Disclaimer: While this post may give the impression that there’s really nothing people can do to help self-harmers, that is definitely not the case, nor what I mean to say. Here is my post listing all of the things you can personally do to help.
“Dear Susan, 1/23/13
If we’re going to be friends you have to swear to me that you will never deliberately physically hurt yourself. I care so much about your well-being and if you’re going to hurt yourself I just can’t deal with that. I don’t know why people cut—I hear it relieves pressure, but there’s got to be a better way of doing it than doing something that causes pain. Your body is a temple of God and I can’t watch as you tear it apart. Any time you want to, just call, and vent to me. I’ll be praying for you, and try to answer your calls no matter what. I really care about you and I cannot deal with you hurting yourself.
I’m not going to lie…I’m disappointed. I know you made a promise a while ago not to hurt yourself, but I want you to renew that promise with me.
You should know that you have a vast community of people who care deeply about you and couldn’t stand to know that you’re hurt and would give anything to stop you from injuring yourself.”
This was the text my best friend, Jake, sent me the night I self-harmed the second time. I had done it exactly the way I’d done it the first time—with a needle an inch above the previous scars. I hadn’t been lectured this time. I was dealing with a stressful situation and seeing the scars in the bathroom had triggered my relapse.
I can get away with this, I told myself. I don’t care if I promised my friends I’d never do it again. This can be my secret coping mechanism I can rely on. No one has to know.
In that moment, I remember the feeling of not being in my most right of minds. A little crazed, I’d again rolled up my pants and done the deed, immediately realizing my folly afterwards. The guilt was not far behind at all.
Feeling lousier than I had before, I remember realizing Shit, now I have to tell everyone what I did.
You might say I’m good at keeping secrets, because I am, at least, from my family. But from the people who show love to me, it is much more difficult to contain myself. People who make me feel safe give me the impulse to spill my heart out before them because I know that they—unlike my family—will gently brush through its contents and tell me I am beautiful and loved.
So I texted Jake, my very best friend, and asked for help. His response pissed me off a bit, because he’d threatened to leave me all alone if I continued to self-harm, and he guilt-tripped me into not doing it again, but it still got the message across that he cared deeply for me. Despite his ignorance, his initial response was still tender and honest, and for that, I owe him greatly.
After all, I have never self-harmed since.
In this post, I want to give a few suggestions on how NOT to treat people who are self-harming should you find yourself involved in a situation with someone who is. The chances that you may, by the way, are very likely.
1) Don’t assume you know why someone self-harms.
People of all ages have been known to self-harm, and it’s easily something that can be self-learned. My mom has repeatedly insisted—even to this day—that the reason why I cut was because of my involvement with friends who were also self-harming. It is her opinion that, apparently, if you spend enough time with anyone, you adopt their personality, attitudes, and convictions, regardless of what role you play in their life. …Perhaps some people have begun physically hurting themselves because somebody told them it was cool, but that’s just not the case with me.
It’s hard to assume accurately why someone self-harms, just like it’s hard to guess correctly who someone is just from speculation. People want to be understood, but it’s hard to get an accurate picture without, you know, asking them personally.
2) Don’t make someone promise never to self-harm again.
Jake did this, and I did promise him I’d never again do it, and I have kept that promise despite the hundreds of times since then that I have been tempted to relapse. This was partly due to it being paired with his threat to cut off communication with me if I hurt myself again, but its effect was still the same: the consequence of the shame of a broken promise.
I understand why a promise could be seen as a good idea. It’s a form of accountability between two people. However, this accountability is not yours to keep. We’re talking about guilt-tripping people into avoiding using their coping-mechanism for dealing with deep hurts. While self-harming can be life-threatening, it’s not a leading cause of death, and isn’t considered suicidal behavior, therefore, I’m sorry, but it’s not your job to save the day. (If you know for a fact that a person is suicidal and is dangerously harming themselves, that’s a situation that should be acted upon by helping that person get professional treatment. Note: you are most-likely NOT that professional.)
