Why I’m Grateful for My Son’s Self-Injury

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Sometimes you are so low you don’t know how to pick yourself up. All you want to do is crawl in a corner and die. Most days are like that for my son.

“Carrying the weight of depression on my back, a heavy obstacle to overcome. Looking for a place to set it down and clamber over, but I can’t find the right spot. I don’t know what to do. How will I move past this?” — Matthew’s journals

My son, “Matthew,” (name has been changed) plays guitar, piano and loves to draw. He is sensitive and kind, but easily offended and emotionally vulnerable. He is intelligent and often has high expectations and unrealistic goals he can’t always achieve. Not reaching those goals makes him angry and ashamed.

When Matthew was e11 years old he said, “There’s no point in living.” I did not give this statement the attention it deserved. I did not realize what it meant.

I discovered the slices on my son’s arms in January of 2009, just four months after his 14th birthday. Cutting himself wasn’t the first mark of troubled emotions. He didn’t want to go to school or complete his homework. He was irritable and didn’t want to participate in family activities. He often isolated in his room. I equated his attitude with “being a teenager.”

Physically hurting himself was different. Matthew’s depression wasn’t always outwardly noticeable, there were signs, if I had known what to look for and had thought to look. Without uttering a word Matthew’s self-injury told us unmistakably that he was deeply distressed.

Once I knew Matthew was suffering with some unsaid anguish, I did everything I could to help him handle his emotions. Unfortunately what I was able to give my son was not enough. For several months I watched Matthew struggle with an intense emotional burden that threatened to overwhelm him. He saw psychiatrists and counselors. Took medication and learned therapeutic skills. Nothing released his pain like self-harm. He continued to come to me with shame and remorse after cutting.

After an episode of self-injury the suicidal sadness and anger we saw in Matthew was suppressed, an emerging pattern. Cutting apparently gave him a release from his emotional turmoil, and then he could cope with life. It was dangerous.

My son spent many months in psychiatric facilities learning healthy skills to apply to his major depressive disorder. During his time in one facility he stated, “Death is my only
option out of my emotional pain.” He truly believed that life at times simply was not worth living.

In one week Matthew could waver on the precipice of death and self-destruction and the next week he could stay positive and shift forward. Little by little, and after an enormous amount of work and pain, he was able to see that maybe there was something better than hurting himself to manage his illness.

During group therapy in Matthew’s final day at a treatment center, he told his peers, “Hang in there and have hope. It does get better.”

Before full-time treatment, my son was not able to share his emotional pain because of the stigma associated with his illness. He blamed himself. He felt ashamed and embarrassed. So instead of talking, he cut. Not everyone who self-harms is depressed, but everyone who self-harms is using it as a negative coping skill to endure some hidden emotion.

I can look back now after a great deal of progress, and after reading stories of young people who have taken their own life and their parents were not even aware that their child was depressed, and say that I am grateful my son self-harmed. I would never have thought those words could come out of my mouth, but I know the alternative is my worst nightmare.

I don’t condone self-injurious behavior; I think it is addictive and destructive. But, I am thankful my son chose this outward display of his emotional pain, instead of burying it deep within himself, only to carry out the ultimate release.

I am reminded of the story of Corrie Ten Boom who wrote the best-selling book, “The Hiding Place. Corrie tells the story of her family and their work to help Jews escape the Nazi holocaust during World War II. The family was discovered and imprisoned, after saving over 800 lives. Corrie and her sister managed to sneak a Bible into the concentration camp, a crime punishable by death. In their horrific living conditions, Corrie and her sister Betsie, continued to “be thankful in all things.” They lived in barracks infested with fleas and found a way to be thankful for the fleas. They soon discovered that it was the fleas that keep the guards from coming in to harass the prisoners and it was the fleas that keep the guards from searching their barracks and finding their Bible.

For many years I was not thankful for my son’s actions to overcome his depression. In fact I was angry and embarrassed. When I was able to step back and see his behavior objectively, I understood that the self-injury saved his life.

