My story of being a child cutter is not surprising to many. I have carried this trait throughout my life till mid 2014. That is 30 years of my life (given I remember my first needle interaction at age 4). In the past week – I have had few individuals share their need for cutting with me and it made me rethink the entire psychological design of how cutting and self-harm is understood.
Self-harm usually begins during teenage years. There are some cases like mine who start before. This is then carried forward to adulthood often taking on different ways of how pain can be brought upon ourselves. We might have started with a simple pinch to a razor to making ourselves into physical emotional and sexual punching bags and then moving towards mental and spiritual pain receivers (distorted sense of karma) mostly so with those we love. It is very addictive…this need to self-harm.
Self-injurious behaviour is called a maladaptive behaviour which is a reaction to many underlying issues. Reasons to why a teenager would do it includes relieving stress or pressure (peer/family pressure), to distract oneself or control a particular emotion, triggering pain when feeling “numb”, pleasurable wounds – the sight of blood or even the taste of it (not a fetish or vampirism), a substitute for suicidal thoughts – ideations, a reaction to abuse or neglect.
I remember one of my neurologist recognising my personality type and classified it as ‘The Addictive Personality‘ because I reminded him of another patient he had who showed similar signs in the department of how we interact with drugs and choose our highs. At that point in my life – I did consider myself as an addictive type – always on the hunt for an adrenaline rush and getting easily bored with every other high I could think of. Now ‘the addiction theory‘ which was postulated by Grossman and Siever suggest that such self-injurious acts call upon our Endogenous Opioid System which regulates our pain perception and drums up our body’s natural opioid peptides such as endorphins, endomorphins, a small amount of morphine, dynorphins, and enkephalins. Pretty awesome what our system has doesn’t it? [ That’s why in my documentary I said ‘I get hallucinations for free. ]
It is also suggested that cutters who hang around other self-injurers will increase their frequencies or methods which is similar to saying birds of the same feather flock together, or shared delusions/psychosis, or groupisms, or common past times, or self-reflections, or similar suffering or…’If you cut I will cut with you – then at least we know we aren’t alone in it?’ <— this is often NOT the case because self-injuries are ALWAYS HIDDEN & hence there is always a sense of being the only one when the truth it EVERY person (not necessarily only cutters) are busy in self-violent pursuits.
I don’t think that is the real problem. It is not that self-injury is the real problem or the cause of it nor the invisibility of it. It is again the constructions about it made by professionals in response to a society that cannot deal with the unexplainable. We live in a world where we think that the only things we SHOULD cut are stuff found in the kitchen (mainly vegetables and other food products or if you’re trying to get rid of a body), at the butcher (for those who eat meat) or in nature (trees and other animals hunted for sport or fashion). We allow others to abuse us or our loved ones (parents who deny that the wonderful uncle cannot possibly their child), we let animals be caged in zoos as clowns and teach kids to make fun of them, parents tell their children that ‘We are sending you here because we love you’ – all in all we don’t mind things done to us. It seems like the way of society to operate ‘right’ – but we have a problem when some of us decide to do things onto ourselves. Isn’t this a paradox?
Society goes on defining things, constructing them, and allowing theories to be built upon by individuals who wish to pursue their intellectual pursuits in understanding human behaviour, analyzing emotions and thoughts and further pursuing intellectual addictions of their own. So my question is what really separates this group of intellectual addicts who can in their moments of addictions ignore their families, friends and severe strings of their own? What separates adults who like controlling each other and creating emotional addictions amongst each other? What separates normal society where every person is really addictive to a structure, a routine which IS highly damaging to their sense of well being (if they had any)? And they force this structure on to those who don’t have one in order to reinforce their believe of what is right just so there is a mass sense of well being.
From what I can tell – if someone really had a sense of ‘well being’ and continued doing what they are doing they would actually break because they would have listened to something from the gut and strayed away from the mass. This does apply to self-injurers. I am not saying what we do is ‘right’ – but I am saying we are waking up with the reactions we are making because we do know we are responding to something from the inside. Of course once the reaction is made we are unable to move ahead from it so it remains at the action level of what then becomes an addiction which needs to be treated.
Unfortunately everyone is only interested in treating it or helping the person. Both of which I have run away from. Professionals work in group therapy, or medications (if there is an underlying psychiatric disorder), or family therapy, or rehab for drug addiction, or whichever other psychotherapy and counselling that is available. Again all of which I never could follow for long as I refused their stand on the matter.
These are some lines that I’ve received before and my verbal response to them (after I really understood myself and could speak up):
1. What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you love yourself?
Nothing of the fuck is wrong with me. Don’t tell me something is wrong WITH ME because I am expressing it this way. I just haven’t found another way to express it. I do love myself. Don’t put me in a self-doubt about it. Back off. I just can’t explain this yet.
2. Why do you want to make yourself ugly? God gave you a body and good skin. Appreciate it. Imagine those people who are burnt by others.
I am trying to make you feel better. You choose to bleach your skin – do you know how much more damaging THAT is in the long run? Mine are just scars. They are reminders to a lot of things I have chosen. Stop making me feel bad about being who I am by comparing my pain to that of someone else.