When a person promises not to self-harm, they are often promising not to deal with their emotional troubles in the most effective way they know how. Suddenly, they must once again find a way to cope with their pain. And if this person is already struggling to function, you’re causing them a greater dilemma by giving them one more thing on top of everything else to process and deal with.
Consider this: if you really want to help people, help them with their life, not their reaction to it. Help them find peace; don’t keep them from forgetting they don’t have it.
Besides, promises only work on a small variety of people, and for a host of different reasons, most of which are related to fearing the guilt and shame resulting in breaking that promise. That is a big reason why I haven’t done it since, and I’m still dealing with an overwhelming fear of guilt and shame for sundry different reasons. If you want to help someone who is self-harming, don’t ask them to make promises that are just as unhealthy.
3) Don’t guilt-trip someone into not self-harming again.
Specifically, don’t tell people that they’re hurting other people by hurting themselves. Don’t make what they’re doing about you and other people instead. Don’t make them feel guilty for trying their best to handle pain.
I have found that the people who tell me I’m hurting other people by hurting myself only began to care about it at all when I started hurting myself. They tell me there are plenty of people who care about me and would be heartbroken to know that I was in such a bad place, and yet the very same people never gave a damn until my skin had red lines across it. My mom would give me lectures about how wrong it was to be uncontrollably emotional all the way up until she realized I wasn’t passive about it.
Here’s the thing—we know you really don’t care about us when you make it about other people. Certainly we know hurting ourselves pains the people who really care about us. Having to hurt ourselves to somehow not hurt as much pains us too.
Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—people just want to be heroes. They want desperately to help, to make a difference, and trying to remedy the tangible pain is an easy way to feel important. I know, because I used to do this myself. But if you really want to help people, guilt-tripping them out of self-harming is not the way to go.
4) Don’t make a self-harmer feel like they need to apologize to you.
It bothers me that I even have to point this out. I ended up apologizing to Jake after he sent that long text, telling him I wouldn’t do it again, and begging him not to leave me. That is a really unhealthy relationship to have with anyone.
Each time I self-harmed, I realized the strength of my conscience when I felt the urge to contact those I had broken my promise to and personally apologize to each of them for hurting myself. I wound up renewing that promise with everyone, and feeling staggered under the weight of that accountability; accountability to people—13-18 year olds—who meant well but quite frankly had no idea how else to help me. Apologizing for dealing with pain doesn’t help.
5) Don’t make a self-harmer feel ashamed of their scars.
My dear friend, Emaline, struggled with self-harm for a long period of time. She tried imperfectly to stop, but before she eventually did, her parents discovered her scars. Not long after this, someone saw Emaline’s scarred wrist and tipped her parents off.
This had the worst effect possible, because her parents were immediately afraid that someone would contact Child Protection Services, claim abuse, and take her and her brothers away. This was not only completely blowing the situation out of proportion (besides the fact that that’s not an accurate picture of how CPS acts), but it’s making the situation about THEM and not Emaline’s hurts. The way her parents reacted to the whole situation made her feel uncared-for and guilty for becoming a threat to her family’s well-being and happiness.
Her parents’ solution was to buy Emaline thick bangles to wear on her wrists. They purchased makeup specifically to cover up her scars. They told her she must not tell anybody, teaching her that her pain is dangerous and that she can successfully avoid problems by hiding them and pretending they don’t exist.
Pain, however, demands to be felt. It tells us something is wrong and must be resolved. Hiding this pain fixes nothing, and making easily broken promises—which trigger guilt—only exacerbate the problems.
The soldier who is internally injured doesn’t appreciate the people who try to talk him out of taking morphine. Maybe they’re preventing him from developing a morphine addiction, but they’re also withholding temporary relief from him, which, I might add, is not the way doctors treat injured patients. If this is the way you’re “helping” self-harmers, you’re doing it wrong. Consider this: doctors fix the problem so the patient no longer needs the morphine to begin with.
In the same way, here is what you must understand: if you want to help someone who self-harms, you shouldn’t stop them from doing it.
To be continued.