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Afflictions Of The Soul: The Truth Behind Self Injury 2 of 3
For the next few days, I will be reposting chapters of the essay “Afflictions Of The Soul: The Truth Behind Self Injury”.
TRIGGER WARNING: May contain discussions of graphic self injury.
Originally posted on Psyke.org.
Note: I wrote the original article a lifetime ago for a final year assessment, which ended up getting published on Psyke.org. I have made some minor edits to streamline the series to suit this platform, but nonetheless contains information I hope continues to be of use if you have ever, if you do, or if you know someone who self harms.
“She doesn’t remember how it all began.. she remembered being angry, at her life, at herself, and then the next thing she knew she was digging into her arm with a blade from a sharpener. Just so angry…” (“Anonymous” April 2003 www.seperate-minds.tk)
So where does it start? This question in itself, is actually quite difficult to answer, because out of people that I have interviewed and surveyed, only a small number of them remembered what drove them to want to begin harming themselves. Negative emotions are those felt in individuals who self-harm.
Self-injury has become more apparent within the adolescent population, usually from mid-teens to those in their HSC year. Oddly enough, this disorder comes in “waves”, as one psychologist mentioned during an interview. “If there’s one person I’m aware of that’s self harming, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there were another three or four others associated with that person somehow, doing the same thing.” (Interview #1)
This may be due to what is known as “Observed Learning”. Like when a child copies the parent through watching them, people can pickup on self-injury, subconsciously or not, by observing the person originally involved with SI, seeing that this habit actually seems to help them in some form, and copy it themselves. (www.psyke.org 2001)
So why would anyone do such a horrific thing to themselves? The reasons why anyone would turn to self-harm are wide and varied, but the common reasons are found within each individual that inflicts damage upon their bodies. There is a definite control issue, or, the lack thereof to be more precise. A professional view is that, “If they feel that the world’s controlling them or that their family is controlling them so much, that the one thing they can control is how they feel…” (Interview #1)
I have met many self-injurers during my research for this assessment, and most of them harm themselves because they feel they cant control a situation they’re in. It comes in many forms: a strict parent; a protective partner; school work overload; friends; family; and even themselves. Self harm is a way that they can establish control of their own bodies.
I have concluded that the majority of people who deliberately harm themselves have suffered from some form of sexual, physical, or psychological abuse; but this does not necessarily mean that all people who self injure have had trauma in their lives, and by the same token, not all people who’ve been abused will perform self-inflicted damage on themselves.
During one of my interviews with a current self-harmer, she told me that one of her reasons for her actions were so she could vent her anger on herself, before she released it on someone else (Interview #13). This is another example of not being able to control one’s emotions. The girl’s anger came on so strongly that she was not able to handle it, and so, the only way she knew how to cope with this feeling was to act it out upon herself.
Self-injury can also be a form of communication. People who self-harm are stereotyped as people who are looking for attention. This is true on some level, but not in the way society believes. It isn’t a case of “Hey look at me! Look what I’m doing!”, it is more of a cry for help. As one interviewee said, “How can it be attention seeking if I’m hiding them all the time?” (Source: Interviewee #6)
From my reading and interviews it appears that it is the psychological factors of self-harm are what makes or breaks the severity of the inflicted abuse. For each person, it varies, depending on what trauma they have experienced, or what emotions have been neglected or altered during the course of their life. When people are upset, or angry, they can easily express their emotions by crying, screaming, yelling, etc. But those who SI have difficulty expressing their feelings, and also have a hard time controlling their emotions. Some may have found it a danger to communicate their emotions at home, whether it is for physical or psychological reasons. Their thoughts and feelings would have been ignored, questioned or rejected. (wso.williams.edu, www.psyke.org, www.palace.net/~llama/psych and www.selfinjury.freeserve.co.uk/)
According to Favazza, before someone begins to self harm, commonly their thoughts are turned towards themselves in a negative light (1996 pg 51). It can be self hatred, hatred towards life or those around the individual. What initially triggers a person to pick up an implement and drive it into themselves is relatively unknown but I have found through my interviews that anger seems to be the key in discovering the beginnings of self-harm. “All I knew was that if I didn’t hurt myself, I’d hurt someone else really badly. Physically. I didn’t want that to happen.” (Source: Interviewee #13)
The person who performs self-harm is usually feeling depression, anxiety, anger; and most often all at once.
These feelings can become overwhelming and they seek an escape. From my interviews with the 10 current self-harmers I assessed their motivations for self-harm. I learned that some desire the sight of their own blood for something else to focus on, while others want physical pain to express their emotional pain.
