People who suffer from a mental illness continue to battle a high degree stigma from the rest of the population. Of all mental health issues, self-harm is one of the most misunderstood behaviors. I myself have struggled with self-harm compulsions and I’m humbled to say that with the proper medical treatment, I’ve been able to develop constructive coping skills. Even though I have partaken in self-harm myself, the behavior still fascinates me as a psychological subject.
I’d also like to include a brief disclaimer: if there is anyone reading this post who is contemplating self-harm or practicing self-harm, please seek the help of a trained mental health professional. Many communities have free resources available. You don’t want to fight this battle alone.
Trauma can lead to self-harm. The recent (and ongoing) tragedy, Fear and the Unwanted Children from the Southern Border, is heartbreaking. See what might be in store for these abused kids in the future.
A Diary of Darkness
Recently, while conducting research for my upcoming novel, The Lord of the Harvest (which features self-harm), I came across a very famous German Tumblr personality for the first time, @coldnessinmyheart. She became an underground sensation for her incredibly graphic pictures of self-mutilation. Her pictures included everything from cutting her thighs down to the bone, to carving deep trenches into her face. While Tumblr removed the profile, her followers posted the pictures elsewhere on forums like Reddit. About a year or so ago, she stopped posting and fell off the map. There has been a lot of speculation on the internet about whether or not she died due to her injuries.
The story of @coldnessinmyheart is perhaps the most extreme account of an individual that battled this destructive addiction. Did she recover? Did she survive? Was she angry at herself for what she did? No one knows. I have to point out that the vast majority of individuals who practice self-harm are not looking for attention. They do it in private and don’t want anyone to find out. Unlike many addictions, the evidence of self-harm will never go away. To this day, my arm is shredded and it will look that way for the rest of my life. That’s why it is so important that self-harmers get treatment as soon as possible.
What’s the Payoff?
So, why do people hurt themselves? I’m not a mental health professional, so I can only comment on why I cut myself. There are several reasons why I did. First, the urge for me came from a sense of having no control over my life. I had low self-esteem. I wasn’t happy with my life or my appearance. And I’d been through some heavy trauma. The composite emotional pain from all of those different sources was overwhelming. When I cut, the emotional cacophony took a backseat to the physical pain that I controlled. I decided when the pain started and when it stopped. For those brief moments, I got to be the master of my universe. Gaining a sense of control when you’re used to having none is blissful gratification.
Second, due to my emotional issues, I had a distorted view of reality that made me believe that I deserved the self-abuse. I believed that I was a failure and that I needed to be punished. This created a cognitive dissonance because I hadn’t received any punishment that I deemed adequate. Once I completed the act, I felt like I got what I deserved. The dissonance went away and for a short time, I had achieved emotional equilibrium.
Third, mental illnesses are frustrating because those that suffer from them often don’t look like there’s anything wrong with them. Explaining mental illness to someone who has no prior experience with it can be an awkward and disheartening affair because it’s not a black and white concept. A broken leg is tangible. You get a cast, crutches and you stay off your feet for a certain amount of time. Boom, problem solved. With mental illness, the malady is nebulous, multi-factorial and difficult to understand. When a person harms themselves, there is a tangible sign of their disease. That kind of clarity is refreshing. It makes the self-harmer feel that there is something legitimately wrong with them; it’s not just a mental fluke.
It’s Not Me, It’s My Friend…
The next question is: what should you do when someone you care about is engaging in self-harm? As a person with no expertise in this field, I don’t have the answer regarding an exact protocol and am not qualified to offer one. But, I can say a few things in a general sense. The most important thing is to love the person and show them compassion. If they are not seeking treatment, encourage them to do so because it could save their life. Don’t try to fix them or tell them what they should or should not do to get cured (besides get treated). Don’t should on yourself and don’t should on other people. Help them see the positive qualities that you see in them. If they are artistic, encourage them to practice their art. If they don’t have an art of choice or a way to express themselves creatively, encourage them to find their medium of expression. Art saves. Do not try to convince them that what they’re doing is stupid or irrational or harmful. They know that. They don’t need your judgment. They need your love.
I hope that @coldnessinmyheart found peace. The images I saw showed a person in a state of total agony. Whenever a person prefers self-mutilation to sobriety, they are in a great deal of pain. They need love and medical care.
P.S. Self-harm, like most things, cannot be magically cured by prayer. Do not read Bible verses to a person suffering from a mental illness in the hope that it will cheer them up. It won’t. Ever.