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(*Please note I am NOT a Doctor / Qualified Medical Professional. This is NOT intended as medical advice. It is information & awareness raising based on my own, personal experience. Also, I acknowledge that everyone’s experiences of self harm are different. Thank You.)

WARNING: Some Self Harmers can find reading on the subject ‘triggering’. There are no images of self harm in this post but please do not read if you think you may be triggered to self harm. This article does contain written descriptions and examples of self harm which some people might find distressing.

Aftermath. Art by Ona Haynes

Recently I saw a disturbing trend on the internet dubbed “Cut for Bieber” whereby young girls (& I expect guys too) are encouraging each other to self harm by cutting themselves. I was not shocked, but I was horrified and concerned for numerous reasons and on numerous levels, so having written on this subject before and being a recovering self harmer myself, I decided it was the right time for me to post on this topic.

Not many issues are still taboo these days but “Self Harm” is an issue that, for the main part remains hidden. For those who do self harm it can feel like a dark & dirty secret – feelings which exacerbate the situation. For those who have no experience or education in it, it can seem frightening and extremely difficult to even comprehend. There are many questions surrounding the subject of self harm and I’ll try to address as many of them as I can but at the heart of this sinister enigma is the question WHY?

Art by ona Haynes

“Why do they do it?!”…

There isn’t necessarily ONE main reason why people self harm – although mental and emotional pain is invariably at the root of it, but in my personal experience, (both as a recovering self harmer and having trained and worked in Mental Health & Social Care), people self harm for any one, or combination of the following reasons…

  • Making it Real Mental & emotional pain is as real & painful as physical pain but it’s invisible. Often the emotional pain a person is in is so excruciating it’s difficult to beleive there are no visible signs. The self harmer might inflict a wound as a way of manifesting their agony and making it real and visible – both to themselves and  other people. A person might writhe in internal agony but be perceived as having no problem at all by outsiders. Their wound illustrates that they are in deep and real pain.
  • Making it FEEL BETTER Usually the internal pain felt by the self harmer is so severe that the harm they inflict on themselves (whether cutting, burning or whatever) actually feels better. A lot better! It might go some way to explaining how much pain a person is in internally when you realise that the cut of a blade actually feels comforting by comparison. It’s a bit like rubbing a bump on your knee. You banged your knee so you give it a vigorous rub to try to ease the pain. The bump is the emotional pain. The rub is the self harm.
  • Releasing Pressure We can all feel stressed and pressured. Sometimes to the extent where it’s really difficult to cope with. For some people though, and for a variety of reasons, their internal stress, pressure or even racing thoughts and feelings can build to such a point that it literally feels physically unbearable. This is when people self harm as a pressure release. Its like bursting a damn or popping a balloon.
  • A Natural Anti-Depressant When the body experiences pain, the brain releases its own natural painkillers eg; endorphins. You might have heard that endorphins create a natural high, like when people exercise. Perhaps this is one of the reasons people get addicted to exercise. So, when we realise that pain causes the body to release natural antidepressants – hurting oneself to deal with depression presents an element of logic rather than seeming entirely illogical. (However, this is NOT a recommendation to self harm!) A similar effect can be created by eating extremely hot spicy food such as chilli or curry. Perhaps a Vindaloo might be the thing to try during a depressive bout?!
  • Ownership of Control. Many (but certainly not all) people who self harm are being / or have been abused. This can lead to a feeling of being owned and controlled by someone else. Their free will has been stolen by an abuser. Hurting themselves can be a way of re-gaining an element of control. The fact that the control they have is inflicting pain on themselves might not be as illogical as you may first think because the abuse victim might attempt to inflict ‘worse’ or more ‘severe’ pain upon themselves than that inflicted by the abuser. Or at least take charge of the pain being inflicted on them. To try to explain this seemingly contradictory point I heard an example of a young girl who was being sexually abused. Her abuser was forcing the young girl to perform inappropriate acts by inflicting pain upon her until she relented and did as her abuser bid her to do. One day, when her abuser came into her room she stood before him and without flinching, she bent her own little finger back so far as to break it. She took the next finger and began again saying “You can’t hurt me any more.” This is a horrible, distressing example but it illustrates the use of Self Harm by the self harmer as a form of control over or defense from the situation. Other abuse victims (whether the abuse be physical, sexual, mental or whatever) might utilise self harm in a similar way. Not necessarily in such a demonstrative way but perhaps cutting themselves behind closed doors and hiding the wounds.
  • Self Punishment Sometimes people have issues around guilt, where their guilt has become disproportionate or misplaced and their self harm is a way of inflicting punishment upon themselves. This guilt might be induced by religious or cultural attitudes to issues affecting the self harmer – such as if a person discovers their sexuality is looked upon as wicked by their culture or religion. (This is just one of many, many various examples). These people may inflict physical punishments upon themselves. A more subtle example along similar lines might be a young person who has been continually brow beaten & mentally abused by their parents which results in them having a deep sense of worthlessness. They punish themselves with physical pain in a confused mixture of acknowledging their worthlessness and as a barrier against the pain inflicted upon them by the abusers. The pain caused to them by the abusers becomes lesser by default. The abuser looses the pain inflicting game.
  • Numbness Some of the examples mentioned have described how people use self harm as a way of coping with feelings that are unbearably intense. This can also work the other way round. At times when people have mental illness, substance misuse problems (and perhaps for other reasons), they actually lose feeling. They describe feeling physically and emotionally numb. A blank, unconnected sense that nothing is real or tangible. In these cases they self harm as a way to break the ice of numbness and feel something again.

