The poem we were gifted with in last week’s post described many of the reasons people turn to Self-Directed Violence (SDV). Again, please recognize that what appears to be blatant self-destruction is actually an act of self-preservation. How to understand this? You cannot understand if you do not recognize that there is one common denominator in the lives of people who turn to razors or lighters or their own fists for resolution. That common ground is a wide and deep one. It is the experience of unhealed trauma, oftentimes from one’s childhood.
I use a very wide definition of the word “trauma.” For today’s post I’ll introduce this one:
Trauma results from an event or a series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and/or emotionally harmful or life threatening, and which has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning or physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.
(SAMHSA, December 2012)
(SAMHSA stands for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency)
Traumatic experiences are overwhelming. They can be single incidents or ongoing. They can be the result of human actions, or mother nature’s. They can be obvious or hidden. Much will be said about trauma and how it leads some of the survivors to turn to SDV to manage it’s repercussions. I suggest that when you read the prose and poetry of people who have lived with SDV you listen for the voice of trauma in that person’s life. In my experience it always speaks, it is always there. It is our common denominator.
I realized this as I began to listen to women who self injure when I first organized safe places for us to meet in the late 1980s (yes, that long ago!). From those gatherings I began the newsletter, The Cutting Edge: A Newsletter for Women Living with Self-Inflicted Violence. Having been a counselor in both mental health and substance abuse programs I had believed what the psychiatrists had said – that those who are “cutters” are typically young, white, middle class girls and women. Therefore the newsletter was written for women. Not long after The Cutting Edge began to travel to various parts of the world (ultimately it had subscribers on 5 continents) I began to learn more about the people who found it useful. Yes there were women, some of whom were white, and some were young. I also began to hear from the women of color, from the elders, and from men and boys. And I quickly learned how wrong the presumptions were. The people who lived with self-injury were people as varied as any could be. As they shared with me and each other it became very clear to me that there was only one commonality and it was trauma. Not race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability, education, or location on this planet. This was enlightening and inspiring. Why? Because I know we can heal from many of the repercussions of trauma. And that is as hopeful as it gets.
This is very different from traditional biopsychiatric theories about people who self-injure. Don’t expect much hope for healing there. It is the world of pseudoscience, and it’s treatment of people who live with SDV is most often misguided at the least, typically brutal. There are individual clinicians and some agencies that create healing environments, yet they remain rare. I will introduce you to some of these compassionate people in future posts. And we will explore the hurtful beliefs and “treatments” as well. Because we can, here. This is a safe place to be, just like those initial gatherings. And as for the newsletter? It didn’t take long to change, actually it took one beautiful letter from a young man, for the title to change to The Cutting Edge: A Newsletter for People Who Live with Self-Inflicted Violence.