Mormon Therapist on Cutting Self

John Dehlin Mormon 24 Comments

I first noticed signs of depression and anxiety when I was in Jr. High School. I am now happily married with two young children. With the help of counseling and medication, I am as stable and well adjusted as the next girl. My friends would never guess I had such a rough patch in my life. The scars in my heart have healed, but unfortunately, the ones on my arms have not.

I cut myself. I now recognize the desperation I was feeling. I needed a way to cope. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t hold myself together. Cutting made it better. I was not treated for depression until I was 18. I resent my parents for not getting me help sooner. They could clearly see my wounds.

I now resent my scars. I hate them. I feel well and truly happy, but they are a reminder to me. Like the Scarlet Letter of depression. They haunt me. I don’t spend any time thinking about them until I notice someone looking at them. A doctor, my friend or my biggest worry, my children. I can handle anyone’s questions or gawking other than my children. My oldest is five and the questions are bound to come. I know patterns are often repeated and I wanted to teach my daughter healthy ways to deal with her feelings. How do I answer the questions? Should I be honest and straightforward? Elusive? Make up a really clever lie? Thank you for your help.

I am grateful that you wrote in about such an important and increasingly prevalent topic. Self-mutilation through cutting has become a far too common way for adolescents in particular to deal with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, etc. In some circles it may even be seen as a fad. It is more prevalent with adolescent girls than boys. I am sorry to hear that you suffered greatly during this time of your life. It is not uncommon for parents to be in denial or overwhelmed when they see their daughters cutting. Since they don’t know what to do or what they’re up against, many do nothing hoping the behavior is just a phase and that it will stop. I am glad to hear that you persevered, got treatment and find yourself in such a healthy place today.

You are right that these scars are visible, and that they will attract attention throughout your life. I don’t know if you have discussed with your doctor the possibility of scar reduction through prescriptive creams, ointments and/or plastic surgery. I’m assuming, however, that none of these may work completely and that there may also be price constraints.

Seeing as how your scars may always be a part of your life, I would hope that you may come to see them as a badge of honor rather than a “scarlet letter.” Instead of reminding you of the many negatives they have come to represent regarding the depression and hopelessness you once felt, I wonder how you could recalibrate your thought process to have them represent the strength, resilience and courage it took for you to get where you are today. Once you make this mental shift, you can then be very straightforward and honest about their origins and your ultimate success. I can’t think of a better way to ensure that your daughter not follow in the negative patterns you fear. When we deal with our children in an honest and straightforward fashion, we earn their respect and trust. Especially when we tell them about things we struggled with. This can make us so much more human and approachable in their eyes. If you don’t tell them the truth, your children will eventually figure it out for themselves anyway – and adolescents in particular are very touchy about finding out their parents are “liars.” They will most likely use it against you.

A very simple explanation could go as follows:

“When I was a teenager I had a lot of problems that I didn’t know how to work out. The only thing I could think of to make me feel better would be to cut myself on my arms. See.. (let them touch and feel your scars). This was not a healthy way to deal with my feelings. Part of my job as your mom is to make sure you don’t ever feel like you have to do this. Working together as a team, we can figure out lots of better ways to deal with our feelings (like talking, crying, taking a time-out, praying, writing, etc.). That’s what I eventually learned how to do.”

When you tell a child a truth, even a difficult one, they usually take it much more calmly than we as adults would expect. Children are incredibly adaptable creatures. What causes children more anxiety than difficult truth, is the underlying tension and uncertainty secrets bring. And this underlying tension that many times well-meaning adults don’t realize they are causing by withholding information can cause havoc in later years. I would encourage you to answer your children honestly from the time they first ask you. If they’re capable enough to ask the question, they are capable enough to get a legitimate answer. As they grow older, you may fill in more of the details as you see fit and appropriate. You don’t have to share every sorted detail in order to offer a truthful reply.

