not my kid.’” Instead of having the conversation parents assume there’s no need to have the conversation. She wishes there were some kind of training for parents to look for the signs of self-injury and to respond productively.
First of all, “As parents you should always be talking to your kids.”
Rather than asking yes/no questions, instead ask (in a cell phone- and distraction-free environment), “‘Is there anything you want me to know about?’… If the answer is no, then you keep digging. But if the answer is yes, then you give them the space to share. It takes a lot of time sometimes… Don’t stop the conversation halfway through.”
For parents struggling to relate to this common disordered thought, Emma compares it to any other addiction or habit, like a dieter who can’t control food cravings.
“Everyone’s experienced some sort of habit… Even though parents might not know what it’s like to deal with self-harm, they do know what it’s like to be addicted to something big or small. And they can use that to help, to be empathetic.”
That’s not to say Emma doesn’t also have a role to play. “There were totally things that I could have done. By talking to someone. Or (asking my parents), ‘Can I talk to someone else?’… I was just so afraid to do that that.”
“It hasn’t helped.”
As for the consequences of self-injury, Emma feels they are naturally occurring. “You are being hurt by yourself… (But) that’s the point.”
Self-injury can also be seen as a deeply misguided attempt to feel better, like addiction or emotional eating. When asked if cutting has helped her or made a long-term difference in Emma’s well-being, she is quick to answer. “A long-term negative difference. No, it hasn’t helped.”
Beyond the pain, does Emma worry about the long-term consequences of continuing to self-harm? “That’s a problem for later me. Present me is, I need this and I’m too nervous to tell anyone. So future me can figure that s**t out.”
She has learned through research that her scars are now permanent and can only be removed with surgery. “At this point, my skin, it’s already been damaged. So yes, that is enough motivation for me to try not to in the future. But it took a year and a half until I truly saw that it was permanent.”
“For me, physically it’s always going to be a part (of me) with scars. I’m never going to really be ‘over it.’”
Hope can be found in knowing she has been able to stop before. “Since I went (all of last year) without doing it, I think, ‘Hey, remember how you felt when you didn’t cut? You want to be really proud of yourself.’”
Still, Emma is uncertain what the future holds. She has no idea if she will self-harm in college. She doesn’t know if the secret is one she will want to share with her new college friends.
She reveals the power of her addiction when she readily admits that by not telling anyone, “It’s the freedom of, hey, this is still an option.”