“Cutting is demonically inspired,” my pastor intones. Sincere. Heartfelt. Passionate. “ And how often TODAY do we hear of people ..(pause for dramatic effect) CUTTING themselves??” The congregation’s response is as you might expect. Gasps, tsk-tsk’ing, and plenty of heads shaking in ‘What IS this world coming to?’ fashion. I can feel my entire body tense and my fingers grip the cuffs of my jacket reflexively. I feel like there are hundreds of pairs of eyes on me. As if, at any moment, someone might leap from their seat, point a trembling finger at me, and shout “J’ACCUSE!” with a single cry of condemnation. I concentrate very hard on not squirming. Now, keep in mind, I’m in a room with hundreds of fellow travelers from all walks of life. If we’re dealing in raw percentages, it is a certainty that I am sitting amongst adulterers, thieves, liars, drunkards, addicts, and enough people enthralled with pornography to keep the industry running smoothly well into the next millennium. No matter. Cutters are the focus of the day. My mind flashes to the many women I know who, like me, have battled, and may still battle, with self harm. (Cutting, burning, and bruising most often.) I love these women. And I do not like us all being morally impugned in this manner. I consider the wisdom of standing up on my chair in protest. Yelling for it all to stop. Exposing the crazy cross-hatching of scars made not too long ago in frenzied anger on the vulnerable, white flesh of my own belly. I loved God when I did it. But I hated me more. I do not stand up on my chair. I am an adult. I keep my seat. I grip the cuffs of my jacket.
The first time I cut myself was not the first time I engaged in what the mental health professionals call “Self Injurious Behaviors” or “SIB’s”. I had been bruising myself for years. Figured I was alone. Figured..I was probably insane. I got into the bleeding game rather late in life. My orderly little world went awry when I was 29. (Admittedly, the disaster was completely one of my own making.) It seemed inevitable that my marriage of ten years was over and we were leaving three young children in the rubble. Although this had been my decision, I didn’t think I could ache the way I did during the months of separation from my husband. One day, while cleaning broken glass from a picture frame, I pocketed a few of the larger shards. It was odd. To this day I can’t explain that action. I hadn’t ever thought of cutting before. That afternoon at work, I disappeared into the restroom. With the glass against my left forearm, I began with just a scrape. No. No way. It hurts. What am I DOING? I’m not some Emo teenager! I’m nearly 30..I’m a mother..just stop..get a grip…what kind of Christian are you?!…A little more pressure with the next scratch. Little drops of bright red blood appeared. I was mesmerized. And began digging like a madwoman. Something in me was released. Blood was everywhere..didn’t seem to clot fast enough to keep up with me, and I finally felt relief from the pain I’d been going through . All I could feel was the terrible throbbing in my arm. All I could see was the muscle closing around the glass. See..that’s what you need to know about cutting. Why do we do it? Simple. It helps. Being able to transfer internal pain that you CAN’T control to external pain that you CAN? That helps too. You want the rub now? It’s temporary relief. And the scars last.
The Emergency Room is not unused to cutters. I became an unhappy frequent flier there a couple of years ago. “Jennifer!”, a sweet older nurse once greeted me with enthusiasm,” We haven’t seen you for nearly 3 weeks! You’re doing great!” That was certainly debatable.
Most doctors don’t put cutters on a mandatory psychiatric hold these days. It’s generally recognized that such an act is not an attempt at suicide, though that’s not true of all cutters and it also doesn’t mean that mistakes aren’t made. A cut made too deep, too wide, with an old blade… Best laid plans, you understand. The reasons people cut are as distinct as they are. Also disparate is the way ER doctors handle us as patients. Some admonish. Some pity. Some show curiosity. But one..the last one for me, well. Pure vitriol. In all fairness, I had come to him in a bad way. A straight razor to the quadricep. (I’d learned a lot since my broken glass days.) I was both frightened and awed by the damage I’d inflicted. The pain that sent stars flitting across my vision , the brilliance of scarlet blooming through the squares of gauze that I’d halfheartedly pressed against the wounds… rivers of it. I barely remember the drive to the hospital, but I can’t forget being there. Given the severity of the injury, I had the assistance of two nurses clean up my leg before the doctor sewed it closed. One was in the room solely for the purpose of speaking in a soothing tone and holding my hand. I would need both in spades. I noticed the doctor in the doorway at some point during this process. Glaring at me.
By the time the suturing process had begun, my husband had taken the nurse’s position of soothing and hand holding and the doctor was silent save for counting stitches by 50’s. In clipped tones we’d hear him, “Fifty….One hundred…One hundred fifty…Two hundred..” His tone growing sharper..the pull on his needle stronger. At long last, he sat back and snapped his gloves off. “ That’s really the best I can do.” Eyebrows raised and jaw clenched. It was a challenge. He was daring me to find fault. I peered at his work. It was a gruesome sight. The top of my leg had swollen to nearly twice it’s size and strained against all the recent knitting together of flesh. The large discolored whorls of yellow and blue that followed the path of my incisions were in stark contrast to the black and bristly nylon ends of the sutures, apparently hundreds of them, that now rose from my skin like angry sea anemone. If this man had wanted to shame me, he could consider his day a smashing success.The best he could do? It was a hack job. The repair was blatantly uneven. His concern wasn’t on minimizing scars or alleviating pain. I was a veteran by now. I knew. But then I heard something different in his comment. Truth. It WAS the best he could do.The rest? That was up to me.
It’s been nine months. My leg still itches. Weird, isn’t it? It itches everyday. Maybe it’s God’s way of reminding me that I’m still healing. Or maybe my leg just itches. Either way, I’ve realized some basic truths about self harm that somehow eluded me before. The most important one is that the very TERM “self harm” is a misnomer. Because we’re not only harming ourselves. What we do affects everyone who loves us no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that it doesn’t.
Our cutting hurts the heart of God. It hurts. GOD. Simply because we’re hurting ourselves. Meditate on that for a while. You might just find the strength in His Love to throw out your razors for good. I did. And while it’s true that the scars last? ….They will also fade.