I would also challenge you to begin to think about how your scars may act as a teaching tool. There are many adolescent girls who are struggling today just as you once did. You could be an incredible resource to the young women in your ward and stake as well as to your community junior high and high schools. I don’t know if you’ve given much thought to being a spokesperson, but you might find this a highly rewarding way to utilize your scars. And as more people in your community get to know you and your history, you would automatically find more acceptance and less stares from those who would now look at you with respect and as a survivor. The impact you could have would be far reaching.

My wish for you is that you may find the dignity behind what your scars represent – your ability and willingness to heal! And with that dignity, may you hold your head up high and be a beacon of truth and light for your children and quite possibly the children of others. I feel strongly the prompting to tell you that you are beautiful. I may never have laid eyes on you or your scars, but I know this is how our Father and Mother see you – arms and all. May you bask in your beauty and know that your children also see you as such.

I am including references to articles that may be of use to those who want to learn more about this subject and who may have adolescent children struggling with similar issues.

Adolescents and Self-Cutting (Self-Harm): Information for Parents

AAMFT Consumer Update: Adolescent Self Harm

Self Mutilation of Adolescent Girls

Cutting Statistics and Self-Injury Treatment

MM readers:

What is your experience with cutting?  Have you ever participated in this type of behavior or known others who have?

What are your thoughts on what she should tell her children?

If someone in your ward had noticeable scars such as this woman describes, how would you respond?

Would you want someone with this history speaking in the Young Women/Young Men programs to your adolescent children?

Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist.  She blogs at mormontherapist.blogspot.com.

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Comments 24

  1. When you tell a child a truth, even a difficult one, they usually take it much more calmly than we as adults would expect. Children are incredibly adaptable creatures. What causes children more anxiety than difficult truth, is the underlying tension and uncertainty secrets bring. And this underlying tension that many times well-meaning adults don’t realize they are causing by withholding information can cause havoc in later years

    This is an excellent point about children.

    Would you want someone with this history speaking in the Young Women/Young Men programs to your adolescent children?

    most definitely yes.

    If someone in your ward had noticeable scars such as this woman describes, how would you respond

    Meaning if an adult woman had those kinds of scars? I would not respond to her any differently than if she had no scars. I would want her to feel that those scars are not a stigma or a stumbling block for events taking place in the rest of her life. What happened in the past happened and cannot be changed. As I had no relation to those events in her past that caused her to cut herself, I can’t hold her to any kind of account for them. Just like someone who may have lost a finger for whatever reason, surely that person wishes to move on and not dwell on the lost finger. For me, I had an abusive father, and my parents divorced when I was twelve (bad time, I will tell you now—parents, please don’t divorce with children as early teenagers). I used food to cope and grew overweight. I still use food as a coping method for various stresses in life, but I cannot dwell on what happened and be angry at it. I move on and fix the world and environment I’m in now.

  2. This reminds me of something that happened when taking a writing course at college. One of my classmates wrote a story about a girl in the same situation who cut herself and carved words and phrases into her skin when dealing with an abusive father. She wrote it so well that the had to write a follow-up assuring the rest of us that she wasn’t writing about her own experiences. This was because we were even beginning to convince her that it was all real for her. It didn’t help.

  3. “I cut myself”…We were taught, way back when, that cutting was usually a tell-tale sign of a victim of sexual abuse. Seems though that these days its expanded to include other problems too.

    “What is your experience with cutting?”… I remember a 15 year old boy in our Ward that had these scars. He was in and out of juvi but honestly I never got to ask him or find out exactly why he was cutting himself so much. I don’t know what happened with him and now writing this makes me wonder more, sadly, and wish we could’ve done something for him. I hope someone did.

    “What are your thoughts on what she should tell her children?”…I think the truth is the best way to go, done properly, but normally you wouldn’t talk about his with pre-teens imo.

    “If someone in your ward had noticeable scars such as this woman describes, how would you respond?”…good question. I personally probably wouldn’t say anything now.

