Childhood Trauma, Negative Core Beliefs, Perfectionism And Self-Injury
Jan Sutton is an experienced counsellor, trainer, and author of several books covering self-harm, counselling skills, and stress management. Compassionate about the subject of self-injury, she has devoted many years to studying the phenomenon. She also maintains two high-ranking, not-for-profit websites, designed to support self-injurers and their supporters, and to raise awareness of self-injury and related issues.
‘I was emotionally and physically abused as a child and self-harm seems to be one of my coping skills along with my drug and alcohol abuse.’
Supported by respondents’ material this chapter provides significant insight into the role of childhood trauma, negative core beliefs and unhealthy perfectionist traits in self-injury. Further, the acrimonious ‘false memory debate’ is put under the spotlight. We observe first-hand the role of recovered abuse memories in the process of self-injury, and witness the anguish and consequences caused by recovered memories.
Traumatic events are usually considered to be deeply distressing or psychologically painful experiences that result in harmful long-term effects. Examples include major disasters which result in loss of life or injury, the sudden death or loss of a loved one, rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, domestic violence, abandonment, and bullying.
People react to traumatic events in different ways, depending on a number of factors, such as their psychological make-up, past experiences and access to support. Any event that leaves an individual feeling powerless, vulnerable, unsafe, and unable to cope may be perceived as traumatic. Children exposed to traumatic events such as child abuse are particularly at risk of developing long-term psychological, physical, behavioural, and social problems, or interpersonal problems such as marital or relationship problems.
Child abuse and self-injury
Numerous studies have found a positive correlation between child abuse and self-injury (see for example: Favazza & Conterio, 1989; van der Kolk, Perry, & Herman, 1991; Arnold, 1995; Hawton, et al; 2002). Eighty-four (84%) percent of the respondents who completed the survey for Healing the Hurt Within, 1st edition (Sutton, 1999) reported childhood trauma/other childhood circumstances as contributory factors to their self-harm. Several reported multiple forms of child abuse (emotional, sexual, physical, neglect and rape).
Figure 6.1 gives a definition of rape provided by the Crown Prosecution Service. Definitions of abuse are provided later in the chapter.
Defining emotional abuse
Emotional abuse is subtle – it comes in various guises and because there are no visible wounds or scars it is difficult to detect. Emotional abuse damages children’s self-concept, and leaves them believing that they are unworthy of love and affection. Emotional abuse is invariably present in all types of abuse, and the long-term harm from emotional abuse can be equally, if not more damaging, than other forms of abuse.
Emotional abuse goes beyond the realms of the spoken
Other terms used to describe emotional abuse include verbal abuse, and mental or psychological abuse. Figure 6.2 provides examples of emotional abuse.
A torn jacket is soon mended;
but hard words bruise the heart of a child.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Whoever invented the maxim, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ was mistaken. Constant verbal insults and harsh criticism cut deep, name calling wounds, teasing or spiteful comments hurt. Verbal abuse can stick like glue, leaving deep and long-lasting invisible mental scars that can impact on a child’s emotional or social development. Children that live with criticism internalise those beliefs about themselves and often become self-critical. Valerie Sinason (2002) in her excellent book Attachment, Trauma and Multiplicity succinctly sums up the damaging consequences of verbal abuse:
What happens when a child has to breathe in mocking words each day? What happens when a parent, an attachment figure utters those words: someone the child needs in order to emotionally survive? Sometimes, that mocking voice gets taken inside and finds a home. It then stays hurting and corroding on the inside when the original source of that cruelty might long ago have disappeared or died. (p. 4)
Clarifying the difference between emotional abuse and neglect
Neglect is another insidious form of abuse. In essence, neglect means a child’s basic needs are not met, for example: love, care, nurture, comfort, warmth, a safe environment, food, somebody being there for the child. Figure 6.3 gives a definition of neglect provided by NSPCC.
Child without adults
Defining physical abuse
Physical abuse is characterised by inflicting non-accidental injuries, physical punishment, or violence on a child that results in harm or even death. Figure 6.4 gives examples of physical abuse and the range of severity.
Defining sexual abuse
Sexual abuse ‘can be defined as the involvement of a young person who has not reached intellectual and emotional maturity, in any kind of sexual activity imposed upon them by any person who is more powerful by reason of their age or their position of authority, that violate the social taboos of family roles, or that break the law.’ (Breaking Free: Source, Sutton 1999:61) Figure 6.5 gives a further definition provided by ChildLine.
