One of the biggest misconceptions about self-harm is that people do it for attention. People have told me that I was just being dramatic and attention-seeking when I confided in them about my self-injurious behavior or suicidal thoughts. I believed them. Even to this day, even after I’ve learned that speaking openly about mental health is a sign of bravery, I am still plagued with worry that I don’t really have OCD, depression or anxiety. I tell myself that lots of people have had “worse” self-harm addictions than me, so, therefore, sharing it in any capacity or seeking treatment is “attention-seeking.” Even if I keep my self-harm a secret, the very act is nothing more than a plea for attention. Or so I tell myself.
Not everyone agrees with me. Once, a psychologist I was working with told me that she doesn’t think anyone self-harms for attention. “Even if they did want people to pay attention to them, there are lots of ways to get attention,” she said, “So why would they choose self-harm unless they had something else going on?”
What else could be going on for people? Why would they self-injure, if not to get attention?
Michael Hollander, Ph.D., tells us in his book, Helping Teens Who Cut, that most self-injurious behavior comes from emotional dysregulation, “how emotionally vulnerable people respond to the experiences of negative and positive emotions.” People who struggle with emotional dysregulation tend to respond in one of four ways: lashing out, acting impulsively, needing to soothe themselves, or self-punishing. I fall into the final category: I dealt with self-loathing to the point where I believed I must be punished by injuring myself.
My self-harm habits began at an early age. My first experience with depression was in the second grade, and throughout elementary school, I would hit myself as a form of self-punishment. But it wasn’t until sixth grade, when I started using social media, that I learned that other people hurt themselves, too. From accounts that glamorize self-harm, I learned that some people used more serious methods than just hitting.
With my self-injurious urges now enabled, I began cutting myself. It made me feel like I was adequately punishing myself for being such a horrible person. I grew up in the Catholic Church and believed that by hurting myself, I was atoning for my sins. I always told myself that God and Jesus hated me and would be happy to see me suffer. The wicked will not go unpunished, after all, and I saw myself as an evil, defective person who deserved punishment. I’ve been told that that’s a misinterpretation of the Bible.
I received treatment for my mental health and was able to give up the habit of cutting myself before it became an addiction. But in seventh grade, I began the habit again after I heard a grown adult say about a child, in an attempt at dark humor, “She has too much on her plate. I bet she goes home and cuts herself.” Not only was this comment grossly inappropriate, but it also told the room full of impressionable young people who heard it that self-harm is an appropriate way to deal with stress.
I had been clean from self-harm for about a year when I heard this. But this poor choice of words lead me to take it up again. After all, I had a lot on my plate, too. I could deal with my stress and punish myself, all through self-harming. So I did, and it became an addiction. Not everyone realizes this, but people who self-harm crave it and struggle to break the cycle, as is the case with addictions. Self-harm is also linked to eating disorders and OCD. I suffer from OCD, which turned self-harm into a compulsion that has controlled me for years. My emotional dysregulation leads to a desire to self-punish, and online sites glamorizing and encouraging self-harm exacerbated it. I have only been clean from self-harm for a little over a month. But I’ve been working very hard for years towards recovery, and I’ve been building a sense of self-worth and realizing that I don’t deserve to suffer.
I want to use what I’ve gone through as a way to help other people, particularly teenagers, who struggle with self-harm and self-harm urges. I especially want to help people who may be considering self-harm realize that it’s not the answer. A self-harm addiction makes your life a living hell and brings pain to those close to you. Yes, you’re in pain, and self-harm might seem like a way to relieve that pain. But do you really want to sell your life away to self-harm? There are more effective ways to deal with your emotions and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. One method that has proved highly effective in the treatment of self-harm is Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
If you are thinking about self-harm, please tell someone you trust or text CONNECT to 741741 to get connected to a trained crisis counselor from the Self-Harm Text Hotline.