    “Would you want someone with this history speaking in the Young Women/Young Men programs to your adolescent children?”…Yes definitely, but only if they have overcome this. In a fireside setting or during mutual would probably be best. But also if their message is that these problems can be overcome and they, as an example, have managed to do so and they list the steps to follow and so on.

  4. Excellent advice, Natasha. Using those experiences to teach others is a great idea. I’d welcome such a person to speak to youth in my ward.

    I have a niece who cut, along with a number of other destructive coping mechanisms. What a tough road she has been on; fortunately she is in recovery and reaching out to others. Sadly, her efforts to reach out are not always welcomed, but she is learning to cope with that rejection, too.

  5. Well, I’ll chime in here as one with first-hand experience on the issue.

    My mother has dozens of cuts on her arms and legs. I believe most of them came from around the time I was a teenager. I never actually saw her cut, but I was part of the hospital visits, the massive bandages, and of course her scars are now highly visible any time she wears shorts, or a short-sleeved shirt.

    Here are my thoughts as a child whose mother did this.
    Natasha’s thoughts are right on. Honesty is not only the best policy but it will have an important side-effect. In the Mormon community it is only within the last 10 years that many of the stereotypical myths of mental illness have subsided. It used to be that the prevailing opinion was if you struggled with mental illness you needed to be more righteous and God would take it from you. If you still struggled it meant you weren’t living righteously enough (I won’t go into the destructive nature of such advice for someone struggling with depression).

    I believed this sentiment all through my teenage years as my mom was attempting suicide, cutting herself, etc. etc. I honestly believed it was all just a game and she could cut it out if she wanted to (yes, I was an idiot!!!). It wasn’t until after my mission that I started to understand how my mother actually felt. 10 years after my mission, my mom and I are very close and she has shared with me some of the more intimate details of her struggles during that time period.

    I bring this up because I think you have the power to NOT let your kids believe as I did. You have the power to be a force for good. To let others know that depression is real and affects MANY men and women. You have the power to continue to dispel the stereotypes and encourage people to get the help they need. If you are honest with your children, they will grow up UNDERSTANDING depression for what it is, and being able to sympathize with it, unlike me in my teenage years. My inability to see depression in an empathetic light nearly destroyed my relationship with my mother during my teenage years and it took me nearly 8 years post-adolescence to repair that relationship.

    Recently, my daughter noticed the scars on Grandma’s arms and legs and asked about it. My mom’s in a place where she can be honest about it now (at an appropriate level for explaining it to a 5 year old), and I’m grateful that she was honest about it. It will have a profound effect on my daughter as she continues to mature.

    To the questioner: if you are interested in my mother’s perspective on the issue, and what she has done, respond in this thread and I’ll email you and you can chat with her.

  6. Natasha, I really, really liked what you said. I don’t think she needs to consider the scars a badge of honor, but rather more of a “Purple Heart”, awarded to soldiers wounded in battle. A Purple Heart is kind of a badge of honor, but for most recipients, it’s mostly a tangible acknowledgment of what happened.

    I have a close teenage relative who is struggling with this issue right now. Her marks are obvious whenever she wears a swimsuit and she hates them, but when she goes through a depressive phase, she still feels tempted again because it her something to focus on and helps her cope. She hates that a few friends have noticed, and that itself tends to send her depressive again.

    One comment on #3, that cutting used to be a sure sign of sexual abuse: don’t ever assume that. I hope people don’t assume that these days — if you bear those scars, it would be horrible to have people think that about you, even if it were true. Depression can be triggered by all sorts of things or nothing really at all. I’m pretty sure my relative has never been sexually abused, but her depression is real nonetheless. She says part of the problem is that she has no excuse to feel the way she feels — she simply does. She thinks if she actually had a reason to point to (other than body chemistry), it might actually be easier to partition it off.

  7. Natasha, I loved your response.

    I worked at a treatment center for teens as a math teacher a few years ago. The kids were there for all types of mental issues: depression, alcoholism, suicide, drugs, bulimia, anorexia, etc. I remember one particular person had cut the word “DIE” into their own wrist. There were several patients that had a problem with cutting. I just don’t understand why a person would cut themselves. It makes no sense to me. Can anyone explain the rationale?

