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The Razor's Edge

Why even Christian teens aren't immune from the epidemic of self-mutilation—and what you can do.

Fifty-one percent—that's how many respondents to our recent informal online poll (www.christianparenting.net) said they've either known someone who self-mutilates, did so themselves as a teen, or have a child who has been a "cutter." While the results of our poll aren't scientific, they do demonstrate parents need to be aware of this chilling trend. For a closer look at the problem of teen mutilation, read on. —the editors

She lingered behind the others, waiting to speak to me after the workshop I taught at a Christian parenting conference.

"My daughter's hurting herself," the woman whispered, staring at the wall behind me, her eyes brimming with tears. "I don't know what to do."

She'd discovered the faded marks on her daughter's arms a few days earlier. When she'd inquired about the scars, her daughter had made an excuse. A couple days later, when the woman passed the half-open door of her daughter's bedroom and caught her daughter changing, she stopped in shock. Fresh cuts ran up and down her child's legs. She confronted her daughter, stunned to discover additional cuts over her torso. Her first thoughts were shame. "I've asked myself a hundred times what I did wrong," she said. "My daughter's 15. She's bright. She has friends. I didn't know that anyone did this…"

A Troubling Trend

This behavior has many different names: cutting; self-injury; self-mutilation; self-violence. It's defined as a deliberate, repetitive, and non-life-threatening harming of one's body that not only includes cutting, but also scratching, picking scabs, burning, punching, infecting oneself, bruising or breaking bones, or hair pulling.

Self-injury crosses economic brackets, education, race, and age. While there are both male and female self-injurers, the majority are middle- to upper-class adolescent girls. Because self-injury often is hidden, it's hard to pinpoint exact statistics. But one thing's clear: Self-injury is a growing trend, and it's not confined to teens outside the church. As a youth worker, I've connected with Christian teens for more than 15 years. Until two years ago, self-injury was rarely mentioned. In the past two years, that has changed.

Many parents have shared their private pain at conferences, relief on their faces when the topic was broached in a workshop. In my home church, two teens struggling with self-injury have shared their stories with me in the past month.

This summer I was a dean at camp. A 14-year-old girl showed me the jagged scars on her stomach where she'd carved the name of her boyfriend with broken glass.

Then, recently, I sat at a basketball game with several Christian teens. A 17-year-old girl sat in front of me. When a player swished a three-pointer, we jumped to our feet to celebrate. She threw her hands up in the air. Faded scars ran down the length of one arm; two small cuts veered across the large vein on her hand. Without thinking, I placed my hand over the cuts, and she jerked down her sleeve.

"How long have you been cutting?" I asked quietly.

She sat next to me, slowly raised her sleeve, and revealed the path of emotional pain marked on her flesh by razor blades. "I've never told anybody before," she said. "I'm only talking to you because you didn't freak out. The last thing I want is for my Christian friends to think I'm evil or possessed. I love God with all my heart. But I feel so worthless. I feel trapped."

It's even more confusing for teens because self-injury is painted in a favorable light in teen culture. Bands such as Manic Street Preachers ("Razorblade Beat") and Deftones ("Knife Party at the Niko") are only two of the many examples of lyrics sung by secular musical artists who glorify self-mutilation. Self-injuring teens struggle with an accepting youth culture versus a faith community that would be shocked by their behavior.

Behind the Behavior

Brooke Shewmaker is a 20-year-old college student I met while researching my first book for teens. When she was 16, Brooke hid behind locked doors so her mom wouldn't discover her self-injuring activities. She carved on her arms with a razor blade and later moved to her stomach. Brooke called her stomach her billboard, etching words on it she couldn't say to anyone else. Brooke's experience gave me my first glimpse into the world of self-injury. I had to ask her the question that loomed large in my mind: "Why would any teen take a razor blade or broken glass and secretly inflict pain and scars upon her body?"

"In some ways, it was the only control I felt I had at the time," Brooke told me. "I felt rejected. My mother was a counselor but didn't have time to talk to me. My father lived in a different state. Boyfriends failed me, and I didn't know Jesus for who he was. I wanted something that I could control, a sense of power—and cutting gave that to me."

Lysamena*, a Christian from the age of 11, says she confused cutting with her identity. "I know people whose self-injury started because they were so disgusted at themselves that the logical thing to do—in their minds—was to hurt themselves."

When a parent sees the wounds on their teen's arms, they often react in fear, shock, and anger. They threaten. They beg. They want it to stop. According to Wendy Lader, Ph.D., founder of Safe Alternatives, an in-house program for self-injurers, "Two common reactions are either to become furious at the teen and to punish her, or to minimize it as a phase or a bid for attention and ignore it."

But Leslie Vernick, author and licensed counselor at Christ-Centered Counseling for Individuals and Families, says what a teen's really saying is, Help, I'm hurting and I don't know how to deal with my pain!

"The endorphins released during cutting often soothe a deeper pain—the pain of rejection, depression, self-hatred, or helplessness," says Vernick. A teen who self-injures finds instant release through the biochemical reaction and confuses cutting with comfort.

Lader describes self-injury as "self-medication." Cutters haven't learned to identify or express their emotions so the feelings persist. "The teen is using physical pain as a means of saying something she's unable or unwilling to put into words," explains Vernick. "She needs to be listened to and helped to process whatever emotional pain (even if we as adults might see it as typical teenage pain) she feels so she may learn healthy ways of dealing with hurts."

