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2 Things Doctors Shouldn't Say to People Who Self-Harm

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When I was a teenager, I spent years self-harming. In addition to the emotional pain involved with self-injury, this has lead to many awkward encounters with family, friends, strangers and sadly, even medical professionals. Although I understand the surprise when you find out someone’s been hurting themselves on purpose, the reactions I’ve received have ranged from comforting to triggering. Sadly, the reactions from medical professionals — those who were supposed to help me — are what hurt the most, and even made my trauma worse.

Here are the two things you shouldn’t say to someone who has self harmed:

1. “Let me see.”

When I first went to a therapist for cutting, the therapist said, “Let me see.” So, I lifted up my sleeves and showed her a series of light, surface cuts and minor scars criss-crossing up my arm. She didn’t react much, but the look on her face said it all — these seemed like a cry for attention and nothing to be taken seriously. At least, that’s what 13-year-old me thought she meant. So, I interpreted her indifference as a challenge. I started self-harming deeper, started cutting more, in different places, in different directions, with different instruments. Several therapists since then have asked me the same question, “Can I see?” and every time I show them, I look at their facial expression to see their true feelings. Many of them gave off the same flippant reaction, but luckily some did not. Every time a therapist or doctor commented on the extent of my cutting and scars, it only challenged me to be more extreme until finally they took me seriously.

Now that I no longer cut and my scars have long since healed, when a therapist asks to see my scars, I ask “Why?” Because it doesn’t matter how deep, how many, how severe someone’s wounds from self-harm are — what matters is that they have self-inflicted wounds. If that first therapist hadn’t shrugged me off after asking me to reveal something very personal about myself, I might not have some of these scars that I now have to live with for the rest of my life. 

2. “Oh, I see you’re right handed.”

My primary care doctor saw my scars and asked if I could promise I would quit self-harming. “No, I’m addicted,” I said. That was the wrong answer. I was sent to the mental hospital. And rightfully so. 

When I got to the hospital, I had to undergo a physical exam. The doctor looked at my arms and said, “Oh, I see you’re right handed.” He must have thought his joke was so funny, seeing as how this young girl had spent so much time cutting up her left arm that she didn’t get to her right arm yet, making it really clear that I’m right-handed. After I got out of the hospital, I started self-harming my right arm and several other parts of my body. I wanted my scars to be “even.” I didn’t want to hear anyone joke like that again. Here I was, in the mental hospital, at one of my lowest moments, and the physician who is supposed to care for my wounds only mocked them. All this did was reinforce that I shouldn’t be taken seriously, which of course, in my mind, challenged me to cut more.

In some ways, the joke is on me, though, as I’m the one who has to live with these scars and remember the reactions from people who were supposed to be there to treat me, support me and care for me. When medical professionals don’t take someone who self-harms seriously, it only makes things worse. Self-harm is not just about suicide, but it is about feeling pain and the rush of endorphins that follows. Doctors who brush it off as a cry for help are missing the complexity of what self-harmers are experts at knowing — cutting yourself feels bad and good at the same time. What I believe doctors need to say to their patients is those feelings are temporary, but the scars are permanent.

I was fortunate to find a cognitive behavioral therapist who taught me I was using self-injury as a coping mechanism, and helped me identify my feelings, my thinking patterns and ultimately helped me quit cutting. It took so many awkward encounters with doctors, so many new wounds, to finally find a doctor who understood me and treated me with respect. People who self-harm do so for many reasons, but for me, attention-seeking was not one of them. I didn’t want anyone to know I did it. It was my secret. For me, it was a release of all my emotional pain I kept inside for no one to see. It felt good in the moment, but I felt worse afterwards. I felt like an addict. I wish those doctors had taken the time to understand that about me before making a judgment based on stereotypes about teenagers and cutting. Anyone who hurts themselves on purpose as a coping mechanism should be treated with respect and medical professionals need to understand the rationale and emotions behind self-injury in order to help these individuals from hurting themselves permanently.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via shironosov.

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To the People Who Stare at My Self-Harm Scars

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Hi. I’m one of those people you might have stared at. One of the people you may have nudged your friends in the ribs about to point out. I’m the person who just happens to be in the same place as you trying to go about my day. You may have decided I was worth a long, hard glance. And that’s OK. I understand that sometimes, when something is different, you can’t help but look. But there’s a big difference between looking and staring.

I have self-harm scars. All over my body. Some of them, over the years, have turned white and aren’t noticeable, but others are bright red scars, or keloid scars, that I know will either never go away or will take years to fade even slightly. I’ve accepted that. I know what I look like. I’ve had to get used to my new body. I have to look at myself every single day and remember each one of those scars and how they came to be and I am trying so hard every second to not be constantly self-conscious of them. And I usually have them hidden, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. And that’s usually when people stare.

I know looking is sometimes uncontrollable. You may see something different to what you’re used to and you can’t help yourself. Sometimes I don’t mind that. One quick glance is easy to pass off as merely that — a quick passing glance. But when you stare, it’s a whole other story.

I spend all of my time trying not to be self-conscious. And staring instantly throws me into that place. That place of, I’m a freak, they’re staring at me. I’m so stupid. I’m too different. I’m ugly. I’ll never be beautiful. I’ll never get anywhere in life. All people ever see are my scars, etc, etc, etc. It’s an instant feeling of my heart sinking down to my feet, of my stomach instantly knotting, my face becoming red and wishing I could run and hide. It reminds me of all those mistakes I made, all those cuts and sometimes, it makes me feel like I should just relapse because what difference would it make if people are going to look at me like that anyway?

I don’t mind people staring if they’re informed. I’ve always said if someone were to look at me judgmentally, learn my story and get to know me and continue to look at me judgmentally then I would let them — they would have the right to. But when people don’t know me, they don’t know my history or my story or what I’ve gone through — and they instantly judge me on something they do not understand. And that’s not OK with me.

So, to you, the people who stare: please consider how you are making that person feel. Everybody has their own story, their own history and their own incredibly valid feelings. Consider how judgmental eyes, nudging and pointing will make that person feel. I can guarantee you the person is more than aware they look “different” and they’re probably just trying to maintain their confidence to get through the day without hiding — I know that’s how I feel. So please, educate yourself. Be informed and be kind. We are people. Regardless of looks, we are human beings just like you.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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To the Young Woman With Red Hair and Self-Harm Scars

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Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to the piece, “To the Man Who Approached Me About My Self-Harm Scars.”

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder along with anxiety and a few other issues a number of years ago. I struggled with self-harm when I was teenager and early adulthood. It’s something that never goes away after all these years.

But this story isn’t about me, it’s about a story I read on The Mighty earlier this week. Reading the story, I quickly realized she was talking about an interaction I had while in New York City with my family. I’ve gone back and forth about sharing this story. I’m not thrilled about the attention that may come my way. I just want everyone who feels alone to know there are people out there who understand what others can’t comprehend.

So, we walked down to Times Square and looked around for a while and decided to get a little better view and to sit and rest. The bleachers had some people relaxing taking pictures and enjoying themselves. We sat down about half way up and took in all the sights. Very quickly someone caught my attention and nothing else mattered.

This piece is for the young woman with red hair and noticeable self-harms scars. My first thought was, She’s a fighter. But I also thought about how brave and courageous she was. But the more I watched you it became very clear how uncomfortable and anxious you were. You sat with your legs up against your chest and your arms wrapped around them like you wanted to hide. A few people walked down the bleachers past me and nudged each other when they saw you. It was then my heart sank and hurt for you. I understood the demons that gave you those scars, but also how difficult it must be just to be in a pair of shorts and a top.

That’s when I knew I had to say something to you. I sat there wondering what to say, and a million things went through my head. I wanted to sit next to you to tell you that you’re not alone in your fight and to please keep fighting and never give up. I wanted to tell you how beautiful you are on the outside and on the inside. I didn’t see what everyone else saw — I just saw a young woman with red hair.

My family decided it was to time to leave. They headed off in a different direction down the bleachers. As I came up from behind you, I still didn’t know what to say. When you turned and looked at me I saw dread sweep across your face. The only thing I could muster was, “You’re a warrior.”

You saw my semicolon tattoo, but not what’s tattooed next to it — the phrase: “You’re not alone.” Don’t ever forget that.

My only regret while visiting New York City was not saying the things I wanted to say to you but didn’t. After reading your story I now know, I achieved my goal. I just wanted to make you smile.

tattoo

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Lead Thinkstock photo via lolostock.

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How I Talk About My Self-Harm With My Daughter

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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. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

It started with an innocent enough question: “Daddy, what are those white lines on your arm?” 

“Those are scars.” 

“How did you get them?” 

“I harmed myself.”

“How did that happen?” 