If Matthew had not felt the shame of depression, maybe he would have discussed it with me, instead of hurting himself. If he had not felt alone, maybe he would have been able to
seek out helpful coping skills from his parents, teachers or friends instead of having to carry the burden of depression all on his own.

I am grateful for my son’s self-harming behavior. He silently screamed for help. He is alive today and doing well, having overcome the addiction of cutting and the stigma of self-harm and depression. He is no longer afraid to ask for help.

LOOK: For the signs of depression.

LISTEN: To your child and yourself-don’t be afraid to talk.

GO: Find the help you need.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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To Mothers of Girls Who Cut

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As a mom, your job is to keep your daughter safe. Baby monitors and padded edges on furniture progressed to helmets while biking and making sure your daughter was never bullied at school. Hate to say it, but those may have been the easy years. Easy because she was with you and you could keep her safe. But even as she grew into a teenager and started exploring the world without her parent, you gave her tools you thought would keep her safe from alcohol, drugs, sexting, dating and a million other things that could cause harm her beautiful, amazing little body!

And then the blow comes out of nowhere. You didn’t see this one coming. After all this time keeping your little girl safe from harm, you find out she is actually harming herself. Maybe you got the call from another mom or the school counselor, or maybe you saw it firsthand for yourself. Your job was to keep her safe from the world. There was no way to know this particular danger wasn’t out in the world, but right in your own home.

As a family therapist and the mom of two teenage girls, I can tell you it is going to be OK. Cutting is not typically a suicidal gesture. It can be a symptom of a serious mental health disorder, but it is most likely caused by a lack of proper coping skills. Cutting is talked about on TV, social media, and there are even websites for how to hide it from parents. Ask any teen girl if they know someone who cuts and the answer is probably, “Yeah, of course.”

It is more common that any of us want to believe.

Why is she doing this?

Your daughter is most likely doing this because she’s dealing with difficult emotions. Your daughter’s brain is rapidly developing and one of the biggest changes she’s going through may be her ability to regulate and control emotions. At this stage, she feels feelings passionately and intensely. If she were driving a car instead of her brain, it would be like putting someone in the driver’s seat who doesn’t know how to drive. She’s an inexperienced driver who has no control of the brake pedal to manage the speed at which she has these intense, full speed, feelings. When feelings get too intense (and they don’t have adequate coping skills) cutting can provide some relief. Obviously, it is dangerous and scary and there are better ways to manage the intense feelings.

It feels scary to her, too.

You may never fully understand. You don’t have to. Just know your daughter has discovered cutting helps her slow down and manage the intense feelings. You cannot protect her from the intense feelings. You cannot stop the feelings.

But you can teach her other ways to cope.

How can I help my daughter?

Right now she is using an unhealthy pattern of intense feelings  +  cutting = relief

As much as we moms would like to protect our daughters from the intense feelings, that is not possible. So instead, teach your daughter to use other coping skills.

Healthy Pattern:

Intense feelings   +    (reading, drawing, journaling, talking, singing, crying, ???)   =   coping

1. Talk to her about reading, journaling, listening to music, talking to a therapist, drawing, cooking, baking, exercising, gardening, photography, singing, crying, crafting, whatever you can think of to teach her how to work through the tough emotions of life!

2. Teach your daughter to take time away from social media (the speed at which drama and angst in the form of her peer’s emotional intensity travels on social media does not help your daughter manage her own intense feelings) and friends to explore her creativity, her passions, her interests so that she can find behaviors and hobbies that will provide her relief from the intensities of life.

3. Encourage your daughter to stand up for her wants and needs. Help her say “no” to commitments she doesn’t want to make, to friends that are not healthy and activities that are overwhelming or dangerous.

4. Show her how to express feelings that are difficult; mad, sad, guilt, shame, embarrassment, loneliness, disappointment, failure, etc. Girls have their gas pedal to the metal with feelings. They need to learn when to tap the brake, when to slam the brake and most importantly, how to drive with control and confidence in their ability. 

You and your daughter can get through this together! She needs you to talk to her about cutting. You are not going to remind her about cutting or give her ideas she doesn’t already have. No matter how uncomfortable it is or how much you struggle to understand the “why” of cutting, she desperately needs to learn new ways to cope.

You are the best person to teach her new and better coping skills.

You have been keeping her safe all these years, and you are still the best person to keep her safe. 

If your teen is cutting or you suspect she is cutting, consider seeking help from a licensed mental health provider to discuss any serious mental health concerns.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow this journey on Joy’s site, Surviving Teen Years

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When Self-Injury Shames You Into Silence

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Actions speak louder than words, or at least that’s what I used to think.

Growing up wasn’t always easy. I experienced several painful events at different points of my life. One particularly difficult period stemmed from being bullied as a young adolescent. I can vividly recall the throbbing in my arms from being hit so hard it hurt to raise them over my head. Worse than any punch, however, were the words spewed to me on a daily basis: you’re worthless… pathetic… you should just kill yourself. The more I heard these messages, the more they became deeply entrenched in my mind. Eventually, I began looking at myself in the mirror and loathing the person staring back at me. Unsurprisingly, this culminated into repeated bouts with depression.

In a desperate attempt to feel anything but the unbearable pain I felt inside, I began to self-injure. As irrational as it may sound, self-injury gave voice to what I could not. It communicated the agony I felt each day. Self-injury screamed the hatred I harbored toward myself; it validated the anguish I thought I deserved. Beyond what it expressed, self-injury also provided needed yet temporary relief from the despair that marred so many of my days.

Ironically, as much as it seemed to say, self-injury silenced me. As a young man who self-injured and who was severely depressed, I felt incredibly ashamed and utterly alone. I became accustomed to masking my emotional pain and covering my scars. I hid behind the veil of long-sleeves and fake smiles. Becoming adept at secrecy, I conveyed a sense that I was “OK” when below the surface a storm was brewing. As each day dragged on, my sense of hope waned. I became acutely suicidal and made plans and even took actions to end my life.

As bad as things became, my story ends well.

It started by asking for help and not just asking it, accepting it. This was by no means easy. At the time I saw help seeking as a sign of weakness; just another flaw in what I already deemed an awful character. What changed was a realization that perhaps it was OK to seek help. This didn’t happen overnight. It took time. It took encouragement and support from others, especially my parents and close friends.

What also helped was hearing about others’ experiences — others who had been down a similar path. I read people’s stories in books and interacted with countless people online, who shared experiences with self-injury and depression. Some were young men, just like me. The more stories I heard, the more I recognized I was not alone. It was a simple yet powerful realization. I began to think that maybe — just maybe — there was a chance to climb out of the gulf of misery I inhabited. It was a small glimmer of hope but to was one I so desperately needed. It was a chance to get out of hell.

Over the course of recovery I developed new ways to cope with the pain to which I had become accustomed. I found a voice for what I thought could not be expressed without self-injury. This took time and patience. Recovery is a process. It is not quick nor is it easy. And, it is definitely not straightforward. It had its ups and downs and I had moments of relapse during which I self-injured again. However, these incidents became less frequent. I found myself increasingly more able to resist the urges to self-injure. Soon the urges were just that — urges. I developed what I never thought was possible: a voice over self-injury.

Actions do not necessarily speak louder than words. Self-injury is shrouded in myths, misconceptions, stigma and undue shame. In my experience, self-injury muted my voice while depression took away my vitality. Hence, I believe we need to foster open conversations about self-injury and related mental health difficulties — especially for the sake of those who remain silent.

Sharing one’s experience is a deeply personal decision. It’s certainly easier said than done. It has to come at a time of readiness. At least this was the case for me. Not everyone’s circumstances are identical. There may be concerns about how partners, friends, family or co-workers may respond or react. Accordingly, there is a dual need to increase society’s awareness and understanding of self-injury. With more awareness comes more understanding. With more understanding comes greater acceptance.

