Cutting Deep: The Truth About Self-Harm

August 30, 2018

When emotional pain cuts deep, self-harm can feel like the only answer. 

Wicked. Fix. Vanish. Harmful. Anxious.

These are all words that Camille Preaker carves into her flesh in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects — first a novel, then a hit HBO show that recently ended it’s first (and reportedly only) season. Amy Adams stars as Camille, a woman whose body is scarred from years of self-harm.

With the show’s popularity, cutting has been thrown into the spotlight. And while the words Camille cuts into her skin don’t represent what every cutter does to themselves, the raw, deeply-felt emotions ring true.

There are many facets to depression and anxiety and dealing with deep, painful emotions.  There’s the kind of crippling anxiety that leads to panic attacks, making it hard to breathe. There’s the “winter blues,” in which light therapy can be used to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Women struggle with needing medication to deal with their depression. So many facets to experiencing emotional pain, and so many different ways to deal. Cutting — dangerous, physically painful, sometimes leaving scars for life — is one of the ways women cope.

It’s often just called “cutting,” but the practice of self-harm behavior really refers to a number of different ways someone can inflict pain upon themselves. “Self-harm behavior can come in many forms,” explains Dr. Melissa Deuter, a board certified Psychiatrist in San Antonio, Texas. “Self-imposed cuts or abrasions [are the] best known and likely most frequent expression, but self imposed burns or other injuries can also occur.” 

Camille’s self-harm starts when she’s a young girl, which is frequently true in real life. “Cutting often begins in adolescence, and is used as a mechanism to alleviate emotional stress or distract from intolerable emotional states,” says Deuter. And, like with Camille, it can remain a coping tool into adulthood. 

It might be really hard to understand why someone would deliberately cause themselves pain, and the answers are complex. As strange as it might sound, self-harm can make someone feel… better. And there’s a scientific reason for that. “Self-harm has been linked to the release of endogenous opiates, which means cutting can have a mild pain medication-like effect,” notes Deuter.

And that may not be all there is to it, says Ruth Fearnow, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and owner of The Happiness Project in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “While I don’t doubt this discovery, it is clearly not the whole picture,” she explains. “If it was, cutting would be generally understood as a pleasurable activity. Teens who try it out would generally like it and pick up on it.” In other words, if it simply made people feel good, more people would do it. “In my experience this is not the case,” Fearnow says. “Teens who are healthier emotionally will sometimes try it when it makes the rounds in their social circle. Healthier teens have told me, ‘I tried it and thought, This is stupid.’’”

“In my experience, both teen and adults who cut themselves are still actively struggling with symptoms of trauma,” continues Fearnow. “Their emotional pain is so overwhelming that they need to express it externally. The physical pain distracts from their emotional chaos and they get some relief.”

Is it any wonder then that cutting and other forms of self-inflicted pain can become an addiction?  “Those who use cutting as a coping tool often say that cutting soothes intense, unpleasant feelings by causing a numbing sensation,” says Deuter. “For this reason, some experts view cutting and other forms of self-harm as similar to addictions. In fact, some of the most effective treatments for self-harm are those used in addiction.”

While those who self-harm might be surprised to find out that it’s akin to an addiction, it may also be reassuring to know — as with addiction to alcohol or drugs, for example — that support systems exist and are available. That they’re not alone. That cutting or other types of self-harm is, no matter how inexplicable it may seem to some, a way to feel better during times of intense emotional pain. That there are safer ways to cope with pain.

As Gillian Flynn writes in Sharp Objects, pain can be consuming — and she specifically speaks of the pain women endure. “Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom,” muses Camille in the novel; she seems to be talking about physical illness, but the notion of being consumed by emotional pain surely resonates just as much. “I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed.”*

*If anything in this story was triggering, or you need support for self-harming, click here to find your local helpline for anonymous, professional advice and counselling. 

Images via pexels.com and instagram.com.

Comment: What are some ways you cope with emotional pain? 

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