Child sexual abuse and self-injury
Child abuse provides fertile ground for the development of a range of adverse effects that can impede healthy adult functioning (see Figure 6.6 Child abuse: Potential adverse long-term effects). Self-injury is one, among a plethora of strategies that some (but not all) survivors use to cope.
The aftermath of child sexual abuse
The following two pictures, The legacy of child abuse by Sian (Figure 6.7), and Child/Woman by Sheelah. (Figure 6.8) demonstrate clearly the aftermath of child abuse.
The woman is black and white with a small hand, symbolising how she feels she must appear/was made to appear. Clear-cut. However, the little hand expresses her hidden vulnerability. The child is in colour (see cover picture for coloured version) with a searching, knowing, eye. The large hand is severely adult with painted nails, showing how the hand was used for adult purposes. Her skin is drawn and aged, the burden of feeling old before her time. The bow in the pigtail . . . poignant in that it is the only childlike thing apparent.
Telling but not being believed
Several incest survivors who self-injure as a consequence of their experiences reported disclosing the abuse to a parent or another family member. In one case, a respondent reported that her disclosure to her mother that her father was abusing her had been met with denial and an accusation of ‘False Memory Syndrome [FMS]’. FMS is discussed later in the chapter. The same respondent pointed out that ‘Somehow my mother’s denial had the power to devastate me in a way that recovering of memories hadn’t.’ Another respondent wrote: ‘I believe that the underlying reasons for my self-harm are because I was sexually abused by my father and brother – and because my family don’t know whether to believe me.’
The psychological wounds that result from telling about abuse and not being believed cannot be underestimated, especially if the person confided in is a parent or other close relative. Being disbelieved by one’s mother, who is typically the child’s primary attachment figure, nurturer, and safety anchor, is tantamount to additional trauma – it not only adds fuel to the sense of betrayal the child already feels, it can leave the child feeling ashamed, guilty, helpless, fearful, isolated, and struggling to cope alone without a safety net.
Why don’t mothers believe?
There are numerous reasons why mothers choose not to believe. The reasons are mainly rooted in fear – here are a few examples:
- Fear of shame being brought on the family.
- Fear of the family being torn apart.
- Fear of partner going to jail.
- Fear of the financial implications.
Keeping silent about abuse
The following picture by Erin (Figure 6.9) illustrates why she kept silent about the abuse, and how she struggles with issues of trust in the wake of her experience.
Why don’t children tell?
There are numerous reasons why children don’t speak up about child abuse – these include:
- Assuming responsibility for the abuse (‘it must have been my fault’; ‘I must be a bad girl/boy’; ‘there must be something wrong with me’) – blaming oneself is a common thread among abuse survivors.
- Not being aware that abuse is wrong (‘this must be what all Dads/Mums do’).
- Liked the special status and attention (‘Daddy only does it because he loves me’).
- Fear of not being believed or the consequences of telling (getting into trouble or getting the perpetrator into trouble).
- Intimidation by the perpetrator (‘something bad will happen to you if you tell’; ‘you must never tell anyone – it’s our special secret’), or enticements to maintain the secret.
- Shame, embarrassment and guilt (e.g. if sexually stimulated or aroused by the abuse).
- Lacking in verbal skills to explain the abuse in words (e.g. if the abuse happened during the child’s preverbal years).
The relief of telling
The next picture ‘Lifting the secrecy cloud’ by Sheelah (Figure 6.10) exemplifies the relief and sense of empowerment that comes from breaking the secrecy about abuse to a professional or others who are willing to hear.
The controversial debate over recovered abuse memories
The notion that memories of child abuse can be forgotten, and then years later be remembered, sparked a bitter debate among some professionals in the early 1990s. According to Alan W. Scheflin (1999) ‘The recovered memory debate has been the most acrimonious, vicious and hurtful internal controversy in the history of modern psychiatry.’ Supporters of False Memory Syndrome (FMS), mainly drawn from the ranks of accused parents, question the validity of recovered memories of childhood abuse, arguing that naïve and overzealous therapists are responsible for encouraging or implanting false memories of child abuse in their clients’ minds via the use of suggestive techniques. They particularly take issue with hypnosis, yet also question many other therapeutic practices such as:
- Guided imagery
- Creative visualisation
- Suggestive questioning
- Free association
- Dream interpretation
- Deep relaxation
- Recommending survivors’ literature
- Survivor support groups
- Looking at childhood photographs
- Bibliography work.
