Rites of Passage: A Recent Teenager’s Reflections on Self-Harm

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I’m not a parent, nor am I a medical professional. However, I am familiar firsthand with an alarming issue that affects many parents: self-harm. I’m sharing my story in hopes that it might provide insight to parents dealing with this worrisome behavior in their own families.

Most people quickly forget what it feels like to be a teenager. This is probably for the best. Volatile adolescent angst & impulsivity aren’t exactly traits we need to carry with us into our adult years. At 24, I can barely relate to my 16-year-old self, which is a thorough relief. Still, I can’t forget altogether. Every day I’m reminded by the self-inflicted burn scars that remain, stubbornly, on the insides of my arms.

Burning

The exact emotional stimuli that prompted me to begin burning myself as a junior in high school is long forgotten, although I’m sure it struck me as a tragedy at the time. I do remember where I got the idea. My male friend was proud of the gruesome marks running up his arms. He flashed them like raw, blistery medals of his misery. He showed me how he did it one day in chemistry class, by pressing the red-hot head of a match into his skin A few weeks later, I tried it for myself. It wasn’t long before the matches were replaced by fully lit cigarettes.

I expected horror from my close friends when I disclosed the self-injurious behavior to them, or they figured it out. Instead, they responded with intrigue. Soon, three of my best friends began to habitually burn themselves, too. At least one other cut her wrists with a razor.

We bonded over our marks & scars. Sometimes, we even did it together – at sleepovers, by candlelight, like a ritual. Then we covered one another’s freshly branded forearms, knowing that if any one of our parents took notice, we’d all be in trouble.

Of course, that discovery was inevitable. Eventually, my self-harm became glaringly obvious to my mom & dad. In retrospect, their initial panicked reaction was wholly appropriate. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be, as a parent, to realize one’s child is purposefully hurting themselves. The behavior is disturbing & confusing from a sane, logical adult perspective. But I was exasperated by my parents’ concern, & even a bit ashamed by its intensity. In my teenaged brain, it just wasn’t that big of a deal.

Self-Harm

My self-harm became a major point of conflict in our family. I was grounded. The CD’s from all my favorite emo bands were confiscated. While I wasn’t averse to counseling, my parents brought me to a psychologist who I hated, then met with her after each meeting for a report of every smartass thing I said.

Now, I know my parents were only trying to help me through what they perceived to be a severe psychological disturbance, but I felt like I was being punished. I already imagined myself as tragically misunderstood, & the situation exacerbated this experience. Compelled to lash out, I continued to burn myself with even more fervor – partly out of self-pity, but mostly as a demonstration of pure spite.

What neither my parents nor I understood then was that self-harm – burning, cutting, scratching, & many other methods – is largely a social act. My friends & I were afflicted by moderate emotional issues, sure, but nothing that truly warranted our behavior.

Self-harm was something we saw often enough at school to accept as approximately normal. It is glorified by books, movies, music, & Internet communities. Disapproval from adults, parents especially, validated the behavior nearly as much as approval from our peers, but most impactful was the way we encouraged it amongst ourselves. Was it healthy? Of course not. But, at its peak, our self-harm was just as much about typical teenage rebellion as it was an indicator of psychological disorder.

Leaving Old Habits Behind

Sure enough, the impulse to burn tapered off as high school graduation approached. My friends & I had more important things to obsess about, like college, & boys. Simply put, we got distracted.

By the time I studied self-harm in a freshman year sociology lecture, I barely associated with the behavior at all. Still, what I learned resonated with me far beyond the psychologically-based perspectives of my parents & therapist. I burned myself for the same reasons why teenagers do anything: because my friends were doing it, because I was exposed to it in books & on TV, because I didn’t know how to cope with or express emotions that I didn’t even understand.

I don’t mean to trivialize self-harm. Burning, cutting, & any other form of self-inflicted injury is a serious matter, & certainly can be a sign of severe mental illness. In some cases it is even acutely dangerous, especially when injuries are beyond skin deep. Still, parents should be aware of the weighty social aspect of the behaviour, & try to remember – just for a few empathetic moments – what it felt like to be a teenager, before reacting emotionally. Memory may even suggest that being an adolescent is nearly as confusing as raising one.

For an in-depth, research-based account of self-harm from a social perspective, I recommend reading The Tender Cut by Peter and Patricia Adler.