self harm

I have learnt that when life is tough we have a choice. We can decide to suffer or we can decide to learn. I have written before of how at nine I was placed in an orphanage (see I cannot deny that this was a painful event yet I was to understand that there was learning that would come in handy many years later and for this I am deeply grateful.

 I walked around the corner of the locked acute psychiatric ward. There sat sixteen year old Karen. her back against the wall with a glazed look in her eyes, her arm sliced open…about six inches from just above her wrist vein, nearly to her elbow, the flaps of skin hanging on both sides, blood everywhere. I was at the end of my second year of Psychiatric Nursing training. I knew her diagnosis and I knew the ‘recommended’ nursing interventions. Diagnosis; borderline personality disorder, intervention; attend to the physical requirements but give no attention otherwise. But I was me and I saw her and I responded.

 Here was a young girl who was in such pain that she needed to rip a part of the toilet role holder off the wall and slit her arm open. I pressed my buzzer so staff would come, knelt down beside her and with one hand pressed above the wound to decrease the blood flow put my other arm around her shoulders clutching her to me in a hug.

“Oh honey what have you done?”

Her eyes lost their glaze and she looked at me.

“What do you mean?”

“Karen what do you mean what do I mean? Babe you’ve just cut your whole arm open. You must be in so much pain.” She looked down at her arm.

“It doesn’t hurt at all”

“No I don’t mean your arm I mean your heart”

She looked at me wonderingly.

“I didn’t think anyone here gave a stuff. Every other time I’ve hurt myself I’ve just been stitched up and ignored.”

The other nurses turned up at this time and being senior took over. I went off on a break to ponder what Karen had said.

After my break I went back to Karen who had been put in the high dependency section after having her arm stitched up and bandaged. She gave me a challenging stare having returned to her rather confrontative self.

“’Spose you think I’m just seeking attention too”

“Actually Karen I wasn’t thinking about you as much as I was thinking about Janet”

“Whose Janet?”

So I told Karen about Janet. I met Janet in the orphanage. She too was nine. Where I was mostly silent she was a ball of rage but on one particular day I saw the pain under that rage. We were in class when one of the other kids screamed and pointed at her. Janet was sticking drawing pins into her knee…right in. When I looked she already had about five in, blood trickling down under each pin, and was slowly placing more and more in. The nun yelled at her and then rushed out of the room only to return seconds later with another nun.

“Janet would you stop trying to get attention” one of them yelled. Janet just kept putting more pins in. The nuns yelled some more about how bad she was. I walked up to the nun in charge.

“She’s not being naughty. She’s just hurting. Can’t you help her?”

I stopped the story there and looked at Karen. Tears were pouring down her face.

Karen and I worked together until she was discharged. I was to learn like most people with self-harming behaviour she had a horrendous upbringing. Borderline personality disorder is one of the many ways we can maladjust because of such experiences. Now I look back I don’t know if I really helped. I was too inexperienced. Yet I know I helped her to know that at least one person wasn’t labelling her, wasn’t judging her but was simply there for her when she was feeling crappy.

To the average Joe I guess people self harming seems outrageous. The ‘system’ mostly calls it attention seeking behaviour. But as I once pointed out to a condescending psychiatrist; yes, it is attention seeking…it is a person saying help…I’m in so much pain…won’t someone please help me.

I ended up working specifically with folks experiencing such pain and the more I learnt the better I got. But one thing never changed. An unconditional loving response may not heal but it’s the only place to start and anything less will definitely hurt.


19 thoughts on “self harm

  1. Pingback: self harm (via leesis ponders) | Shadows of Love

    • Thank-you so much for your comment. I have been lucky enough to learn from very early on that starting from unconditional love is the only way to truly help one another.

