Flash Says…

Understanding self harm

Posted on: 2010-07-25

This week, an article in the Lancet was aimed at understanding why people hurt themselves, but stated “why people self-harm is poorly understood”. I disagree with this – I think the reasons can be quite straightforward. My comments are based on my own experience of self-harm but also from supporting friends and understanding where they are coming from.

Taking self-injury in its most obvious sense, and in the experience of both myself and my peers, it is about turning a mental pain into a physical one. Depression leads to agonising internal pain, at best chugging along without truly coping, but at worst tearing yourself apart with torment over every action in life. This of course leads the sufferer to stop coping with life, and from there it is a small step to self-harm or indeed to anything which can offer relief.

If you cut yourself, you are now distracted by the sharpness of the physical pain. It is easy for anyone to comprehend why a wound hurts – your body is torn open, it’s bleeding, and so the pain is understandable. In contrast to this, many people don’t understand why, when your heart is torn open and you are bleeding inside, you may be suffering a huge and intolerable pain, either physical or mental in nature.

Self-harm is also about taking control. By holding the knife, you are responsible for your own pain – when you will feel it and how it will be caused. For victims of abuse this is particularly powerful – including those who didn’t realise that being squashed by other people every day is a form of abuse – but in all cases, self-harm is often about taking control of your own pain and wanting to understand and be in charge of what happens to your body. Somehow it isn’t as bad if you are choosing to inflict it, rather than being an unwilling participant.

Also, once someone has self-harmed for the first time and realises what a focus it was for them – a way that they can take back power while managing the very real pain they are experiencing – then it can become compulsive. I will not say that self-harm is actually appealing as that would not be accurate, but it can seem alluring as a method of regaining control over emotions and experiences which have been dominated by parents or other adults until this point.

There is a final related issue in that self-harm can replace the focus of someone’s attentions, and after the first time people may concern themself with when they will do it again, which implement they will choose, whether the marks would be visible when clothed, or even if wounds need to go somewhere which would not be noticed by a boyfriend, making sure that any cuts were not too deep. This sounds terribly obsessive but it is a safe time – a half hour or so when you are considering this and nothing else, so you do not have to confront the demons in your head. Self-harm is a great distraction.

When I was a very unhappy person in my early twenties, I used to self harm, but always as inconspicuously as possible. I wanted the pain to be an outlet for my mental anguish, without attracting the concerns of those around me. I had a boyfriend who was flummoxed by my distress and unhappiness, but he had another friend who was experiencing similar problems. Therefore, he invited both of us to visit in the hope that we would be comfort for each other. His actions were well meaning, but self-harmers understand each other and within minutes of saying hello for the first time, his friend and I had discussed where in the bathroom we were keeping our tools (part of an essential toiletry bag for a weekend away) and had even offered to share items with each other if necessary. My boyfriend despaired.

How do you stop? Initially I tried to prevent myself from self injury by willpower, because a new squeeze admitted that he didn’t like or understand the scratches on my arm, and I didn’t want to upset him. This man mattered to me, so I tried to ensure that I cut myself as little as possible, but I also felt that if I had to cut, it must be in a hidden area, and I could not be honest about what had happened. There is always the feeling that self harm – which can relieve and be liberating – must be kept hidden.

Things progressed well in our new relationship and I learned to cope and believe in myself, but every time our romance hit a hiccup I reached for a knife – perhaps in the same way that some ex-smokers relapse in times of stress – although I knew my new squeeze didn’t like it. In the end things settled with my partner – now, a decade later, my wonderful husband Mike – and I no longer felt the need to let out pain from my body in that way. I was able to contain and process any mental distress I experienced. Slowly, I moved on without realising that it was happening.

It took me many months to stop self-harming after years of relying upon it, and I think that as time went on I was lucky enough to find myself in a secure environment where I could flourish without needing a crutch to fall back on, and where I could rely on my partner for support. Unfortunately I think that for others, finding a way past their anxiety or depression may be the only way forward, and this may ultimately need counselling or proper psychiatric care for people who rely on self-harming to keep themselves balanced.

I hope everyone else is as fortunate as I was in finding a long term solution – in my case a relationship where I learnt to feel valued and secure. For those who don’t have the support they need to stop self-harming, I hope they find confidence within themselves and manage to reach a point where self-injury is not the only or most obvious coping strategy. Self harm may be easy, and widespread, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy.

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7 Responses to "Understanding self harm"

A well written post and one I agree with. When I first started self harming in my early teens it was about physicalising my emotional pain so I could have something to see (and feel) to focus on. In time it became an addiction and one I grappled with for many years, still do today. Even though I don’t self harm as much as I used to do the urge to do so is still strong. It just took me a while to realise that I’m stronger than the urges are.

Thank you for commenting Addy, I’m glad my post struck a chord with you.

I am sorry you are struggling with self harm, but I’m glad you recognise that you are stronger than the urges, and I hope you manage to rise above it. Any addiction is extremely difficult but my experience and belief is that it IS possible to get past the need to self harm. Hang in there, and I hope everything works out for you.

Thanks for sharing your story with others.I didn’t there were so many people struggling with the same issue.I self harm,since I was 19.I’m 22 now and it’s a constant battle between wanting to do it and trying not to because my mother will check my arms.She already found out about it but I was able to come up with the alibi that “I was scratched by the cat”I guess she didn’t believe me at the end and she’s still angry about it.I just wish my life could be different and I could stop thinking too much about sadness and loneliness.Thankyou for your story.Cheers from the Dominican Republic.

Mabel, thank you for your reply. I understand where you are coming from; I told my mum excuses about the scratches on my arm. I don’t think she believed me but at least she accepted it without asking questions.

I am so sorry that you feel sad and lonely and I hope you find a way out of this. Maybe find an online community where you can let off steam? Or, you could try the messageboard on BBC Ouch. You will need to explain a bit of background, but I hope you can find a way to work things through. The people there are pretty understanding as we all have some issue whether it is physical mobility or mental health issues.

Thanks for reading and I wish you all the best. If you are still struggling you are welcome to email me, flash@gorge.org, for further ideas. Best wishes.

Thank you so much for your reply.I consider you such a smart and interesting human being just by the way you express your ideas.How could I join the web you told me?Sound scary,yet good.We’ll keep in touch.

The website I suggested is BBC Ouch – their messageboard is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/messageboards/F2322273

This is a discussion forum for people with all kinds of disabilities, and that includes mental struggles, self harming and eating disorders. People there are generally very supportive and there will be several people who understand what you are going through. It is a great forum for people with all kinds of problems – I am on there because I have a mobility impairment / need to use a wheelchair, but there are members with a wide range of issues and understanding. I hope you find it useful.

Hi.Thanks for the invit.I already signed in and read couple comments.Lots of stories and different personalities.I find it good to share your thoughts about certain things so you can get others’ opinions and their advices.We’ll keep in touch.Thanks..Have a nice day:*

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