Self-mutilation wraps itself around those who are unable to express their emotions or those who say they feel numb inside. Instead of being able to discuss these emotions and feelings, the individual finds solace with the blade of a knife, or other sharp object. There’s a sense of euphoria as the blade slides across and then breaks through the epidermis. The pain seems to dissipate as one watches the blood flow out and then around the self inflicted wound.
According to PageWise, a Q&A Web site, self-mutilation is called the “new age anorexia” and has estimated that one out of every 200 teen girls between the ages of 13 and 19 regularly practice self-abusive behavior with a reported 2 million cases in the U.S. alone. Cutting has become one of the most common methods of self-injury; others include burning, wound interference and picking.
It is painful enough trying to traverse adolescence. The journey for cutters can be even more painful because it is done in silence and isolation. They tend to internalize conflicts because they don’t want to “cause trouble” for anyone. As a result, experts say, the fear, anxiety, anger, loneliness sadness, isolation, frustration and emotional pain inside builds to a point where they feel as though they may “explode.” As a preventative measure—and a way to deal with their emotions—they cut in an attempt to “bleed them out.”
Jessica,* a Mills student who asked to remain anonymous, is a cutter. She says she’s no longer doing it but as she starts talking, she begins to scratch a spot just below her shirtsleeve and reveals what appears to be a recently healing scar. The observation goes unnoticed as she begins to share her story.
According to Jessica, her self-mutilation began around the time her mother and father started having marital problems. Terrified they were going to get a divorce, her biggest fear was who would get custody of her and her brother. Jessica says the first time she remembers cutting, it “sort of” happened by accident.
“My mom and dad had a huge fight one night and I found myself sneaking into the kitchen and pulling a steak knife from the drawer.”
Jessica painstakingly describes her first time cutting and how long it took her to actually break the skin. To her surprise, her tension and anxiety started going away. Although she felt some pain, she falters for a moment as she searches for the words to describe the other feeling. Pleasure was the first word that came to mind but there was no pleasure on her face as she went back to the experience.
“There was this awesome feeling of pleasure.” She explains as she blankly stares off in a corner of the room. “I never imagined I would get hooked after the first time. I liked seeing the blood flow in little streams along my skin.”
Jessica continued to cut often for the next four years, stopping for a long time after her first semester at Mills. Then, in the summer of her sophomore year her parents separated and her grandmother died two weeks before the start of the fall semester. She waited until she was back in school and safe in her dorm room and started again, using an old switchblade she’d stolen from her father.
Jessica is not alone. According to a survey conducted by Focus Adolescent Services, approximately one percent of the United States population uses physical self-injury as a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings or situations, “often using it to speak when no words will come.”
Another cutter, Maya* who also asked to remain anonymous, says she was somewhere between 11 and 13 when she began.
Unlike Jessica, Maya’s home life was tragic. Maya said at the time her father was an abusive alcoholic who beat both her and her mother whenever he felt like it. In addition to being physically abused, she was also sexually molested and she couldn’t talk to any one about it because at that time there was no one to talk to.
“It was just not something people openly talked about like they do now,” states Maya. “I can’t even remember the first time I cut myself or why, it’s been so long ago. I do remember though that I would find anything that would cut my skin. Anything. I even remember breaking off the metal clip from an ink pen when I couldn’t find anything else.”
Maya confesses that at that time in her life she was dealing with a lot of “ugly, dirty and nasty things” and cutting herself was a form of release. Every cut made her feel less ugly, less dirty, less nasty.
“I did a lot of other stuff too at that time. I was totally rebellious. Cutting helped me be reflective. I don’t know how to explain it. It helped me think.”
Maya continued cutting and being rebellious all through junior high and high school. Although her mother eventually stood up to her father at some point and forced him to stop his abusive behavior, Maya found other reasons to continue cutting. The stress from home morphed into the stress of being in junior high and high school—homework, friends, and sports.
“I stopped after graduation though. It’s been over 10 years and I haven’t looked back. When I moved out on my own and started making my own money I guess I didn’t need to do that anymore,” said Maya.
HealthPlace.com says “If you suffer from ‘cutting’ there are many, many options available. The first step is to identify the problem. The second step is to take action. If you know someone who may be ‘cutting’ when no words will come, don’t force them to take action.”
*names have been changed