Self Injury Among Abuse Survivors

Artwork by Jess, Fort Refuge member

Self-injury is often defined as any deliberate, intentional injury to one’s own body that causes tissue damage and is done to cope with overwhelming feelings or emotional numbness. The most common forms if self-injury involve: cutting (making cuts or scratches on your body with any sharp object), picking at skin or re-opening wounds (dermatillomania), biting, hair-pulling (trichotillomania), eyeball pressing, friction burn (such as by rubbing a pencil eraser on skin), bruising or hitting self, head-banging, branding (burning self with a hot object), multiple piercing or tattoos when done to relieve stress, or swallowing harmful chemicals or objects. The most extreme forms if self-injury may result in permanent disfigurement such as castration or limb amputation. Self-injury can lead to serious health problems or death.

People often start SI when they are still young, before appropriate emotion management strategies develop, if their life involves a lot of stress. Abuse, for instance, certainly causes plenty of overwhelming emotions, so abused children/teens are the people who are most likely to start self-injuring. I personally started as a child, after the onset of sexual abuse, because life was overwhelming and I didn't know how to cope with it - I wasn't allowed to talk about it, throw tantrums, or express myself in any other age-appropriate way. So I started biting. SI is also common among teens who are being bullied, who struggle with self-image, who were date-raped, or if there are constant fights between them and their parents. Aproximately every third young person in UK and USA self-injures. However, people of any age SI when their emotions are stronger than their coping skills. Whatever age you are, and whatever your reasons are - you are not weird, there are people like you, who get what it's like.

The physical pain of self-injury can serve as a distraction from emotional pain of upsetting thoughts or strong feelings such as anger, frustration, restlessness, helplessness, entrapment, anxiety, or emotional numbness - feeling unreal, craving sensation, wanting focus. Some people who harm themselves do so because they hate themselves or their bodies. This might be the result of being abused or remembering abuse. Sense of failure or self-loathing are common SI reasons as well. Below is a quote from short story "The Old House", 1887, by Anton Chekhov. It does not describe self-injury itself, but the feelings that might lead to it:

      When he has finished his tea, Vassya packs up his books in a satchel and goes behind the stove; his greatcoat ought to be hanging there beside his granny's clothes. A minute later he comes out from behind the stove and asks:
      "Where is my greatcoat?"
      The grandmother and the other children look for the greatcoat together, they waste a long time in looking for it, but the greatcoat has utterly vanished. Where is it? The grandmother and Vassya are pale and frightened. Even Yegoritch is surprised. Putohin is the only one who does not move. Though he is quick to notice anything irregular or disorderly, this time he makes a pretence of hearing and seeing nothing. That is suspicious.
      "He's sold it for drink," Yegoritch declares.
      Putohin says nothing, so it is the truth. Vassya is overcome with horror. His greatcoat, his splendid greatcoat, made of his dead mother's cloth dress, with a splendid calico lining, gone for drink at the tavern! And with the greatcoat is gone too, of course, the blue pencil that lay in the pocket, and the note-book with "Nota bene" in gold letters on it! There's another pencil with india-rubber stuck into the note-book, and, besides that, there are transfer pictures lying in it.
      Vassya would like to cry, but to cry is impossible. If his father, who has a headache, heard crying he would shout, stamp with his feet, and begin fighting, and after drinking he fights horribly. Granny would stand up for Vassya, and his father would strike granny too; it would end in Yegoritch getting mixed up in it too, clutching at his father and falling on the floor with him. The two would roll on the floor, struggling together and gasping with drunken animal fury, and granny would cry, the children would scream, the neighbours would send for the porter. No, better not cry.
      Because he mustn't cry, or give vent to his indignation aloud, Vassya moans, wrings his hands and moves his legs convulsively, or biting his sleeve shakes it with his teeth as a dog does a hare. His eyes are frantic, and his face is distorted with despair. Looking at him, his granny all at once takes the shawl off her head, and she too makes queer movements with her arms and legs in silence, with her eyes fixed on a point in the distance. And at that moment I believe there is a definite certainty in the minds of the boy and the old woman that their life is ruined, that there is no hope. . .

SI provides temporary relief of intense feelings, but it causes long-term damage, both to your body and to your mind: it can cause infection and scaring. It also causes feelings of shame, depression about what you're doing, and necessity to lie to people about it. SI is also 'addictive' - like any other bad habit, it can be very difficult to stop: the original need for self-harm might not be there anymore, but the vicious cycle of feeling bad - SI'ing - feeling bad - SI'ing might still be present. Above all - SI dangerous.

Since people self-injure for different reasons, there's no one simple cure to the problem, it depends on the person. Generally speaking, there are two things you can do - buy some time by distracting yourself from the urge (for example, see over 60 distraction techniques), and learning what feelings you're trying to cope with (can be achieved via therapy/counseling, journalling, paying attention) and finding alternative methods to do so - expressing yourself via creative writing or art, or talking to someone about how you feel, for example - on forums or chat rooms. To join Fort Refuge forums/chat you need to be over 16yo, but there are many sites for teens.

Be safe, call hotlines if you're having an urge and can't handle it - don't let SI ruin your life, it's possible to quit, get the help you need.

Links and hotlines for self-injury support:

  • Self Injury Helpline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)
  • Cycle of Self-Injury - a must see article, highly recommended.
  • Self-Help: Organized and otherwise This section contains a variety of ways that you can stop yourself from making that cut or burn or bruise right now.
  • Mirror Mirror: Specializing in Eating Disorders but this is a great SI page.
  • Helpguide: "The number of young people who participate in acts of self-mutilation is growing. Recovery is a continuous process and learning how to stop this addictive behavior is within your reach if you work at it."
  • American Self Harm Information Clearinghouse: Strives to increase public awareness of the phenomenon of self-inflicted violence and the unique challenges faced by self-injurers and the people who care about them.
  • Secret Shame: Lots of good stuff in here.

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