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Afflictions Of The Soul: The Truth Behind Self Injury 3 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.
“It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air — there’s the rub, the task.” (Source: Virgil, The Aeneid: section 4)
Life after self-injury. To some, it seems like a fantasy. A dream that will never happen. So drowned in their emotions, and their pain, that they do not see a way out. But when their acts of self-harm are brought out in the open, they have no choice but to face the barrage of angry, hurt and confused faces of their family, friends and peers.
So what does it mean for the family and friends? To suddenly discover that someone very close to them had been deliberately inflicting wounds upon themselves for an unknown period of time? It is perfectly natural for them to feel upset, angry and helpless, but rather than being angered and horrified, they need to regard it as a way the self-harmer in question uses to cope with the stresses and difficulties in life.
“It was the worst feeling… It was my little brother who found out about it, and confronted me. Mum overheard the conversation, and it all went downhill from there. She was so hostile towards me.. She went to my school, told my principal, which was then passed down to all my teachers, now I can’t go anywhere without being watched, I’m being forced to go to a counsellor, because if I don’t the school’s threatened to have me taken to an institution… I was getting better. I was getting help before mum found out, but now it’s been made so much harder.” (Interview #5)
The path of discovery and recovery can be a long and difficult one to take. The longer an individual has self-harmed, the longer it will take to recuperate from it. It usually begins when someone who self-harms is found out by a peer, friend or family member. The worst thing that they can do is to confront the self injurer. (www.nshn.co.uk 2002)
One must keep a non-judgemental frame of mind if they wish to help their family member or friend who self-harms, as being condemned for what they do is exactly what self-injurers fear. As I have discovered from my interviews, one of their most common obstacles when trying to overcome self-harm is their family becoming aggressive towards them, attempting to stop their loved one from harming themselves by physical means. I have determined from my research that the crucial point that needs to be emphasised here is that self-injury is not the problem, it is just a symptom.
The family and friends of a self-harmer should not be focusing on the act of deliberately inflicted damage, rather the issues that lay hidden behind the actions.
Even though a person wants to move on from their self-injury, there are still going to be times when they slip up. Peers, family and friends need to try and look at the positives; At least the individual is trying to get better. Threatening the self-harmer with ultimatums or hospitalisation will only prolong the problem, and in some cases of where self-injurers have been institutionalised, the situation can worsen and even lead to suicide. (www.siari.co.uk 2000)
So what about those who have moved on? Are they living normal lives completely free of their past discretions with a blade? Most are still living with the scars and the emotional guilt left behind after loved ones discovered them, or dealing with the torment of desire, knowing they can never go back to self-injury without a multitude of complications.
“Moving on for some, is just a phase between pretending to be okay without their release and finding the excuse to disregard promises to loved ones, before returning from whenst they came.” (Interviewee #9)
As the old saying goes, the wounds may heal but the scars still remain. Every time a past self-harmer feels stressed or anxious or upset, they will notice their scars, and begin to be tempted back into their old ways. This is especially the case if self-abusers have left traces of their wounds in visible places such as their limbs. The sad truth is, no-one is ever well and truly free from self-injury. And nor will they ever be. Each time the individual feels an onslaught of emotions coming on, they will remember how they used to inflict such damage upon themselves, and how it would make everything fine again. Even if it’s only for an instant.
While the thoughts will forever remain present in the minds of a self-harmer, they are still capable of controlling themselves. It takes a large amount of courage for self-injurers to admit they need help. Bringing their acts of self-harm out into the eyes of those around them could very likely invoke their greatest fears of rejection, isolation, and hopelessness.
One of the best things a person can do to help an individual who self-injures would be to take a non-judgemental approach, show compassion, care, and acceptance. It might just save their life.
“Because the world needs freaks…” (“The Lizard Man” bmeworld.com/amago 2000
In the 50’s, when a teenager wanted to rebel, they went out and bought a pair of Levi’s. Today however, the new craze of rebellious acts consists of getting an eyebrow piercing, or a nipple ring. But where does it stop being body art, and start being body-mutilation?
Tattoos, piercings and so forth, are seen as a statement — a permanent expression of thoughts, feelings or memories etched over skin. For some, the experience of being pierced is liberating, for others, it is a way of altering their appearance to suit them. Or maybe even to fit in with a particular social group.
The “Ink and Hole” culture is not the only the category in body-modification. There is also the area of rituals and rites of passage that fall within the boundaries of body-mod. Some tribal groups of male indigenous Australians slice open their genitals along the length of the urethra with the use of stones during adolescent initiation rituals. (Alexander V. Timofeyev, wso.williams.edu/self_mutilation/index.html 2002)
The Surma people of Ethiopia insert lip plates into the mouths of the women a year before marriage. The plate itself symbolises the amount of cattle the girl’s family desires in order to approve of the marriage. The greater the amount of cattle, the larger the lip plate that must be worn. Also in another part of Africa, the young women of the Dugum Dani tribe sever their fingers as part of a sacrifice at funerals. (Guiness book of world records, 1995 pg 63)
Ceremonial mutilation is still considered barbaric by western standards, yet it is accepted in a sense, because these ritual mutilations of the self are merely a part of other’s culture. So what happens when we find members of our own culture are performing self-harm? The act of self-injury can in fact be a form of ritual, as explained earlier, however it is still seen as abnormal.
Because of this, many self-harmers will turn to the world of body-modification, as I discovered in an interview.
