The Cutting Dilemma

Article by Mary Schlitt

It was a sobering moment…

I was working on a counseling internship and the client before me was 13 years old.  Her mom was completing the client information sheet and rattling off the list that assesses past struggles.  Mom would read a symptom and daughter would answer:  “Anger?  Yes.  Depression?  Sometimes.  Sleeplessness?  Not really.  Cutting?  Yes.”

Time seemed to stop…

The look on her mom’s face was one of horror, confusion and fear all twisted into one odd expression.  I’ve sat with many people over the years and heard their dark secrets, so I’m practiced in maintaining a game face.  However, inside I felt completely ill-equipped to handle the depth of the need in front of me—mother’s and daughter’s.

I’m quite familiar with the dark waters of substance abuse and addiction.  But cutting, not so much.  I knew a lady many years ago that was a cutter.  I asked her to help me understand it, but honestly, she didn’t really understand it herself.  She regurgitated to me the information she received from a therapist.  Maybe she was letting the pain out or crying for help.  All she knew was that it brought her some relief.  Other than that, she didn’t know why she was cutting.

I’ve been around addiction long enough to know that it’s roots are often found in deep emotional pain or trauma.  Upwards of 80% of females with substance abuse issues have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.  Simply put, it is pain management.  But cutting?  Isn’t that just inflicting more pain?

In the interest of full disclosure…

I have many more questions than answers.  What I did learn in trying to research the topic are a few statistics that completely shocked me.  I share them here to open the door to a conversation.  People close to us, especially our kids, are hurting and hurting themselves, but shame, pain, confusion and fear keep us from having real conversations.  Maybe these facts can serve to break the ice:

  • Cutting is as addicting as a narcotic.  When a person cuts, it calms the body because the body releases endorphins.  This is the same thing that happens to runners when the body is taxed and put under stress.  This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine.  Thus, cutting and self-harm are extremely addictive.  (source link)
  • Young people of all ethnicities, ages, and income levels intentionally harm themselves.  However, cutting is most common among adolescent, caucasian females from intact middle to upper-class families.  Digest that for one moment!  This fact caught me particularly off guard because my highly opinionated self tends to blame the breakdown of the family unit and single parent/blended family homes as a leading cause of such maladies.  I stand corrected!  I don’t understand, but it sure makes me wonder what message can be extracted from that statistic.  (source link)
  • 1 out of every 8 people engages in some form of self-harm.  WHAT?  1 out of 8?  In short, if you’ve been in contact with 8 or more people today, you have been in contact with someone who cuts or self-harms.  Staggering, isn’t it?  (source link)
  • People who self-harm generally do so in secret.  They are not trying to draw attention to themselves or manipulate others.  Actually, fear and shame can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.  To help your loved ones, express love, care and support first and foremost.  Be careful not to guilt or shame them.  (source link)
  • People who cut and self-injure are not crazy or dangerous.  Like many, they suffer from varying levels of anxiety and depression.  Self-harm is how they cope.  Labeling them with a “crazy” or “dangerous” label isn’t accurate or helpful.  (source link)

Here’s A Few Suggestions…

As I mentioned before, I have many more questions than answers.  However, I’ve found some great resources available online.  If you cut, or know someone who does, finding alternative ways of coping is one of the first things to consider if stopping is a goal.  For starters, consider these suggestions by HelpGuide.org:

  • If you cut to express pain and intense emotions
    • Paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint
    • Express your feelings in a journal
    • Compose a poem, song or prayer to say what you feel
    • Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up
    • Listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling
  • If you cut to calm and soothe yourself
    • Take a bath or hot shower
    • Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat
    • Wrap yourself in a warm blanket
    • Massage your neck, hands, and feet
    • Listen to calming music
  • If you cut because you feel disconnected and numb
    • Call a friend (you don’t have to talk about self-harm)
    • Take a cold shower
    • Hold an ice-cube in the crook of your arm or leg
    • Chew something with a very strong taste, like chili peppers, peppermint, or a grapefruit peel.
    • Go online to a self-help website, chat room, or message board
  • If you cut to release tension or vent anger
    • Exercise vigorously—run, dance, jump rope, or hit a punching bag
    • Punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow
    • Squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay
    • Rip something up (sheets of paper, a magazine)
    • Make some noise (play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)

“Hello, my name is Mary.  For better or worse, hit me up.  I’m sorry; I love you.  No one needs to be alone.”

20140206-104608

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