Defining False Memory Syndrome
Those in the opposing camp, mainly researchers who believe in repression and dissociation, and practitioners working in the field of child abuse, argue that it is possible to ‘forget’ then later remember abuse. Moreover, as Jennifer Freyd, a researcher into memory, and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in her milestone book, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (1996) hypothesises:
There are several good reasons why real memories of abuse may arise in the context of therapy. Therapy may provide the first opportunity for a person to feel safe enough to remember the abuse; the therapist may be the first person to ask the client about abuse; and the client may have sought therapy because of memories just beginning to emerge, which are causing emotional crisis without explicit understanding of the source of the crisis. (p. 55)
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF, 1998–2007)
Pamela Freyd, Jennifer Freyd’s mother, supported by a scientific advisory board of distinguished professionals, established the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in Philadelphia in 1992 (Hacking, 1995:122–123), following an accusation by Jennifer, that her father Peter Freyd had molested her as a child (an accusation vehemently denied by Peter and Pamela). Hacking, a University Professor of Philosophy, and author of Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, writing in provocative manner sums up the aims of the FMSF:
The foundation is a banding together of parents whose adult children, during therapy, recall hideous scenes of familial child abuse. Its mission is to tell the world that patients in psychotherapy can be brought to seem to remember horrible events of childhood that never happened. Distressed thirty-somethings (and up) believe that they were abused by parents or relatives long ago. But, urges the foundation, many of the resulting accusations and subsequent family chaos result not from past evils but from false memories engendered by idealogically committed therapists. (p. 121).
The British False Memory Society (BFMS, June 11, 2007)
The British False Memory Society formed in 1993 with similar aims to its counterpart: to raise awareness of the controversial concept of ‘recovered memory therapy’ and support families of those falsely accused of abuse.
While I contest many of the assertions put forth by the false memory societies, they have at least drawn attention to the fallibility of human memory and the need to tread extremely cautiously when working with clients who recover abuse memories during the process of therapy.
(For information on therapeutic precautions to help prevent false memory syndrome see Chapter 12, Guidelines for those working with self-injury and related issues).
The relationship between recovering memories of abuse and self-injury
The three case studies, interview, and poem that follow highlight the relationship between recovering abuse memories and self-injury, and the terrible dilemma people face when they have unclear memories, and no evidence to corroborate the belief that they have suffered abuse. You will also see that with the right support and help, and against seemingly insurmountable odds, healing from self-injury is possible.
Case study 6.1: Jill (1)
Two Jill’s stories are included in this section. To avoid confusion I have referred to them as Jill 1 and Jill 2.
I am 46 years old. I wrote the piece below about two years ago. As I mention in the writing my self-harm had started again and unfortunately escalated to a level where I needed to be in hospital for my own safety. I didn’t get well in hospital, in fact I deteriorated. My therapist was aware of a Therapeutic Community and after a period of assessment, I moved in. The experience in the Community has changed my life. I no longer self-harm and through therapy have come to accept what happened to me and move on. I have recently moved out and I am slowly returning to work and rebuilding my life.
All my life I have known something was not right due to quite specific fears I had. I have been in therapy for 18 months so far. After about five months of therapy I started to get images – they made no sense to me but I wrote about them creatively. This carried on for the next eight months or so, after which I began to get more specific images. My self-harm had returned (I had stopped in my late 20s) and I was aware that I wasn’t able to ‘block’ the images/fears.
My therapist was aware for a long time that whenever I got close to anything I would block it (dissociate). I would also avoid eye contact with her so she couldn’t wear down my defences. She never once mentioned abuse, using only my word – ‘hurt’. I asked her if she believed me, she said yes. I also asked her if she thought I could have imagined it. She replied that this was possible but unlikely because my physiological responses were quite intense.
I am desperate for ‘evidence’ and I am not sure what I need to help me to accept my images. I have also experienced pains in places where ‘the child’ has been hurt (in the images). My therapist says my images are memories.
I am at the stage where I cannot ignore the fact that I may have been hurt, however, I am desperately seeking something to disprove it. I have felt as though I am going mad. How can the images seem so real when I have no memory of them happening? Although the images are now much clearer, I think I have always had a sense that something happened to me. I don’t want the memories to be true and want to believe in FMS [false memory syndrome] but deep down, I do believe what I ‘see’.