“I did it on purpose.” 

“Why?”

“When I was younger, I used to harm myself when I was angry or sad.” 

I am not ashamed of my self-harm scars. They’re just a part of me, like my brown eyes, my depression and my sense of humor. I knew Namine would one day notice them and ask about them. I just didn’t think that day would come so soon. (Although now that I think of it, “soon” is all relative. Namine is almost 9 years old.) 

Namine and I talked about sadness and depression. We talked about the talking: about having someone you can trust. It’s not the first time that we’ve discussed her being able to talk to us about anything without fear of getting in trouble, and I’m sure — as she gets older — that it won’t be the last. It bears repeating.

Namine has a self-love I’ve never felt for myself, and for that I’m thankful. She’s never shown signs of clinical depression, but since it can be hereditary, she may someday. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and though you can never truly be prepared for depression, talking about it is a good first step. 

Namine knows about death, having come so close to it personally. Not only she herself, but she’s lost a grandmother and a great-grandmother, and she was extremely close to both. She knows about suicide; the topic was touched on in one of her school books last year, actually. (Had I known ahead of time, I’m not sure I would have let her read it. But she did read it, and so we discussed it.) She knows people hurt themselves on purpose, sometimes badly, when they’re not thinking straight. She also knows I get sad sometimes, without cause or reason. (“Sad” being her word, and although it isn’t quite right, it’s close enough for her vocabulary and our discussion.)

It’s all we can do sometimes to surround ourselves with people who love us. Jessica was with me on the night I harmed myself, and without her present, I may have died. I believe in honesty with my daughter, but on a level appropriate for her age. I won’t tell her now that I almost died, but as she gets older, she may learn it; I don’t have a problem with that.

For now, it suffices for her to know her mommy took care of me. I count myself beyond blessed to have a wife who loves me, despite my depression. And that’s the point I wanted to get across: I am not in this fight alone. I have someone on whom I can depend. I want Namine to have the same trust in us, as her parents — the same assurance that she can depend on us.

So the most I can say about depression to my daughter — and to you, dear reader — is that communication is probably the most important thing you can have. Be there for the people you love. Be willing to talk. More importantly, be willing to listen. Just be there.

This post was originally published on eichefam.net.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Sasiistock

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To the Man Who Approached Me About My Self-Harm Scars

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Editor’s Note: The man described in this story found the piece and realized it was him. You can read his response here.

I have struggled for many years with self-harm in many different forms but, like many, I struggled the most with cutting. As a result, I am covered head to toe in scars, some of which are very noticeable. All of which I am not ashamed of, but I do wish they weren’t there. I live in Scotland. It’s never really “beachwear weather” here, so I generally have most, if not all, of my scars hidden on a daily basis without really trying or having to be aware of hiding them on purpose. Still, when I am at work in uniform or on those rare sunny days when I go without sleeves or — heaven forbid — shorts, I have gotten pretty used to the pointing and staring and whispering or even outright interrogations. So when I went on holiday to New York, I was terrified as I packed those skirts, those crop tops, those shorts with no tights and all of those revealing clothes. I told myself it would be OK and that New York was way too busy a city for anybody to bother finding the time to gawk at little old me. Oh, how wrong I was.

I had it all. I had people pointing, nudging others to get them to look as well, laughing, staring, judging and even one boy who walked past with a group of friends and proceeded to nudge them and say loud enough for me to hear, “Damn, look at the state of that.” I walked around in a constant state of anxiety, always being on edge, looking at every passerby’s eyes to see if they were directed at me, terrified of judgment while knowing perfectly well it was near constant. So when a man came up to me and directly referenced my scars, I immediately felt my heart sink.

But he was different. He asked if he could shake my hand and he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a warrior.” He gave me the most genuine smile and, with a final squeeze of my hand, walked away. I noticed he had a semicolon tattoo on his wrist.

So to that man in New York with the semicolon tattoo who approached the girl with scars and red hair — I can’t thank you enough. You taught me all that judgment is incomparable to one kind compliment. You made me feel comfortable in my own skin despite all of the reasons that had recently been given to me. You reminded me my scars are not flaws, they are not an exhibition to be gaped at — they are a representation of where I have been, the war that I have had to fight and I should not be ashamed.

Thank you, Man from New York with the Semicolon Tattoo. Thank you so much.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via IakovKalinin.

