They say, they're just trying to deal with their emotional pain, but it's the way they deal that seems so shocking. These girls cut and burn themselves, sometimes so severely that they're literally scarred for life. It's gruesome, it's dangerous, and it's incredibly hard to stop - but with help, these girls did.
Carrie was 15 and over at her best friends house. They were cleaning the pool, getting it ready for summer, wearing their swimsuits. Her friends older brother came home and went into the house. I'd always had kind of a crush on him, Carrie says. He was cute and older one of those guys you think you'll never ever get together with. I had to go to drivers ed, so I went in the house to change. He walked in on me in the bathroom, and we started kissing at first. Then I tried to make him stop. I told him I had to go, but he just kept [...] he raped me.
Carrie remembers being pretty numb afterward. To this day, the only thing I remember clearly is taking a shower when I got home. My mom came home from work and asked me why I wasn't at drivers ed, and I dont even remember what I said.
Carrie didnt sleep for the next two days. One the third day, sitting by herself in the basement, she cried and got drunk. She started thinking about suicide. While I was up in the bathroom, I saw the razor blade. I took it down with me to the basement and started cutting my wrists.
Although Carrie was thinking about suicide, she wasnt cutting deep enough, and she knew it. It's more like I was trying to sort something out in my head, bringing the razor across my flesh, back and forth. The angrier I got, the more I thought about what had happened, the harder I cut. The next morning in 98-degree weather, Carrie came down to breakfast in a long-sleeved flannel shirt.
After that day, Carrie would feel the urge to cut herself coming on gradually, whenever she felt sad or depressed. She'd wait for a time when she wouldnt be missed, or when no one else was in the house then go down to the basement with a razor and cut and bandage herself.
Its called self-mutilation. Technically, its when a person cuts or burns herself on purpose, repeatedly and over a period of time, to relieve or distract herself from emotional pain brought on by depression, or anger, or even just boredom. It's not like we enjoy cutting ourselves, says Ella, 20, who lives in northern California. It's not like it doesnt hurt physically, either. But that pain is nothing compared with the mental pain.
Still, its dangerous. The risks include permanent scarring, obviously, but also severe infection, the possibility of accidentally opening up a vein (and bleeding to death) and eventually, if not treated depressive feeling so severe that self-mutilators may try to kill themselves for real.
It's also addictive psychologically and possibly even physically for reasons researchers dont fully understand and are studying right now. We're not into this, says another girl interviewed for the story. We're not proud of it. We just cant stop.
Some researchers draw a comparison between self-mutilators and skin art, such as tattooing, body piercing, branding, and artistic scarring. There's a culture that supports these things, says Karen Conterio, the director of SAFE (Self Abuse Finally Ends), the nations first program for self-mutilators, located in Chicago. But that doesnt mean that they're healthy or good for you.
Carrie continued cutting herself until her senior year, when she finally confronted her friend about what her brother had done. She actually said to me, Yeah I heard you screaming, but I didn't go in the house, says Carrie. That pushed me right over the edge. I always suspected she knew something had happened and now I knew for sure that she did but didn't do anything or even ever ask me about it.
Confused and hurt, Carrie went in to see her high school counselor, who hooked her up with a therapist in the Chicago area. Carrie started out by discussing her bad grades with her psychiatrist, but eventually revealed that she had been raped.
My doctor kept trying to get me to come to this girl group she had, Carrie says. Finally, I went and one of the first things I heard that night was one of the other girls talking about how she cut herself.
I had no idea other people did this, says Carrie. I felt so awful for the girl and what she was going through, but I felt so good for myself. I felt less like a freak.
Not long after that session though, Carrie started cutting herself again.
The cuts were bad this time, she says. One Saturday she called her psychiatrist, who insisted she come in and then demanded to see the cuts. With the consent of her parents, Carrie was admitted to the hospital that night for a two-month treatment program for self-injurers.
This was my senior year in high school, Carrie says. My friends were out partying, doing all that senior-year stuff you remember all your life, and I was in the hospital. I was allowed two phone calls a day.
After that everyone knew about what I'd been doing to myself.
Many times kids come to see me because of depression, not because they've been cutting themselves, says Dr. Lynn Ponton, of the Langly-Porter psychiatric hospital in San Francisco. I always ask them if they've ever cut or hurt themselves because it is actually common behavior and they look at me in shock and say, 'How did you know?' When I explain it to them, educate them, they almost always feel a hundred times better.
Dr. Ponton explains that every girl who hurts herself doesnt necessarily have a serious psychological problem. Many are normal kids who are trying to find themselves, even frighten themselves, to learn more about themselves what they can take and what they cant, she says.
In this respect, she says, self-cutting is like drinking, taking drugs, or even experimenting with sex, and after the experimentation phase say, the first or second time its tried it can then go in a positive or negative direction. I think that's what a lot of psychologists who work just with adults dont understand that risk-taking is a normal part of being a teenager.
But how can you tell if youre headed in the negative direction? Dr. Ponton says the warning signs include: Suffering from depression, feeling overwhelmed because of sexual or relationship issues, or having been abused (sexually, physically, or emotionally) and then hurting yourself as a way to deal with your emotions.
