Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Time to Speak

[Pictures for today's post are "Close-ups From My Daily Life" - enjoy!]

Thanks to everyone who read and supported yesterday's post. As per TSM's (very good) suggestion, a disclaimer: If you feel, for any reason, that reading about cutting might be a trigger for you - and if it is, you likely know what I mean by "trigger" - please don't read any of this. Keep yourselves safe and healthy above all else.

Here goes...

When did you first cut yourself? What made you think of it?

In May of my senior year of high school, I was sitting in the cafeteria, taking my Spanish Literature AP exam. The test really wasn’t even stressful – Spanish was always one of my best subjects, and I was finding the exam to be fairly straightforward and easy. I had finished the section we were currently on, and was waiting for the time to finish so I could move on to the next section. I was sort of fiddling idly with my pencil, and suddenly, I looked down at my arm, and there, on my forearm, were three small cuts, red with blood. I had been tracing and retracing them with my pencil tip.

I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but everyone was busy with their exams. What had I done? And why? When the time came, I nervously moved on to the next section of the exam, doing my best to forget about the cuts. But over the next few weeks, I felt my eyes repeatedly drawn to my arm, and I stared at the small red marks. I was entranced by them in some way. I thought often of what to say to explain the scratches, but was surprised to find no one really asked. Could it really be that easy to hide? It seemed so, and a few weeks later, when I got upset by something, I went to my room, grabbed a thumbtack, and scratched at my arms for a while. And then I felt better. And then, I was a cutter.

Nothing really made me think of it that first time. In fact, as I said, I didn’t even really notice what I was doing. I just sort of did it without thinking, as if I were in a trance or something. But it was enough that when I got upset, I remembered, and looked to it as an option.

At the time, did you keep it a secret from your loved ones? Were there certain people you felt comfortable confiding in?

I didn’t tell anyone about it at all until sometime in the middle of my freshman year of college. The first person I told was actually a professor and mentor of my sister’s. I wrote to Dr. W. because I knew that Seeser trusted him quite a bit, and when I had met him, I appreciated his caring personality. I sent him an email and asked for help – “What should I do?” I asked him. He told me to talk to someone and get some help dealing with it. I didn’t.

Over time, especially as it became less and less of a problem – or so I thought – I confided in more of my friends. By the spring of my junior year in college, I felt confident enough that it was behind me that I talked openly about it in a testimony given to a relatively large crowd of people. But it took a long time to get to that point, and even then, the people closest to me didn’t really know.

I hinted around it and sort of told Seeser at some point, but we definitely never talked explicitly about it. I didn’t tell Mom until October of this past year, when it started getting bad again. She and I were sitting on the bed in our motel room – which she’d rented for the weekend, as J. and I hadn’t figured out our living situation yet – and I admitted to her what I’d struggled with for so many years. And as I’d feared, she blamed herself, which was a big part of why I hadn’t told her before.

But mostly, when it was happening, I was scared, and, more than anything, I was ashamed. I would sometimes think while cutting or while considering it, that maybe what I wanted was for someone to see the cuts and realize that I was hurting. But always, as soon as I had finished, I began thinking of how I could hide it, how to make sure no one would ever know, how to explain it if anyone asked. I was horrified to think that people would find out I had done this to myself, because who would ever understand? They would think I was a freak. And could I blame them? I couldn’t even understand it myself. So I hid it – always.

Why is it an addictive disorder?

My honest answer to this is, “Because it works.” Honestly, though, that’s the truth. It starts to seem like the only answer. The only reason I turned to it in the first place is because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. And then I found this way of coping, and it worked, and things were better for a while. So when things got worse again, I would try briefly to find a solution, but I would remember that I hadn’t found one before except for – oh, yeah! – cutting.

Unfortunately, as time went on, it became clearer and clearer that it was only a temporary solution. I would start to realize how out of control things really were, which would only drive me to cut more. For all that it’s a cliché, it really is a vicious cycle. The cutting leads to shame that only leads to feeling worse and cutting more. And too soon it seems like there’s no other way, and hey, it works.

Why is it so shunned in society?

I think largely because it’s so misunderstood. It inspires fear, because people don’t know what to make of it. So, to avoid making anyone uncomfortable, everyone just stays silent about it.

It’s also a weakness, just like pretty much every other addictive disorder. Why is alcoholism so shunned? Gambling addictions? Anorexia and bulimia? All of these are shunned, but not all of them are as silenced as self-injury. I think the added silence comes from the lack of education about it, and the incorrect notion that so few people are dealing with it.

If you've been cutting for so long, does that mean you've been considering suicide all along?

Nope. Self-injury is almost never a suicide attempt, though the depression that leads to one could easily lead to the other as well (as in my case, for example). But the cuts are an end in and of themselves, not the means to suicide. In fact, the cuts are usually an attempt to let out enough pent-up emotion that suicide won’t be necessary.

