"I've got to get away. I have to leave."
Waves of panic began to drown Rachel as she searched for an escape. Social situations were always the worst. She could never get through them without being overwhelmed by her own thoughts. You're worthless. Nothing you say or do is ever right. Why do you even bother coming — no one cares that you're here. You're ugly, fat and lazy. You'll never amount to anything.
Rachel finally slipped away, mumbling some excuse to the hostess. A few minutes later, she pulled into the dirt driveway behind her house, relieved that no one else was home. She rushed upstairs to her room, grabbing the knife she kept at her desk. Leaving the bathroom door ajar, she sat on the lid of the toilet and began to cut through her skin.
These internal tirades always set Rachel off — they had for years. She could never resist responding with frantic self-abuse. As she inflicted pain on her skin, she began to feel relief flood through her. The physical pain shut out the emotional pain. She tried to hang onto that but knew it wouldn't last long enough. Even as she began to clean her wounds, Rachel's rush of complex thoughts made her feel both guilty and comforted, alone in her pain yet in control of unexpressed emotions. A freak with a secret. Next time, it would take even more pain to find that brief release.
Maybe you can relate to Rachel's experience. Or maybe you know someone who is involved in self-harm. Cutting is the most common form, but many cutters (the slang name used for self-injurers) use other different methods of injury. Though the practice can be traced back to ancient times, it began creeping into public awareness only in the 1990s. Researchers, calling it "the new anorexia," differ on the scope of the problem and who's affected by it. Almost everyone agrees that the majority of teen cutters are girls, perhaps because they have a stronger need to express emotion than guys.1
In recent years, several books have been published on this topic. Web sites and treatment programs such as S.A.F.E Alternatives® (selfinjury.com) have been developed to help the self-afflicted.
Research suggests that teens turn to self-injury as a way of dealing with emotional stress, most of them stumbling across self-abuse in a moment of desperation rather than out of suggestion. Jamie "stumbled" on cutting and describes her first experience like this: "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 I could control."2 Rachel also cited control as a payoff. "Cutting provided proof of the perceived control of the emotions I felt incapable of describing."
Some cutters have "learned" to avoid showing emotion and use self-abuse to express their hurt or anger. These are the ones who often can't explain why they cut, and they may simply lack the words to express that kind of feeling. For them, self-injury may be the only way they believe their feelings can be voiced. "They have no language for their own feelings," says psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. "Cutting is the replacement for the absent language."3
Others say they feel "dead" and turn to self-injury in order to be reminded that they're still alive.4 The pain they cause themselves may seem like the only time they can feel anything at all.
Journalist Marilee Strong, who interviewed more than 50 cutters for her book A Bright Red Scream, gives this thumbnail sketch of the group: "Self-injurers are often bright, talented, creative achievers-perfectionists who push themselves beyond all human bounds, people-pleasers who cover their pain with a happy face."5
There are also self-abusers who have come to rely upon no one and use self-injury as an emotional release.6Many of those seeking treatment report childhood abuse or neglect. Or they struggle with eating disorders and substance abuse. These are just a few of the factors that contribute to this complex issue, and they may be seen in any combination — or not at all — in a single cutter. Says Levenkron, "The self-injurer may not even be aware of what she is doing to herself; and as for reasons, these most likely elude her as well."7
The progressive, addictive nature of this disorder can be life-threatening, though. The more desperate a cutter becomes, the higher the risk of accidental suicide. According to Karen Conterio and Dr. Wendy Lader of the S.A.F.E. Alternatives program, "One of the major reasons people come to us is that they're afraid they're going to go too far and accidentally kill themselves. ... They're petrified of that."8
A common thread among self-abusers is that they've lost sight of the truth somewhere along the line. 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 from true by the time you get to the top."9 Jesus used the 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.
At the beginning of this article, we met Rachel. Let's hear the rest of her story.
"I was caught in a web of deception whose strands were created by me and others.
I could recall and grossly distort any criticism I'd ever heard. Thoughts came in gradually at first, then picked up momentum more and more quickly, snowballing into a crushing avalanche of fault-finding remarks. I didn't know the truth or how to use it to fight back. That overwhelming misbelief about who I 'heard' I was became the cracked foundation upon which I based my reality. Frustration and feelings of helplessness could drive me to the edge in a matter of moments.
"I started cutting to silence the clashing voices that buzzed like static, drowning out the truth I longed for ... prayed for ... searched for. The glimpses of truth I did catch filled me with guilt and shame for feeling the way I did. The more I dug into God's Word, the more it seemed truth was just out of my grasp. I didn't realize how the enemy was using Scripture against me, just as he did with Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). As a result, my desert's boundaries seemed to extend into infinity. Because I couldn't and wouldn't talk about my feelings, I was denied the advantage of prayer support, objectivity and understanding.
"As I denied my feelings to stave off guilt, I found they became harder and harder to locate. I tried mastering my emotions — turning them on and off like a light switch — discovering it took a little longer to pinpoint feelings as I went through experiences. I didn't mind — it was easier to cope, and I even cut less frequently as a result. But, over time, I became more separated from my feelings and began to employ a clerk, of sorts, to file my life into neat folders and cabinets. 'Deaths' go here. 'Bullying' goes over there. 'Harsh words' go way in the back. I filed away life as if it were a peppering of news clippings, each event filled with information yet devoid of emotion. I began to notice that I couldn't feel, even when I wanted to.
