Archive for the ‘Self-injury’ Category

On my blog entry entitled Masturbation as a Form of Self-Injury after Sexual Child Abuse, a reader asked the following question:

Faith, thank you so much for this blog. It is so nice to hear that I am not the only one who does this. That in itself brings a huge weight off my shoulders. My biggest question is though, how do I go about stopping an…for lack of a better word…addiction that has been going on for years? ~ Gia

Although some people might fear that self-injury through masturbation is a more extreme form of an addiction/compulsion, it really is just an addiction or compulsion just like any other. Whether you struggle with an eating disorder, self-injury, or an addiction to porn, drugs, or alcohol, your addiction or compulsion is being fueled by your avoidance of facing your painful emotions.

The first step in stopping an addiction or compulsion is understanding what emotional need it is meeting. The bottom line is that all addictions and compulsions work for you on some level. My most troublesome addiction/compulsion is my battle with binge eating. As much as I complain about battling my weight and my lack of control at times with food, binge eating has always worked for me. When I was in a lot of pain as an abused child, food offered me comfort. As I “stuffed down” food, I was really “stuffing down” all of the emotions that I was not yet ready to face.

Once you understand why you are drawn to this particular addiction or compulsion, the second step is to find other ways to meet the same need. For me, learning that it is okay to feel the emotions has been instrumental in weaning off the binge eating. Now, when I get angry, I yell or punch pillows instead of eat. If I feel sad, I cry instead of eat. Since I am no longer trying to “stuff down” my emotions, the pull to binge eat is much less strong.

Third, you need to develop alternative coping strategies. For example, if I drink a glass of wine (I have no alcoholic tendencies) or take a Xanax, I am much less likely to binge eat. Both substances give me the same relief without the calories. Other more positive strategies for me include doing a Sudoku puzzle, talking with a friend, or exercising.

Fourth, build up your confidence in the alternative strategies. I give myself a 15-minute “cooling off” period. I tell myself to try other options for 15 minutes. If, after 15 minutes, I still feel the need to binge eat, I give myself permission to binge with no guilt. Then, I start fresh the next day. I have found that, most of the time, my other strategies will meet my emotional needs, and I don’t need to binge eat after all.

Finally, if you do succumb to the addiction/compulsion, let go of the guilt. You are not going to be free of a lifelong addiction or compulsion overnight, and you will always be vulnerable to it. Recognize that it is okay to lean on your addiction or compulsion from time to time, but keep trying to find other ways to meet your needs.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I Self-Injured Again

Welcome October – the first of three months of h@#$ for me. I have taken a lot of measures to help make this year different, but apparently that is not in the cards.

I woke up on October 1st feeling anxious and out of sorts. I have a lot going on with my kid, which you can read about here. Whenever I cannot help my kid, I feel like the helpless little girl again who has no hope. I cannot seem to separate out his issues from my issues, even though I know in my head that he is safe.

I was so worked up that I took two Xanax. (I am on the smallest dosage possible to prescribe.) That took the anxiety edge off but left me feeling depressed. I got one call after another – four phone calls before 8:00 a.m. I couldn’t focus.

I tried to take care of something that I have been trying to get to for a while now. I was on the phone when my friend showed up early. She offered to help me remove a large piece of broken furniture that I have been nagging hub to get out of my living room since JULY. We were able to carry it, but my two greyhounds slipped through the front door in the process. (I did not realize they were out.)

I tried to stop the male from running and grabbed his tag color. We tussled, but he is 70 lbs and managed to slip out of the collar before taking off full force down the street. My friend tried to wrestle the female, but she got away as well.

I spent the next TWO HOURS driving all over the neighborhood calling them, talking the neighbors, and calling the greyhound rescue. After an hour of not finding them, I had a panic attack and just wanted to die. I got back to my house, and a neighbor was there with the female, who had her tags. So, at least I knew one dog was safe.

The greyhound rescue lady showed up right after this with squawkers (devices used to train the greyhounds – all retired racing greyhounds will run toward that sound rapidly). We drove all over the neighborhood with no luck.

Then, the greyhound rescue lady got a call – Somebody rescued my tag-less dog from a location several miles away where he was running in and out of traffic. She took him to a vet, who scanned my dog for a microchip and then had the information to call me. So, he is now home safe.