I am fighting the process. I am faced with overwhelming emotions I can’t deal with. Cutting helps but it is not as effective as it used to be; it doesn’t give me the same relief. Sometimes I think I am aware of flicking in and out of dissociation as I try to block the painful images. It is a very confusing, scary time.
Jill 1: Observations from case study
Did you notice that Jill had always sensed something was wrong, and how she had managed to stop self-harming in her late 20s, but had started again during therapy? Did you absorb that she started getting images in therapy and that over time these images became more specific, or how when things got too close for comfort with her therapist she tried to push them away, and avoided eye contact?
Did you note that her therapist never once mentioned the word abuse, yet acknowledged Jill’s belief that she had been ‘hurt’? Furthermore, are the physical pains Jill experienced bodily memories? And what about her desperation for evidence that something happened on the one hand, yet on the other, desperation to find something to disprove it – did you pick up on that? Did you also take in the important fact that Jill no longer self-harms? What stuck out most in your mind from reading Jill’s case study?
Case study 6.2: Jill (2)
Jill’s story illustrates clearly the association between returning abuse memories and self-injury, as well as the agony she went through before help and support was forthcoming. Note too that like her counterpart above, Jill has healed from self-injury.
It is now almost two years since I last self-injured, although I still occasionally experience the urge to do so. As time goes by the urge has become much less intense and no longer dominates my mind. It has though left me with a strong desire to try and help others understand why some people should need to hurt themselves at times.
It is fast becoming recognised that self-injury covers a wide range of ways in which a person may inflict harm on themselves, but I can only tell of what I did to myself and what drove me to do so. Looking back over the years I suppose my many attempted overdoses and drownings could be classed as self-harm in the most general sense, although not intentionally so. Although at the time I wanted to end my life, in retrospect I think it was more to do with escaping or trying to cut off from a life and memories that I was struggling to cope with. In desperation this made me feel that I wanted to die, yet deep down I was so terrified of dying and death that I find it hard to believe that I could have wanted to die. Instead I think I yearned for a state of deep sleep, one from which I might awake into a different world free of my previous fears, panics, anxiety, memories and the awful suffocating black depression.
Throughout my life, at different points, from my late teens to my late forties just a year or two ago, I would turn to those means to escape from a terror I could not understand. Over the years until very recently these attempts to escape were met with mockery, ridicule, cold dismissal and extreme criticism. The general medical view appeared to be that I was ‘attention-seeking’, and therefore not seriously contemplating or capable of suicide. It still baffles me why anyone could believe that anyone would want the sort of dismissive attention that the general medical profession usually gives you after failed suicide attempts. My over-riding memory after so-called attempts was always deep despair and regret that I had failed to blot out the awfulness of my life. This combined with the shame, self-disgust and guilt that overwhelmed me, makes me wonder now why I still did it over and over again. The urge afterwards was always to run away and hide, something else that took over me frequently in times of anguish.
Yet until four years ago I had not actually hurt myself physically and deliberately by cutting. Then suddenly I began to experience overwhelming urges to cut myself with razors, knives or anything sharp and pointed enough to cause me sufficient pain to block out the inner pain and turmoil that was driving me mad inside.
A flood of recovered memories of years of sexual and emotional abuse by my father, starting from when I was as young as four, was the catalyst for my ‘cutting’. Time after time I tried to blot away the ‘horridness’ inside me which to this day feels as scary as it did then; as well, as then, there seemed to be no relief from it. Until that is the day when I suddenly found that by cutting, scratching, tearing or stabbing with knives, scissors, razors, anything – I could momentarily blot out the hurt inside of me. My cuts dug anywhere but especially in those very private places where the pain and the memory is the worst.
It felt that by concentrating very intensely on creating this other hurt I was able to blot out the deeper and more terrible pain: the relief was only momentary, but so, so welcome. For that very brief time I felt in control and had gained some temporary release from the constant jangling tension, terrifying panic and searing pain inside my head and body.
For more than two years I successfully self-injured in secret and managed to hide my wounds and scars. Then one day I was ‘found out’ by a very understanding GP who treated me with kindness and patience. Sadly though his best intentions for my care led me to stay on a psychiatric unit where unfortunately the staff responded in a much less empathic way and at times openly critical manner. The system in this unit for dealing with high-risk patients was to place them under constant supervision.
