The book Embodied Resistance looked irresistible. I often write about gender issues and the chapter headings in this book grabbed my attention with subjects including beauty and sexuality, transgender identities and breastfeeding in public. It seemed to be a feast of ideas for reflection and blogging.
Then my gaze found chapter 12: "'What I had to do to survive': Self-injurers' bodily emotion work," by Margaret Leaf and Douglas P. Schrock. Instantly my mood of professional evaluation was swamped by the shock of memory, a visceral hit that hurled me back in time five years.
It was January 2007 and I was on a plane to Chicago, sitting next to my daughter, when I first saw them: long scratches on Sarah's arms. The alarm bells that had for some months been clanging in my head suddenly coalesced into a certainty: My 13-year-old daughter was cutting.
The term self-injury or self-harm encompasses, as Leaf and Schrock report, everything from cutting the skin to hair-pulling, burning and bone-breaking. And it seems to be gender-related, as most self-harmers are adolescent females.
But Sarah isn't a gender statistic, and her activity wasn't generic. Our beautiful only child was carving into her skin with a razor blade. My husband and I felt confused and terrified. We felt ourselves to be a happy family — with the usual parent-teen tensions, sure, but basically in good shape. What weren't we seeing? And was Sarah suicidal?
Immediately we found a good local therapist: some sessions were 1:1 and others involved all of us. I learned that cutting is better understood as an attempt to blunt emotional pain than a manifestation of mental illness or suicidal intention.
In Sarah's case, the issues were largely about depression, intensified at a time when she struggled to fit into 8th-grade-girl culture. In addition to signaling emotional pain, though, cutting can be physically dangerous, especially if a blade goes too deep and hits an artery.
My husband and I clung to the therapist's advice and read everything we could on self-harm. Through the years, though, our greatest source of insight about this time period in our lives has become Sarah herself. She stopped cutting 4 ½ years ago; 18 now, she shares her story when it may help others. Once I received Sarah's permission to write this post, I invited her to speak here.
"While my struggle with self-harm began as a sort of test to see if it really did ease the pain, it quickly turned into an addiction. I never once did it for attention; I was only looking for a way to control at least one thing in my life — and I could control the amount of pain. I felt that I was powerless in every other aspect of my life. It was spiraling out of control, and I had to take matters into my own hands, but quickly the self-harm spiraled out of control too."
"After a while, the intense rush from cutting wasn't enough. The emotional release would be worth it, but waking up in the morning completely reversed those feelings. It was a vicious cycle — suddenly, the control that I had over this one part of my life became uncontrollable. I needed help, and I got it."
"My parents and therapist were all very supportive of my recovery, but I discovered that finding creative outlets is just as helpful as a supplement in the healing process. I am an avid writer and singer, and instead of cutting, I am now able to channel that pain into my writing and musicianship. I have been clean from self-harm for years, and now that I have come full circle, I have found comfort and fulfillment in trying my best to help others who may be struggling with the same problems I was."
The arc from trauma to recovery for Sarah was so much harder than can be conveyed here, and included excruciating setbacks.
But Sarah is a person with a generous spirit and a strong sense, now, of who she is. She connects to others through community service and activism as much as through fun and friendship. I've written elsewhere about the joy of watching her find her way during her first year at James Madison University.
I've intrigued to see that her self-description matches what Leaf and Schrock report from their interviews with 15 current or former self-harmers (13 were female; ages ranged from 18 to 33). Three steps, they found, are key to recovery: first identifying and then addressing the emotional pain, and then engaging in open and healthy ways with the social world.
Sarah took these steps successfully, and the last words go to her:
"I am not ashamed to say that I am a survivor of self-harm. I am proud that I faced and defeated my demons head-on, but it was not easy. Self-harm is a serious problem facing millions of people, and asking for help is extremely difficult, but it is never a process that should make anyone feel belittled or disparaged."
"I am including a link to the To Write Love On Her Arms "Find Help" page. It contains contact information for anyone who may be suffering with self-harm and wants to seek help."
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape