Why I Cut: Triggers, Risk Factors, and Coping with Self Harm

Thursday, March 05, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Self harm is a beast not easily overcome. While previous posts have discussed the evolutionary triggers to self harm and possible coping skills, sometimes hearing from those who have suffered is the best way to glean understanding. If you or someone you love is dealing with self harm, get professional help and check out some of my favorite books on the subject: Freedom from Selfharm: Overcoming Self-Injury with Skills from DBT and Other TreatmentsA Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of PainHelping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury and Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation.

By: Ashley

When you discuss your issues with self-harm, there are a few different responses.  Some will say nothing. People who love you might beg, lecture, or threaten you. But most people ask what I've come to call the "Frequently Asked Questions of Self Harm”: the who, what, when, where and most importantly... the WHY.

Why did I do it? Why do people deliberately hurt themselves? 

The easy explanation is that self-harming is a coping mechanism. It is a deliberate and non-suicidal act intended to inflict pain on the body without causing death. Self-injuring can feel like an addiction. While I didn't need it on a regular basis, like people who are addicted to nicotine, when life got stressful the urge to do it grew. 

It has been some time since I have picked up a blade. But no matter how much time passes, I still feel the temptation of those old habits. 

I started cutting when I was fourteen.  A childhood friend confided to me that she had been cutting as a response to the various stresses in her life. I encouraged her to stop, but one day in a step towards recovery, she entrusted me with her tool of choice: a pocket knife. I wanted to understand why she did it. I also wanted to stop my own emotional pain that used to hit like a freight train. I didn’t have some huge event that triggered it, just this feeling that I was trying so hard but nothing would ever be good enough to make a damn bit of difference.

The first time, I barely broke the skin. In the weeks after, I lied and said the marks on my arm were cat scratches, a claim which went unchallenged as we had recently gotten a kitten. I felt stupid and regretful every time I saw the angry red marks on my arms. But not liking it the first time didn't stop me from thinking that it was a solution the next time I was upset.

What triggers self harm over other more appropriate ways of coping is as varied as the people who do it. For me, it was usually triggered by something that hurt my feelings. That might have been an argument with a sibling, an unkind word from a friend, rejection (either actual or perceived) or high stress during a period of depression. I could handle normal and even high levels stress at school or work, but not friction with the people I relied on for love and support. It's not that saying something shitty to me will push me over the edge; more that those situations are the last straw on the camel’s back when feeling broken already.

It isn't easy to explain what cutting does (or did) for me as a means of relief.  I remember feeling like I just needed to let the hurt out, as if seeing the blood well up would release the pain inside. Other times, I had cried and worked myself into a dissociative state and I just wanted to feel something. Hurting myself brought me back into my own body.

There was nothing ceremonial or ritualistic in my personal self-harm behaviors and there has never been a pattern or schedule to it other than my worst occurrences were during times of depression. Though I have a specific degree of cleanliness, I've never had a particular tool of choice, unlike those who always use a specific item to harm. The only consistency I've ever really noticed was crushing loneliness and a repetitive internal monologue that repeated itself over and over:  that nobody cared, that it didn't matter what I did because no one would know and even if they did they wouldn't do anything to stop me. 

The idea that people who self-harm are merely seeking attention is one of the most common — and dangerous — misconceptions. While most acts of self-harm are not attempts at suicide, that doesn't mean suicide is off the table or that self-harm should be dismissed as attention seeking. There were times when I self-harmed as an alternative to suicide, cutting myself to placate urges without making a permanent, fatal decision because I had an inkling that the negative thoughts weren't true.

Even those who make shallow cuts in highly visible areas or openly discuss their cutting with others need help. Plus, those behaviors are more likely to escalate because it takes more injury to get the same emotional relief over time. It is a slippery slope that someone who started doing it for attention could easily slide down. 

I never sought attention, though I clearly needed it. I lied to the therapists I saw for my depression. I was doing it for some sense of relief, and the last thing I wanted was for my one coping mechanism to be taken from me. I was also afraid I would be locked up.  Even as an adult, I didn’t talk to my therapist about it because I was afraid of the stigma.

I did get caught once, by an ex boyfriend. He lectured me a time or two, but he was more interested in using me that doing anything to help me. As tempted as I am to call him an enabler, the label feels inadequate to describe what was happening. He deliberately ignored what I was doing. He didn’t care enough to help and this in itself made everything worse. 

How To Tell if Someone is Self-Harming?

It's tricky. Teenagers are notorious for not wanting to be around their parents so withdrawal from the family isn't necessarily a huge indicator.  But if I had to make a list of things to watch out for it would include these signs:

  1. Suddenly introspective, withdrawn, secretive or displays common signs of depression. While none of these means someone is going to self harm, when combined with stress, it can make for a perfect storm.
  2. Expresses interest in harm or suicide. This may include talking about self-harm, discussing suicide, depression, or feeling alone. They may also share memes, pictures and the like on Facebook from pages that focus on self-injury. Though a stereotype, in my experience people who are depressed or self-injure tend to be highly creative, sensitive or emotional types, and reading their songs/poetry can be indicative of their personal mindset. I wrote the most amazing and painful poetry while I was cutting.
  3. Injuries or scars, particularly multiple and similar injuries in different stages of healing.
  4. Inappropriate clothing, such as long pants or long sleeves in warmer weather. Wearing multiple wristbands/bracelets may also be a sign of hidden injury.
  5. Avoiding normal activities where bodily contact or body exposure is necessary.  Summertime was the worst time to be self-injuring. Sweat would get in my wounds (one reason many quit sports with bodily contact). I would exclude myself from things I previously enjoyed (like water parks, pools, etc) in order to avoid having to put on a bathing suit. I avoided doing dishes or messy projects because I would have to push my sleeves up. 
  6. Blood (or stains) on clothing. Rubbing or friction can open healing wounds and stain clothes.
  7. Changes in attitude towards modesty. While puberty can bring about some normal changes in how comfortable kids are in various stages of undress, a drastic change in attitude is a red flag. Friends who suddenly need to change behind a locked bathroom door, or those who refuse to change around siblings of the same sex might be have something they don’t want you to see.
  8. Sharp objects in unusual places. A kitchen knife in a desk drawer, pieces of broken glass or plastic or a collection of sharp objects may be signs of intent to injure.
  9. Disappearing or misplaced medical supplies.  If medical supplies like disinfectant, bandages or ointment are disappearing from your cabinets, or you consistently find missing supplies in your teen's room, they could be self-injuring.
  10. Body Modifications. Some people enjoy accessorizing with body piercings, things I consider "Socially Acceptable Self Harm". I don't believe all piercings and body modifications are self mutilation, but I do believe that someone can use this painful method of body adornment to achieve the same feelings. I myself have done it. Often.
  11. Questionable Social Groups. While one can be a positive influence on others without absorbing their negative behavior, I also believe that like attracts like.  Someone who is surrounded by negativity and other at-risk individuals may fall into self harming behavior.

How I Stopped Self Harming (and how you can help someone you love)

I am a firm believer in that you cannot force someone to stop doing something they want to do.  Someone who is self-harming needs to make a choice to stop, just like they made the choice to start.

I quit for the first and longest time when I met my high school sweetheart. As a rule, I do not believe that a romantic relationship is the answer for issues like this; breakups, dysfunctional relationships and emotional distress were always triggers for me. But this guy made it a point to tell me how hurt he was that I didn't come to him instead of hurting myself when I needed someone. He was loving and supportive of me. He was there when I needed to talk. He let me know I mattered to him. 

I stopped for more than two and a half years during that high school relationship, and even after that relationship ended, I did not return to self harm for a very long time. I have self-harmed as an adult, though not as consistently as I did a dozen years ago. And every time I give in to the urges, I only do a fraction of what I used to, before getting angry at myself because I've made so much progress towards a life that doesn't involve self harm. 

Even if they are self-injuring for attention, the biggest thing those who injure need IS attention. It can be hard to ask for a hug, to ask for validation that we are loved when we need it the most. When I was contemplating self-injury, one of the most prevalent feelings was loneliness. It was the hurt of whatever happened combined with the feeling that I didn't have anyone to turn to. It was being forced to hold those feelings in, those hurts, until they festered and I needed to release the pressure with a blade, or until they made me so numb that I needed to cut to bring myself back.

For me, healing required a few different things. I saw a therapist who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to change my thought process. Getting my negative thoughts under control helped immensely. Healing also meant finding better social supports. For a long time, I struggled with reaching out to people when I needed something. Even now there are those in my life that I will never call to discuss these issues. But I've made connections with people across the country that I can reach out to at any given time. Despite its pitfalls, social media was pivotal in broadening my opportunities to connect with others who understand. If you feel like you can't breathe in the social fishbowl you're in, try swimming in the ocean.

I used to feel shame for the scars until I realized that I've been through some terrible things and I've survived all of them. Most importantly, I survived MYSELF. I've come to believe that the worst opponent you can ever face in life is you. 

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but your own thoughts can truly kill you. I have a 100% survival rate and the only time I've ever been close to not surviving was because of my own actions. Understanding that really puts some of those emotions into perspective. 

Ashley is the irreverent voice of More than Cheese and Beer, though she is partially certain that you need little else. Find her on her website, Twitter, Instagram or on Facebook for food porn, her adventures in the marvelous world of online dating and other inappropriate things (sarcasm included).

Related Posts:

Topic-Relevant Resources

Freedom from Selfharm: Overcoming Self-Injury with Skills from DBT and Other Treatments
Great resource on dialectical behavioral and cognitive behavioral treatments specifically focused on alleviating self harm.

Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation
Great description of the causes of self mutilation and resources to cope with self harm (in yourself or in others).

Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury
Great resource for parents trying to help children or for teens trying to stop cutting behaviors.

A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain
Amazing insight into the nature of self harm (and what to do about it).

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns