Before my college roommate started cutting her arms with a razor blade, I'd never even heard of self-mutilation. The frightening introductions came after I returned home from class one day. I followed a trail of blood sprinkled across our apartment kitchen floor; understandably, I was afraid, concerned and didn't understand why she hurt herself.
Because of our friendship, I sought to understand who, what, why and how about the practice of self-injury.
The most common form of self-mutilation is slicing or slashing with a knife, razor blade, shard of glass or other sharp object. Cuts are made on the arms, legs and wrists, but some people cut on less noticeable areas of the body.
Contrary to any preconceived notions about self-mutilation I had, I learned that cutting is always not an attempt at suicide. Instead, it signifies intense emotional pain. Self-injury made my roommate feel like she had control over her past and present. She explained to me that cutting herself was the only way she knew how to deal with the pain she felt.
"People who haven't cut can't understand how it can make you feel better… but it does. It's like bursting a huge bubble," she said. "You feel like you are going to explode and you don't know what to do with the emotional pain. When you cut, there is a kind of release or freedom in it. Then, it's like an emotional high. You release all this pain that's been building and building. Like any addiction, it's a coping mechanism."
Dr. Wendy Lader, clinical director of Safe Alternative, a hospital-based program that helps self-injurers, makes it clear that cutting is more than just trying to deal with stress or running from a painful past. She says it is a cry for help.
"Skin is a bulletin board," she says. "They're saying, 'Can you see how much pain I'm in?'"
Experts estimate that about 4 percent of the population practice self-injury,1 almost equally divided between male and female. According to researchers, "recent studies of high school and college students put the number at approximately one in five,"2 and nearly 50 percent report physical and/or sexual abuse during his or her childhood.3 Inadequate parental nurturing or a suppression of emotions, like anger or sadness, may also contribute.4
As a result of these tragic situations, teens don't feel free to express their feelings to family, friends or people in trust — the outgrowth of which are some of these negative emotions:
When asked why they cut, they may give reasons such as, "It helps me release emotional pain," "to release anger," "to punish myself," "to relieve guilt," or "to feel alive."
Prior to self-injury, the cutter may feel overwhelming emotions and think thoughts like, "I hate myself," "I'm so ugly," "I want someone to care about me," "I hate my life," or "I'm stupid." He or she feels compelled to cut to reduce these emotions by disassociating herself from the injuries she feels.
If you cut yourself or you know someone who does, we want you to understand this article series will only point you in the right direction.
We can't give you solutions.
We can't give you reasons why you or a loved one struggles with self-mutilation.
What we can offer you is the courage to find help from a professional, licensed counselor or therapist — for you or for someone else.
The journey you must take to find wholeness shouldn't be taken alone. Take the first step. Contact Focus on the Family at 1-800-A-Family if you struggle with this addiction. Ask the operator for the Counseling department, and a licensed, Christian counselor will make sure you won't have to make this journey alone.
Since age ten Lori has cried for hours while resisting the urge to cut herself. Some days, long sleeves and pants covered the shame of her bleeding scars. Other days, when the temptation didn't attack her, hope swelled.
Now that the up-and-down emotional rollercoaster has reached a plateau, she can proudly say she's made great strides in her fight against self-mutilation.
How? Through lots of love and Christian counseling.
When Lori talked about cutting, she shared how friends and family can help a friend or loved one.
If you know someone who cuts, walk a mile in her shoes. She may feel like the world is unsafe, maybe since childhood. Maybe she has suffered neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Maybe she's been robbed of her self-esteem. Because she can't trust herself or others, she copes by cutting herself.
And like any compulsion, the problem can't go away at a whim.
Lori says don't demand that he or she instantly quit. It doesn't help. It's like telling an alcoholic to never drink again or a sex addict to simply stop looking at pornography. It can also make the cutter feel condemned and even more compelled to cut.
"When someone told me to stop," she said, "it just made me want to do it more because I felt like they were trying to take away my only ability to cope with life."
While concern is normal, don't act frightened when you discover someone you know or love is practicing self-injury. Steven Levenkron says that to effectively help a self-injurer, above all, you must exhibit confidence.
