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Cutting Myself Seemed Like An Escape
Christine M.
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I usually don't remember when I cut myself. I sometimes don't know what I've done until I "come to" with my arm beating like a second heart and burning hot, fresh scars, and a sagging feeling in my chest, as if a huge weight has been lifted. Then, after the initial relief, I feel ashamed at what I've done, and terrified at how others would feel if they knew.

For years I couldn't understand why I was cutting myself and blacking out while I did it. All I knew was that my secret habit had become completely out of control. But after going into foster care and finding people who really care about me, I've begun to understand it better.

Getting a proper diagnosis of my problem, and a good therapist to help me work through it and sort out my past has made things easier. I've realized that because of all the abuse I went through, and because I was constantly told that my feelings didn't count, cutting became one of the few ways I felt comfortable expressing and escaping all the pain I hold inside.

I can't remember ever feeling attached to my body. My skin has never felt like my own. I was sexually abused by my father and constantly hit by my mother. To survive the abuse, I believed it was happening just to my body, but not to me.

I was numb back then. Not feeling my own emotions was the only way I knew how to handle all that was going on. Instead, everything I did or felt was tied into other people's moods, especially my mother's. If by some grace of God she was in a good mood, I was relaxed and laughed easier, smiled brighter, but never forgot that any moment the tide could change. That hug could turn into a slap. Words of encouragement could soon be followed by bitter, acidic remarks. "You're doing so well in school, Chrissy! Let's see how long it takes before you f-ck it up."

I Picked Up the Knife

The few times I did show any emotion, my mom would get mad. "What have you got to cry for? You have it easy! I'm the one who has to go to work every day to keep a roof over your head and food on the table!" So I kept it to myself, and did my best not to feel anger, or much of anything.

That changed when one day I saw a knife lying on the kitchen counter. "What the hell," I thought. She was already kicking my ass daily by that point, and my father was molesting me. The pain would be nothing new.

Once I felt the pressure of that cool blade against my skin, I knew this was different, very different. This was my pain, I could control it. I could make it start and I could make it stop.

I didn't exactly feel better when I cut, but it let me feel something other than that horrible emptiness, that nothing I felt inside. It let me feel alive.

My Secret Escape

Soon cutting became my secret escape. My pent-up frustrations, fears, and the relentless hatred I felt toward myself seemed to disappear, at least for the moment. I was a pressure cooker waiting to explode, and cutting gave me temporary release. My bleeding arms were my form of tears.

By the time I entered the San Diego foster care system at age 14, cutting no longer gave me a sense of control. It had become out of control.

Living in a group home with six other females was jarring to me. I don't remember much from living there, just snippets, but I clearly remember the times right before I cut. Something bad would be happening that I couldn't stand: staff screaming at residents, calling them b-tches and sluts for talking on the phone to guys; residents beating each other up over TV privileges; me usually sitting quietly, trying not to be noticed. But inevitably, someone always noticed. "You see Chrissy isn't talking to any boys!" It made me feel as though they were about to hit me. I would start to feel like the sides of my skull were being pressed together and I would sink inside myself. Then suddenly I would find myself in the bathroom, cutting, with staff banging on the door.

My Foster Mom Supported Me

I could never remember how I got to the bathroom. Years later, a therapist explained that I have a mental disorder that allows me to "dissociate"- to mentally separate myself from my body when I feel too much pain. It was the way I'd managed to survive all the abuse I'd been through as a child-my mind would just go to another place. But in that first group home, all I knew was that I no longer knew how to stop cutting.

I was soon transferred to a foster home because my social worker thought a one-on-one relationship might calm me down, and at first that's what happened. I quickly noticed something strange in Ellen's house. She used words instead of fists, kind and gentle words that cared about my feelings and how I would react. I noticed that with her I laughed a lot more. I felt less jumpy and more at ease, and even a hint of something I had never really allowed myself to feel before…happiness.

