My Struggles With Self Injury

Am I bleeding?  Suddenly, I stared down at my left arm and I saw the blood pooling up from five crescent shaped imprints on my arm. Somehow, I had dug my nails into my flesh so deeply, I had caused myself to bleed. 


Well, that can’t be good, I thought. I immediately pulled my sleeve down to cover the bruise that had already started to form around the imprints I had made. To cover the shame. This wasn’t the first time or the last time, I would hurt myself, without even realizing it. 


As the pain increased, my attention would be drawn away from the cascade of emotions within me to the pain in my arm. My anxiety felt like falling into quicksand of morbid introspection,* whereas self-injury was the shock my system needed – the strong branch helping me climb out. The only problem, was that as I clawed my way out of the quicksand, I found myself as quickly in a pit of despair – an unending cycle of self-harm. 


It wasn’t until years that I truly understood what I had done and why I had done it. In an effort to stop the panic attacks that were happening more and more frequently, I had picked up some pretty bad coping mechanisms – one of which included self-harm. 


The struggle with having an undiagnosed, unhealed, hidden mental health disorder in your teenage years, is that you feel like you’re old enough and strong enough to solve it on your own and you somehow are even able to hide it. 


In high school, I struggled with 3-4 panic attacks a week…sometimes daily and I felt all alone.  I didn’t share with anyone how bad it had gotten.  Feeling completely out of control, I had somehow managed to learn how to self-soothe myself with a variety of different coping mechanisms, which were not only unhealthy but also weren’t truly helping. 


As an adult, who works in child safety - trying to protect young people - and as an adult who does training on mental health, self-injury and helping teens in crisis, I’m still embarrassed to think I ever did that.  I didn’t know then that 1-4% of the population and 14-39% of teenagers struggle with self-injury (according to the Canadian Mental Health Association). Sadly, shame still wells up in my heart when I think that I use to dig my nails so hard into my arm that I broke the skin. Do you know how hard you have to be gripping your arm to make it bleed? It’s not an easy task.


And that wasn’t the only horrible coping mechanism I had. I ate too much or I ate nothing. I binged. I avoided situations and people. I hid myself in books, reading hundreds of books a year because I was safe there. I escaped to washrooms banging my head on the 

wall, I didn’t sign up for things, cancelled plans and made excuses. I found many ways to hurt myself repeatedly, all in the pursuit of silencing the anxiety monster in my mind. 


I am embarrassed to think I didn’t ask for help, when there were obviously so many different adults in my life who would have been there for me – who were there for me. They loved me and would have helped…if only they knew. 


There is truly a part of me which so desperately wishes I could go back in time and tell that hurt, scared, lonely, fearful teen that she will be okay. I wish I could go give her a hug and a shoulder to cry on. I wish I could tell her to reach out years earlier because it would have saved her so much pain. 


But I can’t. So, instead I am there now – there for others. Telling the truth and putting the truth out there. 


I know this is a really personal topic to write an article about. But I also know that there are young people all around us, who are suffering, and I truly desire to be there for them. So, if I still have your attention, I’d like to share some things with you, that I wish the adults in my life had known, so they could have helped me, even when I didn’t ask for it or know how to ask for it. 


Firstly, what is self-injury? “Self-injury is any deliberate, non-suicidal behaviour that inflicts physical harm on your body and is aimed at relieving emotional distress” ( A key thing to understand about self-injury, however, is that hurting yourself on purpose doesn’t mean that the individual wants to end their life. Rather, self-injury’s motivation is relieving emotional distress. 


There are many different methods of self-injury. These include cutting/scratching (what I struggled with), burning/branding, hitting yourself to the point of injury, biting, pulling out hair, picking at sores, overdosing on medication, poisoning, hanging/strangulation activities without suicidal intent, etc. 


While it is important to understand what self-injury is, it’s also important to understand what it’s not. It is not just a cry for attention or a manipulative behaviour. It is not for pleasure, just a trend, an adrenaline rush or a failed suicide attempt. Self- injury is a coping mechanism. Whether the individual is struggling with mental health challenges - like I was, is searching for a sense of control, attempting to punish themselves, or to fill a sense of emptiness/numbness/loneliness, it is a coping mechanism. 


We all need coping mechanisms. When life is hard, stressful, overwhelming, depressing or anxiety inducing – we need ways to cope. In those moments, we can choose healthy coping mechanisms like art, exercise, going for a walk, listening to music, talking to someone, etc. or we can choose 

unhealthy coping mechanisms like self-injury, drug/alcohol addictions, eating disorders etc. 


If you notice someone with unexplained or frequent injuries, odd clothing choices for the weather, extremely low self-esteem, mood changes or if you find items which could be used, for self-injury, you should be concerned. These are some of the warning signs that someone may be struggling with self-injurious behaviour.  You might also see scars in the shapes of patterns, excessive rubbing of certain areas or statements of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness. 


I’d like to share some of the ways you can help someone who is struggling with self-injury, but before I do, I think it’s important to share some of the things that don’t help. Guilt-tripping or shaming someone won’t help – they already feel guilt and shame. Showing disgust/repulsion, creating “no-self-harm contracts,” bribing someone, ultimatums or rushing someone to just stop also won’t help. 


The key thing to understand is that if someone is struggling with self-injury, they are most likely using it as a coping mechanism for something else. 15-year-old me, was coping with my anxiety disorder by digging my nails into my arm. Simply taking away the self-harm wouldn’t have helped, as I would have continued to feel out of control and overwhelmed. I needed to replace that bad coping mechanism with a good one. One of the best things we can do, is to teach our students positive coping strategies … talking about them, modeling them, and practicing them.


We can also help young people by getting them professional help – remember, it’s not your job to take on the role of therapist. 


There is hope at the end of the dark tunnel of self-injury. With strong supports, professional help, and practicing positive coping strategies, I have been able to get help and so can you and/or the youth you’re working with. You’re not alone. 


*Term borrowed from Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero.

*Previously published in PROTECT publication issue 8.

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