"If the self-mutilator sees signs of anxiety or nervousness on the part of the helper," he says, "that will make her disinterested and unreceptive to the offer of help from this person." 1
When you understand that cutting is not usually an attempt at suicide or a way to get attention, but an outward sign of emotional distress, it can help you remain calm.
It's important not to overreact, but you shouldn't ignore the problem, either. Find a professional counselor, therapist or physician who is familiar with self-mutilation. By her own admission, Lori did not welcome the intrusion; she didn't want help. Now she's grateful to those who intervened on her behalf.
Be aware that the cutter in your life may be completely opposed to help.
“I hated [my counselor] at first, and I didn't trust her," Lori says. "I thought she was just another person who would abandon me."
"You can't force anyone to get help," Lori says. "But you can love them into a place to get help."
Be careful what you say.
Lori says there are several things not to say to a cutter:
"You are really messed up."
This statement is condemning, and for someone who already feels out of control, it reinforces feelings of powerlessness.
"I could never do that to myself. It would hurt too much."
Lori says that this makes the cutter feel more shame. Family and friends need to realize that self-mutilation is not about them, and they should refrain from injecting their personal feelings into it.
"You don't need to do this."
This doesn't help because the cutter does feel that they have to do it to help them cope with life.
"I'll never leave you."
It's okay to say this if you mean it, but don't say it to make the self-injurer feel better. Faithfulness practiced over a period of time speaks louder than words.
Copyright 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.
If you are an emotionally sensitive person, how would friends and family describe you? Positive, compassionate, creative, empathetic and giving? Would they say you are a good teacher and a good listener, and that you understand their problems, regardless of the issue?
Even though you've embraced these strengths, you also might feel animosity toward this sensitive side. After all, you're easily insulted; at times, you feel thin-skinned, even weak—which you thoroughly dislike. Other kids bullied you as a child; adults sometimes take advantage of you now.
Emotional sensitivity is your blessing—and your curse; and it has become such a burden you've turned to cutting because that's the only way you know how to express yourself emotionally.
Deep down, maybe you don't want to travel down this path any longer. Yes, cutting may give you temporary, or maybe it helps you deal with a painful past. Deep down, though, you know it isn't a healthy relief, and you need to break away from this addiction.
Whatever your circumstances,
Prepare yourself because changing your mind, body and spirit won't be an easy task. A first to take is to work on talking it out, so you don't have to act it out. Of course, you'll need to seek help from a counselor.
Another step to help will be to change your mode of thinking. Thankfully, embracing these Scriptures will help counteract these negative feelings you may have:
Truth: When Jesus allowed Himself to be beaten, mocked and nailed to a cross to die, he paid the price for any wrongs. He bled (so that I don't have to) and gave me grace, love and forgiveness (1 Peter 2:24).
I have been made righteous because of a faith in Jesus, and he has freely given me His grace in spite of my sin (Romans 3:21-26).
Truth: Because God loves me, He promises to never leave me or forsake me. His love for me is everlasting; it will never stop, disappear or grow cold. Nothing can separate me from His love—not even myself. He won't ever leave me but will provide mercy and grace when I am in need (Hebrews 13:5, Jeremiah 31:3, Romans 8:35-39 and Hebrews 4:16).
Truth: God promises me of a future and a hope. I can't see it right now, and I don't know how He is working it out. Still, I choose to trust Him, and while He is working out my problems, I will wait on Him (Jeremiah 29:11, Psalm 27:14).
Truth: When I came to Christ, He made me a new creation. It will take time to renew my mind, body and spirit, but He has promised to change me, no matter how I feel (John 15:15, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Colossians 2:7, Philippians 1:6).
Truth: When Jesus died on the cross, He demonstrated the ultimate act of love for me. He did this because I am chosen and dearly loved (Romans 5:6-11, Colossians 3:12).
Truth: Because God created me, and Christ died for me, I am acceptable to Him; before the world was created, He made the choice to adopt me as His own (Ephesians 2:13, I Peter 2:9, Ephesians 1:5).
Truth: Despite how I see myself, God sees me as blameless and holy because of what Christ did on the cross. It's hard to imagine, but God has completely forgiven me. When I confess anything that I have done wrong, He is more than willing to forgive and cleanse me from sin, no matter how many mistakes I make (Colossians 1:22, Colossians 1:13-14, 1 John 1:9).