  8. MH – I can only speak of my few experiences with clients and some stuff in classes, but I think the cutting provides an emotional release or an escape from emotional pain. Many of these people are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which I think is an unfortunate term – emotion-regulation disorder is more accurate IMHO, and less stigmatizing… anyway, cutting seems to provide a way to regulate emotions, and perhaps some amount of control.

  9. MH- Adam is spot on. Basically cutting speaks to poor coping skills for dealing with stress, anxiety, trauma or any other emotionally overwhelming feeling. People who cut often describe it as “a release,” “an escape from their emotional pain,” a way to feel “in control,” etc. I linked to several articles in the OP that explain these issues much more in depth.

    Martin- I agree that it is important not to assume that a person who cuts has been sexually abused. Although cutting is one of the “red flags” on a list of possible behaviors related to the possibility of sexual abuse, there are many other types of trauma that can elicit this type of behavior (i.e. emotional abuse, biological depression, physical abuse, a traumatic event, eating disorders, etc., etc., etc.).

    Jmb: thanks for sharing such a personal experience.

    And to the rest who shared as well.

  10. Great response Natasha and a problem that is quite prevalent these days and not often spoken of.

    I know a few people who have cut themselves during bouts of depression. One who battled post-natal depression, another who had major physical health issues that led to depression. Another who had gone through major depression as a teenager dealing with sexuality issues. Each of them have said that they wanted to see a physical representation on the outside of the pain they felt inside. That it eased the pressure of that emotional pain by giving them a way to vent it.

    I have wondered at times if it may also be to some degree an expression of self-loathing? To inflict damage on themselves?

    Most all of these friends have now overcome this but the fear of regression is still there for them and the embarassment of having to explain to people the scars they bear. I like the advice you’ve given to look at it as a sign of winning this battle of self. I’ll pass it on.

  11. Basically cutting speaks to poor coping skills for dealing with stress, anxiety, trauma or any other emotionally overwhelming feeling. — or intolerable stress with no other way out. Any time I see it I just think that is someone who needs love and care.

  12. I’ll add one thing to Natasha’s and AdamF’s responses to MH on why cutting. My mom told me that for her seeing the blood flow was therapeutic. Perhaps that is difficult for some of us to understand, but if you’re in a place where nothing matters to you anymore you get a sense of numbness. At that point, the pain associated with cutting oneself pales in comparison to the mental anguish one is feeling. Seeing blood flow is, in some sense, like a release of some of the mental anguish. I think it’s complicated to understand for those of us who have never been in that place.

    Additionally, depending on where one cuts, it may be an attempted suicide. Cutting your upper arm near your major arteries is very dangerous.

  13. Usually cutting is not a suicide attempt. Cutting can become dangerous, as the last commenter mentioned, but the intent of cutting is not to die – in fact, it’s the opposite: people ate trying to survive by coping. A suicide attempt where one is purposefully slitting one’s wrists, for example, is considered a different thing than “cutting”.

    I have also heard that blood flow can have a soothing effect. It can bring about thoughts of “I can still feel” or “I’m very much alive”.

    Many coping mechanisms that we all participate in don’t make “logical” sense. Yet, if we dig deeper and explore the context of an individual’s coping mechanisms, they usually can make perfect sense. Because coping mechanisms help as survive. And at our most basic instincts, we are all trying to survive.

  14. From my limited experience, the cutter’s thought process is often very much what Natasha says in #14. The depression, stress, etc. is so overwhelming that the cutter doesn’t feel like they can feel anything any more. Feeling the pain of the cuts and seeing the blood tells them that they still can feel SOMETHING, and that they are still alive.

    I can’t imagine getting to that point, but it is more common than I would have expected.

