Self-harm (mutilation): Why we injure – A book recommendation and my story
Self-mutilation, or self-injury, is not attempted suicide. Self-injurers are not simply looking for attention. They are not trying to be rebellious or to fit in to the “Emo” crowd. Mostly, they are trying to cope. I know, I am one of them (You can read my story at the end of this hub).
Much like an alcoholic drinks, those that hurth themselves, want to relieve stress or anger, or to regain feeling when they are numb to the outside world or even to themselves. For those that have not been through it, this might seem like an impossible idea. How could gashing your arm relieve stress? Why would you hurt yourself if you are angry with someone else? What do you mean you can’t feel yourself? Yet to those that self-injure, it can make perfect sense, at least at that moment.
This article is my attempt to shed some light on this topic. First, by recommending a book that is like no other resource I have read before. Second, by sharing a little of my own experience.
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Read This Book!
More than a few years back, I wrote a college paper on the reasons people self-injure. One of the books I used as a resource struck a chord with me so much so that I purchased it. And read it cover to cover. And I was blown away. The book is A Bright Red Scream: self-mutilation and the language of pain, by Marilee Strong.
I want to recommend this book to therapists, educators, family and friends of self-injurers, and those that injure themselves. This book gives insight into self injury like nothing I have read before. It is intellectual enough to be informative to academics, yet anecdotal enough to appeal to general readers.
Many books and articles on self-injury say the standard things that I said at the beginning of this a hub. They might give a list of facts, or descriptions of symptoms, or some possible causes or reasons. Oftentimes for the reader the information doesn’t mean much or sink in any deeper than the surface. This book does so much more. It puts you inside the thought process of self injurers through first-hand accounts.
Nothing brings the message of mental illness, addiction, anguish, etc. home like hearing it in the words of the person suffering it. The stories are amazing. After reading this book I felt like I understood myself and others like me like I never even knew I could.
This book does not only discuss why we self-injure. It touches on the many kinds of self-injury from scab picking to cutting to bone breaking, even body modification such as tattoos and piercing. It discusses men and women alike. It offers historical accounts, scientific information, stories from and about self injurers, about their struggle, and ends with an uplifting chapter on recovery.
My advice to anyone that knows a “cutter” or works with those that self harm is to READ THIS BOOK. It’s not going to make you an expert. You aren’t going to understand completely. Don’t pretend you can. Don’t insult your friend or your patient by saying you know what they feel. You never will. Every experience is unique. But you will have a better understanding. And hopefully you will no longer have the gross misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, that you might have at this moment.
My advice to anyone who has flirted with the idea of self harm in whatever form no matter how minimal. DON’T DO IT. Even if it you think it will help you cope. It is not going to fix the real problem. It is going to become a problem. Just like the alcoholic who started drinking to numb his pain. How well has that worked out for him?
If you are at the point of wanting to hurt yourself, you have enough problems already. You don’t need one more. Talk to a friend. A doctor. A counselor. A family member. A stranger if that’s the only way you can get the words to come out of your mouth. Or talk to no one and everyone without talking at all. Write about it. For all to see or none to ever read after it hits the page. If words aren’t your thing. Draw it. Paint it. Sculpt it. Kickbox it. Free throw it. Run. Jog. Sing. Scream. Get out the stress and the anger. Wake up your senses. And then work on the real problem. The cause of the stress. The reason for the numbness. The root of that anger. Make a step. However small. A quarter step forward is a hundred times better than half a step back. Trust me. I know. I have been there. I am there now. You are stronger than you think. We all are.
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Suicidal attention-seeking drama queen. Self hating Emo-chick. Trying to be cool and rebellious. None of those are me. None of those explain why I was a “cutter”. I cut for stress relief. For anger release. Yes. You read that right. When the stress or the anger or the frustration got so bad that I couldn’t think of anything else. When it would keep me up at night with thoughts racing through my head and feelings crawling under my skin. How could he do that? How could they say that about me? I just want to stab someone so bad I can feel the knife in my hand. And those are just the thoughts I can explain. Those were the times I cut.
After the scalpel made that perfectly straight slice into my arm, thigh, ankle the surgically precise slit commanded my full attention. Wiping the bright red blood that slowly seeped out of it. Should I cut deeper? Make it longer? Will it stop with a bandage? Perhaps a butterfly stitch. Always careful enough to not need real stitches. No ER visits. Though on at least one occasion I probably should have went, if only to prevent the scar that will follow me for the rest of my life. Careful to stay away from any visible arteries. Careful to choose a site easy to hide. Or so I thought. What is easily hidden in winter is surprisingly visible in summer. Then come the lies to explain the cuts and scars. Or I just carefully dodged the question. Only a few people know about my cutting. Or so that’s what I think. I will never know how many have figured it out and when has gone unspoken. And I never will.
I was a cutter only for a brief time. A desperate attempt to manage stress and anger brought on by a combination of outside factors and mental issues. Thank god I have excellent self control that kept my cutting to a minimum, and kept me out of the ER. I have permanent scars, but only a few. I managed to stop on my own before it became a regular habit. Not everyone is that lucky.
When I finally got the sense and the courage to seek serious mental help, I was already on an antidepressant prescribed by my primary physician. But things still weren’t quite right and she and I knew this was outside of her ability. I began seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist.
My therapist has given me tools to help me on my way to having a better life. She also helped me find the support system that I didn’t even realize I have. It is slow going. But it is going. Most times she doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. But she holds me accountable. And sometimes just hearing myself say my thoughts out loud makes all the difference. My shrink has found meds to help me manage my depression, insomnia, aggression, etc. It’s not perfect. There is not a magic pill that is going to make me feel normal. But it’s better.
I still get the urge to cut. I don’t do it. I find another outlet. A healthy one. On the days when nothing seems to help, I take an ativan, just enough to take the edge off. Or I just let myself cry until I'm too tired to do anything but sleep. I still pick my scabs, until I have a moment of clarity and force myself to stop. I still want more holes in my ears (I have 8 earrings) and another tattoo (2 large ones already). But I really think it through before I let a needle touch my skin.
It is a constant struggle, but it gets easier every day. Thanks to my doctors, supportive friends and family, and an amazingly supportive boyfriend, I am worlds better off than I was before. And I hope by sharing my story even one person can be a little better too.