If that title wasn’t enough of a trigger warning, well, here goes:
TRIGGER WARNING: Self-Harm
Recently a small discount store a couple of miles from my house was caught up in a furor because a “Princess Wand” toy they were selling (ominously named an “EvilStick”) would reveal a hidden image of a teenage girl cutting her arm with a knife. Here’s a link to a local news story about it, and the snopes.com report verifying it. If you want to, you can easily search out a copy of the image, but I don’t recommend it.
The “toy” is in horrifically bad taste (so, for that matter, is the snopes article’s headline, “Wristcutters – A Toy Story”). But items that adults consider dreadful can attract kids (remember the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards?). The image of the teenage cutter looks like a macabre Halloween costume rather than anything realistic (I’ve seen it), but we don’t really know whether a mistake, an error in judgment, a misunderstanding, or a prank at the factory that went way over the line resulted in the image on the toy. I kind of hope so, because if it was intentional, that’s way worse.
But bad taste is the least of the problem. The toy and the reaction to it have introduced the subject of cutting to a wider audience, if they choose to look beyond the squick factor and think about what the image really means. Cutting is a reality that’s mostly hidden from view.
Of course, it’s not always cutting. Burning is popular too. But cutting is perhaps the most common name. There are websites devoted to it, some offering help, facts, and information on quitting (see below) – but others glorifying it as, I don’t know, a creative expression of teen angst or something.
The name does keep changing. The last I heard, the “approved” psychiatric term was “Non-Suicidal Self-Injury” (NSSI). Self-mutilation, deliberate self-harm, non-fatal self-harm, self-destructive acts, self-inflicted violence, parasuicide, and self-wounding are all names for the dangerous practice performed by desperate people. The subject still isn’t talked about much and carries a huge stigma. As if the mental and physical scars were not enough.
Some facts: Self-harm is not attempted suicide, though with some miscalculation it can lead to serious permanent injury or death. Most people associate it with teenage girls, but I’ve know at least one man in his 50s who cut himself fairly regularly. It is not a matter of attention-seeking, since most cutters hide their physical wounds.
As I understand it, the practice results from one of two phenomena: the build-up of painful pressure such as perfectionism, or a feeling of severe alienation to the point of numbness. Cutting is a coping mechanism, though a dangerous, dysfunctional, and unsuccessful one, to deal with pain.
In my case, it was probably the numbness. I was feeling a lot of psychological pain at the time (college age) and irrationally wondered if physical pain would lessen that, or increase it, or feel any different. Like I said, irrational. All this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, had a therapist, or was medicated.
I made a few small cuts on my wrist to watch the blood well up. (Ironically, they became mildly infected; I neglected to sterilize the knife.)
I wasn’t suicidal. They weren’t that kind of cuts. I do know the difference. (I didn’t realize that I could have damaged tendons or nerves in my hand or arm, perhaps permanently.) It was more like when you stand on a bridge or balcony and look over the edge. You walk away. But you know the bridge is always there.
All told, I cut myself maybe three or four times. The scars are very faint now, white against my pale inner wrist, almost invisible. The memories are vivid. A friend who’s a psychologist once asked me why I stopped. “Because I didn’t need to any more,” was the only answer I could give. I’ve only felt the urge once since, and it was easy enough to push aside. But I recognized it.
I hesitated to write and post this, though I knew I would have to sooner or later, if I meant this blog to share my experiences truthfully. One of my dearest friends once said that if he ever found out I was a cutter, I would never hear from him again. Except for his publicly mocking me for being so stupid.
Naturally, this sort of reaction, though common, is not helpful. I didn’t tell him (or practically anyone else). And I didn’t tell him that at least two other people he knew – one fairly intimately – were also cutters.
Anyway, Tom, if you’re reading this and still feel the same, I guess this is goodbye – just not the long goodbye. I would rather skip the public mocking, though. I’ll just assume you’ve done it while I wasn’t there, mm-kay?
Cutting isn’t going away if we ignore it. It won’t go away even if we do talk about it. (Or mock it, or gasp in horror.) But understanding self-injury is a big step.
If you’re a cutter, or know someone who is, here are some places you can go for information, hope, and help: