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"I don't think anyone wants to cut when they are being listened to." S. Hein
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The first time I heard of anyone cutting themselves was when I heard that my own niece had done this in approximately 1994. At that time I didn't know enough about cutting to ask any intelligent questions or take any helpful action. Because I didn't understand the significance of my niece cutting herself I didn't really give it much thought and I never even asked her to show me the scar or scars.
Then in September of 2000 I found an online diary site where many teens were talking about their experiences with "cutting." Though I was reading about their stories, the concept seemed very foreign to me. Once I found a picture of someone who had photographed the scars on her arm. At the time this had a significant impact on me. But it was over a year later when something affected me even more.
I was talking to a young woman in Australia. She was around 21 years old. We started talking about depression and cutting among adolescents. I asked her if she knew of anyone who had cut themselves. Without saying a word she held out her left arm and turned her hand upwards. It is still painful for me to recall this memory. On her arm were several very distinct scars. She told me she had done this to herself when she was about 14 years old. She said she was having a lot of problems with her parents and it helped her stop thinking about the problems.
Since then I have begun to ask nearly everyone I meet under the age of 25 if they know of someone who has "cut." I have not kept a formal record but I would say that the number who answer "yes" is around 80-90%.
In just the past week I have seen three more young women who have cut themselves. Two of them had more than 20 cuts on their arm. One was dressed all in black. I tried to talk to her, to help her feel just a little less alone, but she didn't speak English and I didn't speak German. Many people, I am sure, would look at someone like her and say, "How strange! Why would anyone want to dress like that? It is not normal!"
One thing I am learning is that people who cut themselves and dress in ways that are far from "normal," have usually been through some type of abuse and always there has been psychological/emotional abuse or neglect. Because I understand this, I have much more compassion for them. In the past, I am ashamed to admit, I would probably been one of those who would laugh at such people or wonder why they would do such a "stupid" thing as cut themselves. But these are not stupid people. In my experience these are some of the most sensitive, aware and intelligent people. These are people we can learn from. We can learn what went wrong in their families. We can learn what emotional needs were unmet. I believe they have something to tell us about the society we live in.
Note to Teens - See this page
Teens cut to stop their emotional pain. This is the most honest and direct way to say it. We have worked with self-harming teens for over ten years. We have learned beyond any doubt that they cut to stop their emotional and psychological pain. They come from emotionally abusive homes and environments. These homes and environments, including their schools, cause them to suffer emotional pain and cutting is a form of temporary relief.
Many people say cutting is to "get attention" but this is a common myth about cutting. Most teens who cut, for example, actually wear long sleeve shirts because they don't want others to know they are cutting. They feel embarrassed about it or guilty for doing it. They often feel very self-critical about it. Below is the case of Michelle, a teen who tried to hide her scars.
Few of us have been so hungry that we have actually been in physical pain. But we have all heard of hunger pains. For teens who cut themselves, their emotional pain is much more intense than for the average person. It is a intensity of pain that many of us have never felt, just as we have never felt the pain of intense starvation. But these people are starving emotionally. Looking at it this way might help us understand what they need and why they cut.
The next question is where is this pain coming from? See Sources of their emotional pain...
Note to Teens - See this page
The Sources of Their Emotional Pain - Feelings Which Represent Unmet Emotional Needs
Emotional pain, for all of us, comes when have we have extreme levels of unmet emotional needs. We all find our own ways to cope with this pain.
As adults we have many legal and healthy coping mechanisms. On one website I saw a list of alternatives to cutting. Some of these included: going for a drive, going shopping, calling a friend, going for a walk.
Many of these options are unavailable to adolescents, though.
Many of these adolescents are not allowed to use the phone at certain times, either because it is too late at night, or because they have been punished for some reason and "grounded" from using the phone. Some do not have telephones in their houses. Even if they could use the phone, many of them are afraid to call the crisis lines because their parents might hear them. Unless you have lived in a home full of fear, it is probably hard to imagine that such homes exist. But I have talked to enough adolescents now to know that they do exist. This is one reason I urge us all to start talking to children and find out what they are afraid of. If they are afraid of their own parents when they are young, it is a warning sign for later on.
Many of the adolescents are not allowed to outside when they most need to get out of the house. Normally they feel the urge to cut when it is late at night. This is when they feel most alone, and perhaps most afraid. For some, even if they could go outside, they have no where to go where they feel safe. Nor can they simply go shopping whenever they want, especially not at night. Obviously, most of them can not go for a drive.
One of their sources of pain, then, is simply feeling trapped; of not having options.
A list of their painful feelings includes:
Feeling Alone-- see Feeling Alone and Unsafe, Quote 1
to be continued...
After I started this page on cutting I got an email from a woman in India who said she also used to cut as an adolescent. I asked her if she would share her story. Here is what she replied.
To help someone who cuts or self-injures in any way:
How Can I Help?