Self-injury however, is not the problem. Too often is the act of self-injury focused on without delving into the underlying issues, the psychological obstacles. Therefore, on reflection it would be valid to conclude that self-injury is not the cause, it’s the “cure”.
“I was talking to my mum, nice and normal and she comes out with ‘Have you been harming yourself?’ I go, ‘No… I ain’t a slasher’, trying to laugh off the matter and she says, ‘Oh I thought you were after some attention.’ So my mum is yet another person who thinks self-harm is only for attention. I can’t tell her about it ever now.” (www.psyke.org 2001)
Even while their acts of self-harm block out the issues that eat away at them, there’s always one thing that keeps them on edge. Fear. The constant worry of being caught with their scars or wounds. Being found out. A lack of understanding in our society is detrimental to self-harmers, and impedes their road to recovery. Because those in the micro and macro worlds do not know enough about this controversial coping mechanism, they react and respond with disgust, horror and anger, and especially if it is discovered that a family member or friend is self-harming.
There was a study conducted in England several years ago to discover how many adolescents self-harmed. They surveyed over 40 schools, questioning 6020 students in their adolescent years. 398 of those students were reported to have deliberately inflicted pain upon themselves at some stage. That result is only 6.9% of the 6000 or so pupils. It doesn’t seem like a large number, but then you factor in the reality that the 6.9% was derived of students from every school. (British Medical Journal article November 2002 pg 325)
After analysing these results, I discovered how self-injury is not as unusual as one may originally believe. After incorporating these results, it is likely that the number of people who would be self-harming at my school could be quite possibly between 20 to even 70 students. While there would be a relatively small percentage of self-harmers in the world, there would be an even larger percentage of people who are connected to someone in their micro world who does harm to themselves, whether it be family or friends.
The shame that is felt by self-injurers also affects their thoughts and feelings, because even they see what they do as not being “normal”. People’s morbid curiousity about scars and wounds, and their questions of “Where did that come from?” or “How did that happen?” can be highly embarassing for the individual. It can become quite difficult to cover up the injuries during summer, since the common places for these injuries are on the limbs (arms and legs etc), so many self-harmers choose to swelter in the blistering heat in long sleeved jumpers and pants.
There were at least 6 out of the 10 people that I interviewed who suffered in the summers from wearing long sleeved clothing, after having self-harmed in visible places. “I really can’t win either way. If I let anyone see what I’ve done, I’m considered a freak. If I cover them up, I’m considered a freak because I wear jumpers in the middle of summer. Really. There’s no happy medium.” (Interview #4)
In order to avoid these risky confrontations, individuals who self-injure will become isolated, withdrawing themselves from activities and social events. The danger of being exposed can be so overwhelming for some that the anxiety it creates can even become a trigger for self-abuse. (www.psyke.org 2001)
It is difficult to distinguish the emotions felt during SI, because of the fact that self injury in itself is used to alter or surpress negative emotions, so it cannot be clearly determined. The act of self-injury in itself is, in a way, very similar to a ritual. Through my interviews with current self-harmers, I discovered that there is a particular environment, instruments, time, procedure and setting that will be repeated by the individual everytime they go to harm themselves.
Usually, the environment is at home, in their bedroom or bathroom, when they are alone; and most often the time is at night, when there is less chance of being caught. There may be a particular set of “instruments” that may be used; a blade, kitchen knife, glass shard, lighter, etc. The person may follow certain steps each time, for example, as an interviewee said, “I’d wait til maybe… 1am, when there’s no chance of anyone walking in on me. I put my favourite CD into my discman, lay out all my stuff on a dark towel; knife, blade, matches, tissues and antiseptic. I’d light some candles and place them all around me in the centre of the room, and then I’d begin.” (Interviewee #4)
While there are many and varied reasons as to why someone would begin to inflict damage upon themselves, there is only one reason as to why they’d continue. When the body is wounded, it responds by sending endorphins into the system to reduce the pain and to assist healing processes. But at the same time, it produces a feeling of euphoria within the person, calming them down, and in some cases, can be sexually arousing. (Psychiatry online 2000)
Due to this feeling that is created when a person self harms, they see it as a “quick fix”. But it does come with a cost. The endorphin rush becomes a chemical dependency, one that can be obtained through the person’s own body. An individuals system will eventually build up a resistance to the endorphins, therefore, the person must harm themselves for a longer period of time, and more severely in order to achieve their “high”. In essence, as I have theorised, self-injury is a drug addiction.
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