The Mighty Logo

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

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.

Conversations 2