Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cutting the Cutting

What a mess we human beings are.

I just finished reading the book Cut for my Individual Aesthetic and Process class, and I began thinking about what I've been writing recently. I've finished one novel and the first draft and some light revisions of a second, and one thing that keeps coming up is self-harm (or self-mutilation).

"Self-mutilation" has sort of gone out of vogue because it becomes confusing if you're talking about things like tattooing or piercing or actual, harmful mutilation. So, we'll call it self-harm. I'm not an expert by any means, but I have a little experience from my own past that I could share. I also have some experience with it due to issues I've discussed with students, and I also did some quick research in conjunction with teaching The Catcher in the Rye where some might see Holden as involved in cathartic self-harm. He get's himself beat up twice when he could easily have stopped the abuse, punches out windows of his garage, and admits his favorite person in The Bible is the "lunatic" that sits alone in a cave cutting himself with rocks.

What I've learned is that most of what we think about "cutters" is false. There are some shocking facts out there.

1) All cutters are not Marilyn Manson listening, black leather wearing creatures of the night. In fact, there's cases of teens from all walks of life participating in self-harm. And it's not always cutting. Some use hot water, some punch walls, some poke themselves with pins or flick themselves in sensitive areas with rubber bands. Some bite themselves. Some rub at their flesh with all kinds of objects that cause pain. All teens are going through the toughest time of their lives, and all teens have problems that are important to them (even if they seem shallow to us). Princess Diana was a cutter. Google celebrities that have come out as cutters; you'll be surprised. The research when I checked, three years ago, was something like a third of all college students have participated in some type of self-harm at some time in their lives. That's a lot.

2) Cutters are not looking for attention. On the contrary, most are extremely ashamed of their habit, their compulsion. They WANT to stop. They just can't. Some people can't stop drinking, some smoking, some doing drugs, some eating, some having sex. Well, cutters can't stop cutting. The most common of the two big reasons is a sense of anxiety and stress that can only be temporarily relieved through pain. It's a release, endorphins and all that, and momentarily all that crap that's freaking them out goes away. The only problem is, the self-hatred from the cutting leads to more of those anxious feelings, more of that confusion and worry, and the the need to cut more. The other reason is dissociative feelings. The feeling that you don't exist. The feeling that you can't feel. These cutters feel they are so far removed from reality, that it's going on around them and they aren't included, that they cut themselves subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) just to feel that they are real. They're so dissociated that a pinch isn't enough. Either way, the last thing these people want is attention. They hide the scars. They put them in hidden places--upper thigh is popular. They make up excuses when they can be seen. "I run into a lot of doors" is one I've heard.

3) Self-harm is not harmless. Those committing self-harm are not suicidal (at least not most of the time). But it doesn't mean that if you find out a friend is doing this, you should just let it go and be happy they aren't doing any "permanent damage." What might be more harmful if untreated than the symptom of self-harm, is the condition causing it. The feelings that lead one to self-harm could be some severe psychological issues and disorders. Sometimes we forget that our psychological health can be as important to us as our physical health. They are, in some ways, interconnected. You should be just as worried about your friend's mental health as his or her physical health. And accidents can happen. When someone is routinely doing something like this to his or herself, chances are, eventually it will go too far. They need someone to talk to. They may need medication. But most of all, they need to stop the compulsion.

When I was 17, I remember a few straight days of just lying in bed all day listening to mixed tapes, wondering what the point was. I was madly in love with one of my best friends who had no idea, or if she did, she was happy pretending she didn't so she wouldn't have to hurt me. She wasn't interested. I was like a brother. My other friends seemed to lead such exciting, happy lives. I just lay in bed wondering why I wasn't part of it. While feeling particularly dissociative, I remembered reading about Marilyn Manson and his cutting. Remembered seeing the lattice work of scars across his chest when I saw him live in concert. Remembered him breaking a wine bottle on stage after taking a swig, and drawing it across his ribs, letting the blood leak out. I read about how it was such a release and how Princess Diana did it, too. I went into the junk drawer, grabbed a box cutter, and went at the back of my calf where I had a scar from something else in childhood. Nobody would notice. I started to drag the blade across the muscle, wondering if it would actually help.

The blood came out in gobs. I never expected so much. I'd barely done anything. It wasn't even that deep. The cut was less than a half inch long. But it bled. It bled a lot. Doogie, my miniature poodle who was wallowing in my depression with me, pounced on the floor and began licking it up. Apparently, I tasted pretty good. A roll of paper towels, a Band Aid, and a quick doggie snack later, I sat on the bed laughing at myself. What a scene. I couldn't even mutilate myself correctly. But I would never do that again.

From then on, I did find solace in hurting myself from time to time--but I limited it to punching myself really hard in the legs, leaving pretty harsh bruises. I can talk about it now--no problem. I know why I did what I did, and I know it wasn't a smart way to deal with my issues. I also know that I wish I had someone, something to make me not feel so alone. I wish I had Cut to read, or one of my own novels.

This was only a couple months, if that, of my life. The "cutting" was just one stupid kid experiment, and I never then or now considered myself a "cutter." But I will never judge or stereotype teens who participates in this behavior. They need help. They need to talk. And we should all try to understand and help the right way, not by ridiculing or dismissing it as "teenage angst."

The end. Go Patricia McCormick.

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