This misconception, however - that cutting is about suicide - is a common one. To answer a question from yesterday's comments, this is the reason people look so closely at the direction of the cuts when they are near the wrist. People asking about "lengthwise vs. widthwise" are generally trying to decide whether it's a suicide attempt or not. However, I will say that depending on the people, they may be looking for different answers to mean different things. Generally, for suicide, it's "down, not across," but I sincerely hope none of you is considering suicide, so you don't need to know that. Pop culture, however, often portrays slashed wrists as being horizontal cuts, rather than vertical.

What helps you to heal?

This. Really and truly. Talking about it helps immensely, if for no other reason than it makes it harder to hide. That's the double-edged sword of being so open. It means I have people looking out for me, but it also means I feel the pressure of people watching me like hawks. But more than that, it helps me work through my feelings when I put them into words. Understanding how and why I feel the urge to cut helps me overcome that urge, and talking about it helps me understand.

This is, in many ways, an answer to another question from yesterday's comments: How do I feel about blogging this stuff? It's very scary, I must admit. Clicking that "Publish" button is hard, for all that my openness may make it seem otherwise. But it's also necessary for me - a part of the process. I do find myself "going back," as you say, but only in remembering the feelings. The remembering is still a bit detached for me, though, so I don't feel that I'm in danger of wanting to cut again, simply by virtue of remembering when I did. I can understand how other people might, however, which is why I think TSM's suggestion of giving an advisory above (as I did) was a very good one.


Again, if any new questions arise, feel free to let me know. Tomorrow I'll talk a bit about what you can do if you think (or know) someone you love is cutting - both to help that person and to help yourself.

I promise to make Friday light-hearted to make up for all the heavy material this week. You're all superstars for supporting me through this. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Thank you again, Lara, for being so honest with all of us. I'm sure these questions and answers are helping somebody.

I wanted to share something I saw last night: our local news aired a story about 'the teen cutting epidemic.' The piece seemed to imply that celebrities (like Angelina Jolie) who are honest about their struggle with self-injury are actually glorifying it and are therefore to blame for the supposed increase in cutting behavior among young people.

Does this resonate with anyone? Like Lara, I started cutting sort of by accident, but I now wonder how many people are influenced---consciously or not, by peers or others---to self-injure.

Anonymous said...

I fully some ways, if a celebrity who might be seen as "having it together" talks about self injury, that could be influential to someone on the brink of becoming a SI'er. I do think it is more prominent, and I wonder if the publicity has something to do with that.

I discovered it by accident, then after I was already a SI'er, I found a whole slew of info about it, including communities that support (or enable) others.

Thanks for the links!

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything intelligent to write. I'm just making noise here so you know you have my support: noise.

Still Jill B said...

As someone who's never cut, I am the significant support of someone who is a career cutter - one of my sisters. My initial reaction when it became a pronounced problem, was to research it. Hearing your perspective fills out my picture, along with other folks' perspectives I've heard over the years.

I think the most-helpful thing I've done was/is just be present in a non-judgmental way. We both know (knew) it wasn't good for her, but there weren't lectures, just a matter-of-fact if anything came up. She knew that I would still love her and support her, but no pressure.

Sandra said...

I am glad blogging is helping you in your healing process. I admire your honest bravery in so openly sharing all that you have. I am certain you have helped others not feel alone and raised understanding abou tcutting. Hugs to you.

Anonymous said...

Ditto to franz. *small noise of encouragement here*

Also, I think when celebrities are open about their problems, be it alcohol, drugs, cutting, anorexia, or whatever, there are many ways for them to do that. There's being open about problems and admitting that they are just that - problems that a real human being struggles with. Then there's also glorification, for example of alcohol, smoking, or dieting, which can be bad. My two cents.

Lara said...

jen - i've heard this idea before, but then it was posed to me as this offensive notion that cutting is "contagious." basically, it was implied that if i spoke openly about cutting, i would be encouraging others to start cutting, too. i personally feel that i can openly discuss it without inspiring self-injurious behavior in others. however, i will agree that if it's glamorized, then impressionable people could be adversely affected. sad stuff.

TSM - ah, the myth of "having it together." i was that person in a lot of ways, but i feel like for most of the people who know me personally, and who believed i was totally strong and together at all times, were more taken aback and scared by my fall than inspired to act likewise. sometimes seeing the suffering of the "invulnerable" is more sad and frightening than anyone else.

franz - honestly? i appreciate the noise of support more than words can say. just that little "squeak" makes my mind much lighter on tough days. so thank you.

jill b - i agree, and i think in general it's the most helpful thing for people who are close to cutters can do. it's a problem, but it doesn't change who a cutter is. he or she is still the person you care about, just struggling with some difficult issues. love and support can help more than most people realize.

sandra - i hope so. i want so much to help others like myself not feel alone, and raise some awareness of self-injury as an issue. if i've reached even a couple people, it was totally worth it.

tali - ditto in my answer to franz: those small noises of encouragement are HUGE to me in times like these. so thank you. and yes, as i said to jen and TSM, i think raising awareness through publicly discussing problems is a good thing for celebrities to do; glamorizing it is less good.