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5 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Who Self-Harms and Why

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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.

There is so much stigma attached to self-harm. Please don’t make us feel any worse about it than we already do. You see that only exacerbates the problem. I feel shame already. Please don’t add to that with “helpful” comments. I have bipolar with emotionally unstable personality traits and I self-harm. I have heard a lot of comments, sadly some from professionals in the field and some from family. Here is a list of the five most unhelpful ones:

1. “I don’t understand why you would do that to yourself.”

Not helpful. I self-harm because it is part of my mental illness. I don’t do it because I choose to, like in the same way I choose to watch TV. Everybody has their own reasons for self-harming and mine may be different from someone else’s. Ask instead,  “How do you feel right before you self-harm?” Then, you can understand the emotions that lead me there.

2. “If you’re that ashamed of doing it, don’t do it.”

Reactions like this hurt twofold. They imply we are weak because we can’t resist the impulse of the act. Secondly, they imply we are not that ashamed or we wouldn’t do it. A very dangerous statement.

3. “Are you trying to kill yourself when you do it?’

Self-harm isn’t an act of suicide gone wrong usually. Just because someone is hurting themselves doesn’t necessarily doesn’t mean they are trying to end their life. It is much more complicated than that. That statement is far too black and white.

4. “Isn’t that something only teenagers do for attention?”

This is one of the worst and at 45 years old, I have had it said to me twice now. No is the answer. Mental illness has no age restrictions. This statement is just so damaging, I do not know where to even start. I will just clarify that anyone who self-harms never does it for attention. Ever.

5. “When you want to go do it, just don’t.”

Well this is quite possibly the most unhelpful advice ever. Do people actually think we don’t try not to self-harm? That we willingly want to add to our scars and feel the self-loathing we know we will feel after? Education is the key here. Educate yourself on why people self-harm and stop judging. It’s just another branch of that tree called mental illness. The reasons why people self-harm are as complicated as mental illness itself.

Remember. Never feel shame. You have an illness and with the right help you can get through.

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.

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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.

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How I Would Explain My Self-Harm to Others

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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.

Trying to explain my self-harm to someone who doesn’t self-harm has always been a struggle for me. But after nearly 11 years of struggling on and off with it, I’ve finally found a way to explain it:

Sometimes I feel too much. I just feel too much. No, I’m not saying that I am physically feeling too much — this is not a matter of the five senses. Rather, it is a matter of my emotions. When I say, “I am feeling too much,” I mean that my emotions are overtaking my mind. I mean that my emotions are spiraling down a negative path. I mean that my emotions are too strong to deal with in that moment and I want to make them stop. Sometimes, I have a very clear picture of what these emotions are and I use the coping strategies I’ve learned to help deal with them. But more often than not, I don’t know what emotion I am experiencing. You see, I’ve blocked myself off from my emotions for such a long time now that it can be hard to identify them anymore. Therefore, I don’t always know how to cope, so I turn to self-harm.

I’ll continue explaining:

The first time I can remember feeling too much was in March of 2006. While I don’t remember exactly what I was feeling too much of, I know that it was overwhelming. It was then that I hurt myself for the first time. Yes, I hurt myself. On purpose.

It may seem counterintuitive to create a physically painful feeling when I am, at the same time, saying that I am feeling too much. But that’s where it actually makes sense to me — the physical feeling relieves the emotional feeling and allows me to feel less. While I do not know when the emotional feelings will stop, I know from experience that once I create a physical pain, the emotional pain goes away. I’m not exactly sure the best way to describe it, but I think a quote from the movie “Short Term Twelve” did a pretty good job when it said, “It’s impossible to worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you.” And it’s true. Within seconds of hurting myself, my “too much” becomes much less, until it becomes nothing at all.

When I can get to a point where the self-harm doesn’t physically hurt and the emotions don’t hurt either, then I will finally be at peace with both my body and my mind. I suppose you could say I am numb. It is in that peaceful moment when all my emotions have ceased that I have relief from my “too much.”

So that is why I self-harm. Or at least, why I used to. Thankfully, I can write this and say I am free from self-harm behavior for a while now, which is something I am proud of. Nevertheless, I do still often feel “too much,” but I’m learning to identify what causes that feeling instead of just blocking it out. This is uncharted territory for me, but if there’s one thing I’m learning, it’s that there is hope — hope in that I can one day feel all of the emotions on the enormously large emotional spectrum and not want to to run away from them.

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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Remembering Chester Bennington: Leave Out All the Rest

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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.

This morning I got in my car and put Linkin Park on shuffle. “Leave Out All the Rest” poured out of my speakers and I became a teary mess.

If I’m honest, I thought I was more upset about Chris Cornell. I’m a huge grunge fan and I thought I would be able to go see Soundgarden, one of the only three grunge bands you can still see (the others being Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam). The reality that I would not be able to do that, to feel what so many must have felt in 1994 when Kurt Cobain died by suicide, was very real to me.

But if I’m completely honest, it wasn’t Chris Cornell’s voice that carried me through some very dark times in my life. It was Chester Bennington.

In 2000, when “Hybrid Theory” came out, I was convinced it was one of the greatest albums of our time and it very well may be; it’s amazing. I listened to it on a loop, just over and over again. My parents were getting divorced, I was becoming a teenager and I was beginning to self-injure.

In 2007, when “Minutes to Midnight” came out, a friend got me a copy somehow. I listened to it on my iPod over and over. At the time I was in a bad relationship that was sometimes off and sometimes on, and we had to ride a bus together for our college marching band. Chester’s voice drowned out my own feelings, or let me feel them more truly.

