I began to self harm when I was 13 years old. Cutting became my response to the inner and outer turmoil I was experiencing in my life. For the first few years of this behaviour there was very little understanding of the hold that this method of self harm had on my mind.
My friends and family had no idea why I couldn’t stop cutting.
“Talk to us when you’re upset,” my parents told me.
“Write in your journal,” my social worker would say.
“Go listen to music or give me a call,” my friends said.
I tried all those things and more but nothing made the cutting stop. I couldn’t understand it. I knew cutting was hurting me and I knew it was hurting those who loved me. But no amount of trying or threatening was making me stop. It wasn’t until much later, when I entered young adulthood, that I realized why I had and still have difficultly stopping the self harming behaviour: I am addicted to cutting.
Many of us may be more familiar with addiction being used when speaking about a person’s substance use (ie: drugs and alcohol). More recently addiction has been used to define any behaviour that is used to alter ones mood despite evidence that the behaviour is causing damage.
Self harm can create what is known in the addiction field as a psychological dependence. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada defines psychological dependence as when a person feels they need to engage in the damaging behaviour to function or feel comfortable. That was the reality I was living in and that is the reality of other young people.
I feel that the addictive qualities of self harm were never considered in my treatment. The major focus was the depression I was experiencing but because I was psychologically dependent treating the depression was not treating the self harm. I wonder if social workers and psychiatrists had address the cutting as a psychological addiction instead of a poor coping mechanism and a symptom then maybe I would not be coming into my 11th year of the behaviour.
But like any addiction it can be broken. In 2012 achieved 7 months of being self harm free, the longest I have ever gone without the behaviour, and although I have returned to cutting due to some emotional setbacks I am currently only engaging in the behaviour about once a month. I am proud of this accomplishment.
Not every young person who engages in self harm will develop a psychological dependency. This means that treating the self harm needs to be tailored to the young person.
There is still very little new in-depth research on self harm because of its secretive nature and usual assumption of being just a symptom. It is my hope that understanding self harming behaviour can turn into a psychological addiction will help professionals and parents better understand and help young people who engage in self harm.
CAMH: Drug Use/Addiction
(Photo Credit: Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotosnet.net)