Dr. Ponton also believes there may also be biological reasons why people cut themselves. Some of the biology indicates that, after the cutting or burning there are hormones released - endorphins - that bring about feelings of tranquility.
We dont know the whole endorphin loop yet, she admits. But there are indications that this is involved. Some of my patients who have cut only once will describe the feeling they got afterward as a chemical wash. Theres something gong on.
The summer before her senior year of high school, Ella had never been so depressed in her life. Her boyfriend was off surfing somewhere - they live near the coast of California - and she was feeling lonely without him. And mad to tell the truth. Where was he when she really needed him?
Ella had been seeing a psychiatrist, dealing in recent sessions with the fact that she had been sexually abused when she was 5 years old. I was having flashbacks, she says. I was home alone, feeling like no one was helping me.
The scissors, she says, were just there. I saw the, and I thought, Should I do something? Maybe at first I was thinking about suicide, but once I saw the blood, its like I became semi-conscious or something. I just sliced my arms aimlessly, crying hysterically. When I was done, I showed my mom. She was like, Oh, my God, Ella. Why did you do thins? And I didnt really know what to say.
Cutting herself soon came habitual. Anytime Ella felt angry or lonely - which was often - she cut and then bandaged. Before long she was doing it almost every day. Looking back, Ella explains, Its like I was trying to literally show someone how much I was hurting. I was making the internal pain external.
When the physical pain of the cutting wasnt enough to drown out the emotional pain of remembering the sexual abuse, she started burning herself, too. I had a cigarette, and I remember looking at it and thinking, Oh! A new way!
Ellas depression kept her from graduating high school, and it eventually caused her boyfriend and her to drift apart. At the same time, the cutting prevented her from dealing - really dealing - with her depression. Ella felt stuck in a downward spiral. Finally, my mother said, We cant watch you do this to yourself anymore, Ella recalls.
She checked into a sanctuary house in Santa Barbara, California, where she was diagnosed as clinically depressed. Ellas counselors felt she was making a lot of progress in therapy and on the anti-depressants she was prescribed, so it wasnt long before she was released. Months later, though, Ella was hospitalized again after a suicide attempt (she tried to overdose on her antidepressants) and ended up in the intensive-care unit for three days.
Even after treatment, Ella couldnt resist cutting. She was obsessed with herself, with her problems, and she couldnt see a way out. Then she got the news that her half-brother was in the hospital - he'd had emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Seeing him with that scar across hi head made me stop thinking about my own problems and start thinking about what I was doing to myself, she says.
Also, I was staying at the time with my real brother, who was 11 when I was being abused and knew about it and didn't do anything. We talked about it - I confronted him, I guess - and he apologized. Ella pauses, then adds, Its like something was fixed.
About a week later, Ella got the urge to cut herself again. She picked up the scissors, but this time she threw them against the wall and wrote a note to herself instead. It said: Scared and so alone again! I just want to run and hide. But where? How? Where can I find that happiness again? Do I run and hide? Do I cut and burn, or do I end it. Help me!
Ella hasnt cut herself again since then, but by the time she stopped, she had 15 marks from cigarette burns on one hand, and 13 on the other. Those scars - plus the 50 or so jagged ones from cuts she gave herself on her arms, stomach, and thighs - have kept her from pursuing her dream of becoming a model. Ella is five-foot-eleven and gorgeous - think Nikki Taylor with some Juiette Lewis thrown in, and around the eyes, a hint of the sad, sweet, world-weary character Elizabeth Shue plays in Leaving Las Vegas. Ella was adamant that Seventeen use her real name and take her picture for this story. I dont care if people think I'm insane. They can judge me, I dont care. I want to help other girls who are doing this. I want to tell them: You have to get help.
What Ella and Carrie have in common is that they eventually arrived at a moment of truth when they finally realized that they had to stop and that they couldnt do it without help. Not just help to stop cutting, but to stop feeling bad to get at the root of the problem.
For Ella, it was seeing her brother in the hospital battling a brain tumor, fighting to stay alive. I don't want to live a life of wanting to die, she says now.
For Carrie, the moment of truth came at her psychiatrists office. I'd cut myself again and was waiting to see the doctor, and this woman - another patient - came out. She was in her 40s, maybe. She was wearing short sleeves, and I could see her arms - she'd been cutting herself probably for twenty years or more and there wasnt even any skin color. It was all scar tissue, bright-pinkish, horrifying.
There is was, right in front of my eyes. It terrified me. It hit me that if I kept cutting myself - and if I didnt kill myself in the process - that's what I would look like.
Its common for cutters to have setbacks, even after months of not cutting.
It is crucial at times like these - when recovered cutters are tempted to cut themselves again or to substitute some other self-destructive behavior like drinking or taking drugs - that they have a support system, sort of like a mental first-aid kit, all ready to go.
For Carrie, part of that support system is just finally getting to talk about everything shes been through.
I know I irritate people because I talk about my feeling a lot, she says.
But talking is how I stop cutting.
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