But what I missed was that while Chester was singing my feelings, he was also singing his own on a stage in front of millions of people, just waiting to tear him apart. I can’t imagine the pressure.

Yesterday, when I heard about his suicide, I didn’t know what to feel. This morning, there was Chester’s voice helping me to know how to feel yet again.

“When my time comes
Forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed
And don’t resent me
And when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest…”

So this is my attempt to help the things he did wrong to be forgotten, and help remember all the ways Chester’s life helped us, in ways he will never know. In ways maybe we didn’t or couldn’t show him. But we cannot let him be forgotten, or written off as another tortured artist who couldn’t deal. There are too many of us who wouldn’t be here without his help, his words and his perseverance to be as strong as he was for so long. Let’s leave out all the rest…

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.

Image via Linkin Park YouTube

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What I Wish Health Care Professionals Would Consider Before Dressing My Self-Harm Wounds

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I’ve touched on this subject before but I feel the need to revisit it. “Noncompliance” is something that is so widely accepted as a viable piece of terminology when talking about people who have any kind of physical or mental health difficulty and it’s one I don’t feel is really questioned enough.

Inherent in noncompliance is the unspoken implication that the medical professional has the definitive truth of what is in another individual’s best interest. Now of course a doctor or psychiatrist can assert their medical knowledge as superior to the person whom they are treating and can say from this perspective alone, that yes, they know what is considered as providing the best medical outcome based on evidence based practice. But I believe this is not the same as understanding what is in the best interest of an individual.

This is where I think true occupational therapy comes into its own. Occupational therapy aims to look at the whole person, not just the medical outcome. You may assert that having my arms dressed by qualified nurses is more congruent with evidence that points to the reduced risk of infection associated with professional driven wound management. But beyond this, do you consider the impact the treatment intervention you are asserting will actually have on me as an individual? Have you considered how the treatment makes me feel? Have you thought about how the time it takes up in my daily life may disrupt my routine and make it difficult to plan other occupations I find meaningful? Did you consider the cultural implications of your suggested treatment? When independence in our society is prized as the goal, how may being dependent upon a service again affect my esteem? Have you thought about how my role as a patient may shape my self-concept when I’m working hard in therapy to construct an identity outside of my use of services?

The psychological impact of your suggested treatment is overlooked simply because generally wound management is considered medically, as better enacted by qualified practitioners. This however overlooks my personal narrative. I have been a self-harmer since before my teenage years and have amassed a great deal of knowledge on dressings and wound management in that time — after all I’ve had to in order to keep myself safe. I frequently find myself telling those who are qualified which dressings would work best and how better to apply them so they don’t fall down or come away from the skin. Most practice nurses are so used to doing dressings for a largely older age population that they often forget how much more movement a younger person’s dressings need to withstand. Sometimes they apply them so poorly I’m usually having to redo them as soon as I’ve walked back home from the surgery. In applying my own dressings and monitoring my own wounds, I am taking on responsibility for my own actions and demonstrating self-care. Why is this viewed as noncompliance?

The main point I want to make is I believe the physician puts himself or herself into a position of knowing what’s best for a person based on meeting a single set of criteria. There is no consideration as to whether having my dressings completed by the practice nurses is likely to trigger me into further self-harm because of the lack of dignity and control I feel in the situation. If I want to attend to my own wounds, I am labeled a “bad patient” because I’m not agreeing with what the doctor feels is the best course of action. I am seen as “noncompliant.” But how can I not be compliant with my own care. Can I not disagree with the recommended treatment regime and still be legitimate in knowing what’s best for me as a person? Do I not have the right to say I know myself better than a professional who has never met me before? Is it not in both our interests to work together as a partnership rather than in a futile power struggle where you must always be heralded as the superior and me as the psychiatric patient who needs others to make her decisions for her ?

I believe everyone has the fundamental right to be listened to when they tell you what’s best for them and not be labeled negatively because of it. I believe the word, “noncompliant,” is another way of a professional saying, “I didn’t try hard enough to understand what’s important to this individual.” I believe it’s a way of saying the problem is the patient and the only solution is the treatment they as the professional thought to administer. To me, “noncompliant” says, “I’m right and you’re wrong” and doesn’t stop to consider the notion that maybe patient and physician both have a valid point. Yes, outcomes in evidence-based practice may suggest I have less chance of infection and wound complications if I allow the nurses to do my dressings twice weekly at the GP surgery, but also this treatment may actually exasperate my feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem through learned dependence and take a psychological tole on me when it leaves me cast into the role of psychiatric patient and service user. In this way I am not “noncompliant” with my care because I am trying to look out for my own best interest and get my needs met to the best of my ability.

The goal should be not to label people, but to engage people. If an individual isn’t taking a prescribed medication — why aren’t they taking it? If they aren’t using a piece of equipment you gave them — what is it that prevents them from doing so? What, why and how are words around enabling others rather than defending one’s clinical position.

My argument is that nobody is “noncompliant.” I believe it is a redundant, reductionist piece of language to use. People simply choose to act in ways you don’t think are helpful to them.

I think it’s time we binned the arbitrary labels that let the professional off the hook from finding another treatment or strategy to meet their patient’s needs. It’s time to take back our own power and say: “You don’t have the right to tell me what I need. It isn’t your job to tell me to sit down, shut up and do what I’m told.”

Psychiatric patients aren’t children, we don’t need disciplining into accepting your values and ideals as our own, we just need support from clinicians who will work to understand our perspective and work with us rather than against us in what should ultimately be the aim for us both: our overall well-being.

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 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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