  15. One of the dilemmas with this, as well as many mental health issues, is wanting to understand or make what appears to be irrational behavior fit into our “boxes” so we can then see them as reasonable or rational. Well, guess what? Life just doesn’t always work that way.

    I have cut for years. I feel no pain when I cut. The emotional and mental pain has become so unbearable that all physical sensation seems to stop. I very deliberately gather cutter, bandages, butterflies, towels, and washcloths, lock myself in my bathroom and I determine where to cut. This step alone starts to change the pain as I have stepped into some sort of thinking mode.

    After I cut, it is a sort of out-of-body experience. I watch the blood, decide how deep the wound is and whether I can patch it up with butterflies and bandages or do I need stitches. I have driven myself to Instacares, checked in, and then watched the doctors try to make sense of it as they asked me questions.

    Is this the best way to cope? I guess I get to decide on that one. Is there ever really one “best” way to cope? If we are honest, I think all of us would admit to doing certain things that help us get through each and every day. These little things are called coping mechanisms. We all have them.

    When the scars started showing, I would extend my arm to a clerk with payment, see the scars, quickly pull it back and extend the other arm. As the cutting went on and both arms were involved, I wore long sleeves. I was finally able to reach acceptance of the cutting and scars as part of my life. I am neither proud nor embarrassed by them. They are what they are. Sometimes, not often, I am asked about them. Always, I remember it is my option to reply or not.

  16. The other thing to consider with cutting is that for some, it is a preparatory act. Meaning, how much physical pain can I tolerate before I do something which will indeed be fatal? Also, for some, it does take on an aspect of an addictive behavior (in seeking out euphoria which comes from the brain making chemicals to deal with the pain, for example).
    Would I want someone with this history speaking to my children? That really depends on if the person is in recovery, so to speak. I wouldn’t want an actively drinking person speaking to my children. I would want a mental health professional there to clarify anything that might be true for the individual speaking but may not necessarily be true for all.

  17. 19 – Not sure what you mean by an actively drinking person. I suppose an alcoholic who is not in recovery? My experience is that recovery is a day-to-day thing, and one can only speak for today. If the addict or the alcoholic or cutter can speak about help sought and found, there’s value in hearing him or her speak.

    17 – Soroto, thanks for sharing your story.

  18. I have self harmed on and off for 14 years and was baptised two years ago. My first calling was in young womens when i heard some of the young women teasing a young man that he was “emo” because he had a cut. at the time i had no new scars but have and will never show my arms at church or in the temple because of thoughtless stereotypes like this. My scars make me feel unworthy to go to the temple even all these years later. I have been very lucky with the people i have confided in in the church , the support they give is huge . I have found many of the youth in the church to be overly sheltered and that seems to have lead to blackand white thinking and judgemental individuals. There is a very fne line between innocence and ignorance and i believe the youth of thechurch would do well to learn a little of real life before they go on a mission . It must be such a shock then.

  19. Just finding this now. I started cutting ten years ago and have largely been able to stop, but initially cutting over 20 times a day was the only way I could function (on the surface) so I, too, have A LOT of scars (arms, shoulders, stomach, legs, chest, etc.) which I cover up in public. I don’t have kids yet but I’m working towards being ready and addressing the inevitable questions have always been an anxious point at the back of my mind. The example response you give here is wonderful and has been the first thing I’ve read/heard to put those fears at rest. Thank you Natasha!

  20. Hi there my boyfriend cuts himself. I told him to please stop because it ruined me emotionally. I felt that it was my fault and I asked him if it was and he said it wasn’t but there were other times he would answer differently such as that he was stressed or bored. I knew he was lying when he said he did it because he was bored. I have trouble expressing myself with him because am scared he will turn to the blade. Am scared one day he will go to the extreme. He stopped his habit, but yesterday I noticed he had cuts. He was doing so good the scars from old cuts were closed and healed. However, he is now back to cutting. I couldn’t stop crying because I was so sad that he was hurting himself. He told me today he would stop and I told him if he wouldn’t I was going to tell his parents or his bishop. Please help anyone!

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