Article appeared in Awake! January 2006
“I cut my wrists so bad I had to get stitches. At the time, I told the doctor that I cut myself on a light bulb, which was true—I just didn’t mention that I’d done it on purpose.”—Sasha, 23.
“My parents have noticed my cuts, but only the ones that aren’t so bad and look like scrapes. . . . Sometimes they’ll see one they don’t recognize, so I make up an excuse. . . . I don’t want them to know.”—Ariel, 13.
“I had been a self-injurer since I was 11. I knew of God’s high regard for the human body, but even this did not deter me.”—Jennifer, 20.
You might be familiar with someone like Sasha, Ariel, or Jennifer.* It could be a schoolmate. It could be a sibling. It could be you. In the United States alone, it is estimated that millions of people—many of them youths—deliberately hurt themselves by various means, such as cutting, burning, bruising, or scraping their skin.#
Deliberately hurting themselves? In the past many would link such behavior with some bizarre fad or cult. In recent years, however, knowledge about self-injury—which includes cutting or self-mutilation—has grown dramatically. Evidently, so has the number of those coming forward with the problem. “Every clinician says it’s increasing,” states Michael Hollander, director of a treatment center in the United States.
Self-injury is rarely fatal, but it is dangerous. Consider Beth, for example. “When I injure myself, I use a razor,” she says. “I’ve been hospitalized twice. Once I had to go to the emergency room because of a deep cut.” Like many sufferers, Beth has carried the practice of self-injury into adulthood. “I have been doing it since I was 15 years old, and now I’m 30,” she says.
Have you or someone you know fallen prey to self-injury? If so, do not despair. Help is available. In the next issue of Awake! we will discuss how those who self-injure can be helped.% First, though, it would be good to discuss the people who develop the disorder and why they do it.
A Diverse Profile
It is difficult to put self-injurers—or cutters, as they are sometimes called—into a single category. Some come from troubled families; others from stable, happy homes. A number are failing at school, but many are excelling as students. Often, self-injurers give little if any indication that they have a problem, for a person who is beset with adversity does not always show it on the outside. The Bible states: “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain.”—Proverbs 14:13.
Then, too, the severity of self-injury differs from one person to the next. One study, for example, found that some individuals cut themselves only once a year, while others average twice a day. Interestingly, more males are injuring themselves than was once thought. Still, the problem is found mostly among adolescent girls.^
“Even in laughter the heart may be in pain.”—Proverbs 14:13
Even with such a diverse profile, some self-injurers seem to share certain traits. One encyclopedia on youths observes: “Adolescents who self-injure often feel powerless, have difficulty trusting others with emotions, feel isolated or alienated, feel afraid, and have low self-esteem.”
Of course, some may say that this description could fit almost any young person who is facing the fears and insecurities of growing up. For the self-injurer, though, the struggle is particularly intense. The inability to put troubled feelings into words and to express these to a confidant can make pressures from school, demands of work, or conflicts at home appear overwhelming. She sees no solution and feels she has no one to talk to. The tension feels unbearable. Finally, she discovers something: By hurting herself physically, she seems to find some relief from the emotional anguish, and she feels she can carry on with her life—at least for the moment.
Why does the cutter resort to physical pain in an effort to relieve emotional anguish? To illustrate, consider what happens when you are in a doctor’s office about to get a shot. As the process begins, have you ever found yourself pinching your skin or perhaps putting pressure on it with your fingernail, just to distract yourself from the sting of the needle? What the self-injurer does is similar, although on a more serious level. To the self-injurer, cutting provides a form of distraction and a sense of relief from the sting of emotional anguish. And the anguish is so great that by comparison physical pain is preferable. Perhaps that is why one self-injurer described cutting as “medicine for my fears.”
“Generally speaking, these people are trying to end just their pain, not their lives”
“A Mechanism to Cope With Stress”
To those who are not acquainted with the disorder, self-injury may appear to be an attempt at suicide. But this is not usually the case. “Generally speaking, these people are trying to end just their pain, not their lives,” writes Sabrina Solin Weill, executive editor of a magazine for teens. Hence, one reference work refers to self-injury as “a ‘life preserver’ rather than an exit strategy.” It also calls the practice “a mechanism to cope with stress.” What kind of stress?
It has been found that many self-injurers have suffered some type of trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect. For others, family conflict or the alcoholism of a parent is the factor. For some, a mental disorder is involved.
There could be other problems as well. Sara, for example, was in the throes of what she calls self-abusive perfectionism. While she had made serious mistakes and had received help from Christian elders, she felt exceedingly guilty over her daily imperfections. “I figured that I had to ‘get tough’ on myself,” Sara says. “To me, self-injury was merely self-discipline. My ‘self-discipline’ included pulling out my hair, cutting my wrists and arms, hitting myself and causing deep bruises, and sentencing myself to such punishments as keeping my hand under scalding water, sitting outside in the freezing cold without a coat, or going an entire day without eating.”
For Sara, self-injury was a reflection of a deep self-loathing. “There were times when I knew that Jehovah had forgiven me for my mistakes,” she says, “but I did not want him to. I wanted to suffer because I hated myself so much. While I knew that Jehovah could never have conceived of a place of torment like Christendom’s hell, I wanted him to invent one just for me.”
Some might wonder why such a disturbing practice has only come to light in recent decades. However, students of the Bible know that these are “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1) Thus, they are not surprised to learn that people—including youths—turn to behavior that is hard to explain.
We are living in “critical times hard to deal with.”—2 Timothy 3:1
The Bible acknowledges that “oppression may make a wise one act crazy.” (Ecclesiastes 7:7) The challenges of adolescence—in some cases, coupled with tragic life experiences—can provide the groundwork for a pattern of harmful behavior, including self-injury. A youth who feels isolated and believes that she has no one to talk to might resort to cutting in an effort to find relief. But whatever relief self-injury may seem to offer is short-lived. Sooner or later the problems return, and so does self-injury.
Generally, those who practice self-injury want to quit but find it very difficult. How have some been able to break the practice of self-injury? This will be discussed in the “Young People Ask . . .” article “How Can I Stop Hurting Myself?” in the February 2006 issue of Awake!
TO THINK ABOUT
Why do some young people resort to self-injury?
After reading this article, can you think of some better ways to cope with distressing feelings?
* Some names in this article have been changed.
# Self-injury is not to be confused with body piercing or tattooing. Generally, these have more to do with fad than compulsion. See Awake! of August 8, 2000, pages 18-9.
% Leviticus 19:28 states: “You must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul.” This pagan custom—evidently designed to appease the gods who were thought to preside over the dead—is different from the habit of self-injury being discussed here.
^ For this reason, we will refer to the self-injurer as a female. However, the principles discussed apply to both genders.