Forcible restraint was their usual answer to any attempt to self-harm and their only method of trying to prevent my urges was to occupy me with constant activities; if all these failed and I succeeded in evading their ever watchful eye to hurt myself, then I would be given a very stern and at times very angry telling off. Somehow though this never deterred me, instead it just seemed to increase my need and determination to hurt myself; it was as if once the urge was there I had to do it come what may.
The turning point came during that spell of hospitalisation when my psychologist ever so gently asked me why I had needed to hurt myself; as she held my hand and listened I was able to slowly tell her. From then on, and with the help of my GP, she devised a pattern whereby I gradually felt able to seek my GP’s help at times when the distress was intense and overwhelming. The very first time I summoned the courage to make that call to my GP he responded immediately and was full of praise that I had been able to do so. I still remember how kind he was that day, how he sat and listened without condemning, but really seemed to understand. How reassured and suddenly safe I felt when he offered me a cup of tea in his surgery.
There hasn’t always been success since then – at times the urge would totally overwhelm me, but I never lost the support and encouragement of my GP and psychologist. They helped me to recognise the trigger points for these urges. Times when I was feeling panicky or ‘out of this world’; when the urge to run was overwhelming; times when the memories of my past abuse were particularly vivid and real and accompanied by my screams of terror; if I was alone, frightened, in pain or desperately needing comfort; when I yearned to cry but couldn’t; when I felt totally worthless, unvalued and the future looked bleak; but especially when I felt threatened and in danger. Together we explored where these urges came from and talked of how I could divert the pain away from myself.
A suggestion by my psychologist to keep a diary as a way of me broaching previously unspoken thoughts, feelings and memories, proved to be another major turning point for me. Writing has helped me enormously since; those early jottings down evolved into poems that tumbled out in a torrent of blunt and hurt words.
Then as I wrote more I began to read and started looking for articles about others who had suffered similar abuse to me. One book had a particular impact on me, Breaking Free: Help for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, by psychologists Carolyn Ainscough and Kay Toon (2000). It made me realise that I was not alone in experiencing all my frightening panics and weird symptoms that I had once thought were just me going mad.
For so much of my life I had felt so lonely and thought that no-one really understood or believed me. Now I had hope and understanding and I finally began to believe that the memories might one day fade a little. But what above all else has helped me was when people, such as my GP and psychologist, asked me what would help me, instead of them telling me what they thought would be best for me.
As the months, then years, went on and people have helped me to be able to ask for help when I most needed it, and as the times increased when I was able to overcome the urges, I gradually came to realise that I was winning through. Of course there are hiccups, times when the memories were triggered again and the urge returned as strong as ever before and I would feel out of control again. But now nearly two years after I last succumbed to the urge and realising that any sensation of needing to hurt myself is very infrequent, I am finally looking to the future with hope. As my memories begin to fade a little I now know that it has helped me to talk when the support was right.
Jill 2: Observations from case study
Did you notice that at times between her late teens and late forties Jill self-harmed in various ways to escape from a feeling of dread that she could not make sense of, yet didn’t start cutting until she was flooded with memories of years of sexual and emotional abuse by her father from a very young age? Did you observe how cutting temporarily brought relief from the awful hurt she felt inside, and how she managed to keep the behaviour a secret for two years? What about the accusations from the general medical profession that she was attention seeking and the punitive treatment she experienced while in ‘psychiatric care’? Did you note that a caring response from her psychologist was what started to turn things around for her? How her psychologist held her hand and sensitively enquired why she needed to hurt herself? And how with support from the psychologist and validation from her concerned GP, she slowly started to control the urges to self-injure? Furthermore, that by keeping a diary, it enabled her to express the unspoken – her memories, thoughts and emotions, and being asked what she needed, rather than told what was best for her, brought solace and healing? What stuck out most in your mind from reading Jill’s case study?
Case study 6.3: Linda
Linda’s story highlights yet again how self-injury served as a coping strategy for keeping intolerable memories out of conscious awareness.
One doll and a blanket were my only sources of comfort as a child. There was no love, no laughter, no fun. The only feeling I can remember experiencing was one of fear – fear of my father because of the hell he put me through. Physical beatings, sexual intercourse, oral and anal sex were part of my everyday existence.
Night after night I would lie awake in my bed dreading the sound of those all too familiar footsteps on the stairs. The stench of his stale tobacco and body odour made me want to heave. I prayed the bed would swallow me up and save me from the unbearable pain. As he carried out his despicable and depraved acts he told me he loved me, and what he was doing was OK. I had no reason to disbelieve him – after all he was my Dad.
