This may be a girl you love: She seems troubled, but you chalk it up to adolescent mood swings, to the wild course of hormones in her rapidly maturing system. She spends a lot of time alone and has lost her little-girl, sunny disposition. What you may not know is that when she is by herself, in order to alleviate feelings of hopelessness, guilt, loneliness, or worthlessness, she takes a razor blade or a sharp knife, and she cuts herself. She draws blood. She has fresh cuts and old scars. She says she is accident-prone. She blames the cat. She wears long sleeves and pants, even in warm weather, to hide her wounds.
She is a "cutter," but besides cutting into her poor skin, she burns herself, pulls out her hair, bites herself, hits herself, picks at her wounds so they cannot heal, and even breaks her own bones. She may also be a boy. Cutters are not exclusively female. They are, disproportionately, teenagers and young adults.
The reasons people become cutters are many and painful: physical pain may distract, at least temporarily, from emotional pain. Feeling anything, even pain, is better than feeling nothing. Cutting can be a perverse way of taking control of a life that feels out of control. Cutting provides a sense of relief and release, until those negative feelings build themselves up again and threaten to overflow. The pain of cutting may be a seemingly deserved punishment for the self-perception of bad behavior. Some may cut themselves in noticeable areas for attention: It may, finally, be a means of making someone like you realize that the cutter needs help to stop this self-destructive behavior.
The subject of cutting came up, of all places, in a homily at a recent Monday morning Mass. The priest asked us to envision the Church as a healing pool, like the biblical pool in which the blind man washed and was able to see, or like the waters of Lourdes. He mentioned cutters as people who need healing, and said that we should strive to make the Church that place of healing for them, and for all who need it. I agree, and am only sad that we need to be reminded of this essential spiritual function.
Being a former youth minister as well as the mother of four daughters who always brought a lot of friends to our house, the affliction of cutting is not unknown to me. I don't understand it, but I know that it is a real and vivid problem among young women. One thing I have learned, from my biological daughters as well as from all my honorary daughters, is that we adults don't need to understand a problem in order to listen, to notice, to sympathize, and perhaps to steer young people to places of helpful community resources. I've also learned to maintain my game face: when revelations are spilled in your general direction, you have to check your first reaction, and instead project an aura of calm acceptance. If you spend any time with teenagers, you know this well.
The image of the healing pool has stuck with me, as I have done some research, as I have talked to the young women in my life, as I have been surprised and educated. Some former cutters, now grown women, consider their old scars a rite of passage, as reminders of the angst of youth that they overcame. Some talk easily about their past behavior as something that eventually awakened them to figure out healthier ways to cope. Cutters are not usually suicidal, but self-injury can lead to infections, permanent disfigurement, and a worsening of underlying psychological conditions. Also, a pattern of physical damage in response to distress can make suicide a more likely option.
We sometimes shrug off or minimize warning signs that indicate a need for serious, professional help. We are more comfortable believing that cutters live in some other family, in some other town, and that our girls are well adjusted and uncomplicated. But our girls are subject to intensified stresses, pressures, emotions, and problems that can cause them to seek relief in unhealthy ways. Perhaps they have even seen us do the same, as we adults anesthetize ourselves in the midst of our woes. We may not be cutters, but we may look for our own escapes from the difficulties of life.
The wounds and scars of self-injury may be discovered by a family member, a friend, or a medical professional, or the person may ask outright for help. Cutters can kick this destructive habit, just as any hurtful addiction can be tamed. It is not an easy road, and there is no quick fix or miracle drug. A trained mental health professional is an important guide to the different types of therapy and treatment plans available. The girl -- or boy -- you love will need your support and reinforcement along the path to wellness. Love may not be all you need, but it's a strong motivator, and a good place to start the healing.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.