Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Self-Harm: A Greater Understanding

One of the biggest benefits of blogging is that it affords us a chance to learn about lifestyles and cultures that we would never know otherwise. Shortly after I started my site last year I stumbled upon a blog which revealed a world of which I knew very little.

L. was a bi-sexual woman in her late-twenties, involved in a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship with her female partner. She was the submissive in that relationship, as well as in her previous relationship with a male partner.  She also self-injured.  In other words, she willingly cut herself.  The conversation that followed was one of the most valuable experiences I've had in understanding a life lived much differently than my own.  It also raised an important question. 

Why is self-harm not talked about more often?

No way around it, this is a heavy subject.  It's a growing phenomenon, particularly common among girls and starting typically around age fourteen. People who self-harm commonly have eating disorders. They may have a history of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. Many are sensitive, overachievers. Self-injury begins as a defense against what's going on in their lives; it's a way of gaining control.  Psychiatrists believe that for people with emotional problems, self-injury has an effect similar to cocaine and other drugs that release endorphins to create a state of comfort.

Recently on one of my almost-daily visits to the psychology section of my favourite local bookseller, I chanced upon a book written by a woman who experienced this through most of her life. 


Victoria Leatham has written this book under a pseudonym.  Her story began in her late teens with the realization that she was depressed but unsure of how to deal with it.  It continued, and after university she turned to self-harm as an escape.  In her words, "What I wanted-what I needed- was a pain that I could see and deal with.  I couldn't cope with the mess inside me any longer, and cutting myself seemed to be the best solution."

As the book moves forward we read of her struggle over the following years to gain control, in which she experienced (amongst other things) binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and visits to various psychiatrists.  She was prescribed various treatments over time, including numerous medications, and voluntarily had herself institutionalized on a few occasions.  She received the help she needed through cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), in which she came face to face with her thinking and beliefs. CBT commonly entails keeping a diary of significant events and associated feelings, thoughts and behaviors; questioning and testing cognitions, assumptions, evaluations and beliefs that might be unhelpful and unrealistic; gradually facing activities which may have been avoided; and trying out new ways of behaving and reacting.  The most difficult part of this for her was learning not to trust her instincts.

Although this book sounds like an incredibly heavy read, I found it very hard to put down. It's well-written, not at all clinical, and gives a lot of insight into the mind of one person struggling to break free of her demons.  Although she made some unfortunate choices, I was struck by her continuing strength and determination to break free of this behaviour.  She never gave up, but instead continually sought treatment.

Approximately 1% of the US population has inflicted physical injury upon themselves at some time in their life as a way of coping with an overwhelming situation or feeling. Those numbers are most likely an underestimation, because the majority of acts of self-injury go unreported.  The figures are higher in many other countries. I would have liked to have seen the book include information at the end on how to seek help, perhaps include some links to treatment centres.  Otherwise it's an excellent and (I think) important read to gain a greater understanding of this tragic affliction.  Definitely recommended.

As a side note, in preparation for this post I've done some research and found that there are many centres which offer treatment for those who self-harm.  One of the better-known seems to be S.A.F.E. Alternatives (click to link to their site).  If you know any teenagers struggling with similarly serious issues I'm including a link to Young Womens Resource Center (click to link).

I'm interested in hearing any comments, anonymous or otherwise, on this subject.  If you made it this far, thank you for reading.


  1. Barry - I know a few cutters and a few former cutters but you shed even more light on this topic for me and I thank you. Thank you for your light in general.

  2. Thanks Faiza. How do I get hold of you? I've wanted to drop you a line but I see no link to a blog or e-mail address.

  3. although I don't know any cutters myself, but I just have to thank you for choosing this topic :)
    the books seems really interesting!
    take care xx

  4. I'm not a self-harm person, but I totally understand what they think of when they do it.
    Most of the time I think like them. " My head is so messed up that only pain could take me away from thinking in the million contradictory things in my mind". I guess I'm just too weak and coward to harm myself. I keep thinking "if i had a major accident or disease that would cause me a lot of pain this would make me know that what seems like suffering right now is really a luxury"
    But then I tell myself "be careful what you wish for"

    Thanks Barry for introducing this book, I may read it one day.

  5. Hi Barry

    Wow you know. I've actually teared up a bit while reading this (stupid of me isn't it?), because I know someone who cuts himself and that his situations is so overwhelming that sometimes he just doesn't know how to handle it (I think you know whom I'm referring to). I think that sometimes I'm too caring and emotional but this post was really close to my heart. Thanks for sharing this. I really feel so sorry for people like this and sometimes I can't handle it when people feels like there is no way out except to hurt themselves. Don't they know that by doing that they're hurting the people close to them too.

    Ok this was a lot of babbling...

    Enjoy your day, Barry. :)

  6. I've known some people personally who went through this kind of experience. At times it can be hard to understand how a person might be able to do such a thing to themselves, but if you dig deeper into the situation you discover that things aren't quite that simple. There's always so much more to it.

    Great post Barry!

  7. Thank you so much for following my blog! I'm excited to look around yours...

  8. It is a heavy subject but one that needs to be talked about more I think.
    I had a friend in HS who cut herself but I didn't know about it until after she had to leave school to receive treatment for her depression. i never even knew anything was going on :/

  9. This is such a subject that is near to my heart. Even though I did not personally experience this type of self loathing, I did have other means of "dealing" with my issues and I can completely relate to the mind set that brings young girls to do these things to themselves.

    Now as a mother myself to a girl entering her teens, it is wonderful to have people such as yourself bring these topics to light. Being educated helps all of us recognize the warning signs early in ourselves and or our loved ones.

    Thank you

  10. I know that there are a lot of people struggling out there... we should be thankful that we and our loved ones are not one of them. I always believe that genuine love and communication help in preventing these things to happen. Thanks for sharing the book, I will definitely read it Barry. xoxo

  11. I used to cut my thighs when I was in high school. I also found other ways to physically hurt myself as a way of releasing emotional pain without truly acknowledging it.

  12. Anonymous, if you read this I'm interested in what you've said. If you'd care to drop me an e-mail I'd like to post your story on my blog; I assure you I would NOT use your name.

    Hope to hear from you. :)

  13. Wow, this is a great post.

    I was talking to a woman the other day who mentioned her son had been dating "one of those people who cut... you know, really weird people." and she told him to dump her based on that little information. *sigh* I'm glad you are curious and smart about the topic and were wiling to share.

  14. Thick, thick subject... In my lowest time I thought about it. I SERIOUSLY thought about it. I realize now you can convince yourself of absolutely ANYTHING. It's quite scary... and it can happen in so many levels, from over-eating, to cutting, to simply hanging yourself up and throwing in the towel. I can't even relate to who I used to be anymore so it's hard for me to really understand it. And to think that for as many awareness and positive post we write, there are 10 other posts out there showing you how to do it, when, and why you should... like I said: SCARY.