Nathalie calls her self a "cutter." She is 15 years old. She doesn't have many friends in real life. Her best friends are from the Internet. On the Internet she can be totally honest. She can talk about why she cuts herself and why she doesn't eat.
She has never had a boyfriend and she can not remember the last time anyone hugged her or told her they loved her. She lives with her grandparents because her step-father and mother didn't want her to live with them anymore. She gets one hour three times a week on the Internet. If she goes one minute over, she loses it for two weeks. She said she can't talk to her grandparents. She said they come from another era.
Nathalie told me she cuts when the pain gets to be too much. She has 23 scars. When she was 10 she would sit in the class and stare out the window. When the teacher would call out her name and tell her to stop looking out the window and pay attention it would frighten and embarrass her. She said the other children in the class would laugh at her. They called her the Nathalie the daydreamer. Sometimes she would get punished for not knowing the answers to the teacher's questions. She said once she had to write "I will not stare out the window" 500 times.
I asked her what she would think about when she was staring out the window. She said she was usually trying to figure out why she was such a horrible person. I asked her why she thought of herself as a horrible person. She said, "I thought I must be horrible if my mother doesn't want me to live with her and my father never wanted to see me." I asked her if her mother had hit her. She said, "Yes. Sometimes." I asked her if she thought that her mother was abusive. She said, "No, I wouldn't say that. She only hit me when I made her angry. So I guess I deserved it."
Then I asked her why she thought her father never wanted to see her. She said, "I really don't know. Isn't it normal for a father to want to see his own daughter? What could I have done to make him hate me so much?" She said he moved away when she was 6. She said she has written him letters but he has never written back. She said she lays awake at night wondering if he ever reads the letters or if he even gets them. She said he must get them because they never get returned to me by the post office.
I asked her if she ever told anyone that her mother was hitting her. She said once she did but then they talked to her mother and the mother said Nathalie was a "compulsive liar." They believed her mother over Nathalie, so Nathalie was afraid to ever tell anyone else again. When we talked about her feelings she always said she learned that people didn't want to hear her true feelings. So she kept themself. When they got too much for her, she would reach for her razor.
A 13 year old I was chatting with told me that she was upset with herself because she didn't tell her social services worker something about her father. But she also wasn't sure if it was important or not. I asked what it was. She said:
Then she added:
Not wanting to "over-react," I told her it didn't sound too cool to me. Then I asked how she felt when he did it.
The people who cut and self-injure have the same emotional needs we all do. The problem is that more of their needs are unmet. And they often are people who are more emotionally sensitive than average. This means they feel the pain of the unmet needs more than the average person, just as a person with sensitive hearing feels pain from loud noises.
The people who are more sensitive can tell us what is lacking in society if we will just listen to them. If they tell us they feel over-controlled, then we can look at the ways society is over-controlling in general. None of us like to feel controlled, but for these people the feeling is more painful so they are the first to recognize situations where they are being over-controlled.
There are many ways we could learn about society from sensitive people.
In a classroom of 20 students, for example, there will always be one or two who feel the pain of the teacher's remarks more than the other students. We have a choice on how to handle this pain. We can tell the student that she is too sensitive and needs to get on with things, or we can listen to her and see what the teacher is saying which is causing her pain.
If a child tells us the teacher frightens her, then we can learn from listening to her. Or we can tell her there is no reason to be afraid.
If a boy says he is bored, we can listen to him and try to make the classroom more intellectually challenging. Or we can tell him to stop complaining.
If an adolescent tells us she feels judged by the comments we make about her choice of clothing, we can listen to her and try to be more accepting and less judgmental. Or we can tell her she takes things too personally.
If an adolescent tells us she feels unloved by her parents, we can ask her to explain why and learn from her. Or we can tell her that we are sure her parents do love her, that they mean well and that she should appreciate all the good things they do for her.
In many countries we have an abundance of material things. Our physical needs are well accounted for. But our emotional needs are not. Many of us have unmet emotional needs. But for the most part we are simply unaware of them unless we become severely depressed. Even then we often turn to medication rather than to addressing the shortcomings in society.
By listening to those who are in intense emotional pain, rather than telling them they have a disorder, such as the all-too-popular "Borderline Personality Disorder," we can see what changes are needed in the homes, the schools, and the workplaces.
Changes are needed even in the mental health institutions which are designed to help people with emotional problems. These problems can be seen as unmet emotional needs. Yet inside many facilities people's natural human emotional needs are actually less provided for than they are outside. For example, we all have a need for connections and communication with other humans, especially those we feel most understood and accepted by. Often these people are not our own family members.
Yet in the mental health facilities it is common, especially for adolescents, for visitation and phone calls to be limited to family members. To make things worse, often it is these very family members who have been most responsible for the adolescent needing treatment.
It is also common for phone calls to be restricted in duration and in times of the day. For example, in some places calls are limited to ten minutes and not allowed during the night when people often feel the most alone.
