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View December 2008 Issue >>
 

Crying Scarlet Tears - Trapped by Self-harm

It is something that isn't talked about and is usually very well hidden by those who are traumatised by this psychological disease, but self-harm is a very real problem for millions of people.  It could be your colleague, your boss, your friend at church or even your own child.  What goes on behind the closed doors of a self-harmer's bedroom or bathroom is severely disturbing.  What would you do if someone you loved was taking a knife or razor blade and cutting themselves repeatedly and then hiding the wounds?  These wounds  are deep enough to bleed but not deep enough to kill.  This is the terrifying world of people who harm themselves to numb their emotional pain.

What is self-harm?
Self-harm (also called self-injury or self-mutilation) is the deliberate act of hurting one's body by causing serious tissue damage in an attempt to alter a mood state.  This can be done by cutting, scratching, biting, pulling or picking the skin or head banging.

According to Childline the most common form of self-harm that they hear about is cutting, but many have reported more bizarre means such as pulling out of hair (which is called trichotillomania), burning the skin, poisoning or even breaking an arm or a leg.

It is also important to note that self-harm is not a suicide attempt.  It is a coping mechanism and, therefore, people who do it want to live (although suicides do occur, usually by accident).  It is also not a form of sexual gratification, a form of body decoration or a spiritual ritual.  Self-harm is a desperate cry for help and a way of dealing with emotional pain.

What are the statistics?
In Britain, health-care researchers estimate that one in ten teenagers may practise some form of addictive self-mutilation. There are no figures available within South Africa, but the existence of websites dedicated to self-mutilation is a huge concern.  Many cases go unseen and untreated and that is what makes this disease so much more of a concern, especially for parents.

Self-harmers are usually middle or upper class, well-educated and have above-average intelligence. It's more common among teenagers and young women.  It usually begins in late childhood and early adolescence, while most self-harmers discontinue the behaviour after 10 to 15 years. 

Why would anyone want to hurt themselves?
Injuring oneself can be a means of communicating anger and distress to other people when there are no other ways. For some, seeing the blood from cuts gives them an odd sense of well-being and strength - the same feelings that were stripped away from them at some point in their life.

Dr Juan Schrönen, a psychiatrist at Panorama Medi-Clinic in Cape Town, says that many of those who cut themselves see self-mutilation as a coping mechanism. "Self-mutilation often becomes an addiction and is used as a form of escapism. Those who have suffered a traumatic experience may start mutilating themselves. Even living through violence could lead to the start of a self-mutilating habit," he added.

Those who cut themselves are substituting emotional pain with physical pain. "A cycle of addiction starts,” says Schrönen. “The person experiences an adrenalin rush and feels euphoric for a while. The emotional pain becomes unbearable and the physical pain, although unpleasant, is something with which they can cope."

Self-harm gives the person a feeling of immense control in a world in which they feel they lack control. Whatever pain is inside of the person, whether it be from family problems, sexual or physical abuse, or emotional neglect, the feelings are unbearable and can only be released or ‘forgotten about’ through the pain that comes from injuring one's self.

Sophie's story
Sophie Scott recently wrote her story in a book called, ‘Crying Scarlet Tears’.  She was just an average teenager when she started hurting herself and says she had no specific reason to do so.  She had great parents and was a Christian from the age of eight.  She was even a worship leader in her youth band. 

The first day she hurt herself was a fairly normal day.  She had a fight with a friend at school but they had sorted out their troubles and it wasn't still on her mind.  Her parents had gone out that night and she was alone at home.  After taking a shower she had the strangest urge to hit herself.  She took a hanger and smacked it against her leg. Sophie says that she felt no pain but was strangely pleased by the mark it left on her leg.  That night she hit herself repeatedly with the hanger.  Later she took her father's belt and hit herself on her legs, arms, back and stomach with the buckle, only stopping when it scratched her skin.  That was the first time she felt pain and it frightened her, so she put the belt away and went to sleep.  That night was the start of a   terrible, addictive behaviour that would only increase in severity and danger over the next couple of years.

Sophie says of that night, "It didn't feel as though I was trying to punish myself for anything.  I didn't feel upset or angry.  I felt nothing.  While I was whipping myself, all I thought about was what I was doing and there was no guilt or blame, no emotion at all.  It was all so matter-of-fact."

The next day at school Sophie experimented with a compass on her arm and also excused herself from class to go the bathroom where she slapped herself in the face.  The immediate rush of endorphins quickly became addictive.  That night she used the compass again to cut her arms quite badly and over the course of a couple of weeks, she had progressed to cutting herself with razor blades and glass and hitting herself so hard with a hammer that she could hardly walk.

She was forced to hide her injuries by wearing long sleeves and making up reasons for limping or marks that she couldn't hide.  Eventually her friends at church started noticing something wasn't right and spoke to her about it.  Sophie shrugged them off and began avoiding them and her parents as much as she could.  Even though she was silently screaming for help, when help was available she couldn't seem to grab hold of it.

