Self-injury is defined as intentional harm caused to oneself (usually in the form of cutting, burning or hitting, but also to the point of ingesting poisons) without the desire to commit suicide. To be technical, it refers to “behaviors in which an individual intentionally inflicts harm to his or her body for purposes not socially recognized or sanctioned and without suicidal intent (Favazza, 1996)”. In a study of college students, over 16 forms of self-harm, including cutting, were documented (Whitlock, Eckenrode, & Silverman, 2006).
While some of you reading this are shaking your heads confused, statistics in the US and Canada indicate that 17% of you know all too well what I’m talking about, and have had at least one episode of self-harming. Three quarters of those people are women; 40% of them have done it repeatedly.
Still, I think for some people there is the follow-up question: “No really, isn’t there something wrong with these people?” The answer is conveniently two-fold: yes and no.
While people who self-harm tend to have underlying anxiety, depression or eating disorders, there are those who are fully functioning, healthy folk with no diagnosis to the contrary. But yes, something is wrong, or they wouldn’t be hurting themselves.
The Bristol Crisis Service for Women explains that:
“Often women say that self-injury helps them to release unbearable tension, which may be caused by anxiety, grief or anger. It puts their pain ‘outside’, where it feels easier to cope with. For others it relieves feelings of guilt or shame. Sometimes a woman’s self-injury is a ‘cry for help’; a way of showing (even to herself) that she has suffered and is in pain. Perhaps hurting herself is a way of feeling ‘real’ and alive, or having control over something in her life.”
More often than not, harming behavior is cyclical, which is to say, people will harm for a time, then stop, probably doing it again somewhere down the road. It’s a coping technique, albeit a poor one. Think of it as a parallel to someone going through a rough patch, binge drinking and gambling their savings away. It’s a destructive symptom of underlying pain. The difference is, it carries a taboo and vulnerability so heavy, that it’s nearly as hard to hear about as it is to admit to, and it makes for uncomfortable coffee talk.
Given that it’s not the sexiest of causes, I hardly expected that there would ever be a spokesperson who could really bring the subject to the spotlight. Then, in the fall of 2010, then 18 year old Demi Lovato entered rehab. Maybe you don’t know her: starting her career on Barney & Friends at seven years old, moving on to Sonny With A Chance, and dropping a catchy tune, she was a veritable Disney channel darling.
Behind the scenes, she’d started self-harming at 11. Coming out of treatment last year, she showed the world her dark spots, talking publicly about her bipolar diagnosis, her bulimia and her harming. That’s some courage, and her, bravely talking those steps, brought the subject to the spotlight more than I’d ever seen. People were learning and talking, and that, after all, is what awareness is all about.
While self-injury is often casually tossed out as a teenager’s problem, that’s not the case. It’s a secretive practice, which means the stats are most likely considerably higher than we can prove. One study estimated between 0.4 and 1.4% of adults self-harmed each year (Favazza and Rosenthal, 1993), but considering the other stats, that still seems like an underestimation. In teens, it’s tricky, but comparitively easier to catch; doctors, teachers, friends and parents, are likely to speak up if they see something fishy. As an adult, no one would’ve caught it had I not asked for help.
I discovered Self-Injury Awareness Day two years ago, when I Googled self-harm from a particularly dark place. I was all too familiar with the behavior, but, not realizing its cyclical nature, I honestly thought I’d never have to think of it again. I found myself needing a refresher on the updated facts in a hurry. It happened to be March 1st. I fought back tears at my desk as I watched the Twitter feed for the hashtag keep going and going; people told secrets and offered hope. Some days, Google is the hand fate offers.
Last year SIAD was a reminder for me of how far I’ve come. This time around, I am proud to be in a place where I can say I haven’t harmed in over a year, and a position where I can be part of spreading awareness. Just like there are dry alcoholics, not cured ones, I am a self-harmer who’s practicing self-love instead, but it will always make sense to me.
To the 17% (or so?) of you who this really speaks to all to clearly, please know that while only some scars will heal, the pain that caused the scars can definitely heal when you have the tools to cope healthfully.
The taboos surrounding the subject make it all the harder to reach out, so today, let’s be brave: let’s admit, let’s listen, let’s breach the darkness and begin the healing.
Speak out, whether it’s from a place of having overcome, admitting that you need help, or asking someone if they need to talk. Because awareness can’t begin until the conversation does.
If you think you may need to talk to someone, please contact your local CLSC. Some are wonderful bastions of caring, all are treasure troves of helpful resources.
Please stay safe.
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