As if this wasn’t enough to endure, he also allowed his friends to abuse me. He totally ignored my desperate pleas for help, encouraging his friends to have oral and anal sex with me. There were many times when I just wished I was dead.
I wasn’t allowed to invite any friends to the house in case I told them what he was doing. If I protested he would run a bath of freezing cold water and force me to get into it naked. He would then hold me under the water until I submitted to his perverted desires.
I will never understand why my mother didn’t stop him. Often I would scream out in terror, but all she did was stand and watch, or walk away. When I was six the pain became too much to bear. I hit the wall in my bedroom with my fist. Strangely, this brought a little bit of relief. After that I began hurting myself in various ways. Often I was absent from school due to bruises from the physical abuse my father subjected me to. When I did attend I would deliberately fall off apparatus in the gymnasium; intentionally shut my fingers in doors or fall over in the playground. This brought caring, love and attention, all the things I never received at home.
I grew up feeling very confused and wondering who I really was. When I reached my teens I began drinking heavily, and hurting myself became part of my everyday life. I would cut and burn myself, take tablets and lash out at anyone, and anything.
When I was fifteen my Dad got me pregnant and I gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Tragically my little girl died at birth due to a deformity, but my son was a beautiful and healthy baby. I went to stay with friends, and one day, when I had popped out, my father came and took my son away. The anger, guilt, and pain I felt is impossible to describe. It felt as if he had stolen the only precious thing I had ever had in my life, and I have never seen my son again to this day. After this, the emotional pain overwhelmed me and I couldn’t stop self-harming. I cut my wrists, drank myself into a stupor and took pills.
I ended up in a psychiatric unit where I received little sympathy or understanding. I could not talk about the traumas I had experienced, and was treated for depression.
On occasions my wounds needed stitching, and I would be admitted to an Accident and Emergency Department. Here too there was lack of sympathy or concern. I was told to stop wasting staff time, or that I was occupying a bed that someone else could be using. Nobody ever attempted to stop my self-harming.
From the hospital I was referred to a hostel. Here I made friends with one of the male residents, only to be raped by him and three of his friends when we were out one evening. This so called friend threatened to kill me if I ever told anyone what he and his friends had done.
As the pain grew and grew inside me, the need to self-harm increased. I began to realise that every time I hurt myself, I was desperately trying to cut out all the bad bits that were buried inside me – most of all I wanted to rid myself of my father.
In 1982 I got married, but the marriage broke down after two years. I felt a complete failure, and this led to me drinking and cutting my wrists again. Consumed with anger and guilt, and completely intoxicated, I directed my rage at my husband by trying to kill him with a knife. However, in my inebriated state, I failed to even scratch him, and instead was pushed down the stairs and ended up in hospital. I was very lucky to survive this traumatic experience.
In 1989 I married again. I have two children, a little boy aged two, and a little girl aged four. The first two years of the marriage were great, but following the birth of my son things started going wrong again. When he was just three months old I tried to suffocate him. Post-natal depression was diagnosed, but I soon realised that it was not this at all – it was the emotional pain I was in due to the traumas I had suffered at the hands of my father and others. For over twenty years all these horrific memories had been pushed into the dark recesses of my mind, but somehow the birth of my son rekindled some of these unbearable and terrifying memories. This made me realise that I had survived the physical pain but the time had come to try and survive the emotional anguish.
I now see a counsellor, but it took me two years to find the right help for me. My counsellor is an abuse survivor, and it’s helpful because she understands the feelings that engulf me and lead me to self-harm.
I am still trying to come to terms with, and make sense of the past. I still self-harm as a way of coping and surviving. The thought of my mother’s behaviour only adds fuel to the cauldron of seething emotions that have been eating away inside me for so many years. My father died in the seventies, and I hoped that all the pain and suffering he put me through would die with him. Sadly, this hasn’t happened yet.
Knowing how difficult it has been for me to get the right help, and how long it has taken, I felt I wanted to help others like myself, so I have started a penfriend network for other people who self-harm. The aim is to fill the gap of loneliness and isolation that I experienced over the years. I also offer a list of resources, which is updated regularly. This is sent to survivors, like myself, so they can access help and support quickly. I would like to see information made more readily available, as I feel certain this would encourage other women to seek the help they need and deserve.