At the age of 16, about a year after she had started hurting herself, Sophie was performing acts of self-harm at least once every day.  She felt incredibly guilty, especially because she was a Christian. Every night she would cry out to God and ask His forgiveness, but the urge to hurt herself was so intense that she felt she would never be able to stop.

One night while praying to God and listening to Christian music, she heard an audible voice that she knew was the Lord.  He said, "Sophie, say, 'God, You love me.’" She tried to get the words out, but couldn't.  She realised that she didn't feel worthy of His love and even though she thought He loved her, in her heart of hearts she didn't believe it.  That night she cried and prayed that God would help her.  That night she was eventually able to say that God loved her and it filled her with tremendous peace and joy.

Although she felt closer to God, the need to harm herself didn’t go away.  For the next year she tried desperately to stop what she knew was wrong and even found the courage to talk to a youth leader who began walking the road with her.  As the cutting became less frequent, Sophie turned to another form of self-destruction - bulimia.  She began abusing laxatives and for the next year used this form of abuse to satisfy her need to hurt herself.  When she admitted this to her counsellor and tried to stop, once again the cutting behaviour returned and she was back to square one.

This time around things became a lot more dangerous.  Sophie burned herself, took large amounts of pills and even purposefully walked alone in dangerous parts of town.  Although her destructive behaviour was less frequent, it became much more life-threatening. 

She went to university to study to become a Christian youth worker.  During her studies she went through intensive counselling and it was discovered that she was abused as a child. Gradually Sophie began to deal with her many layers of pain.  It was an intensive time of much prayer, counselling and tears.  She started to heal and her self-harm became far less frequent.

After graduating, she began working at a local church as a youth worker.  She loved her job and grew closer to the Lord.  Over the years she has dealt with her pain and found healthier ways to express her emotions.  When asked why it took her so long to reach where she is today, she said, "The main thing I have learnt through my experiences with self-harm is to trust God and His timing.  Countless times I'd prayed to Him for healing and ended up feeling frustrated because nothing seemed to change.  I wanted an instant healing and for God to stop any desire I had to hurt myself, but this never seemed to happen.  However, the truth is that God does heal and He is doing so in His own time.

"There are still times when I find myself denying what happened to me because it is easier, but as I began accepting and dealing with the past, the self-harming incidents decreased.  It was a very gradual process and is one that is still happening now.  I wish I could say that I am sure that I will never hurt myself again, but the desire to hurt myself is still with me and may always be.  The trouble with an addiction is that the addict knows that whatever they are addicted to 'works'.  I may always be a self-harmer, that is I may always have some desire to hurt myself when things go bad, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I will.  Whenever I start to feel down or question God's love for me, I try to read a psalm or two.  I love Psalm 121 as I find it such an encouragement to me to remember who God is. "

As Sophie has come to terms with her past and has understood more of God's Grace, her desire to hurt herself has diminished.  One day that desire may be so small that it disappears forever.  She says, "What I know for sure is that God is good, loving and forgiving and I know He is never going to give up on me."

Sophie is a living testimony of the power of God's Love.

How to help someone who is a self-harmer
1.  Unless you have very strong doubts that the person engaging in self-harm acknowledges that self-harm is a sin, try not to question why they keep sinning, because this can increase their feelings of guilt and make them feel condemned.  However, do encourage them to pray and read their Bible when feeling triggered.

2. Do not feel the need to pretend that everything's OK if it's not.  People have differing reactions to self-harm - some find it abhorrent, infuriating, alarming, or confusing, and these are all understandable reactions.  If you are finding it too hard to cope with, consider speaking to someone else for advice or support.

3.  Try not to make the harmer feel guilty.  Simple phrases such as 'If you loved me you wouldn't do it,' or 'Don't do it - for me?' are ones that every self-harmer hears often.  The only way a self-harmer can stop is for themselves and through God.  It doesn't mean that they don't love you or care about you.  It’s an addiction that they struggle with and has nothing to do with their feelings for you.

4.  Don't pretend it's not there.  Be sensitive about the subject but let them know you are there for them and are willing to help them when they are ready.

5.  Don't be afraid to suggest professional support.  You can even offer to go with them if they are afraid.

There is no single solution to 'save' a self-harmer and it is important to remember that it isn't your job to save them.  The pathway to stopping self-harming is normally long and difficult.  Simply be there for them and pray for them.  With God all things are possible.

Where to find help
www.childline.org.za:  Tel: 08000 55 555 - Trained counsellors are available 24 hours a day

Lifeline: Toll free no: 0861 322 322

The S A Depression and Anxiety Group

* National tel no: (011) 783 1474

* Suicide Helpline: 0800 567 567

* SMS Crises line: 31393 (SMS your problem to them and they will reply immediately)

Contact JOY! Magazine
Tel: +27 (0)21 852 4061
Fax: +27 (0)21 852 5781
E-mail: info@joymag.co.za
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