Self-injury is probably the most widely misunderstood form of self-harm amongst survivors of abuse. The many myths that are often associated with self-injury make coming forward and seeking help difficult for those dealing with their addiction. I know because I am a recovering addict myself. Just recently, I put together a public service announcement for self-injury. The feedback from survivors who saw the video and wanted to talk about it was overwhelming. I can only imagine the numbers that were too afraid to come forward or perhaps too embarrassed to admit that they too suffered from this wide-spread and harmful form of self punishment.
It has been argued that self-mutilation is not an addiction but a mental illness, however, I’m not sure that I agree. According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual-IV (DSM), an addiction is a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health, mental state, or social life. However, there is little mention in the DSM that acknowledges self-harm as such, except in the most extreme cases including castration or removal of limbs. If no one is talking about the truth surrounding self-harm, how do we expect to dispel the myths? It’s not surprising that friends and loved ones are left with the impression that people who self-injure do so willingly, to be dramatic or in order to manipulate those around them. For me and many like me, this simply isn’t our reality.
I had coffee with a friend of mine the other day. I confided in him that just a few short weeks before, I found myself on my bathroom floor, taking a razor to my arm in an almost trance-like state. His face was gentle and kind but I could sense from his expression that he was taken aback by my experience. Being an advocate, there is a general assumption of recovery in that it is picture perfect. Self-mutilation shouldn’t exist in the world of the advocate. Full recovery from abuse is what often allows others to look up to you and to gain hope in their own recovery. The truth is that advocates are every day people, not super heroes. The burden of expectation from others can breed the same shame and fear that keep many in their silence to begin with. I set myself on a very high pedestal most of the time, so high that even those closest to me often don’t recognize the fear and pain that hides deep within me, placed there by my father and continued in the actions of the little girl within me who is still healing.
I was seven years old the first time I took a knife to my arm. It was in the early hours of the morning and my parents were in bed. I remember going downstairs, walking to the kitchen reaching for a steak knife in the cutlery drawer and taking it to my arm. I remember telling myself how I was deserving of pain. I remember feeling as if I had to punish myself because I wasn’t good enough. Looking back, I recognize that harming myself was a way of trying to gain control of the external chaos in my home and somehow quiet the repetitive voice inside my mind that was screaming to be heard. Silence breeds silence. In this case, it allowed me to live in shame of my self-injury and in the fear that those who may find out about it would fear me insane or dramatic.
With every addiction, it becomes increasingly more difficult to stop over time. Not unlike alcoholism, bulimia, anorexia and sex addiction, self mutilation is a life line that allows the survivor to gain a perceived sense of control over themselves. Though, over time, the need to act upon urges increases and what may have been a "once in a while" band-aid solution becomes a compulsion that cannot easily be stopped. The result from self-injury is not just psychological but physical, as it allows for a release of chemicals in the brain that change the way reality is perceived. It’s the reason why such things are so difficult to stop and why it is necessary to seek professional help in order to learn healthier, long term alternatives to self-mutilation. Alternatives that is encouraging and hopeful instead of self-deprecating and negative.
Knowing all that I do about the effects of trauma and of the various positive alternatives to self-harming, I am often asked how I can continue to harm myself while at the same time, advocate for survivors. “Walk the walk,” they say. Looking inward, I see that it is a need for perfection that allowed me to get this far in my self-harm and by speaking out I am choosing to reveal another secret about myself with others. By talking about my own experience, I am more able to accept myself and my pain for what it is and not something that it is not. In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a saying; “One day at a time.” To acknowledge that you are not alone and that you are only human—to be okay with making mistakes and allowing yourself to learn from them. In doing this, we are able to move forward and actually make some headway in our recovery. Ultimately, it is not how you see me that is important, but instead how I am now able to see myself.