Self-harm leaves physical, mental scars for cutters

Jack Schoelz

Three parallel scars line her left wrist and forearm. More cover her hip, marking the places where she started cutting to hide the scars from people’s stares.

Two years ago, former RBHS student Ashley Friel carried a razor in her purse to cut whenever she needed to. She had been repeatedly abused sexually and physically, separated from her siblings after social services placed her in foster care and she was also bulimic.

For Friel cutting wasn’t suicidal or a call for help; it was a release.

“It was like a rush. Like, I saw that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. I was still alive; people were just taking advantage of me,” Friel said. “I knew that I had control over something, which was myself, so I took that pain that I had and took it out on myself.”

Janis Whitlock, PhD, Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adults, said as many as 25 percent of high school adolescents have committed some form of self-injury once.

While not all of them will become chronic self-injurers, she said many of them are looking for the same sensation.

“I consider self-injury to be a form of self-medication, so in that way it’s no different from a lot of things people do,” Whitlock said. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find anybody, especially in the United States, who doesn’t do some form of self-medication.”

But what may be more significant than the number of people committing self-injury is what a recent phenomenon it is. Whitlock said cutting and other forms of self-injury were not nearly as common among older generations. She said the behavior developed during the 1990s thanks to a growing number of celebrities and icons, like musician Courtney Love, admitting to cutting themselves.

“We see eating disorders pass this way. Once some people know about it, it becomes linked to that particular person,” Whitlock said. “If that person has status or something that is appealing to another subset of people, then you start to see mimicking behavior.”

Junior Kayla Nole is frustrated with the stereotype many people assign to the groups of students who commit any self-mutilation and the misunderstandings about what drives people to self-injury. As a former cutter, she believes these misconceptions can actually cause more damage.

“The biggest misconception, I would say, is if you cut, all of a sudden, you’re an ‘emo’ kid. I’ve heard that so many times, and it just really upsets me because then people think it’s not serious and people do it for attention,” Nole said. “And that’s not the reason that I think anybody starts cutting. I think after you start cutting, you don’t even want people to know about it.”

Nole said she started cutting as a way of coping with problems at home and with friends. Her first cut felt exciting and addictive. She gradually began to cut more often. For two years cutting was her way to stabilize herself whenever she was upset, angry or about to cry. But unlike other forms of self-medication, Nole discovered cutting had dangerous qualities as she got more addicted.

She cut deeper, longer and more often. Rather than waiting to get upset, Nole began cutting to ensure she wouldn’t get upset later. Cutting had become compulsive; she couldn’t stop, and that scared her.

“It wasn’t even for a reason anymore. I was just doing it because I liked it,” Nole said. “Honestly I was running out of room to start cutting, and I would have to start cutting somewhere visible, and I didn’t want people to find out, and I was starting to cut deeper and deeper. If I didn’t stop, things were going to get really bad really fast, so I knew that I had to stop.”

Friel also felt her problems increase, rather than be relieved, by cutting. Self-injury became another way, in addition to binging and purging, to punish herself for eating, worsening her bulimia. Eventually she was cutting daily, not only in reaction to major events but also to anything that made her slightly upset.

The privacy of self-injury only added to Friel and Nole’s downward spirals. Nole cut completely in privacy and never told anybody. Friel only told her grandmother. Neither girl wanted other people to know what they were doing.

In her own survey conducted online with anonymous subjects, Whitlock found this to be common among self-injurers. Of the 25 percent of adolescents who had committed self-injury once, many of them chronic self-injurers, one third never told anybody about their behavior. In fact, many of the subjects said no one had even suspected. In reaction Whitlock launched a website to act as a “web-based intervention” for teens willing to anonymously admit they were self-injuring.

“The moment [survey participants] disclose that, they disclose self-injury in an online survey, there’s an opportunity right there,” Whitlock said. “Right in that moment, if it’s 3 a.m. or it could be anywhere, but in that moment we have a possibility of offering assistance or resources.”

Friel found similar support from her grandmother. Even though she had been separated from her biological family years earlier, Friel had stayed in contact with her grandmother over Facebook. Every time she told her grandmother about her behavior, Friel was met with tears. Realizing the damage she was doing not only to herself but to the people she loved led Friel to quit cutting permanently.

She began seeing a therapist, who recommended getting rid of all of her old razors to remove temptation and using an electric razor instead. Eventually, the urge to cut went away. Friel said since starting therapy, she has been able to look at herself in a new way. She no longer feels as though the actions of others are a fault of her own.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Friel said. “It’s the other people that have problems, and there are other ways to deal with the things that you’re going through.”

Nole also had a difficult path to recovery. Knowing she needed to quit, and not having anyone else to turn to, Nole went to her friends. She hoped to replace cutting with the healthier method of talking to friends to cope with emotions. However when Nole revealed what she had been doing to herself, her friends were shocked.

“Every time I would tell them what happened, they would tell me that it really hurt them, and I could see that it really hurt them to know what I was doing to myself,” Nole said. “At that point I knew it was just wrong. To have to affect somebody else like that is wrong.”

Her alternative methods of managing emotions have led Nole to a new perspective on what she thinks cutting really is. To Nole any form of self-injury as a way to cope is never a solution to a problem, just a method to avoid it.

“It’s an easy way to cope with how you’re feeling, but it’s also an easy way to not be able to confront what you’re feeling or not be able to deal with your emotions. … Hurting yourself releases endorphins which make you happy instead of being able to deal with what’s going through your head,” Nole said. “I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody. I would say if you’re doing it now you need to stop because it’s only going to get worse. It isn’t going to get better.”
By Jack Schoelz