I tear my heart open, I sew myself shut
My weakness is that I care too much
And my scars remind me that the past is real
I tear my heart open just to feel
– Papa Roach “Scars”
She’s just 22 and scar tissue covers most of her arms. Talking with her makes me think of a girl half her age. She’s got a melancholy smile that tries to be reassuring but can’t pull it off. She’s one more of us that’s trying to forget and trying to let go in all the wrong ways. I’m at her hospital bed as a crisis worker and I’m dealing with a doctor who’s frustrated. Understandable – he’s there to sew her back together when she goes too deep and this is not the first time they’ve met. He’s one of the good guys – he’s not mad – just knows they’ll be seeing each other again. His oath is to first do no harm. I wish her family of origin had taken the same oath.
Most folks don’t understand self harm. They don’t get why we prefer physical pain over emotional pain. For the most part, people fear what they don’t understand – but when it comes to scars, somehow folks think its ok to satisfy their idle curiosities by asking how we got them. This is a big part of our shame – telling them the truth just leads to more stupid questions.
There’s an old adage that Hurt People Hurt People. That’s a tricky one at face value. It just means that folks who are hurting tend to act hurtfully. Those of us who survived usually hurt none but ourselves. It’s easy to rationalize that what we do is okay as long as we’re the only ones getting hurt.
“I bleed it out, digging deeper just to throw it away” Linkin Park “Bleed it Out”
In my experience there are three main reasons why people cut – release, control, and numbing.
When you take all control away from a person, there remain a few things that are extremely difficult to have power over. What a person does with their body is one of those things. Cutting is something we believe we can control and in a very real way it is. We decide when to do it, where to do it, how deep to go and how long we’ll bleed. We are the one hurting ourselves – not our abusers – past or present.
We are looking to let go of something. For most of us it feels like it’s inside of our bodies but in truth it’s our souls that are scarred. Some of us think of it like drawing venom out. We were infected by hate – made sick by pain. We are ashamed – it’s not just our arms and legs we hide – that’s the easy part. Hiding the secrets hurts way more.
When we cut, some of us achieve a high through a rush of endorphins. Most of us cut to achieve the best we know how to feel – numb. The area around the incision goes numb physiologically and our emotions follow. We relax a bit. Some of us watch the trickle and others turn away. Some of us add to the release by crying and most of us don’t.
The person who cuts suffers from wounds well below the surface. What we’re doing is what feels necessary. We need support, understanding, and empathy. What’s harder for us to see is that we also need to be more accountable to ourselves.
We need folks we can trust to help us learn healthier forms of release and to help us work through inner conflicts we can’t reach. We need to stop redirecting our pain and anger toward ourselves and develop outlets that provide real and healthy relief.
We need to connect to others that understand and don’t judge. For more on this important need check out the project To Write Love on Her Arms at