I Was a Teenage Cutter — & This Is What Parents Need to Know

Sep 26, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
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The first time I took a blade to my wrist, I was 15 years old. I don't why I did it. I've scoured old journals for clues. I've read through dozens of sheets of angsty poetry in the hope of finding answers, and I've thought about it time and time again. But the why eludes me — at least when it comes to that moment: my first time.

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Of course, I didn't cut deep enough to do real damage. I just wanted to see something. To feel something. To remind myself I was still alive. And the sight of blood was enough; it meant I was still breathing and my heart was still beating. In spite of the emptiness and numbness, I was still "there." And that was comforting. Early on, the visualization, the sensation, the warm rush and pain had me hooked.

After the first time, my methods changed. I tried a variety of "tools" over the years — each with its own unique impact and effect. I used steak knives and butter knives, safety pins and straight pins, and I used my own nails. Scratching, as it were, an itch I couldn't see — and I would scratch this itch whenever I was feeling too much — be it sadness, frustration, anxiety depression, guilt or self-loathing — or I just needed a release. Because for me, cutting was a release.

It was the eye in my hurricane, the only way I new to quiet my mind and calm the storm. 

But perhaps more important than the act itself was the scar it left behind — because then, finally, I had something tangible. Something real. After I cut, there was physical proof of the pain I was in, and it brought my invisible illness to life. Somehow, it made me feel less crazy and less alone.

Of course, this probably makes little to no sense, especially to someone who has never battled with mental illness or has never self-harmed. But cutting — and self-harm in general — isn't about the death. It isn't about pain, and it isn't about the injury. Not really. Not completely. Instead, it is about being. It is about breathing, and it is about taking control and feeling alive — and many reformed cutters echo similar sentiments.

Rachael told The Hope Line that for her, cutting was "an escape from reality. No matter how temporary it... [was] a relief to escape the pain." And Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, agrees: "People who self-injure commonly report they feel empty inside, over or under stimulated, unable to express their feelings, lonely, not understood by others and fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. Self-injury is their way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings... self-injury can also be a way to have control over your body when you can’t control anything else in your life."

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But what do you do if you, God forbid, discover your own child is cutting? You support them by learning about their struggles, by trying to better understand the origin of those struggles and by listening.

What is cutting?

Dr. Ellen Hendricksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcasts, wrote in Psychology Today that cutting — also known as non-suicidal self-injury — is any "deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue."

Why do individuals self-injure or cut?

There are numerous reasons people self-harm. However, Hendricksen also wrote that the four main reasons are:

  1. The physical pain of cutting takes away one's emotional pain.
  2. People who cut are often their own harshest critics, and they sometimes feel the need to carve their criticisms — "fat, stupid, ugly," etc. — into their skin.
  3. Cutting can feel like a way of taking control of one's life and stop feeling numb.
  4. It offers individuals an alternative outlet to deal with their emotional pain, especially when they live in an environment that invalidates their feelings.

Do people who self-harm "want to die"?

There is a misconception that people who self-harm are suicidal and/or "want to die." In fact, by definition, self-harm is the act of "intentionally and repeatedly harm[ing ones self]... in a way that is impulsive and not intended to be lethal," according to Mental Health America. However, that does not meant that self-injury cannot result in death. MHA notes that "the relationship between suicide and self-injury is complicated. While people with non-suicidal self injury do not intend to completed suicide, they may cause more harm than intended, which could result in medical complications or death." What's more, "in severe or prolonged cases of self-injury, a person may become desperate about their lack of control over the behavior and its addictive nature, which may lead them to true suicide attempts."

How can you help support someone who is cutting?

If you find out someone you love is injuring themselves, the first thing you want to do is help, right? Of course. It's a natural reaction; it only makes sense. But how do you support someone who is cutting — really support them?

  1. Talk to them. Acknowledge what you've seen. Ask them about the cuts and scratches, as shying away from the subject only breeds blame and shame. And — most important — let your friend know that you won't judge them no matter what; you simply want to help how and if you can. 
  2. If your friend/family member is ready to talk, listen. Just listen.
  3. If your friend/family member is not ready to talk, let them know the offer stands and that you are open to talking any time.
  4. Acknowledge your loved one's pain. Let them you can only imagine what they are feeling — i.e., "I'm sorry. You must be hurting so much right now. Your feelings must be overwhelming" — and avoid statements that minimize their thoughts and feelings, such as, "Things aren't that bad" and/or "But you have such a great life."
  5. Offer to help them find professional assistance and/or resources.
  6. Most important, be realistic about what you can achieve. While you may want to help your friend, please understand that they may not be ready to receive help — even if you force them into therapy and/or an outpatient program. (Trust me. I've been there. I would know.) Make no mistake. It will be disappointing, and you may find yourself frustrated or angry, but the person must be ready to acknowledge the problem before they can stop. 

If you or someone you know is self-injuring and/or cutting, contact Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 or visit www.selfinjury.com for referrals to therapists and tips on how to stop.

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