Observations from Linda’s case study
Did you notice the indescribable catalogue of childhood and adult traumatic experiences and losses that Linda has suffered? Did you observe that she started self-harming when she was only six, and how it progressed to heavy drinking, swallowing pills, and cutting and burning in her teens? What about the dreadful sense of betrayal from both parents, how must it have felt having no one to turn to, no way of escaping, no one to protect her, no one to care for, or about her? Moreover, what about the accusations of time wasting and feelings of total rejection she felt when she sought medical help for her injuries, and the lack of compassion she experienced while in ‘psychiatric care’? Did you spot that the birth of her son reawakened intolerable and petrifying memories that she had managed to keep at bay for over 20 years, or that self-injury was a desperate attempt to ‘cut out’ the ‘badness’ she felt inside – the memories, the pain of what her father subjected her to? Furthermore, did you notice how long it took her to get the help she needed? What stuck out most in your mind from reading Linda’s case study?
An interview with Sharon
Sharon is forty-five. She lives in the North of England, is married, and has three grown up daughters, all of whom have recently left home. Five years ago, she started recovering traumatic childhood memories – triggered by the stature, smell, and clothing of a man standing behind her at the checkout of a supermarket. In a state of terror, she ran out of the supermarket leaving her shopping on the conveyor belt. This incident not only triggered a flood of horrific memories, it triggered her to self-injure as a way of coping with them. She sought counselling after a year of struggling with the problem on her own.
Sharon always self-injures in private, and only seeks treatment for her wounds if they are severe. Initially, she cut herself on various parts of her body, but lately she has turned to burning. Sharon has been in therapy for four years. She kindly agreed to be interviewed in the hope that it would enable others to see that with the right kind of help and support, it is possible to start letting go of self-injury.
The extract that follows is from a taped transcript of our interview.
- JAN: Can you say a little bit about the first time you hurt yourself?
- SHARON: The first time I self-injured I had an overwhelming need to cut myself – I searched the house and garage for something to do it with and remembered that I’d recently bought a craft knife to cut my own stencils with. I remember I was a bit scared at first, but then made a small incision at the top of my left arm and the relief was instantaneous. I suppose if I hadn’t got any benefit after that first time, I wouldn’t have done it again.
- JAN: What do you think prompted you to self-injure – had you heard about it?
- SHARON: I read a story in a magazine about a woman who self-injured, and I suppose that was what planted the seed. I never admitted to anyone, including myself, that I was copying somebody else. I guess it didn’t feel like that the first time I did it. It became solely mine, my way of coping.
- JAN: Can you say something about your most recent episode of self-injury . . . was it planned, for example?
- SHARON: The last time I self-injured was about six weeks ago, so I have a job to remember exactly whether it was planned or not. Because I had changed from cutting to burning, every time I lit a cigarette there was the potential to self-injure, and there was less need to plan it because there was no mess to clear up.
- JAN: Were you aware of any particular event or situation that triggered the need to self-injure?
- SHARON: I was feeling scared and overwhelmed by memories of my childhood. I had recently spoken of them to my therapist and wished that I hadn’t. There was a feeling that if I burnt myself the thoughts that were racing around in my brain, the resulting feelings would stop, and they did temporarily.
- JAN: Can you remember what you were thinking to yourself at the time?
- SHARON: Yes – mostly I was thinking things like ‘You shouldn’t have said anything, you shouldn’t have made a fuss; she’ll think I’m a horrible person. What if she gives up on me? My Dad would kill me if he knew I’d told – stuff like that.’
- JAN: Some people say they use various distraction techniques to try to delay, or stop themselves self-injuring – like going on the Internet, getting out of the house, holding an ice cube, ringing a friend or their therapist, for instance. Were you able to try anything to distract yourself?
- SHARON: I think there was a feeling of resignation that I was going to self-injure – like there was an inevitability about it, like I’m not sure I really want to do this but I’ve got to do it anyway. I did ring my therapist but I had already injured myself. I do think that it helped me not hurt any further though.
- JAN: How were you feeling just before you self-injured?
- SHARON: Prior to self-injuring, my head was racing with thoughts but the rest of me felt numb, so consequently when I burnt myself the pain was minimal. It was like being two different people – my mind on one side – my body on the other, like the injury I was causing myself was separate from me. I was feeling afraid and overwhelmed prior to self-injuring and the need was to block out the emotional pain and numb out. Although I felt compelled to self-injure, I still felt very much in control of what I was doing.