“My family found out about it a while back, and they’re always keeping an eye on me. But I still needed that release. I was passing by a tattoo place the other week and thought, “yeah. there’s where I can get it.” About an hour later, I came out with a rather agonising yet satisfying tongue piercing.” (Interviewee #4)
So it seems that while there still are prejudices against tattoos and piercings, it is more acceptable than someone burning or cutting into themselves. But is it really still considered self mutilation? Technically no, since in order for it to be considered self-harm, it needs to be done by that person, whereas tattooing and piercing is almost always done by someone else.
“There is a certain significance.. symbolic in it’s own way, when someone gets a tattoo or a piercing. The people that come in are usually looking for something that means something to them, such as a name, animal, or even a particular place in which they are pierced.” (Interviewee #11)
In an article by www.ambient.ca about the relationship between self-mutilation and body-modification, it described the act of being pierced as a liberating experience. The example they used was of someone that had been sexually abused that came in for a genital piercing. The experience of the body modification was symbolic of the woman taking back control of her own body.
While body-mod can have aspects of a somewhat symbolic nature, is there such a thing as going too far? There are people who showcase their modifications as a spectacle, and perform other painful acts purely for others entertainment. Is it still considered self-injury if a man puts a nail into his face for a crowd’s amusement?
One example of this behaviour would be Erik Sprague, aka the Lizard Man. He has gone under extensive permanent body modifications to make himself appear as a lizard. Erik has undergone over roughly 650 hours of full body tattoo work. As well, he has had his teeth sharpened, tongue slit, and even had Teflon implants placed in his forehead. He has been altering his appearance for well over a decade now. (www.thelizardman.com) Would this qualify as self-mutilation?
The 21st century has brought a whole new world of possibilities and experimenting with different piercings and body modification. Gone are the days of the simple ear piecing. Now one is capable of getting their hands, neck, wrists, chest and face pierced; the back can be pierced and tied up with a leather strap, which is known as Corsetry; tongues can be slit; and for the hard-core fan, there is always scarification, castration or amputation.
Interestingly, the majority of these current body-mod trends are seen in some of the acts of self-injury.
However, there is indeed a difference between the two, as I discovered from an interview with a tattoo artist.
“Yes, they are two very similar acts, since both body-mod and self-mutilation involve inflicting wounds upon the person’s own body. One obvious difference is that someone else does tattoos and piercings for the person, otherwise it would be called self-modification. But, the contrasting factor between the two, is that body-modification is performed for the end result. Self-injury is done for the pain experienced during the process.” (Interview #11)
From this interview with the tattoo artist, the difference between self-injury and body-modification is made very clear.
Those who endure painful body-mod procedures do so to achieve their desired physical form. Whereas those who self-harm do so to achieve their desired emotional state. Because of this fact, self-injurers are still shunned by society.
I have come to the conclusion that because of the lack of information about it in the micro and macro worlds, and the lag in social awareness and acceptance, self-injury is stereotyped, categorized, and tagged as the abnormal, suicidal thing to do.
Through my studies I have found that those who self-harm do so to escape intense, emotional turmoil, and they feel isolated and cut-off from the rest of society because they believe that they are alone, and that no one else would ever intentionally inflict damage upon themselves.
Throughout this series I have investigated all aspects of self-injury using various methods. I enjoyed the interviews via the net, because it allowed the participants to speak freely to me without any fear of repercussions. Sometimes a stranger is the best person you can talk to.
I was quite satisfied with the interviews and secondary research data I collected, as the answers and information given and accumulated made up for more than the majority of this assessment. I learnt how one handles someone they know who self-harms, with non-judgemental, respectful attitudes. I devised a theory on the need for the continuation of self-harm, and likened it to a drug addiction. I discovered how to look for the signs on self-harmers such as social withdrawl, isolation and wearing long sleeved clothing during the summer months.
My aim for this series was to create awareness for those who read it, about this particular condition. Self-injury is not an attention seeking attempt. If left unaided, it can lead to clinical and severe depression, anxiety disorders and even suicide. I lost a good friend of mine to this, during the course of this series [note: at the time of original writing in 2003]. She was afraid, scared out of her mind about what those in her micro world would think. “Who would think of doing such a horrible thing?”
A lot of people. Surprisingly enough.
Who would have thought?
Case study from wso.williams.edu/~atimofey/self_mutilation/Definition/What_is/index.html
Italics Quote — Author “Jenny” www.psyke.org
Interview #2 — Dr Philomena Renna 17-02-03
Favazza — “Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry” (1996) The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bible Quote — New International Version Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 18 verses 8 and 9
Italics quote — Anonymous “Different State of Mind” 2003, www.seperate-minds.tk
Interview #1 — Mrs F. Whitteron — WHS counsellor 27-01-03
“Observed Learning” www.psyke.org/faqs 2001
“Scarred Red” www.geocities.com/aukee_3/SI.html 2000
Interview #13 — 20-06-03
Interview #6 — 06-03-03
Favazza — “Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry” (1996) The Johns Hopkins University Press
Italics quote — Unknown from www.psyke.org 2001
British Medical Journal Article “Deliberate self harm in adolescents: self report survey in schools in England” 2002
Interview #4 23-02-03
“Shame felt By SI’ers” www.psyke.org 2001
“Scarred Red” www.geocities.com/aukee_3/SI.html 2001
Italics quote — The Aeneid Section Four 1636
Interview #5 26-02-03
Interview #9 13-04-03
Italics Quote — “The Lizard Man” (Erik Sprague) bmeworld.com/amago 2000
Interview #4 23-02-03
Interview #11 Matthew Benson bmeworld.com
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