Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘cutters’

Self-Harm Revisited

If that title isn’t enough of a TRIGGER WARNING for you, I don’t know what is.

Not long ago I saw on the web a video with the title “Is scratching self-harm?” Well, of course it is, I thought. The video agreed with me.

It seems like the low end of the spectrum, not as extreme as as what most people think of as self-harm, but a form of it nonetheless. Scratching, pinching, hair pulling, and the like are probably considered subclinical next to cutting and burning. But they are still problems. They can escalate into worse self-harm.

In another article ( I saw this definition for self-harm:

“Self-injury is intentional damage to body tissue (that doesn’t include body modifications like piercings, tattoos, and scarification) without suicidal intent.”

So, yes, scratching is self-harm. It is intentional. It is damage to body tissue. and it does not indicate suicidal intent.

Scratching sounds so minor. We scratch ourselves all the time when we have an itch or an insect bite. We scratch ourselves accidentally on protruding nails. Occasionally we draw blood. We wash it off, slap on a band-aid, and that’s that.

But when scratching escalates to self-harm, it can indeed be serious. For one thing, scratches have a tendency to become infected, infection of the sort can lead to further tissue damage – and if untreated, to more serious complications.

There is also the potential for further harm because the scratching will scab over. Then the desire to scratch off the scabs kicks in. When this happens, the scratches never heal. And yes, that’s both a fact and a metaphor.

My own experience with scratching came when I was working at a job that required me to monitor burglar alarms. The alarms tended to go off – whether there was a burglary or not – during thunderstorms. When a storm hit, a dozen or more alarms could go off simultaneously, or at least in rapid succession. I had to call the owners of the businesses, or emergency services as required.

One night during a particularly bad storm, I missed one of the alarms. I did not call the owners until I looked back at the record. When I called, it was 45 minutes since the alarm. I knew I had made a mistake, and a bad one. The owners of the business would not be happy. My boss would not be happy. I was not happy.

I sat alone by the monitors and imagined the trouble I was in. I started scratching my right arm – long slow strokes from nearly the wrist to nearly the elbow. Repetitively. Obsessively. Painfully. I believe I was punishing myself for making a bad mistake. Perhaps there was some thought that if I inflicted the pain, I would escape further consequences of my mistake.

Of course that makes no sense. It’s an example of the irrational thinking that goes with self-harm.

I don’t cut anymore, as I discussed in a previous post ( I also don’t scratch the way I did that night. I still have a tendency to pick scabs. Occasionally if I have an insect bite, I will scratch it to blood and then pick the scabs on that. I try not to. My husband helps me by reminding me not to pick at scabs or to put band-aids on them. I try to rub instead of scratch, or use lotion.

Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) has admitted in her most recent book, Furiously Happy, that she scratches past the point of bleeding and pulls her hair enough to create bald spots. It’s clear that she considers this self-harm. Her husband tries to help her with it too.

But self-harm is basically a private thing – something we do and hide from the world. Some people are able to hide it even from their most intimate family and loved ones. I know I wore long sleeves to cover the dreadful scratch on my right arm. It healed from a scratch to a pink scar and then to a white scar. Now I can’t even see it anymore through the freckles.

But I don’t need the visible reminder. I remember how it felt to do it, how it felt after I did it, and how I felt as I watch the scars slowly fade. its nothing I’m proud of, except for the fact that I survived it and no longer do it.

As most cutters and other people who self-harm do, I feel shame in recalling the act, and almost never speak of it. The reason I’m sharing the story in such a public forum is to let people know that not all self-harm consists of big dramatic gestures. It can start with a tiny scratch. But it is not something to be ignored. We need to talk about self-harm, educate about it, bring it out in the open, and let others know that it doesn’t have to continue.

And that it can start with something as small as a scratch.