"It was as if my clerk had filled out all the paperwork wrong and access was consistently denied to new or past emotions. I resumed cutting in desperation, to remind myself I was still alive. The blood seemed the only evidence that I wasn't dead yet, even though my emotional self seemed buried and secretly placed in an unmarked grave. I hoped and prayed that the overgrowth would not forever hide the little-worn path to my emotional cemetery. Yet I was terrified that each feeling may have been well-preserved and would join the others in a riotous protest some day. When you haven't felt in years — and your memories of feeling are so intensely distorted — the thought of being hit with such a tidal wave of emotion is enough to drive out all hope of normalcy."
I am Rachel, a recovered cutter and this article's author. My story is excerpted from journals and snapshots of my own life several years ago before I confessed my secret to my roommate. Truthfully, telling my friend was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it was such a relief to no longer be trapped in secrecy. At last I was able to leave 10 years of cutting, and I've never regretted my decision to walk away.
A person involved in a pattern of self-abuse does not have to stay there. It may take a great deal of time to recover, and there may be temptations to cut or even relapses on the road toward healing. Keep in mind 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).
Life might not seem any easier for the recovering cutter, but be encouraged with the truth that "if God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). Though someone leaving a habit of self-injury may still be hit with thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, simply remembering and believing the truth can help in "taking captive every thought" (2 Corinthians 10:5). When in doubt, you can even ask God to help you believe (Mark 9:24).
Paul reminded the church that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world ... " (Ephesians 6:12).
But God loved us so much that He sent Christ to die and set us free from our sin so that we could be with Him for eternity. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explained that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free." He goes on to encourage us to "stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). Cutting is one of the more lonely forms of "slavery" and can be devastating to the person caught up in it. But there is hope. It may take time for things to seem better, but perseverance does pay.
It has been a few years since I walked away from cutting, and sometimes I still have rough days. As a fellow overcomer put it, "I'm in process, receiving victory along the way."
When I'm tempted, though, I force myself to remember the truth: God loves me desperately and has incredible plans for my life, even when it doesn't feel like it (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
I've learned to talk about my emotions. And I still fingerpaint when words don't seem to be enough, using art as a springboard to express my feelings to God and to friends. Through it all, though, I know I can rely upon Jesus to carry me through whatever difficulties come my way. "Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me" (Psalm 54:4).
Often friends and family are unaware their 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:
Unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or freshly healed scars, especially if coupled with other signs of being troubled.
Favorite excuses are "I cut myself while shaving" or "The cat scratched me."
A cutter might describe himself or herself as bored or unable to express emotions.
Wearing long, baggy clothing in the summer to cover the body. Note any signs of an unusual desire for privacy, such as reluctance to change in gym class.
A normally outgoing person who retreats and doesn't want to talk to family and friends anymore.
Talking a lot about death, "being bad" or "needing to be punished." Language that expresses low self-worth, such as describing self as ugly, fat, lazy or worthless.
If you or a friend needs help to stop cutting, here are some steps to take:
Tell someone. If you injure yourself, it is important to talk to someone about it immediately. It may be difficult for another person to hear that you hurt yourself, but don't let concern for that person's discomfort keep you from taking this vital first step. Talk about your emotions, even if you think that talking so much about yourself is "selfish." Let yourself be real. Give your confidant some time to process what you've shared. Realize that most people don't know what to say to someone who confesses to self-injury. Ask your confidant to assist you in getting help.
Find a Christian counselor who has worked with other cutters and whom you feel is trustworthy. It may take a few therapists before you find one you work well with. If you aren't sure how to locate this kind of professional, call Focus on the Family at (800) A-FAMILY for a free referral to a counselor in your area. You may also need to find a medical professional willing to work with your counselor who can examine and treat self-inflicted wounds.
Know your triggers. Try to locate what makes you want to hurt yourself and talk with your therapist about creating a plan for how to handle those situations.
Be accountable to someone. Ask a Christian adult or mature friend to ask you direct questions about your self-abuse and commit to being honest with that person regularly.
Pray for yourself. Ask others to pray that you will know and believe the truth. Spend time looking through God's Word for verses to use as a defense when you start to feel overwhelmed. Memorize comforting Scriptures. Carry them in your pocket. Post them on your mirror or inside your school locker. Read through the Psalms and know that there are others who have felt the same way you do.
Find alternative emotional outlets. Express yourself creatively. It may help to create a visual representation of your feelings through artistic expression. Color or draw. Write your thoughts in a journal. Play a musical instrument. Some cutters may need a more physical release, such as dancing, karate or jogging.
My prayer for those who are involved in self-injury comes from Scripture:
"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you ... And I pray that you, being rooted and established in [Christ's] love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge ... " —Ephesians 1:17-18; 3:17-19
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this publication are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® NIV Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All Rights Reserved.