Remember, change takes time, but if you accept the truth of what God says, and seek professional help, you will discover better coping and life skills.
If you struggle with self-injury, maybe you're like Annie. She hates her addiction, but letting go of the only control she feels she has is terrifying. It has become a kind of best friend—something to hold on to when life hurts.
Or maybe you're like Jillian.
Jillian wants to stop because she knows it hurts those who love her; she's tired of hiding her addiction, and she want to learn how to be more emotionally intimate with others.
If you can relate to Annie or Jillian, the choice to stop cutting can be challenging and scary. Still, change is possible. How do you know? Christ said you can.
Consider, for example, Matthew 19:26. "Jesus looked at [his disciples] and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'"
Change means confronting a tremendous obstacle, but with God, friends, loved ones and a compassionate counselor, you can take the first step toward recovery.
God has a future and a hope for you (Jeremiah 29:11), and Jesus came to bind up your broken heart (Isaiah 61:1). This means that He wants you to live free from the feelings of guilt, sadness, depression, shame, hopelessness and fear that drive you to cut. You see, cutting is not the problem. It's only a symptom of a deeper emotional pain that God wants to, and is able to, heal.
The only long-term solution to stop the pain you may feel is to ask for help! It's essential to find someone compassionate to walk with you through the emotional pain that has led you to cut. Call 1-800-A-Family and ask for the counseling department. After we talk with you, free of charge, we'll refer you to a counselor in your area so you can continue a treatment program.
Carrie, a former cutter, says that she was discouraged when she tried to find someone to help. She was referred to several counselors before she finally found the right fit. Don't be discouraged if the first counselor you speak with is not the one who can best help you. If this happens, try again.
Steven Levenkron, author of Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation 1, says, "The more people who are available as resources for treatment, the more powerful the treatment becomes."
Because family and friends can act as "windows" into the cutters history. This helps both the counselor and the cutter to gain insight that wouldn't otherwise be available.
If you are a parent or friend of a cutter, ask the counselor or therapist how you can help in the recovery process.
Treatment can take longer if the cutter suffered severe emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual abuse or neglect, especially in the early developmental years of life. Other reasons include the child being forced to become a care-taker for a needy or emotionally immature parent or if the client's parents are ill or deceased.
When Bethany, a cutter in recovery, has the desire to cut, she finds her sketchbook, magazines, glue and scissors to create a collage. Words like, "pain," "freedom," "trapped," and "anxiety" fill the pages in a burst of color.
This kind of creativity is helpful, she says. "It keeps my hands occupied and the sketchbook is a physical representation of my emotions."
When Bethany glues words representing her emotions on paper, it's a way to work through what she feels and gives her a healthy alternative to cutting.
Besides Bethany's personal creative outlets, counselors also say writing, music and poetry are cathartic and release a healthy outpouring of emotions.
"I've got to get away. Why do I even bother coming — no one cares that I'm here. I'm worthless. Nothing I say or do is ever right. I'm ugly, fat and lazy. I'll never amount to anything."
OK, so pep talks were never my strong suit. But what made those scathing inner monologues even more dangerous was how I'd try to silence the voices by "cutting." I would rush home, take a knife from my desk and escape to a private place where I'd carve wounds into my skin. Frantic self-abuse and physical pain drowned out the emotional pain I was feeling, if only for a short time. Nursing my wounds, I felt oddly comforted, guilty and aware that, next time, it would take even more pain to find that brief release. I was a freak with a secret. Little did I know how many teen cutters guard that same dark secret.
Experts call cutting "the new anorexia" because, like an eating disorder, it is a self-destructive attempt to control painful thoughts and unexpressed emotions. Current research places the number of self-injurers at about 4 percent of the general population, and as many as 10 percent of American teenage girls. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, but up to 75 percent of all cutters rely on diverse methods, such as burning, pulling hair or punching walls.
In recent years, several books have been published on this topic. USA Network aired a TV movie about cutting and created an online lesson plan to provide resources to educators. Web sites and in-patient treatment programs such as SAFE (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives have been developed to help the self-afflicted. Speaking of her own struggle with self-injury, the late Princess Diana shed light on cutting during a highly publicized 1995 BBC interview. She explained, "You have so much pain inside yourself that you try to hurt yourself on the outside because you want help."
Teens turn to self-injury as a way of dealing with emotional stress, usually stumbling upon self-abuse in a moment of desperation, rather than out of suggestion. A teen named Jamie said of her first experience, "It happened spontaneously. I picked up a piece of broken glass and cut my arm twice. It made me feel better because I could focus on one thing, injuring myself, instead of things that I couldn't control around me. That was something that I could control."
Some cutters avoid showing emotion, using self-abuse to express their hurt or anger. They often can't explain why they cut, or may simply lack the words to express themselves. "They have no language for their own feelings," says psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. "Cutting is the replacement for the absent language." Still others say they feel "dead" and turn to self-injury in order to be reminded that they're still alive. For them, enduring self-inflicted pain may seem like the only way they can feel anything at all.
Despite the way it may look, cutting is usually not a failed suicide attempt. Yet the progressive, addictive nature of the disorder can be life-threatening. The more desperate cutters become, the higher their risk of accidental suicide. Dr. Wendy Lader and Karen Conterio, directors of the SAFE Alternatives program, say one of the major reasons people seek them out is that they're petrified they'll go too far and accidentally kill themselves.
Journalist Marilee Strong, who interviewed more than 50 cutters for her book, A Bright Red Scream, says of self-injurers, "[They] are often bright, talented, creative achievers — perfectionists who push themselves beyond all human bounds, people-pleasers who cover their pain with a happy face." Often friends and family aren't aware that a loved one is cutting. It would seem the signs would be obvious, but cutters can be extremely creative at hiding their wounds. Here are some of the signs to look for in teens:
A common thread among self-abusers is that they've lost sight of the truth. One female cutter explains it this way: "When you construct your worldview on a series of misunderstandings, it's like building a skyscraper with the foundation out of plumb. A fractional misalignment at the bottom becomes a whopping divergence by the time you get to the top." Jesus used this same picture of a faulty foundation in His parable of the foolish man who built his house upon the sand (Matthew 7:26). Cutters can begin building their houses on the rock of Christ by turning to His word for truth and leaving their misperceptions at the foot of the cross.
If you know someone struggling with cutting or other forms of self-injury, there are ways to break this dangerous cycle. You can begin by encouraging them to choose a confidant who will be supportive, nonjudgmental and willing to listen when times get tough. Assuming you're that person, help them find a Christian counselor who has worked with cutters (Focus on the Family can refer you to one in your area). Getting professional help is critical because a cutter needs to know his "triggers"—things that make him want to hurt himself. A therapist can create a plan for handling those situations. For me, journaling and painting provided healthy ways to combat inner turmoil. Others may find it therapeutic to jog, dance or play a musical instrument.
At a spiritual level, intercede for that person and urge them to talk to God as well. Pray they'll know and believe the truth. Search the scriptures for verses that will offer comfort and strength when they start to feel overwhelmed. For example, when voices of self-deprecation threatened to take hold, I reminded myself that the Creator of the universe values me deeply. I am His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) created in His image (Genesis 1:27) and made complete in His son, Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:10). He has bought me with a great price (1 Corinthians 6:20, John 3:16), calls me His friend (John 15:15) and desires a relationship with me (1 John 1:3).
I spent 10 years as a cutter. But that's not who I am today. Four years ago I told my roommate about my problem, which started me down the road to emotional recovery. With the help of friends and loved ones, I began to experience the truth of Christ's love. I remained blinded by deception until I believed the truth that God loved me passionately and created me for a purpose (Jeremiah 29:11). The secrecy ended. My wounds healed. And although some days can be a trial, I've never regretted my decision to walk away.
A person enslaved by a pattern of self-abuse does not have to stay there. It may take a long time to recover. There may be temptations to cut, or even lapses on the path of healing. Teens need to know that "God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when [not if] you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Someone breaking the habit of self-injury can still be hit with destructive thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, but simply remembering and believing the truth can go a long way toward setting them free. Addressing the Galatians, the Apostle Paul told God's people to "stand firm and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). For the young cutter, that yoke can feel absolutely overwhelming. But I am living proof that there is hope!
Copyright 2003 Rachel Zoller. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Originally appeared in Focus on the Family's Dare 2 Dig Deeper teen booklet "Hurting Beyond Words: The Silent Agony of Self-Injury" and Plugged In Online.