Self-injury has many facets. That is part of the reason why it is so hard to understand.
The reasons why people injure themselves are often listed as the "8 Cs":
- Coping and Crisis intervention
- Calming and Comforting
- Confirmation of existence
- Creating Comfortable numbness
Calming and Comforting / Creating Comfortable numbnessI can remember accidentally cutting myself when I was about 13 years old - As I watched the blood dripping from the cut, I felt amazingly calm, and yet more alive than ever before. It felt as if a valve had been opened, release the pressure from all the overwhelming emotions that had been building up inside me for months. Furthermore, I instantly went into a partially dissociated state, where I didn't feel any pain whatsoever. The pain only started when I was jerked back to reality by someone walking in on me.
I started cutting soon after this experience, actively seeking these feeling of release and relief.
Note: Physical injury causes the brain to release beta-endorphins: a natural opioid painkiller that numbs pain and causes pleasant feeling. This is probably what caused these feelings.
Coping and Crisis interventionLater, I discovered that cutting can instantly stop flashbacks or even threatening panic attacks. It became a coping mechanism that I used on an almost daily basis. I developed a habit of always carrying a razor-blade in my pocked, so that I could cut whenever I felt the need. It was a very dysfunctional, but very effective way of coping with my PTSD.
Cleansing / ChastisementAs I sank deeper into self-loathing, I started using self-injury as a way to act out my self-hatred. I believed that I deserved the pain from cutting and that I needed to "punish" myself in this way. Cutting would leave me feeling temporarily cleansed, as if my sin had left my body with my blood. It felt like temporary absolution.
The irony is that the very act of cutting myself increased my self-loathing over time, because "you have to be crazy or stupid to deliberately hurt yourself". This, in turn, increased my compulsion to "punish" myself, creating a vicious circle that proved very difficult to break.
ControlFor someone who was abused as a child, control, and specifically control over your own body, is a major issue. When you have been used to having no control over pain that was inflicted on your body or your soul, being in control of pain that is inflicted on your body, is liberating. Having the power to punish yourself, the power to stop flashbacks, the power to manipulate your own emotions with a blade on your arm, sometimes feels like it is worth all the negative fallout.
CommunicationI have often struggled with feeling like a fraud, because my outside appearance is healthy and happy, but inside I feel like dying. Cutting, especially in later years, have often been a way of saying hey, look at me, I'm bleeding. I'm in pain here!
People often discount cutting as attention-seeking behaviour, or a way to get sympathy from others. Those who say this are not completely wrong, but I would like to rephrase it somewhat: Cutting is a way of expressing a need for support, or for someone to listen. It is an expression of intense, emotional suffering. It is a cry for help. Self-injury is a way of saying "I'm hurting. Please help me. Please love me!"
This is why it is so important not to respond either by clamping down and trying to physically prevent the cutting, or by ignoring it because the wounds are superficial. When someone you loves self-injures, hear his cry. Love him, support him, and most of all - encourage him to get professional help.
Please check back - I will post more information on how to react to self-injury in a later post.