There is nothing wrong with you if you have self-injured or if you struggle. It’s OK to talk about it. It’s okay to ask for help and accept it. You deserve that. Recovery is possible.

When you’re ready, let your voice be heard. Make your words louder than your actions.

Until then, remember this simple message: You are not alone.

For more resources about self-injury, visit Self-injury Outreach and Support.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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To the Teenage Girl Who Self-Harms Because She Doesn't Think She's Worthy

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Dear 13-year-old self, 

I know you’re struggling right now. I know you don’t find yourself worthy of love, or support, or even kindness, but I’m writing you today to tell you one thing and one thing only. 

It does get better.

A lot happened to you, and I need you to realize you didn’t deserve it. I also need you to realize the things that have happened to you and the people who have hurt you, do not and never will define you. You are so beautiful, you are so strong and you are a survivor. 

I want you to know we did rise from the ashes, and my name is Phoenix because of it. I want you to know the move you are so unsure of was exactly what we needed to begin healing. I want you to know that as I write this to you, we are over 3,000 days clean of self-harm. All the tears and all the pain was worth it. I promise. 

split image of the offer then and now

Now, to the real point of this letter. 

I want to you to know you are worthy of everything you think you aren’t. You are worthy of love, support, kindness, friendship and understanding. You are worthy of having a group of people surround you with love always, and let me tell you, the people I have in my life were well worth the wait. You are worthy of life; you always were and you always will be. You are worthy of recovery, and you will recover. I can’t promise there won’t be bad days, but I love being alive and every day is another step towards recovery, for both of us. You are worthy of coming out, being able to be who you are and being accepted for who you are. Coming out was just as scary as you thought, but no one freaked out on you. Everyone in our life now accepted us with open arms. You are worthy of having good friendships and relationships. You are so worthy of everything, and you will realize that one day. 

I don’t blame you for feeling the way you do. What we survived was extraordinarily hard to cope with and recover from, but we did do it. We have an amazing support system from friends to family, and I know they would have loved 13-year-old you.

But for now, please just know that what while what you’re feeling is valid, it doesn’t last forever. I did find happiness within myself and I did eventually gain this large amount of self-love and self-acceptance. Cutting all our hair off definitely helped. 

Please know I love you, and I’m not mad at you for feeling the way you feel. 

Please also know you are always going to worthy.

Sincerely,

Your 21-year-old self

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to your teenaged self when you were struggling to accept your differences. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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5 Things to Know When You're Recovering From Self-Harm

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

The first time I resorted to self-harm I was in high school. Or maybe it was middle school. To be honest, I don’t remember and I don’t really try to remember. I guess it’s because, like most people who self-harm, I don’t exactly beam with pride over the thought of having done it.

I have no pride in my past of self-harm because it was done out of desperation. Desperation to feel something other than emotional pain; desperation to feel in control amidst the chaos I was experiencing externally and internally.

And let me tell you, my life was definitely in chaos, but I think there might be a common misconception that only people with depression self-harm. I think there is also a misconception that people only self-harm because they are suicidal. Neither of those were true for me. 

No, despite all the wrong in my life and the struggles I endured in my high school years, I never once felt as if I was truly depressed or ever considered taking my own life. I guess that’s because deep down I must have known I’d make it out the other side almost unscathed. And now, seven years later, I’m self-harm free and I’m ready to share my story with the world.

For those of you who have just started your recovery journey, here are some things you should know:

1. Be aware of your triggers.

Know what your body feels like when an urge hits, be mindful of items, sounds or pictures that make you feel a certain way or take you back to when you would self-harm. For me, I always knew when my body wanted to self-harm because my wrists would burn. Without fail, the feeling to cut was always preceded by my wrists burning, almost like it was simulating the act of cutting to get me by until I actually could self-harm.