I, however, was quite shaken. In the course of trying to find the dogs by car, I backed into my friend’s car, which was parked behind me in the driveway, so now I have to pay to fix her car and inconvenience her to deal with it all. I am shaken and just done. I self-injured (head-banging) for the first time in forever, and I still feel like s#$%, so I thought I would blog about it. I can’t say I feel any better yet.

Sometimes I really just hate my life and want to disappear.

Photo credit: Faith Allen

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I have talked about a lot of uncomfortable topics on this blog, and I will be continuing that trend today. I would like to focus upon the topic of picking. This is not a topic that I hear many adult survivors of child abuse talking about openly. However, adoptive and foster parents of abused children report that their abused children frequently “pick” at their bodies, including their noses, scalps, scabs, and pretty much anything else they can pick.

Here is an excerpt from a blog written by a woman named FosterMommy. As you can tell by her name, she is a foster parent who has fostered multiple children that have been removed from abusive homes:

Anxiety can cause picking the nose, ears, scalp, or any other orifice even to the point of bleeding and including self-mutilation. ~ FosterMommy from Attending Support Group Combined With Training

These behaviors do not just magically “go away” when the abused child becomes an adult, and these are children who have been removed from the abuse, placed into safe homes, and are receiving therapy. So, let’s face it – many adult survivors of child abuse struggle with picking as well. They are just too embarrassed to talk about it.

Why do child abuse survivors “pick”? As FosterMommy stated, picking is a way to manage anxiety. As the child abuse survivor picks at his or her body, it gives the anxiety a temporary outlet.

I have always picked at my scabs. I never realized that was abnormal until other people would comment about how long it would take for my wounds to heal. I then read in a book about self-injury that picking at scabs was a form of self-injury. That was news to me!

The thing is, when I pick at a scab, I am not consciously aware that I am doing it. I always chalked it up to being a “bad habit” like biting your nails. (Now, biting my nails is not a behavior I struggle with. I am too freaked out about my teeth to do it.) I would look down, notice that I was bleeding again, and be truly surprised by it.

Regardless of the form of picking you use (and you might pick at a variety of areas of your body), there is nothing “wrong” with you. The picking is simply another normal aftereffect of the abuse. Functionally, the picking is no different than anything else you do to manage your anxiety. You have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.

Related Topic:

“Picking” as a Way of Managing Anxiety

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry Forms of Self-Injury: Pulling Your Hair Out, a reader left the following comment:

When I pick [self-injure] I am dissociated to another self that has no access to my usual logical brain functions. It is a separate system which sole function is to relieve tension and not to think. Its been created for the exact purpose TO NOT THINK … I am still desperately trying to access that painful part of self and I want to know how.

This comment addresses an issue that many people with dissociative identity disorder (DID) wrestle with – the self-injuring alter part. I had the same issue, only my self-injuring alter part would make me bang my head.

My self-injuring alter part came about after being forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice” between the life of my sister or my beloved dog. I wrote about the details of what created this alter part in my blog entry Child Abuse: Severe Emotional Abuses I Suffered.

Until I healed this part of myself, I would have no control over the urge to self-injure whenever that part of myself was triggered. My husband and I would be having an argument. He would tell me that I needed to choose between two unacceptable choices, and I would run from the room and start banging my head. There was no thought process involved. That alter part would take over, and I was powerless to stop the head-banging.

However, I realized that I did have some power over the head-banging. I had the power to run into another room before I started. I also had the power to aim my head into a pillow rather than the wall. This helped me to see that I did have some sort of connection to this part of myself, even though it felt foreign.

As for how to access that painful part of yourself – You can reach out to that part of yourself. Tell that part of yourself that you love her. Thank her for the role she played in helping you survive the abuse. Send her lots of love.

The next step is harder. Invite that part of yourself to release the memory that split her off. That memory is (obviously) going to be traumatizing. Just remember that you already survived the abuse – you can survive the memory.

The final piece is the hardest yet – Accept that part of yourself as you. I continue to wrestle with this today. I have many of my memories, but I still have trouble accepting that these horrible things happened to my body because it feels more like it happened to “her” and not “me.” But the truth is that it was my body, and each alter part is a part of me.

