Scarred for life

Writing through the pain of self-harm
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2008
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The first time Kate cut herself, as a young teenager, she sliced a Swiss Army knife into her hand. For the next 13 years, she used pieces of pens, razor blades, and any other sharp implement that would pierce her skin. She cut her arms, legs, hips, stomach, and shoulders. Whatever the instrument, wherever the scar, Kate considered the act of cutting to be like a best friend. After all, “it allowed me to escape my emotional pain and feel physical pain,” she says. And when you’re an unhappy youth with fighting parents, a broken back that keeps you from playing basketball, and lots of bottled-up anger and frustration, escape is extremely appealing.

No matter what stereotypes you may harbor about people who harm themselves, Kate forces you to discard them. The 27-year-old Portlander, who looks like an athletic version of Kirsten Dunst, is spunky, fit, and smart. She’s well-educated, with a master’s degree in zoology from the University of New Hampshire, and has a bucketful of friends. She’s a surfer chick, for heaven’s sake.

But for the bulk of her young adult life, she has injured herself repeatedly — and twice badly enough to go to the hospital — all because to cut “is so much easier than it is to feel.” When her girlfriend cheated on her, it was easier to carve a gash into her leg (a cut that required 45 stitches) than to deal with the betrayal. When she felt self-hatred, it was simpler to slash into her shoulder with an Exacto knife than to share her pain with her friends (this cut, too, landed her in the hospital). During high school, when she was cutting herself almost every day, her injuries “gave me something else to focus on” than her parents’ “horrible relationship.” Cutting gave Kate a feeling of letting go of her emotional pain — as though her unhappiness flowed out with her blood, almost as medieval doctors believed leeching removed “bad blood” from the body.

Now, Kate will share her story, and, she hopes, provide a forum for others to share theirs, at MemoirsOfACutter.blogspot.com. In the just-launched blog, she has posted photos of her self-injury scars (some of which accompany this article), and has already begun explaining why, and when, she started cutting herself; in future posts, she’ll go into detail about dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), the psychological method that helps self-harmers address their emotional reactions to distressing situations, and will share both her recent slip-ups (“when I’m drinking I’m more likely to cut,” she admits) and personal triumphs (Kate hasn’t cut herself since October 2007).

Meanwhile, she’ll solicit stories from others who cut themselves, or who used to self-injure. Her goal is twofold. For one thing, Kate wants to eliminate even just some small part of the stigma associated with cutting — a stigma she is fighting even as she asks us to withhold her last name, in order to “maintain some walls” around her private life.

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“People are ashamed,” she says, pointing out that while it’s estimated that 1 in 10 young adults self-harms, many people would say they’d never met anyone who did so.

SelfInjury.com, the Web site for S.A.F.E. Alternatives, an educational and treatment-resource organization, outlines how the closeted nature of the self-harm phenomenon has hindered the ability of both mental-health professionals and society at large to address the problem: “Self-injury used to be an obscure psychiatric symptom. Most therapists didn't ever think they would be treating clients who engaged in these behaviors. The escalation of these behaviors has been so rapid that school, hospital, criminal justice, and mental health professionals have been caught off guard without the appropriate resources.”

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