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Friday, January 14, 2011

A Greater Understanding: Self-Harm

One of the greatest benefits of blogging is that it affords us a chance to learn about lifestyles and cultures that we would never know otherwise. Shortly after I started my first blog last year I stumbled upon someone who revealed a world of which I knew very little.

L. was a bi-sexual woman in her late-twenties, involved in a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship with her female partner. She was the submissive in that relationship, as well as in her previous relationship with a male partner.  She also self-injured.  In other words, she willingly cut herself.  The conversation that followed was one of the most valuable experiences I've had in understanding a life lived much differently than my own.  It also raised an important question. 

Why is self-harm not talked about more often?

No way around it, this is a heavy subject.  It's a growing phenomenon, particularly common among girls and starting typically around age fourteen. People who self-harm commonly have eating disorders. They may have a history of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. Many are sensitive overachievers. Self-injury begins as a defense against what's going on in their lives; it's a way of gaining control.  Psychiatrists believe that for people with emotional problems, self-injury has an effect similar to cocaine and other drugs that release endorphins to create a state of comfort.

Recently on one of my almost-daily visits to the psychology section of my favourite local bookseller, I chanced upon a book written by a woman who experienced this through most of her life. 


Victoria Leatham has written this book under a pseudonym.  Her story began in her late teens with the realization that she was depressed but unsure of how to deal with it.  It continued, and after university she turned to self-harm as an escape.  In her words, "What I wanted-what I needed- was a pain that I could see and deal with.  I couldn't cope with the mess inside me any longer, and cutting myself seemed to be the best solution."

As the book moves forward we read of her struggle over the following years to gain control, in which she experienced (amongst other things) binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and visits to various psychiatrists.  She was prescribed various treatments over time, including numerous medications, and voluntarily had herself institutionalized on a few occasions.  She received the help she needed through cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), in which she came face to face with her thinking and beliefs. CBT commonly entails keeping a diary of significant events and associated feelings, thoughts and behaviors; questioning and testing cognitions, assumptions, evaluations and beliefs that might be unhelpful and unrealistic; gradually facing activities which may have been avoided; and trying out new ways of behaving and reacting.  The most difficult part of this for her was learning not to trust her instincts.

Although this book sounds like an incredibly heavy read, I found it very hard to put down. It's well-written, not at all clinical, and gives a lot of insight into the mind of one person struggling to break free of her demons.  Although she made some unfortunate choices, I was struck by her continuing strength and determination to break free of this behaviour.  She never gave up, but instead continually sought treatment.

Approximately 1% of the US population has inflicted physical injury upon themselves at some time in their life as a way of coping with an overwhelming situation or feeling. Those numbers are most likely an underestimation, because the majority of acts of self-injury go unreported.  The figures are higher in many other countries. I would have liked to have seen the book include information at the end on how to seek help, perhaps include some links to treatment centres.  Otherwise it's an excellent and (I think) important read to gain a greater understanding of this tragic affliction.  Definitely recommended.

As a side note, in preparation for this post I've done some research and found that there are many centres which offer treatment for those who self-harm.  One of the better-known seems to be S.A.F.E. Alternatives (click to link to their site).  If you know any teenagers struggling with similarly serious issues I'm including a link to Young Womens Resource Center (click to link).


  1. This was very insightful. I'm intrigued by this book. :)

  2. You're the first to comment here Sophie! ♥

    It's a fascinating read, helped me understand self-harm better. I recommend it.