2. Forgive yourself if you relapse.

There will be relapses, but that’s OK. Why? Because chances are it’s been a week, three weeks, a month, six months since you last did it. Pick yourself up, remind yourself why you decided to stop and keep pushing forward. Remember what worked and what didn’t, and tell yourself next time you’ll go a day, a week, a month longer. Power through, and remember that you stopped before, so you can stop again.

3. It’s important to find support.

Support is vital. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a significant other or a family member, or even a friend. Support can come from within, it can come from a support group on Facebook or it can come from the favorite poetry verse you have hanging on your wall. Support can come from playing your guitar when you feel the urge, or going out for a walk with your dog. Support doesn’t have to be a physical person; support is anything you use to help you through the urges and make you feel whole again, even for just a moment.

4. Trust in your ability to recover.

It’s important to trust yourself, your strength, your courage. Trust your ability to persevere in the face of a relapse. Trust that you will one day be able to forgive yourself, to look at those scars and realize that despite all that you’ve been through, you healed. You put one foot in front of the other, you climbed that wall, you emerged the other side and then destroyed it piece by piece until you could clearly see the road you came from.

5. If your body can heal, so can your mind.

There was a quote I heard the other day from comedian Tig Notaro on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” that really spoke to me. She had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer, and they were discussing a time when she removed her shirt and proudly displayed her scars. Ellen asked Notaro why, and she replied: “It hit me that I have scars because my body healed, and it’s really not a big deal…The scars are evidence of healing.” If your body can heal from the trauma, so can your mind. It will be a long road, but recovery is possible; healing is possible. I have dealt with a lot of negative emotions towards myself. I feel a lot of shame, a lot of regret and it never gets easier to talk about. But not telling someone makes the burden you feel, whether consciously or subconsciously, heavier.

Sitting down to write this was very, very hard. These are memories I buried deep, purposefully trying to forget them. I had never even gone as far as writing about it, but I decided I wanted to do this.

I wanted to do this because my battle with self-harm was real. The pain I felt was real; the trauma that caused it was real and the scars on my wrist are real. I wanted to do this because like so many others, those scars are a constant reminder of what I’ve been through and how I struggled.

But you know what else? My recovery was real, too. I may not have struggled with depression or thought about taking my life, but overcoming self-harm is a huge feat. I buried those feelings and sometimes that secret is harder to carry than the actual self-harm. Don’t do that to yourself; don’t wait to get the help you rightfully deserve because while there may be no pride in self-harm, I’ve learned there shouldn’t be any shame either.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow this journey on You, Me & Emetophobia.

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How This Tattoo Artist Is Helping People Move on From Self-Harm

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Although some get tattoos to remember, Brian Finn, from Toledo, Ohio, is giving people tattoos as an opportunity to begin again.

In a small blurb in the Toledo City Paper , he made a call for people who have scars inflicted by domestic violence, human trafficking or self-injury, offering to give them a tattoo as a chance to “reclaim that painful space on their body.”

He’s doing it for free.

“It was simply something I could do that would affect people in a positive way,” Finn told The Mighty in an email. “A lot of people I talked to couldn’t afford a coverup, so I figured I would take up some time on a day off to help.”

Maddie Keating, 20-year-old who has scars from self-harm, reached out to Finn after seeing his blurb in the paper, NPR reported. Although she hadn’t hurt herself in years and wasn’t ashamed of her scars, they were a reminder of a dark time in her life.

Now, those scars are covered with a rose. 

Maddie Keating's arms before and after her tattoo. On the left shows an arm with scars. On the right the scars are covered with a rose.
Maddie Keating’s arms before and after her tattoo. Photo courtesy of Brian Finn.

It’s gorgeous. And to think that I used to look at my arm and think, ‘Wow, that’s so sad that I was so sad,’ and now I get to have this beautiful rose,” Keating told NPR. “It felt almost like coming full circle. Out of emotional pain, I brought myself physical pain. And now, I took a little bit of physical pain for something really beautiful.”

If you’re in the Toledo area and want to get a tattoo of your own, you can reach [email protected]

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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