With the introduction of the Internet we can now have friends, even best friends, in far away places. It is comforting to be able to communicate with them. Yet as far as I know, mental health facilities do not provide access to the Internet. Nor do they provide patients with ways to make long distance calls, or sometimes even local calls. If the patient has no money, and no one brings them any, they are simply out of luck.
People are also often isolated in these facilities and told that it is for their own protection.
People who need to feel more in control of their lives are placed in situations where they feel even less in control.
People who need freedom and try to get it, are often punished harshly and deprived of even more freedom.
When people are afraid of punishment, another of their emotional needs is unmet - the need to feel safe, emotionally and physically. It seems we are very concerned with the physical security of the staff, first, and the patients, second, but not with meeting emotional needs of the patients. Yet wouldn't it make sense to make the emotional needs of the patient the highest priority? People whose emotional needs are met are neither violent to themselves or others.
Many people, particularly adolescents perhaps, are literally afraid to be locked up in a hospital for emotional problems. Parents will sometimes use the threat of hospitalization to try to get behavioral changes from their sons or daughters.
What does this tell us about these facilities and about how society views unmet emotional needs?
It could tell us we need to make them more emotionally appealing. Ideally, we would want people to feel willing to going to get help when they feel a need for it, rather than making mental health hospitals places which are feared and used as threats.
Today i talked to two tourists* in their twenties from england. i asked them if they ever knew anyone who tried to kill themselves. they said yes, a girl they knew. i asked why they thought she had done it. one said "it was totally attention seeking, i mean she had lots of problems, but it was obvious she was just looking for attention."
I asked what kinds of problems and the girl said, "Well her father killed himself the year before. And her mother was a bit.. just weird. And the family never went to counseling or anything." I told them that sometimes people cut and don't want people to know about it, and they seemed to agree, but had no explanation for that.
i have been meaning to start asking people like this what they think someone should do if someone is seeking attention. Should they give them attention or ignore them? And if they do give them attention, what kind of attention? Lecturing or listening, for example?
* i wont call them backpackers because they are riding around on a party bus called the kiwi experience.
by Elia Wise
For Children Who Were Broken
Our pain was rarely spoken
Our parents said they loved us,
We wanted them to love us.
When days were just beginning
We had to believe it so.
Each day that we pretended,
Our bodies were forsaken.
We tried to make them love us,
To be half the size of a grown-up
We who grew up broken
Some of us are healing.
There's a lot of digging down to do
The journey is not so lonely
So when you see us weary
When we abandon OUR thoughts
Please remember this
The author of "For we who are broken" asked for this to be included:
Signed copies of the book
of this poem are available for $8.50 each (this includes
Elia Wise is author of Letter to Earth: Who We Are Becoming... What We Need To Know
Notes: 1. Some details have been changed for the sake of confidentiality.
Here is an email I received in 2004
Well i feel really bad right now...me and my dad just got in a fight and he grabed my head and arms and shook me just cuz i sad a bad word to him.
your right that my parents' parents treated them like shit too. my moms parents got a divorce and that was hard on her and her mom didnt want her and as for my dad's parents they chased him and his brohters around the house with a yard stick and hit them and stuff. Thats how my dad knows how to dissapline kids. and worst of all when my dad grabbed my head my mom was sitting right there and she didnt tell him to stop or anything. i feel like crap right now and i want to cut myself so bad but im tryin not to.
Well to answer your questions about the USA and the schools i think that we need a better school system. the administrators need to observe the teachers way more because there are alot of bad teachers and the states expect so much from the kids and the tests they give each grade are too hard. i think they should let teachers write the state tests or someone that knows what the teachers are teaching in classes. Are u living in Ecuador? well it felt good to complain to you about my parents. hope to hear from you soon..
Here is a quote I found from a university psychology department. I feel encouraged to see that this site sees the connection between abuse and invalidation and self harm:
This site also says:
This book was recommended to me by a teen who cuts. She said "it's called 'Cutting- overcoming and understanding self-mutilation' by Steve Levenkron. I think the guy who wrote it is a therapist and he talked a lot about how the home and parents are to blame... "
Here is a link to the book on Amazon.com
Here are some books I found listed on this site: http://www.angelfire.com/il2/figskating/library/silibrary.html
Her top recommedations
A Bright Red Scream...An amazing book which presents the
"voice" of people who self-injure. Might be a
little bit triggering
Crosses (Laurel-Leaf Books)...Fiction, about two self-injurying teenage
My name's Dannie and I run and co-facilitate a self help and support group for female self harmers ages 13-19,called Girls Xpress! which is funded by connexions.
I just wanted to say how much I like your pages on self harm because they are so personal. Most websites I have seen and used for research are very generic and although they are useful they all seem to say the same thing. I think it's great that you take the time to try and understand cutters and post things in their own words. I am a recovering self harmer myself and at the wonderful age of 18 helping other in pain is what I do 2 days a week. If you wanted any other information please feel free to ask me. If you wouldn't mind could you put a link to us on your page?