The first step is to focus on the deeper emotional needs of your teen. "If a parent discovers her child is self-injuring, ask lots of questions. Is it a one-time thing? Is it a pattern? What did your child hope to accomplish by doing this?" Vernick advises. "Check other parts of the body. Arms and legs are the favorite spots for cutting, and if there are old marks, don't hesitate to get some professional help ASAP."

My friend Channi* and I visited more than a year ago. She was newly divorced and the whole family was struggling with unwanted changes. Then she discovered her youngest daughter, Marissa*, was cutting herself.

"This isn't something you can share at Bible study," she said. "I was afraid they wouldn't understand, or worse, judge my daughter or me."

Channi and Marissa went to see a Christian family counselor. There she discovered that Marissa was angry and felt abandoned by her father. Marissa had suppressed her feelings because the whole family was struggling, and she didn't want to be a burden. Cutting became her release.

After several sessions, Marissa began talking openly with her mom about her feelings. The counselor also connected Marissa with an older teen who once self-injured but was now free of cutting. They became e-mail friends.

I talked with Channi recently, and her report was enthusiastic. "Marissa is doing great! We have an open-door policy in our house. Nothing's hidden. If any of us is struggling, we pray about it together. Marissa's still seeing a counselor, but she's assured me Marissa's doing well. I believe that."

Repairing the Damage

Though death isn't the goal of this violence, it can cause scarring, infection, and even a fatality if the cutter goes too deep or the infection isn't treated. By addressing the issue right away, the teen has a greater opportunity to find help emotionally. The longer a teen self-injures, the more difficult it is because he or she is unsure of how to deal with real-life problems in healthy ways.

Brianna*, the teen I met at the basketball game, has ridden the self-injury roller coast for more than three years. She started cutting when she was 14. Her parents believed Brianna's actions would pass with time. They disciplined her, scolded her, and watched her every move.

After three years, they realized the problem wasn't going away. They found a counselor and Brianna began weekly sessions.

Brianna is recovering, but in the past two months she relapsed twice. One of Brianna's greatest challenges is that she feels alone in her recovery. When she tries to let her parents know she's tempted, they respond with, "That's what the counselor is for."

In Marissa and Channi's case, seeking help early and working together in the recovery process has helped Marissa recover with greater success.

Channi makes a point to notice what's going on with her daughter. She isn't over vigilant (starting every conversations with "So, did you cut yourself last night?"), but watches for signs such as wearing long sleeves and pants in hot weather or patterns of isolation. Channi and Marissa also are aware of "triggers," anything that might cause a strong desire to cut impulsively. Triggers can be music, websites, or blogs (online public diaries) devoted to self-injury. A computer needs to be in full view of everyone in the home and have filtering software.

Channi helped Marissa make her room and home a safe place. They worked together to rid the house of shaving razors (she bought hair-removal cream) and any ordinary item that seemed harmless to Channi but that tempted her daughter (such as a ruler Marissa kept in her notebook).

Channi affirmed Marissa. She let her know that she still saw Marissa as the same person she was before she self-injured, that Marissa was loved—even when she lapsed. If Marissa felt tempted to cut or actually self-injured, she knew she could go to her mom. In the beginning, Marissa struggled with immense shame. And Channi had to learn to react without overwhelming fear or danger.

Eventually, Marissa was freed from the trap of shame and guilt. "If I'd focused on the injury rather than what was going on in Marissa's life, we'd still be struggling," Channi says today.

Finding God in the Pain

After Lysamena found healing, she created a website (www.self-injury.org/index.html) for those struggling with self-violence.

"It's more prevalent among Christian teens than people like to think," she says. "Self-injury is just beginning to be recognized and treated in Christian circles. If you do it, you feel like a freak. You feel unlovable, as if you were beyond God's grace. But a cutter needs to realize Jesus loves her as she is—and that his atonement is sufficient for her sins."

Lysamena's breakthrough came when she transferred to a Christian school. "There, two counselors became my advocates and friends. They weren't afraid to discuss self-injury, and I learned from them to cling to Bible verses during hard times. They supported me—as did many people from my youth group. Their compassion, understanding, and kindness helped me stop hurting myself."

Brooke felt hope when she realized God wasn't repulsed by her behavior. Her breakthrough came when she grasped the fact she belonged to a compassionate, loving God who still believed in her.

"It's not a God thing to inflict pain upon yourself," says Brooke. "But as Corrie ten Boom once said, 'There is no pit that Jesus is not deeper still.' God offers an option for a clean slate. He's Jehovah-Rophe, my healer."

Hope for the Hurting

The timely message for the hurting mom I met at the conference that day—and for other families struggling with self-injury—is this: God isn't afraid of the tough stuff. There is hope, and there are positive steps to take to find healing.

While self-injury can be a squeamish topic, it's an important one. And no matter how this behavior appears to the outside world, God views these teens and their parents through a lens of worth.

T. Suzanne Eller is a speaker to teens and parents of teens and author of Real Issues, Real Teens—What Every Parent Needs to Know (Life Journey—Cook). Check out her website at daretobelieve.org.

* Names have been changed.


You can reach Leslie Vernick at LeslieVern@aol.com; Wendy Lader at Wladersafe@aol.com; Brooke Shewmaker at Littlelamb81@aol.com; Lysamena at LeslieVern@aol.com; and Suzanne Eller at tseller@daretobelieve.org.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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