As you accept the self-injuring alter part as yourself, you will be able to heal that very wounded part of yourself. As you heal that part of yourself, you will no longer feel the need to self-injure, or at least not as frequently as you do now.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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When people hear the phrase “self-injury,” they generally think about people who cut themselves (cutting). However, cutting is only one type of self-injury.

People use numerous other types of self-injury, including…

  • Banging head
  • Breaking bones
  • Burning themselves
  • Picking at skin and/or scabs
  • Pulling out hair and/or eyebrows

Pulling out your hair, including your eyebrows, is not a form of self-injury that I see a lot of discussion about, but this form of self-injury happens much more frequently than you might realize.

People who pull out their hair are self-injuring for the same reasons as others who engage in self-injury: They are managing their emotions. The person feels anxiety or other strong negative emotion. When he or she pulls out hair, the anxiety eases. The person continues to pull out his hair because doing so is an effective way to manage the stress.

Of course, pulling out your hair comes with physical consequences, just like any other form of self-injury does. People who pull out their hair can wind up with bald patches on their head. They might have to pencil in their eyebrows with makeup because they have plucked out all of their eyebrow hairs. Also, once all of the hair has been removed, there is nothing left to manage the repressed emotions.

If you self-injure by pulling out your hair, you are not alone. Many people do this but are afraid or ashamed to talk about it. It really does make logical sense why you do this. Whenever you pull out your hair, you feel a reduction in your overwhelming level of anxiety or other strong emotions.

There are other, more positive, ways to cope with your emotions. The best way is to talk about them. Rather than express yourself physically, try talking about what you are feeling. Write down your feelings in a journal. Allow yourself to cry. As you learn to manage your emotions in other, more positive ways, you will feel less of a compulsive to pull out your hair.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Today I am going to talk about a very difficult topic that affects many survivors of severe child abuse, particularly those who experienced severe sexual abuse and/or ritual abuse. The topic is using masturbation as a form of self-injury.

People who self-injure with masturbation tend to be women who use objects that cut, burn, or otherwise harm their genitals while they masturbate. I know women who have used anything from knives to hot curling irons to self-injure through masturbation. The only way these women seem to be able to climax is by experiencing pain, and the self-inflicted pain can be severe.

Why would a woman choose to masturbate with a knife, curling iron, or other dangerous object? The reason is that the child abuse survivor’s first sexual experiences intermixed orgasms with pain. Many child abuse survivors experienced orgasms during sexual abuse, which caused the child’s body to feel both “pleasure” and pain at the same time. Even though the child’s body reacted by having an orgasm, the child did not want the rape or sexual abuse, and the experiences of terror, pain, and orgasm got all jumbled up in the child’s head.

Now, as an adult, the child abuse survivor has a desire for sexual pleasure (just like any other adult human being), but the only way to achieve an orgasm is to combine it with pain and, in some cases, even bloodshed. Numerous child abuse survivors also need to fantasize about reliving the abuse in order to have an orgasm, whether through masturbation or consensual sex. In some cases, masturbating with dangerous objects is a reenactment of sexual abuse that the person suffered as a child.

The women I have spoken with who struggle with using masturbation as a form of self-injury feel deep shame about what they are doing, and each one fears that she is the only person on the planet who does such a thing. They also tell me that masturbating as self-injury is a compulsion: They want to stop, but they feel powerless to do so. This is true of all forms of self-injury, which is why self-injury is a compulsion, not a recreational hobby.

If you struggle with masturbating as a form of self-injury, you are not alone. You are also not “crazy.” Just like anyone else who struggles with other forms of self-injury, you can learn how to stop self-injuring through masturbation. It won’t happen overnight, but you can move toward weaning yourself off your compulsion.

The key to healing from any form of self-injury is learning how to talk about your feelings and express your emotions instead of shoving them back down inside. A good start is finding a qualified therapist with experience in counseling child abuse survivors. The self-injury is a symptom, not the cause. If you had never been sexually abused, then you would not feel a compulsion to self-injure through masturbating. Healing your emotional wounds from the underlying pain will help you stop feeling the need to self-injure through masturbation.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Yesterday was a very rough day. I have been waiting a long time to get my son medicated for his Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Hub and I have not been on the same page about this issue from the beginning. The doctor prescribed medication in pill form, which my seven-year-old son is afraid to swallow. Long story short, I could not get him to take the pills, and hub and I wound up in a screaming match with hub “forbidding” me to request another form of medication for our son because we already spent a large amount of money on those pills.

