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 https://leesis.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/theres-no-such-thing-as-beyond-repair/. 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”
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.