I started to call Ellen "Mom," though she was the opposite of my real mother. She showed me how to cook, and wanted to know about my life. She never made me feel like I was taking up air by being alive. For the first time I felt cared for.

The Cutting Almost Stopped

Even though I had never told Ellen about my blackouts and inability to remember things, I somehow felt that she knew and wasn't upset about it. She seemed to realize that if she reacted calmly to me, then I was less likely to become upset.

During this time I started cutting less. I could go weeks without "waking up" in the bathroom with cuts on my arm. Things were finally starting to mellow out inside my head, and I felt truly happy. But soon, things started to change back, mostly because of her boyfriend Steve.

At first Steve was cool. He taught me about football and drove me and my foster sisters to the mall. But after a couple of months, he started to come into my room late at night. I was terrified.

At first, I didn't tell Ellen about it. I thought I could handle it, and I did, but at a price. I started finding burns on my legs and thin cuts close to the veins on my ankles. Usually when I cut I seemed to instinctively avoid my veins. But this was new. This felt life-threatening. It scared the hell out of me.

I also started blanking out more. Days went by without me noticing. Once I "woke up" and a whole month had passed without me remembering how I spent it. I was frightened.

After about four months I couldn't hide the cutting and blackouts anymore. I was hospitalized. I was sure Ellen would leave me, or become distant and cold when she found out about the cutting. Instead she was concerned, an emotion I never thought people could have for me. Annoyed, I could deal with. Disappointed, I knew how to handle very well. This was different. I almost couldn't handle it-I worried that if I hadn't disappointed her already, I would soon enough. Her caring made me scared and suspicious. I was determined to make her leave me.

I started to cut more, like I was saying to her, "Don't care about me, it'll only hurt you in the long run." But she never gave up. When I cut, she cleaned the wound and sat with me through the night. When I screamed and threw things across the room, trying to piss her off, she would bear hug me until I calmed down and we could talk. It was like she knew my defenses and was determined to break through them.

The Best School Counselor

image by Kenly Dillard

After the hospitalization, she set me up with the school psychologist, Dr. Eimers. He was the best school counselor I have ever met. He actually wanted to talk to me. Not just superficial stuff, like how was your day, but real stuff I desperately wanted someone to ask.

I tried to explain to him about losing time, and how I felt like I was going crazy. We also talked about my cutting. We tried to find other activities that gave me a feeling of control, since that was partly why I first started cutting. I loved being at school, because I could forget all about my problems. But what brought me the most joy was swimming, so he suggested that I join the swim team. Being underwater made me feel like I was in another world. There was only the sound of my heart and my thoughts.

But swimming wasn't enough. One day I was in the locker room at school getting ready for swim practice and I got a severe headache. The pain was so bad it brought tears to my eyes. I blinked and the next thing I knew I was in Dr. Eimer's office. He was asking if I wanted to talk about it. "Talk about what?" I asked. He looked at me kind of funny and said, "About why you started breaking the mirrors in the girls' locker room." I was horrified. I had no idea what he was talking about. To buy some time I asked if I could see the school nurse because I had a headache.

Flashbacks of Abuse

As I was waiting for the nurse, I started having flashbacks of abuse. They were running through my head so fast that I couldn't tell what was remembered and what was happening at the moment. I found myself in the bathroom with a bottle of peroxide, thought what the hell, locked the door, and swallowed the entire bottle. Then I sat back down in Dr. Eimer's office and waited to die.

I ended up in the hospital. Shortly after that I was sent to Penny Lane, a residential treatment center in San Diego, and that's when things started to really get better for me.

I would've never guessed walking into those red double doors that Penny Lane would have a good effect on me. At first it felt like hell: Fifty-two females with just three showers. Girls screaming up and down the halls. No privacy. I saw someone being restrained my first day there. Staff had her face on the tile floor, their knees pressing into her back.

I continued to blackout and to cut while I was there. But the amazing thing was that after "waking up" up in the hospital for the first time, they didn't send me somewhere new. Penny Lane took me back every time.