Emerge. Original Art by Ona Haynes

This list is not exhaustive. There are several reasons listed above as to why people self harm. A person might self harm for one or a number of the reasons I’ve outlined but of course, there are other reasons I haven’t listed here. A more in depth examination of this subject would take us back through history and into the realms of religion, social & cultural issues… Also, a person who does self harm may not actually be consciously aware of, or able to explain why they do it themselves. Hopefully these points have helped you some way towards understanding why people might self harm but there are a few other important points around this issue that are worth mentioning…

  1. Self Harm v Suicide: Self Harm is not the same as a Suicide attempt. Lots of people self harm, never having any intention of killing themselves. Having read through the list of ‘Whys’ above, you’ll have seen that none of them relate to someone trying to kill themselves. If someone cuts their arms or wrists – which is a particularly common form of self harm, especially among young girls and women, it does not necessarily indicate they were attempting suicide.
  2. Strange & Unusual: It’s not that strange & unusual. A study in Oxford found 700 in 100,000 females reported self harming. In A survey of 13 to 15 year olds 5% of the boys and 8% of the girls said they had self harmed, but within the same survey, far less parents reported that their children had self harmed. It’s worth baring in mind that not all people surveyed will admit self harming even if they do. Often it is estimated that the true figures are somewhat higher than what the surveys reveal and males and females tend to be different in what type of information they disclose.
  3. Fame & Fortune: People who self harm are NOT necessarily from financially or educationally deprived backgrounds. All sorts of people self harm including well educated, high achieving, career driven people. So, just to emphasise this point and leave a heavy topic on a lighter note, here are a few famous people who have been reported as being ‘Self Harmers’…

Jonny Depp (Actor) Van Gough (Artist)  Angelina Jolie (Actress) Diana Princessof Wales. Vivian Leigh (Actress)  Russell Brand (Comedian, Writer, Actor) Kellie Holmes (Athlete) and there are many others…(You can find out much more about famous people who self harm at self-injury.net/media/famous-self-injurers)

The Butterfly Project

“What’s that butterfly on your arm?”…The Butterfly Project.
If you’re interested in spreading awareness of self harm and preventing it, please look up The Butterfly Project on You Tube. The Butterfly Project suggests drawing a Butterfly on your wrist – or any place you might feel like cutting or harming yourself. If you can get someone else to draw the butterfly onto you – even better. Give the butterfly a name. You could name it after someone you love or who loves you, or you could just use a name you like or even the name of a famous person you admire. (*obviously don’t use anything that might be toxic or irritate your skin!) Then you must keep the butterfly safe on your skin until it fades naturally. Do not cut or harm yourself or the butterfly. When you look at the butterfly, think of the person you named it after. The person you love or who loves you. I know this is MUCH easier said than done and to a person who is struggling with self harm it might seem like it’s over simplifying the situation, but it is not intended to minimize or trivialize the issue of self harm or how strong the urge to self harm can be. However, it is a beautiful, simple idea from a place of love. It might help a self harmer if they wear their butterfly and it might help spread awareness of this problem if you are seen wearing your beautiful butterfly and someone asks, “What’s that butterfly on your arm?”…

There is plenty more to say on the subject so I hope to re-address this topic again in future. Once again, this is not intended as medical advice. It is a glimpse into the world of self harm through the eyes of some one who has self harmed many times. Thankfully, I have not self harmed for a long time now. Many of the thoughts, ideas, imaginings & emotions that race around my mind and burst at my spiritual seams manifest themselves in my Art. A more positive means of release. If you would like something more uplifting to look at having read this, please do take a look by visiting   www.etsy.com/shop/onahaynes   There are lots of butterflies! Love & Light to You. Ona x