  2. Leesa,

    There has already been a comment posted about Self Harm:
    “You have no idea how timely this was and I am so glad there is someone like you to help the Janets and Karens. Thank you” (

  3. You’re right Leesa… it is attention seeking… when you aren’t being heard yelling for help in any other way, it’s the only way. I’ve been there too. 3 suicide attempts in my teens, self-mutilation, and people thinking I’m weird and abnormal. Yes, I was abnormal, I had a rape incident to deal with and didn’t know how, and couldn’t by myself. Eventually I did it though, by myself, I found the strength within, I got myself up on my feet and dealt with it, confronted and won. After it had driven me to the other side of madness. But I always wonder how much easier it might have been had there been someone who didn’t just look the other way, deny there was something wrong with me, pretend it was just a phase that would pass, or just try to pretend to help and just honestly, sincerely sat down to ask, what the frak is wrong with you. I didn’t need many people, just one would have been enough, enough to stop considering slicing my wrists and drawing checkers board on my arms with a surgical knife. I’m all the stronger for it, and proud of it, but was it really worth going through it all alone, just to have a granite solid sense of pride? I honestly don’t know.

    • Maggie I’m so sorry you had to deal with things on your own…too many people must struggle without support. But what amazing strength you have sister!

      • The embodiment of Nietzsche’s saying alright, that I am… but at what cost? All that strength, all the individuality, all the different-ness has led me to lead a very very lonely life… Do I regret who I am? No. But I may regret not having the choice. Then again, who does. A life with crutches isn’t much interesting. You can’t look to others for your own salvation, you’ve got to mess it all up yourself. It has also made me really unforgiving and relentless with other people. I tend to see many things that others pamper and excuse as plain excuses for not trying, avoiding. And it has left me with an ingrained fear of rejection. I tend to assume by default that people don’t give a dime. It’s all those things that plague me every day, the aftermath of all that. And throughout my life, none of the “specialists” I’ve seen ever managed to get near me either, counselors, shrinks, therapists, all that jazz.

    • My aim in these particular posts is to increase peoples understanding of the struggles we can have so ‘enlightening’ is fantastic…thank-you. Please share as you want.

  4. Kindness is your name, empathy and compassion define your heart.

    What a love you are, Leesa. I’d like to re-post this on my blog, too. This is a story that needs to be read in many forums.

    Big hugs,


  5. Pingback: Sharing Another’s Post… « A Survivor's Thoughts on Life

  6. This comment was just posted on my blog re: self harm:

    “momentsoftime on Saturday, 5 November, 2011 at 3:30 pm said:Edit

    This really hits home as I have been dealing with this issue with my step-daughter for the last few years. Jessi is fifteen now and as far as I can tell has stopped harming herself, at least for now. Jessi has been with me since she was 15 months old and she and her mother have never gotten along well. Jessi’s mother and I are now divorced, but I keep in close contact with her so she knows I love her. As in this story only knowing the pain within is what helped me get through to Jessica. We went to the botanical gardens at the local zoo last weekend and I asked if she and her mom ever sat down and talked. Her reply was, “Why would I want to talk to her?” I suppose nothing has changed in that area, but at least she knows she can talk to me. Thanks so much for the post and inviting me here. Thank you also for the kind comments you left on my WordPress blog Moments Of Time.”

  7. Leesa, you know me, manic-depressive, incest survivor, etc. My self-harm was not as literal as the methods today… perhaps because I didn’t know about them. I was more the eat-drink-take-drugs type. But self-harm in any form is usually a way of feeling SOMETHING. When you’re so depressed you feel dead inside, cutting and other behaviors seem to “help” the person feel… something. I’ve known several young women who cut. THANK YOU for being a kindred spirit, for bringing this issue to the fore. “No blame, no shame.” And thank God for therapists who know how to listen. Sometimes it takes a bit of shopping around, but it’s worth it to find a person with whom you can form a trusting relationship. Otherwise that old stuff sticks in you like tar. Bless you, babe. Amy

    • Amy such great comments. I’ve actually decided to do a couple more posts on this area as it seems to have been of meaning to many folk and it is an area I feel deeply about. As usual I feel a deep pleasure in reading your comments here and reading your own blog.

      No shame indeed! There is no shame in not coping perfectly in periods of our lives whatever the external signs of that are. Our hearts are tender and the world is not. xxoo

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