- JAN: How did you know when to stop?
- SHARON: On this occasion, as is mostly the case, I stopped when I sensed I’d done enough. I think my body sends its own signal out when I’ve injured myself enough.
- JAN: How did you feel after self-injuring?
- SHARON: I was a lot calmer. I still needed to make contact with my therapist but my head was a lot less full. I wasn’t shocked by what I had done but there was a sense of satisfaction that I had once again controlled my emotions.
- JAN: Was it necessary for you to seek treatment for your injuries?
- SHARON: No, not on this occasion. I found the resulting blisters from the burns satisfying, like the build up of fluid was my emotions that could be got rid of by popping them.
- JAN: Can you explain what you see as the advantages of self-injury?
- SHARON: Self-injury is a sure-fire way of controlling my emotions so they don’t overwhelm me. It’s something I do to myself, for myself, and it gives me a sense of control.
- JAN: Can you see any disadvantages?
- SHARON: My self-injury has left me with permanent scars. By relying on it to control my emotions, I have found it difficult to express my emotions in a more healthy way. It is a difficult thing to give up, yet I am trying to do just that.
- JAN: Would you like to stop self-injury?
- SHARON: More and more now I want to stop self-injuring. I have used it in the past to punish myself, but the need to self-punish is much less now.
- JAN: Can you say what you think you would gain by stopping?
- SHARON: I would hope to express my emotions more assertively – to feel better about myself. To be free of the compulsion to self-injure – to feel I have a choice about how I express myself.
- JAN: What do you think you would lose by stopping?
- SHARON: I would have feared losing control. However, this fear isn’t nearly as strong now and I don’t see it as a loss. I am able to let go of it, the more assertive I become.
- JAN: Self-injury is often described as addictive. What are your views about this?
- SHARON: I think self-injury, like anything you habitually do can become addictive. Whether it’s the chemical high you get when you injure your body, or the sense of control, or the sense of release from emotional pain that results, I think you can become addicted to the effect.
- JAN: You mentioned earlier that it is six weeks since you last injured yourself. That’s a great achievement. Has anything helped you in particular?
- SHARON: Talking to my therapist who listened and believed, and who showed me warmth was wonderful. Making connections between my childhood and my behaviour now, and building up my self-esteem helped enormously. To be able to trust my therapist who was empathic and non-judgemental with my darkest secrets, to feel safe and protected, to not be forced to give up my self-injury until I felt I could, all this is helping me leave self-injury behind. Despite the initial setback, sharing my painful secrets with my therapist, after holding on to them for some 40 years, has helped tremendously. It has left me feeling so much lighter and freer. What has helped more than anything is that after four years of therapy I have finally found my voice.
- JAN: Thank you so much for talking with me Sharon. I think what you have said will give hope and inspiration to others – it certainly has to me.
Observations from the interview with Sharon
Did you notice that Sharon started recovering memories of abuse when she was aged 40, that a man she stood next to at a supermarket checkout was responsible for triggering the memories, and that she started self-injuring as a way to cope with the memories? Did you observe that she tried to cope for a year before seeking therapy, or that she has been in therapy for four years? Did you take in that the first time she cut herself brought instant relief from her emotional pain, and how it now serves as a way of controlling her emotions so they don’t overwhelm her? What about how she got the idea of self-injury from a magazine story – did that ring alarm bells? Did you detect the reason for her most recent episode of self-injury – being overwhelmed by memories of her childhood, disclosing the memories to her therapist, and fear that her therapist might abandon her? What about the fact that she didn’t contact her therapist until after she had cut herself – do you think if she had phoned before, it might have prevented her harming herself? Did you notice the sense of numbness, the minimal pain, and feeling as if she was two different people prior to self-injuring?
You may be wondering why I asked Sharon whether she wanted to stop hurting herself? Some people don’t, or are not ready, which is important information for therapists to know. You may also be pondering why I asked her about the gains and losses of self-injury? This can be useful for clients to consider, because with most gains an element of loss is involved. Did you notice Sharon mentions becoming addicted to the effect from self-injury? Lastly, did you pinpoint what helped Sharon stay free of self-injury for six weeks, or notice that she sees learning to articulate her emotions more assertively as an important to factor healing from self-injury? What stuck out most in your mind from Sharon’s interview?