Hidden Hurting

“Self-injuring behavior is among the most unmanageable, expensive, distractive, and unpredictable behaviors exhibited by human beings.” —Curt A. Sandman, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of California, Irvine

On those rare days when the sun comes out - and with it the shorts and t-shirts - one only has to look around our campus to see the evidence of self-injury. To those who know what to look for, the marks of self-injury stand out like a summer blizzard in Texas. Self-injury is often kept secret and is thus extremely difficult to fight or understand. In order to love our neighbor, it is important to be well informed on the topic so we are able to offer help and fight with our fellow students who are deep in the struggle.

According to a study done by the Cornell Chronicle, roughly 17% of college students report they have regularly engaged in self-injury. If we consider this percentage of students here at Covenant, that would mean roughly 150 students --a number greater than the entire population of Andreas Hall--self harm in some way. Another study done by Lloyd-Richardson (2007) reported that 46% of adolescents (average age 15.5) had self-harmed at least once within the past year.

Self-injury is intentional self-inflicted pain and damage to flesh for the purpose of bringing relief in times of extreme emotional stress. Though even one occurrence of self-injury is cause for concern, self-injury is often practiced habitually over many months or years. Self-injury takes many different forms such as cutting, scratching, burning, hitting, punching, and other methods.

Contrary to popular belief, self-injurious behavior is not always a precursor to suicide. Suicide differs from non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) in its intention and function. Those who commit suicide are obviously trying to end their life, whereas NSSI serves to shift overwhelming emotional stress into a more manageable physical pain so that the subject can continue living. Those who commit suicide are likely to have engaged in self-injury prior to the act, but this does not mean that self-harm always leads to suicide.

Self-injury also does not include those who simply desire to feel pain. Masochists find pleasure in pain, while self-injurers use pain as a means for relief. Things such as piercings, tattoos, or other socially sanctioned decorative injuries do not fall into the category being discussed here.

This struggle may seem strange and unfathomable to someone who has not experienced it before. It seems directly counter-intuitive that causing one sort of pain would relieve another kind of pain. Even to those who engage in self-injury, the relief that comes is often unexplainable.

There are as many reasons for self-injury as there are students who struggle with it. In attempt to help those who have little familiarity with this topic, I can give a few general categories, but this is not in anyway an all-inclusive list.

The Goo Goo Dolls sing in their song, “Iris,” “You bleed just to know you are alive.” Often, students self-injure because their emotional stress has become so great that it has caused them to subconsciously shut off all of their feelings and emotions. They then become so numb to the pain that they just want to feel something to stop the numb emptiness of their mind.

At times, however, it can be the opposite. Students feel as though their emotional stress or trauma is so great that they need physical pain to distract their minds from the emotional pain, in order to continue functioning on a basic level.

Other people self-harm because they deeply believe they deserve to be punished. Dobby, the house elf from Harry Potter, is an excellent example. When Dobby believes he has made a mistake, he begins pounding his head against the wooden dresser as a form of self-punishment.

Often people have sins, past or present, that seem unforgivable. In order to cope with the guilt, they attempt to make justice by punishing themselves with pain. Satan works to convince them that their sin has ruined them beyond the reaches of God’s grace.

Finally, self-injury is usually an expression of a desire for control. In the midst of school, work, family drama, and other demands of student life, students often desire desperately to gain control over some area of their life, even at the expense of their flesh.

Whatever the motivation, self-injury is never an isolated problem. There is always a deeper brokenness extending beyond the surface. Similar to alcohol and drugs, self-injury is a negative mechanism of coping with emotional pain. And just as with alcohol or drugs, self-injury is only a temporary escape to the larger problem. Yes, it can bring a river of relief to emotional pain. But soon after, the underlying issue will rush back as strong as a tsunami, wreaking even more havoc than before.

Those who self-injure need someone walking alongside them in the everyday battles. Make yourself available to those in your life who are hurting, as much as you are able to without hurting yourself. My hope is that this article will be the start to many conversations that open doors for people who are struggling, that we may lovingly walk with them towards healing - physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”-1 Corinthians 13:7