Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘cutting’

A school facilitated a pupil’s self-harm; why part of me wishes mine had done the same.

It was reported by various media outlets today that a pupil at a school in Surrey was permitted to self-harm under the supervision of staff. The child’s gender varies depending which account you read and his/her age has not been made public. The school in question provides specialist education for young people up to the age of 19 who have Asperger’s, higher functioning autism or an associated diagnosis.

This story resonated with me. I began self-harming very young, at the age of 7. I started by scraping a My Little Pony or Barbie hairbrush across the skin of my forearms until it bled. By the age of 10 or so I was using one of my dad’s disposable razors; by the time I started university I was using kitchen knives. I went to great lengths to hide what I was doing – I felt ashamed of it and didn’t want anyone else to know. At the same time I was desperate for someone to notice so that I could come clean, own up and get help.

The first time I ever told anyone about my self-harming was when I was seeing a bereavement counsellor at the age of 19. After a few sessions I hesitatingly confessed the shameful secret that I had hidden for so long. His response wasn’t what I expected – almost jovially he said “Oh don’t worry, if it helps it’s a good thing”. I was stunned and horrified by his response, and never went back.

Looking at it now from a more mature perspective I can see what he was trying to tell me. Self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s a pretty rubbish one admittedly, and definitely not healthy, but it helps the individual to cope with or process feelings and situations that would otherwise be utterly overwhelming. Many self-harmers find that when their families discover their secret they remove anything with a sharp edge in an attempt to stop the harm. However well-intentioned this is it often does more harm than good; the self-harmer has no outlet for their feelings and may turn to far worse coping mechanisms in order to regain control.

Because at its most basic level self-harm is usually about control. When you are feeling overwhelmed, panicky, as though you are suffocating, self-harm is a way to focus and regain self-control. Having this coping mechanism taken away can be devastating and can sometimes cause a downward spiral leading to suicidal thoughts.

I suspect that this is what was uppermost in the minds of the headteacher and principal of Unsted Park school when they implemented their support scheme for the pupil in question. Apparently staff were told to give the pupil (who may be a boarder) access to sterile razor blades and accompany them to the bathroom, checking they were ok every couple of minutes. The wounds would then be cleaned and dressed.

Obviously this isn’t an ideal solution and teaching staff should not have to bear that sort of responsibility. But as far as I can see once the school became aware of what the pupil was doing they only really had 2 options; to try to put a stop to it and risk the pupil spiralling downwards or to make sure it was done as safely as possible while finding a better way to support and help the pupil.

By the time this policy had been in place a few days several staff had complained. The school, its headteacher and principal are now under investigation. There has been no mention of whether the pupil is getting more appropriate support, or indeed any support at all. I hope they are.

When I was young the thought of someone finding out about my self-harming both terrified and tantalised me. The thought of being escorted to the bathroom by a teacher so that I could cut myself would have been horrifying and humiliating, I didn’t want anyone to find out what I did. And yet if someone had told me that they knew I would probably have clung to them, sobbing with relief and begging them to help me stop.

There are no villains here, no wicked teachers encouraging children to mutilate themselves. There are only staff who, I believe, were doing their best to cope with an extremely difficult situation and fulfil their duty of care towards a pupil. Whether the policy in question was the best course of action is debatable. But a young person was supported and cared for and that’s the most important thing.

I wonder. If my school had been this aware and responsive would I still be a self-harmer 25 years after I first began?

Mental illness doesn’t just leave scars on the mind

This post is about self-harm. Some may find it triggering.

Self-harming is often misunderstood by people on the outside. It is seen as attention-seeking or the sign of an extremely disturbed mind – after all, why else would someone deliberately set out to hurt themselves? Equally there are some Western subcultures that have veen accused of seeing self-harm as a badge of belonging or a rite of passage, and it is treated as nothing serious.

To me, self-harming is serious. And idiotic. I know that it is an unhealthy way to deal with emotions and stresses and yet I continue to do it. It is a compulsion. When I was 19 I hesitantly confessed this to a grief counsellor that I was seeing, only for him to reply that if it helped me to cope then it was ok, it wasn’t harmful. I was horrified – I wanted someone to tell me to stop, that I shouldn’t do it, that it was wrong. That was the last time I saw the counsellor and the last time I spoke about self-harming to anyone in the healthcare system.

I began self-harming at about 7 years old, while being bullied by my school teacher. My mother recalls finding bitemarks all over my arms and realising that I had done it myself. I soon moved onto breaking the skin – I would get a small plastic hairbrush from one of my Barbie toys or similar and scrape it along the skin of my forearm until it bled. By the age of 10 I had discovered my father’s disposable razors in the bathroom. By the time I started university I was using kitchen knives, or my fingernails if I got the urge while I was out.

This may be horrifying reading for someone who has never felt the urge to self-harm. But it helps, counter-intuitive as that may seem. I self-harm when I am in a state of heightened stress or emotion, when my thoughts are frenzied and I feel trapped. Pain helps me to focus – not only does the knife cut through my skin but it also cuts through the fog in my mind. It’s a way of regaining control. It’s almost equivalent to slapping someone who is hysterical – it shocks me out of the mental frenzy. By the time I have staunched the bleeding I am calm, rational and focused again.

Of course, there are many different ways of self-harming. Cutting is perhaps the most obvious, along with burning. Some people take up sports and push their bodies to the limit. Some people drink to excess or take illegal drugs. However I have recently come to realise that my compulsive overeating is also a way of self-harming and one that I seem unable to control. I haven’t cut myself in almost 2 years despite battling the urge almost every day; I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that it is normal, that it’s ok and a legitimate way of dealing with stress. However I comfort eat like you wouldn’t believe. At the first sign of stress my thoughts turn to food, usually sugary. I am unable to focus until I have eaten and once I start eating I struggle to stop.

This post has turned into somewhat of a confessional for me – I have never been this honest with anyone but DH. And now I am about to fire it into the ether for anyone to read. :-S But in a way I think it is just as important to be honest about self-harming as it is to be open about mental illness. (I have no doubt that for me the two are related). If this post makes one person feel less abnormal and less alone, or if it makes one person more compassionate towards self-harmers then it will have been worth it. So I am going to take a deep breath and press publish. Here goes.

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