I am sure this is a situation experienced by numerous households all over the world, but my reaction was far more intense than I would imagine most people would react. The problem is that anything involving my kid triggers issues about myself. My husband’s refusal to consider another form of medication (leaving me to try to “force” pills down his throat or forego necessary medication) triggered all of the feelings of hopelessness. It made me feel like I was facing a “Sophie’s Choice” of two unacceptable options. Whenever I feel cornered like this, my need to self-injure by banging my head becomes overwhelming.

Fortunately, this has not happened to me in well over a year. I have become much better about setting boundaries and refusing to let other people run my life. However, for whatever reason, I felt cornered and succombed to the overwhelming urge to self-injure. I was in such a bad place that it was the better alternative to what I wanted to do.

My sister, who also has a history of self-injury, talked me down, and she helped me to see that I do have choices. I withdrew the cost of the medication from my own account (I have a personal account that I fund with my paychecks from writing jobs) and placed it on the table for hub. Now, I will get whatever medication my son needs, and hub cannot complain about the cost because I am paying for it. And if he tries to back me into a corner again, I will come out fighting rather than harm myself again.

I hate that I went to that place again. I hate that I can still be triggered to that very deep, dark place in such a short period of time. I am grateful that I was able to pull out of the nosedive and be okay. I am also grateful that I was able to feel the pain rather than continue to “bang it away.” I probably cried for five hours yesterday, and I feel better for it, although I also feel spent.

It bothers me that I can still be driven to self-injury. It bothers me that the person who mostly has the “power” to trigger this in me is my spouse, who should be my safe place to fall instead of the one making me feel cornered. I have a lot to think about, but for now I am too tired. I just want to recuperate from a very rough day.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Man under palm trees (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Self-injury is a very common aftereffect of childhood abuse. Most people think that self-injury is synonymous with cutting, but the truth is that there is a wide variety of ways to self-injure that do not involve cutting yourself. Here is a small sample of ways that people self-injure:

  • Banging head
  • Breaking bones
  • Burning themselves
  • Cutting themselves
  • Picking at skin and/or scabs
  • Pulling out hair and/or eyebrows

Even biting your fingernails is a minor form of self-injury.

Why do people self-injure? They do it because it is a very effective way to manage pain. I did not say that it is healthy in the long run, but it is quite effective in the short run.

I used to self-injure by banging my head. While that sounds painful (and it was – I gave myself whiplash more than once), I could not feel any physical pain in the moment. What I felt was immediate relief from my very deep emotional pain. Self-injuring provided me with a way to make the emotional pain stop immediately. When I felt like I was free-falling into very deep pain, I knew I could make it stop as if I was flipping a switch.

Unfortunately, there are long-term consequences to self-injuring. I have experienced whiplash and bruised my face, and I did have to feel the pain for several days afterward. I am fortunate that I never did more physical damage to myself.

For those who cut or burn themselves, they wear permanent scars, even after they stop self-injuring. Those who leave scars on themselves often have trouble expressing their pain. Instead, they carve their pain onto their bodies, so their bodies scream their story to the world while they have no voice. As one survivor friend put it, “My abusers’ actions left no marks. I left those on myself.”

People who self-injure are not trying to commit “mini-suicides.” Self-injury is simply a coping tool, albeit a potentially dangerous one. I cringe when I hear about parents or spouses who forbid self-injury and then do spot checks to enforce the rule. People who self-injure are in deep emotional pain, and they are not going to stop until they develop more healthy ways to manage the pain and then heal the underlying pain that is driving the behavior.

Both my sister and I have found a way to stop self-injuring, and you can, too. There are better ways to manage your pain without harming yourself. Self-injuring does not make you a “freak.” Self-injury is a coping tool you are using to manage your pain. The more you can lean on more positive coping tools, the less you will need to lean on self-injury. See Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse for a list of positive coping tools.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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