This I Believe

John - Valdosta, Georgia
Entered on February 21, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: illness


Some do it without thinking. Some do it only after a great deal of thought. Some do it to be included, or excluded, depending upon their need at the time. There are those who are cutting because they have been through so much, and have said so little, that they can only communicate through a blade to their skin. It’s nasty stuff and not understood by too many people. It is not a behavior you would associate with twelve year old girls. They should be worrying about using make-up for the first time, boys, music, boys, My Space, clothes, and boys, not how to gain some momentary relief from overwhelming emotions by cutting themselves.

These girls are not really too hard to spot. There telltale signals, but more often than not, you can just tell. Even without the clues there is just “something” you can notice. A look, a hollowness in their faces, an emptiness behind their eyes, how they carry themselves, a pleading look that says, “Pay attention to me. Look at me. Figure this out . Give me some help. Save me.”

This morning, one of my cutters, comes in to tell me she has “slipped up”. She raises her left shirt sleeve (she is right handed) and shows me about 30 or 40 parallel cuts on her upper shoulder and arm. They are fresh.

“When did you do that?” I ask it in a very calm, non-judgmental voice.

“Last night”, she says with her head lowered enough for her long blonde hair to cover her face.

“OK, so what happened?”

She is not the least bit reluctant to tell me. It is tedious and uncomortable story, but she does flinch from the truth of her life. I listen quietly to the story, for that is all I can do. I wait in silence for a moment. When she is finished, I begin to ask some questions, not about her, but about the girls she told this morning. I help her to assess their responses and lead her to the conclusion that she did nothing wrong, that her only mistake was trusting them to honor her feelings. Then, she makes the connection between the mean girls at school and her mom and step-father. There is no epiphany. There is no change in her demeanor or mine. She just knows. All of sudden, she just knows. She knows that she must learn how to handle all of the heartache and pain and emotional violations she has been dealt. She knows that she must stop cutting herself and do something else, but she is not sure what. She knows that she must be more discerning with her feelings, her emotions, her honesty. And she also knows she is more scared than ever. She has a very long way to go. I am honest with her and tell her what other things can happen if she does not learn to cope in a healthy way with herself. I show her pictures of extreme examples of self-mutilation. I do so purely for the shock value and it works, to some degree. I ask her to picture herself as a physically scarred young woman trying to go on dates and develop relationships while trying to keep the scars hidden. I ask her imagine how she might explain such scars to her children if she ever managed to get married and have any. The point is made. She is quiet, thoughtful, still frightened. I write her a pass to her computer class. I encourage her one last time to think about what she is doing. She gives me permission to call her mom. I will do so, but I can predict the results. She gathers her things and heads out.

I have the same discussion several times a week with different students about healthy alternatives, building a support system of people you can trust, of taking care of yourself and setting goals.

The most frustrating thing about dealing with such students is that I know what will work, but is impossible to make it happen. It would take changing the hearts of parents who are simply fixated on their own personal pleasure, parents who have always had one and only one agenda: to make sure they have what they want and have to take as little responsibility as possible. These are mothers and fathers who live in a fantasy land where winning the lottery is just a matter of time and there will always be someone else who will be responsible and take care of them. These are parents who have no relationship to their children, who see them as a nuisance, who may give lip service to things live love and discipline and direction but do not have a clue what any of that means in the real world…and they are not the least bit interested in expending any energy to learn about it. These are the parents that accept their children’s explanation that “the damn cat scratched me”. Right. The cat managed to scratch her thirty four times with all the scratches perfectly parallel to one another and exactly the same length. OK. These are also the parents who refuse to allow us to do any kind of mental health screening of their child. The excuse is usually along the lines of “We handle our own problems” or “We just don’t like people knowin’ our business.” Those are euphemisms for masking the honest truth that they probably have too much to hide and too little desire to change any behaviors that might be contributing to the problems or they are afraid someone will put them in jail.

So, I end up doing what I can. I listen. I suggest. I console. I confront. And…I hope. I hope that sometime, somehow, somewhere along the way these kids will realize what they are doing and develop the skills to cope another way and they will perhaps some years down the road remember a day they sat in my office and were given permission to cry and hurt and be angry, a day when they were also, for those few moments, accepted, approved of and safe…even from themselves.

What I believe is simple..”More often than not, the most powerful thing you will ever do for another person in pain is to just be there.”