As much as I hated Penny Lane, it made me glad to realize they weren't going to throw me away like so many group homes and facilities had before. They didn't ridicule me or call me names about my cutting. They tried to understand why I did it, even though I didn't really know myself. And that made all the difference.

I Remembered Life

One staff, Chris Husband, helped the most. He was one of the first men to ever care about me in a non-abusive way. He was new, and during his first week he had to watch me on a one-on-one, suicide watch. I usually ignored the person assigned to watch me, but he wanted to talk. He asked about the books I read, the movies I liked, the music I listened to. It was the best thing anyone could have done for me. I was so wrapped up in my inner hell, I had forgotten life. He helped bring me back.

I grew to love him like a brother. Chris knew about the cutting and the way I lost time, but he never made me feel ashamed. Instead he said, "You must be in so much pain inside to do this to yourself." I was floored. No one had ever, ever, said that. I started to cry. It was as if a flood had been released inside my soul, and I couldn't stop it. No one else seemed to have recognized just what the cutting meant, not even me.

That was a major turning point for me. After that, when I started to get those headaches that usually ended up with me in the bathroom, I tried everything in my power to stay conscious and not cut, though a lot of times I still couldn't stop it. And I began to talk more. Mostly through poetry at first, pouring out whatever I was feeling, and that helped.

I did still cut when the pressure inside me was too much, but I also started to let in people I knew cared about me. I even got a mentor, who I remain close to now, six years later. Pamela has stuck by me through all the BS I put her through, and never stopped loving me.

I Left My Support System

Two years ago, when I emancipated from foster care, I moved from California to New York. I didn't realize how hard it would be and how alone I would feel. I found a whole new set of problems to handle in New York, but this time there was no Pamela or Chris to help me. I began to cut more.

Luckily Covenant House, where I ended up living, required that I go to therapy. I was diagnosed as having Dissociative Identity Disorder. A therapist explained to me that because I was repeatedly faced with overwhelming abuse in my childhood, and since I had no physical escape or any other way of getting help, I "went away" in my head, although I had no awareness of this.

When I first discovered that I have D.I.D., I was more relieved than scared. It made sense out of so much in my life: the feelings that this wasn't my body, the constant blackouts, the lack of a real memory before the age of 12. Knowing what I had meant I could work on getting better.

Getting Diagnosed

I soon found a therapist who specialized in D.I.D. She helped me realize that the reason I never knew when I was going to cut myself was because I dissociate from what is going on, it's like another part of me takes over. She also said that instead of blaming me for cutting, we should try to understand why I do it.

I started to understand that I really do have feelings, many feelings. As a child, I felt so much shame, anger and pain about the abuse I endured that I didn't know how to express it, and no one helped me talk about it. So I tried to bury those feelings, but also to communicate them through hurting myself.

Now with the help of my therapist, I'm trying to find other things I can do when I feel overwhelmed, like scribbling red all over a paper to represent blood and anger. Writing and talking also help a lot. So does staying in touch with the people who care about me.

Struggling to Stop

The relief cutting used to bring me is now more short-lived, and cutting no longer helps me cope like it used to.

Still, it's hard, really hard, to stop doing something that for almost half my life was my way of coping. I am still a small child when it comes to handling overwhelming emotions. I can't always remind myself that those emotions will pass. And it's always easier to reach for a razor than to confront the feeling behind the impulse. But I'm getting better at stopping that from happening.

More and more I'm realizing that I am no longer a child whose voice goes unheard. I'm a woman with the capacity to love and learn, to have my words count for something. Perhaps one day, the way I thought about myself and the world when I was an insecure and abandoned girl will fade away, leaving only the woman I'm striving to become. Until that happens, I hope that one day I will no longer harm this body, a concept that is somewhat frightening to me, but something I want very much.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to HeretoListen.org, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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(FCYU-2003-01-05)

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