Sadly, it is fairly common for survivors of sexual abuse (and other types of power abuse) to indulge in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting. Cutting is willful injury to one's self using something sharp. Obviously, the motivations for cutting can lead to other forms of self-mutilation besides actual bloodletting. The key point is that all of them hurt, and all of them cause some sort of damage to one's body. The phenomenon has become known in general as "cutting" because more people seem to have specifically cut themselves than hurt themselves in other ways. This is not to invalidate anyone else's experiences, it's just that "cutting" has become a convenient label. (1)
Self-Injury (Self-Mutilation)Episodic self-injurious behaviour (SIB) is observed among normally developing children and teenagers. Chronic and severe SIB is more common among people with developmental or psychiatric disabilities or other special populations such as prisoners. SIB may be related to specific biological conditions or syndromes. SIB can be used for attention-seeking, self-stimulation, or for communication (to either get or avoid something). Effective intervention programmes identify and remedy the cause, and teach replacement behaviours. (www.uq.edu.au)
There are several theories as to why people indulge in self-mutilation. One is that it's a control issue. When children are abused, they are in a situation of no control. Their abuser(s) can hurt them any time, and the children are largely (if not completely) powerless to stop it. When the child grows older and is faced with stressful situations, there is often a strong desire/expectation for some sort of pain, since pain is associated with stress in that person's mind. People who have had these associations forced on them frequently cut themselves because this is a pain that satisfies the psychological desire for pain, and is *also* a pain that the victim can stop. At last the person is in control. And while the cutting itself is harmful and can cause shame and guilt later, I can tell you that the control feels good.
Another theory is that people who were abused as children often have been taught (by their abusers, or by others who have denied the child's experiences as being valid) that they are bad people, who should by all rights be punished. Sometimes people like this turn to behaviors like sado-masochism, or bondage-and-dominance in order to get the punishment that they want. Others can't ask others to punish them, so they punish themselves with cutting.
A third theory is that cutting is a manifestation of a desire to become physically unattractive. This is often true of girls who are constantly bombarded with messages (overt and subtle) that they are beautiful and therefore desirable. They naturally reason that if they make themselves unattractive, no one will rape them because they will be undesirable. This chain of reasoning can also lead to compulsive eating behaviors that leave the abuse victim overweight and thus outside of what this society calls attractive.
Of course, every person is different, and there are many less common theories as to why people are cutters. If a cutter doesn't fit any of the above models, that doesn't mean their situation is fundamentally different or less valid. Also, it is common for more than one of these thought patterns acting in concert to produce some very complicated rationales for self-mutilation. These desires can be quite strong, and often a cutter will not know why s/he indulges in such behavior. (1)
Francis, Joy. Hurting only myself. Community Care, 1053, 2-8 Feb. 1995, 10
Disturbing evidence suggests practitioners are not equipped to meet the growing challenge of adolescent self-harm. Report on a Hackney initiative to address the needs in this small and under-researched area.
Wrate, R M Suicidal tendencies Scottish Child, November/December 1995, 8-11
Analyses the reasons behind the increase in suicide and attempted suicide among children and adolescents
Downey, Rachel, Young and alone . Community care, 1111, 14-20 Mar 1996, 23
The author goes behind the walls of Hull Prison to assess a radical new method of preventing self-harm and suicide among juveniles on remand.
Colthup, Neil . Prison initiative reduces juvenile custody numbers . Community care, 1115, 11-17 Apr 1996, 14
Letter from the Delinquency management co-ordinator for Humberside SSD regarding methods adopted to prevent self-harm in juvenile remand centres.
Harrison, Diane , Scarred by pain . Community care,1135, 29 Aug-4 Sep 1996,17
A young woman inflicts pain on herself because she feels it is the only part of her life over which she has any control. For that young woman and others like her, self-harm is a way of expressing the unspeakable.
Teenage girls are more likely to harm themselves Professional Social Work, Sept 1996, 2
A study of admissions at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford has found that teenage girls are more likely to inflict harm on themselves than boys, and that self-harm is rare under the age of 12.
Hartman, David, Cutting among young people in adolescent units. Therapeutic Communities, 17/1, Spring 1996, 5-17
Discussion of deliberate non-suicidal cutting by adolescents in psychiatric units.
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Nonlethal forms of self-injury are often discussed together with suicide attempts as though they belonged on a continuum of self-harm. Both types of self-injury are common in prisons, which have a predominantly male population; however, most studies of nonlethal self-injury have been done with female subjects. This exploratory study tested the hypothesis that prisoners who injured themselves without intending to die would differ clinically from prisoners who had attempted suicide. Inmates admitted to the prison unit of a public hospital for treatment of self-inflicted wounds or who had a history of previous self-injury were administered a standardized intake protocol by the first author, which included asking about their intent at the time they injured themselves. Patients were classified as self-mutilators or suicide attempters on the basis of intent. Fifteen patients reported that they had attempted to take their own lives, while 16 reported other reasons for harming themselves. Suicide attempt was associated with adult affective disorder 13/15 versus 2/16 mutilators); self-mutilation with a history of childhood hyperactivity (12/16 versus 1/15 suicide attempters) and a mixed dysthymia/anxiety syndrome that began in childhood or early adolescence (9/16). Prison self-mutilators and suicide attempters had very different clinical presentations and histories. The history of childhood hyperactivity in self-mutilators deserves further study in both correctional and noncorrectional populations.
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Downey, Rachel; Young and alone; Community care, 1111, 14-20 Mar 1996, 23;
Francis, Joy. ( 1995); Hurting only myself; Community Care, 1053, 2-8 Feb.
Harrison, Diane; Scarred by pain; Community care,1135, 29 Aug-4 Sep 1996,17
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A number of helping resources are listed at these web sites:
People, ResourcesA well-known practitioner in the field is Tracy Alderman, Ph.D. (Licensed Clinical Psychologist) San Diego, CA 92102. (619) 855-3293 DrTracyA@aol.com. Author of The Scarred Soul: Understanding and ending self-inflicted violence, a very wise and useful self-help book or people who self-harm.
You can read an interesting TRANSCRIPT
of an on-line question-and-answer conference.
SHOUT (Self-Harm overcome by understanding and tolerance)
S.A.F.E. in Canada
1. Jason Black: Cutting and Self-Mutilation, Anonymous Sexual Abuse Recovery, Canada.