3. Fight it. Buckle up.
It is not about fighting it. You’ve got it wrong. We are not supposed to fight it. If you understand that this is a form of response to something then fighting the response is only repressing it which will again make it worse.
4. You need serious help. This is serious shit. Something is wrong with you.
Stop reinforcing that my behaviour is wrong and something is indefinitely wrong with me. Everyone goes through shit. Did you not put yourself in a really horrid relationship for years together – damaging your psyche and your emotional well being? Or what about the job that you hated but you stuck by it only because it was paying well. Did it not cause your hypertension?
5. OMG. Look at those scars. What have you done to yourself.
Yeah well you just don’t have visible scars like me. What have you done to yourself?
From my understanding of self-harm – every human person engages in it in different forms. There is an addict in all of us. It can be work or even spiritual pursuits. It can be intellectual conversations or academic engagements. Do not many of these affairs compensate for something in our lives – just that it seems more acceptable because it is contributing to something in society or a ‘feel good’ to ourselves which again is based on how we want to be recognised in society?
I’ve often mentioned to others to ‘treat crazy with crazy’. I don’t mean treat in the conventional meaning of it. What I know has helped me over the course of time is what I can share. There are many steps involved in learning to recognise what our bodies are saying and how our minds are making sense of it. There are many names given to this process – neuropatterning, brain retraining, mind – mapping, mindfulness, behaviour modification, self-hypnosis/suggestions, etc.
Although taking the first step in accepting that you CAN HELP YOURSELF is the soul of it all. Did it not occur to you that the very act of self-harm is a different way of how you are trying to help yourself? This is enough to tell you that you do have the answer somewhere – that you’re inner self is saying something by what comes across as a maladaptive behaviour. Perhaps you have just not looked at it as an adventure because that would be a really crazy thought …someone telling you that your self-harm process is an adventure of creativity.
I was not treated for my self-injuring acts. This was a good thing because it really allowed me to find my own ways. I had other issues that needed intervention so self-harm was not really the focus of my treatment plans. Hours and days would go into such behaviour which turned into an obsession. This grew into a creative pursuit that I would feed my mind with in order to keep it going. A justification to not seek treatment. In those creative steps, I realized I could channel my acts…find another high perhaps.
I began cutting my art work. I would love to watch it burn and it didn’t matter what others had to say about a beautiful piece of art being destroyed. I would tear them, razor them, chop them, burn them, crush them, knife them, step on them, break them, throw them. What started as a form of maladaptive behaviour got channelized into a destructive process but it wasn’t really destructive because it was something I created. This 2nd step of channeling my self-harm found a twin expression. it was equally substituting my need for pain. I knew it. It was a different needle. A tattoo needle. But I was not getting tattoos to satisfy my need for pain. My tattoos are all custom designed which means it needs planning days ahead.
This offered me another practice ground – postponing my need for pain by waiting for something that is creative in nature. Now this 3rd step was an important conscious step for me to recognise. I already had tattoos – but this time I needed to strategise my self-harm traits to something else I was already engaged in. (No I was not covering my scars with tattoos. In fact, they blended perfectly with each other where the line on my rib formed the nose of an entity)
The 4th step was now learning to postpone my tattoo needs. To substitute one calling for another – which again is another creative act. Instead of letting my body be a canvas for another artist – I stopped getting tattoos for while. This caused a sudden artistic repression which got taken care of by me painting on paper. This time I was creating art on paper and not destroying it anymore (as before). When I couldn’t work on a piece – I would postpone it and find another piece to work on. My body was working on its own now.
As I began painting again and stopped destroying my art work – a burst of ‘action replay’ happened. There were some overwhelming moments where I was troubled by something and wanted to cut. And since I had worked towards reprogramming my urge to destroy my art work as I knew the origin of it – I found myself unable to destroy my art works. I wanted to preserve them. I wanted them to grow and evolve. But i had to do something about the returning self-harm. I worked with the feelings again and found my next step.
NOW Step 5 was something absolutely crazy. This is my favourite step of ‘Treating crazy with crazy’. This is actually the very finale of what ‘treating crazy with crazy’ means.
This step is about consciously waking up to a razor lying beside you in the morning and the first thing you got to do is to cut yourself. It reverses everything they have told you about. Stuff like ‘The first thing you should do is make yourself feel better – or do something that’ll will distract you from it – or hide all injury causing tools…- or go for a run…’ I figured those are very short acting because they work on the same logic of addiction. These ‘normal’ methods reach a level of tolerance or stagnation where they don’t work anymore and you are left with your sudden urge to cut yourself even more. It can confuse you tremendously because you thought it should work and you were told that is the way of dealing with it.
Instead I would say ‘How about we mindfully cut ourselves?’ When you really give this a try it is pretty difficult to do. To be able to focus on the trigger of your pain, evoke it to surface so that you can feel that pain and then direct it consciously to cut yourself…try it & then let me know! You might just discover something else that works for you which might not be this.
– partly taken/rephrased from Tips & Tricks that defy conventional methods in psychology – from ‘The Language of Madness’, thesis for M.A. Philosophy. Reshma Valliappan.