If that title wasn’t enough of a trigger warning, well, here goes:


Recently a small discount store a couple of miles from my house was caught up in a furor because a “Princess Wand” toy they were selling (ominously named an “EvilStick”) would reveal a hidden image of a teenage girl cutting her arm with a knife. Here’s a link to a local news story about it, and the report verifying it. If you want to, you can easily search out a copy of the image, but I don’t recommend it.


The “toy” is in horrifically bad taste (so, for that matter, is the snopes article’s headline, “Wristcutters – A Toy Story”). But items that adults consider dreadful can attract kids (remember the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards?). The image of the teenage cutter looks like a macabre Halloween costume rather than anything realistic (I’ve seen it), but we don’t really know whether a mistake, an error in judgment, a misunderstanding, or a prank at the factory that went way over the line resulted in the image on the toy. I kind of hope so, because if it was intentional, that’s way worse.

But bad taste is the least of the problem. The toy and the reaction to it have introduced the subject of cutting to a wider audience, if they choose to look beyond the squick factor and think about what the image really means. Cutting is a reality that’s mostly hidden from view.

Of course, it’s not always cutting. Burning is popular too. But cutting is perhaps the most common name. There are websites devoted to it, some offering help, facts, and information on quitting (see below) – but others glorifying it as, I don’t know, a creative expression of teen angst or something.

The name does keep changing. The last I heard, the “approved” psychiatric term was “Non-Suicidal Self-Injury” (NSSI). Self-mutilation, deliberate self-harm, non-fatal self-harm, self-destructive acts, self-inflicted violence, parasuicide, and self-wounding are all names for the dangerous practice performed by desperate people. The subject still isn’t talked about much and carries a huge stigma. As if the mental and physical scars were not enough.

Some facts: Self-harm is not attempted suicide, though with some miscalculation it can lead to serious permanent injury or death. Most people associate it with teenage girls, but I’ve know at least one man in his 50s who cut himself fairly regularly. It is not a matter of attention-seeking, since most cutters hide their physical wounds.

As I understand it, the practice results from one of two phenomena: the build-up of painful pressure such as perfectionism, or a feeling of severe alienation to the point of numbness. Cutting is a coping mechanism, though a dangerous, dysfunctional, and unsuccessful one, to deal with pain.

In my case, it was probably the numbness. I was feeling a lot of psychological pain at the time (college age) and irrationally wondered if physical pain would lessen that, or increase it, or feel any different. Like I said, irrational. All this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, had a therapist, or was medicated.

I made a few small cuts on my wrist to watch the blood well up. (Ironically, they became mildly infected; I neglected to sterilize the knife.)

I wasn’t suicidal. They weren’t that kind of cuts. I do know the difference. (I didn’t realize that I could have damaged tendons or nerves in my hand or arm, perhaps permanently.) It was more like when you stand on a bridge or balcony and look over the edge. You walk away. But you know the bridge is always there.

All told, I cut myself maybe three or four times. The scars are very faint now, white against my pale inner wrist, almost invisible. The memories are vivid. A friend who’s a psychologist once asked me why I stopped. “Because I didn’t need to any more,” was the only answer I could give. I’ve only felt the urge once since, and it was easy enough to push aside. But I recognized it.

I hesitated to write and post this, though I knew I would have to sooner or later, if I meant this blog to share my experiences truthfully. One of my dearest friends once said that if he ever found out I was a cutter, I would never hear from him again. Except for his publicly mocking me for being so stupid.

Naturally, this sort of reaction, though common, is not helpful. I didn’t tell him (or practically anyone else). And I didn’t tell him that at least two other people he knew – one fairly intimately – were also cutters.

Anyway, Tom, if you’re reading this and still feel the same, I guess this is goodbye – just not the long goodbye. I would rather skip the public mocking, though. I’ll just assume you’ve done it while I wasn’t there, mm-kay?

Cutting isn’t going away if we ignore it. It won’t go away even if we do talk about it. (Or mock it, or gasp in horror.) But understanding self-injury is a big step.

If you’re a cutter, or know someone who is, here are some places you can go for information, hope, and help:

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