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9 Facts I Wish I'd Known When I Discovered My Son Was Self-Harming

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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. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

As a parent, I wanted to protect my child from all the bad things that might come into his life, but how could I protect him from himself? I discovered my son’s self-injurious behavior when he was 14. I knew practically nothing about self-harm then, but as the years went on I learned a great deal. Here is what I wish I had known.

1. It’s not attention seeking behavior, but rather a cry for help.

I thought harming himself was a way to get attention, sort of a rebellious teenage “badge.” I quickly learned my child was not trying to get attention; he was screaming for help. Self-harm was the only way he knew how to communicate his intense pain. By doing so, he was releasing endorphins into his brain, much like a drug. These endorphins helped to relieve some of his emotional trauma and actually made him feel better. However, the feeling doesn’t last, and then the self-harmer is left with physical scars and a feeling of shame.

2. It’s not a suicide attempt; it is a coping skill for dealing with intense and overwhelming emotions.

It’s called non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). NSSI is used as a coping skill to deal with an emotional overload. My son often said he self-harmed to stop himself from completing suicide. This is a prevalent method used for those dealing with suicidal ideation; it is an attempt to alleviate the feeling of wanting to die. The big difference here is intent. The intent of NSSI is to escape the severe emotional pain, but still remain alive. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. Many self-harmers have attempted suicide and even intentionally or accidentally completed suicide. One of the other dangers of NSSI is that it can become obsessive, compulsive and even addictive. Stopping once you have experienced the endorphin release can be difficult and can take years to overcome.

3. Talking about self-harm with your child will not put the idea in their head.

If you have a reason to believe your child is thinking about self-harming, talking to them will not give them the idea. Most likely they have heard about it from friends, classmates or online, and if they have already self-harmed, discussing it won’t make it worse. If they haven’t heard of it, it is important to have an intelligent and accurate conversation about what self-harm is, why people engage in it, and why you think it isn’t the right path to choose. This conversation should include all of the positive coping skills that are available.

Talking about self-injury is important. Do this privately, with compassion and without judgment. Chances are your child already feels confused. Knowing they can come to you and talk, without being judged, can make all the difference in what choices they make in the future.

4. Ignoring it will not make it go away.

When things get difficult in our lives we often want to bury our heads in the sand, hoping the problem will go away. This does not work. Do not ignore your child’s self-injurious behavior. It will not go away on its own. Be the parent you need to need to be for your child. You can help them through this difficult time in their lives and both of you can come out on the other side stronger than you were before.

5. Going to the hospital or doctor every time is not necessary.

This is a time when you need to be objective as a parent. If you think your child’s self-injury is out of control and they are in danger of completing suicide, take them to the hospital. If your child has hurt themselves severely, take them to the hospital. Beyond this there is no right or wrong answer as to when you should take your child to the doctor or the hospital after an episode of self-injury. Discuss their actions with your medical professional or counselor. You must use your best parental judgment and decide what is best for your child in that moment. No two situations are the same and nobody can make that decision for you.

6. Getting angry at your child does not help.

Oh, I have been there. After years of helping my son overcome his desire to self-harm, when I thought he had “beaten” the addiction, he did it again. Oh yeah, I was angry, but it didn’t help. It didn’t even make me feel better; I only suffered remorse later. How could I be angry at my boy who was struggling with intense pain? Getting angry doesn’t help anyone.

7. Validate your child’s feelings instead of trying to fix the problem.

As parents, we want to “fix” problems. Often the best thing to do in this situation is to validate their feelings. Validation does not mean you agree with their choice of self-harm; instead, it’s telling them it is OK to have these feelings and you still love them. This will help your child feel accepted, understood and heard.

8. Finding the right therapist is imperative.

This is truly a tough one. Can you even find the right therapist? Some people say no, but I do believe there are competent therapists out there. Don’t be afraid to interview them in advance and ask questions about their therapeutic process. A parent alone cannot do everything for their child, especially if that child is unwell. There comes a time when you must relinquish control and realize you do not have all the skills needed to help your child move to a healthy place.

9. It’s not your fault.

There is a propensity in society to blame the parents for the “faults” of their children. In a few small cases this may be appropriate, but they are few. When it comes to self-harm and mental illness, it’s not your fault. Do not blame yourself. You did not want this for your child, nobody does.

The majority of parents are giving their children the best care and opportunities they can. Do not judge others in their parenting, instead, offer empathy and compassion. You never know when you might find yourself in a similar situation.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Jupiterimages

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