Starting the conversation is perhaps the hardest part. How do you bring up a topic that the majority of society will not acknowledge as anything more than a teenage phase of attention seeking. How often is it brought to light in the media as many of the other mental illnesses are? Is it an illness on its own, or a by-product of some form of depression or other mental disorder or anguish? Why is it assumed that self-harm is limited to the teenage years? From personal experience and stories of the many I have spoken with, self-harm like every other illness does not discriminate in age, race, gender, economic status or sexual orientation. Everyone is fair game.
Self-harm, like depression often carries a negative voice that has taken up residence in our heads. We could call him the demolition man, as he is there to destroy our positivity, our sense of self and our hope. In some people his voice also carries a tone of self-destruction in which he re-enforces the thoughts that physically hurting yourself will remind you that you are alive; that you can try to find some relief on the outside for the agony that monopolizes your mind. He has many reasons to provide you with and carrying the tone of a drill sergeant weakens you to give in to the urge, and so you cut, burn or somehow maim your body.
I do not have children, so perhaps I cannot fully understand the parental point of view, however, I can provide you some insight from personal experience as a cutter. As an adult, I can look at my actions as both a youth and an adult with a different and clearer perspective. I self-harmed as young as 8 years old to my late teens, with at least a relapse every 2 years, including the recent events. By the time you read this I will be one week clean…yet again.
There is no simple way to ask your child if they are self-harming, just as the reverse applies from child to parent, or friend to friend. There is a sense of shame so great we will come up with every excuse in the world to explain the random cuts or marks that riddle out bodies. If we were cutting purely for attention why would we take the time to meticulously cover with makeup, bandages or long sleeves? We are usually smart enough to harm in a place that would not be easily visible, the stomach, ribs, upper thighs, hips and upper arms, but there comes a time if you have cut yourself enough that maybe you have to resort to an area not so easy to conceal.
So, as a note to parents, long sleeves in the summer or at a time that may not be conventional may be an indication that should not be ignored or taken lightly.
Children who have not yet hit the teenage years do generally not shave, nor does the average teen or adult carry a razor in their purse or bag daily so please do not overlook the potential gravity of the situation.
Have you noticed your bandages, face cloths or paper towels decreasing at a more rapidly? How about socks or underwear? Have you had to replace them more often? We will use anything we think won’t be noticed as missing to clean up the blood. Kleenex tends to stick to the wound so they certainly were not my first choice.
Kids and teens are messy. We try to clean up every last drop in the bathroom, but let’s face it; we are not very competent during those years, so a smudge of blood on the counter, floor or around the toilet may not just be your husband clumsiness while shaving.
We may provide some hints before we even get to the stage of cutting; hints so subtle we know you will not pick up on them, despite our yearning for you to do so. We may have withdrawn, communicated less or lost interest in activities we previously enjoyed. We may spend more time isolated from friends and family and have mood swings more drastic than that of teenage angst. Your child is not self-harming for entertainment but rather from the relentless internal, unfathomable pain that has allowed the demolition man to control the slow demise of our minds and souls. We are cutting to provide a momentary distraction from that agony that drove us to press a razor into our flesh.
If you are a parent who has not experienced or been exposed to mental illness, your immediate reaction is likely to be one of anger, shock, disappointment and perhaps even guilt.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Do you really need attention that bad?”
“What did I do so wrong to you, to drive you to this?”
The comments and displeasure you feel may be rational for you, but it is the last thing we want to hear. In instances where there is no abuse in the home, chances are we blame you very little for our behavior. At the same time, we realize this highly frowned upon subject cannot just be brought up at the dinner table.
“Honey, can you please pass the potatoes, and by the way are you cutting yourself?”
Our wish? Approach the topic with a gentle tone. Don’t ask directly; perhaps mention the things you have noticed with a non-accusatory demeanor. We may lash out on the defense, still trying to protect the demolition man, but inside we are lost. We need love; we need to be truly listened to, even if you fail to understand, we hope you will make every effort to educate yourself so we have to tell you less. We may need to be held or hugged or reassured we are loved more often than usual. We may need to be encouraged to see a doctor or therapist or build a sense of trust with someone, to the depths necessary to talk about this. We want you to know that once you start, it can become an addictive coping mechanism the same as prescription pills, alcohol or gambling. We want you to know we are ashamed, and we are not proud of the disfigurement we have caused our bodies due to this underlying pain, which we may or may not be able to completely pinpoint.
So, to wrap up, please enter this discussion delicately, with an open mind, ears willing to listen without a hasty response, and heart willing to show us the love we need.