Self-injury, sometimes known as self-mutilation or "cutting" (though that word fails to encompass all the methods used) is, slowly, receiving more attention as a serious cultural problem, particularly among adolescents. Michelle Malkin had a brief op-ed on the subject last week, which would have been far more helpful had she not chosen to place the lion's share of the blame for self-injury on Hollywood:
This madness would not be as popular as it is among young people if not for the glamorizing endorsement of nitwit celebrities such as twentysomething actress Christina Ricci.
It may be all fun and games for a Hollywood starlet like Ricci, but her mindless stunts have inspired countless young girls to carve themselves into a bloody stupor. Hollyweird strikes again.
First off, folks, cutting is not "new." Self-injury has a long medical and social history. Naturally, the farther back in history one goes, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish self-mutilation as a psychological phenomenon from an act of religious devotion. As with its sister disease, anorexia, no one denies that people (particularly women) have deliberately injured themselves in many different times and places. But it's also hard to deny that the significance of those self-inflicted injuries is almost certainly bound by culture.
The kind of self-injury we're concerned with today is not, generally, a response to immense religious enthusiasm. Here's a brief summary from the American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse:
It's important to remember that, even though it may not be apparent to an outside observer, self-injury is serving a function for the person who does it. Figuring out what functions it serves and helping someone learn other ways to get those needs met is essential to helping people who self-harm. Some of the reasons self-injurers have given for their acts include:
- Affect modulation (distraction from emotional pain, ending feelings of numbness, lessening a desire to suicide, calming overwhelming/intense feelings)
- Maintaining control and distracting the self from painful thoughts or memories
- Self-punishment (either because they believe they deserve punishment for either having good feelings or being an "evil" person or because they hope that self-punishment will avert worse punishment from some outside source
- Expression of things that can't be put into words (displaying anger, showing the depth of emotional pain, shocking others, seeking support and help)
- Expression of feelings for which they have no label -- this phenomenon, called alexithymia (literally no words feeling), is common in people who self-harm
To my knowledge, I've got at least two kids in my current youth group who are chronic self-mutilators. Both are girls, and the research suggests that female "cutters" outnumber their male counterparts by a margin of three to one. It's tough to reach out to kids caught up in what to many adults is an utterly incomprehensible behavior. On some level, most grown-ups can understand promiscuity, drug use, and even anorexia. They "get" that society rewards thinness. They see the temptations of early sex and alcohol experimentation. But relatively few adults really grasp just how powerful the urge to cut (or burn) one's own flesh may be.
I'm a former self-mutilator. In my youth, I was both a cutter and a "burner". Even today, if you were to look closely at my forearms, my chest, and my shoulders you would see scars left behind by burns from cigarettes and car cigarette lighters, and by cuts from X-acto knives and glass bottles. All of the bullet-point reasons listed above applied to me, but I'm aware that the desire to "maintain control" was perhaps my chief motivation for self-injury. When I was cutting or burning, I felt that I had absolutely mastered my world. I felt powerless over my external circumstances, but at least I could demonstrate total control over my own flesh. My capacity to endure pain (and self-mutilation builds tolerance fast) was a source of immense, perverse pride. It was my "special thing" that I did to soothe myself and remind myself that despite the chaos of late adolescence, I wasn't a victim of others: I was king of my own body, and by proving that I could inflict real pain on my flesh, I felt empowered and calmed. (And trust me, it had damn all to do with Hollywood. Sheesh, Malkin.)
I'm happy to say I haven't mutilated in many, many years. In some ways, I simply "grew out of it." Something happens in one's twenties that lessens the intensity of that adolescent pain and makes it more bearable. I also was helped by therapy, the church, and working out. I discovered that my desire to push my body could be channeled into far healthier pursuits -- distance running gave me a similar high to cutting, but without the unnecessary agony and with a far greater sense of accompanying self-esteem. I also transitioned out of self-mutilation by getting tattoos and piercings. These more aesthetic, more socially acceptable ways of mastering my flesh gave me great pleasure without the terrible shame I associated with cutting and burning myself. Eventually, I took out all the piercings and stopped getting tattoos. Time, marathoning, a good therapist and the love of Christ took away the urge to wound myself.
I share this not to shock or titillate, but to draw attention to a very real problem and to offer the hope that that problem can be overcome. I still have my scars, and I am grateful for them. They will surely always be with me, and they remind me of where I've been and how far I've come. More importantly, they give me instant credibility with a teen who is trapped in the dark place of self-injury. I can roll up my sleeves, and the faded pink bumps that cover my arms and torso prove at once that I am not merely a well-meaning but clueless adult. I've been where these kids are, and I don't think I would ever be able to earn their trust without the marks on my own skin. If for no other reason, that's why I'll never have them removed with dermabrasion or similar cosmetic surgery.