Self-Injury – A Dirty Word?
How often have you done it? Honestly. Never? Maybe you bite your nails when you’re stressed? Or smoke? Spend hours in the gym putting your body through pain so you can ‘let off steam’? If you have done any of these things, you will have some understanding of self-injury. We all do it – to some degree.
The 1st March is Self-Injury Awareness Day and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) wants people to stop judging and start understanding the shameful activity of self-injury or self-mutilation. “I feel guilty and shameful every time I cut. When people tell me I do it for attention it really hurts and it stops from seeking help”, says 23-year-old Lizelle*. According to SADAG, self-injury is far more common than we think and the myths and misperceptions around it need to be debunked if we are ever going to help. Cassey Amoore SADAG’s Counselling Manager says that at least 10 – 15% of teens have self-injured, although this figure is probably higher. “Because people are ashamed of their behaviour, it is rare for them to come forward and openly admit they have a problem. 90% of the cases we see are female, but that doesn’t mean boys don’t cut or injure themselves – far from it.” People who self-injure are male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, young, old, single, married, divorced – and very real human beings.
The majority of Self-Injurers start in their teens. They are likely to have low self-esteem, little or no effective coping skills, and are often unable to communicate or confide in friends or family. “For many self-injurers, this is the only coping mechanism they have. Because of low self-esteem, the pain and stress they feel becomes internalized and they don’t know how to communicate to get it out in a healthy way”, says Amoore.
But what exactly is self-injury? Any action by oneself to oneself that harms the body. The most common is cutting, but burning, pinching, scratching are all examples of self-injury. Self-injury is a paradoxical action and is an expression of psychological distress. The aim of self-injury is not to kill rather it is to help. “It can be difficult to understand but people who self-injure do it as an outlet for pain, they damage their body so their mind can stay whole,” says wellness coach Janine Shamos. Allen was a ‘cutter’ for years and is now slowly learning other ways to express his emotions. “I don’t understand how people function without doing this. If you want to help me, teach me other ways to survive, show me how. Don’t judge me by what you think this behaviour means. Get to know me. Be patient.”
What drives people to deliberately hurt themselves? To cut, burn or bruise themselves intentionally when most of us cringe at the thought of a paper cut? “When I get upset, stressed, overloaded with emotions, when I can’t handle things, when I fail at something, when I compare myself with others and don’t match up”, says Lizelle. We all have a breaking point, a point when our emotions get too much and we need to let them out. We may cry, smoke, eat, talk in order to express and deal with these emotions. People who self-injure can’t deal with threatening emotions in an adaptive way and self-injury is like a safety valve – a way to relieve the tension and emotional pressure. “Imagine blowing up a balloon as far as it will go”, says Amoore, “You can’t add any more air or it’ll pop. You can’t just let it go – it’ll fly away. You need to release the air slowly to regain control. Self-injury is a lot like that – it helps give back control.” “We do it because we cannot control our feelings anymore and everything we have bottled up in the past and present has taken its toll.” The problem is that self-injury, just like any other unhealthy coping mechanism, can become a crutch.
If you think you or someone you know has a problem, these questions may help: Do you deliberately cause physical harm to yourself to the extent of causing tissue damage? (bruising, cutting, burning, biting). Do you cause this harm as a way of dealing with unpleasant or overwhelming emotions, thoughts or situations? If the answers are yes, you may be self-injuring. You can contact SADAG on 0800 567 567 or 011 262 6396 for more information as well as referrals to experts in the field. They are open 7 days a week form 8am to 8pm.
The good news is that there is help – it just takes time.
“Remember that how a person self-injures is not as important as why. We need to understand as much as possible about people’s lives and lifestyles if we want to help them”, says Shamos. But remember that asking for help is difficult. “Many people feel ashamed and are afraid of being labeled, afraid of causing anger and shock, and are scared they’ll be forced into treatment”, says Amoore. The advice is to look beyond the symptom to the person and the underlying issues. Don’t expect change to happen quickly – it takes time for people to learn that their feelings won’t destroy them. Don’t judge or be critical – however hard that is to do – and resist the temptation to step in and solve their problems. The most important thing is to listen – really listen – and love the person, which doesn’t mean you have to love their actions.
It’s worth remembering that we all harm ourselves sometimes, and we don’t always cope with every issue in a healthy or adaptive way. “’Normal’ people punch walls, bite their nails, smoke… maybe people could feel closer to our cause if they could relate to it.” Don’t expect change to happen quickly and appreciate how difficult the process is. Issuing ultimatums does more harm than good. “It takes courage to admit to self-injury and disclosure shows trust. It’s very important for family and friends to show care, respect, acceptance and patience”, says Amoore. “Build up self-esteem –through this, we all learn to cope better, be resilient, and value ourselves as unique individuals.”
“I do not want to hurt you. I hurt myself to cope with the overwhelming stress and frustration I feel because of my inability to express myself outwardly in an effective manner. I am afraid that if I let the pain out, I will hurt others. For now, this is the only way I can cope with this feeling. If there is one thing you can do to help me, it would be to understand this, to listen when I try to express myself, and to gently encourage me to express my feelings in a healthy manner so that one day I will no longer rely on self-injury to cope with my feelings.”
For more information, contact
Cassey Amoore 011 262 6396
Janine Shamos 082 338 9666