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.
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.