Cutting Disorder

Copyright 1998, Cheryl Wills, New York 1 News

NY1 spoke with a woman who we’ll call “Maria” while she cleaned up her own blood from a stairwell in an East Side apartment building. “Maria” was not attacked or in an accident — she intentionally cut herself with a razor blade. You’ll find out why in a moment, but first you need to know that “Maria” suffers from a disorder called “self-mutilation,” which is also known as “cutting.”

“Maria” says, “People can see [my scars], and I’m too afraid to tell them about a razor blade because I don’t think they understand, so I just tell them that they’re scratches, and that they’re just like a nervous habit.”

But it’s not just a nervous habit — it’s a serious psychological disorder that requires medical attention. “Maria” is now getting help from her psychotherapist, Dr. Steven Levenkron, who is also the author of a new book called “Cutting.”

Dr. Levenkron says, “Self-mutilation is cutting yourself, burning yourself, lacerating your skin, attacking your skin in a variety of ways to perceive the pain and to feel the pain involved, because the pain involved and the blood that is seen distracts people from their emotional pain.”

And that’s why “Maria” has been cutting herself on her arms since January. She explains: “It feels better to watch the blood come out of the cuts, and it’s like hoping or wishing that it was like something that’s bothering me.”

“Maria” was so nervous before our interview started, she pulled out a razor blade and sliced her arms. Dr. Levenkron says, “We are not talking about people with healthy, intact relations to people. We are talking about people that feel profoundly lonely and profoundly separate from the rest of the world.”

“Maria,” who is a 30-year-old pre-med student, also suffers from an eating disorder — anorexia. When she cuts herself, she says she doesn’t feel any pain: “It doesn’t hurt at all sometimes when I do it. I don’t really remember doing it.”

You would think from the wounds on Maria’s arms that she’s suicidal. She’s not. “Maria” says, “It’s not even that I want to hurt myself either, it’s just that letting out the pain.”

Dr. Levenkron explains, “This is not a suicide attempt. It certainly is an expression of disappointment with life — but that’s very different from a suicide attempt.”

It’s estimated that up to two million people — mostly women — are cutters. The disorder usually begins around pubertym and Doctor Levenkron says the psychological symptoms include withdrawl, moodiness and depression. The obvious physical symptoms are many scratches and nicks on their forearms, chest or stomach.

Dr. Levenkron says even though cutters are usually careful not to kill themselves, they sometimes make dangerous mistakes. He told us, “[A razor blade] is, unfortunately, the weapon of choice. It can cut deeply and quickly, cutting arteries and tendons. I have had patients requiring microsurgery after making cuts.”

Therapy is not easy for cutters like “Maria.” Dr. Levenkron says it could take years to help a patient stop cutting themselves because the disorder is a complex web of low self-esteem and a lack of self-respect.

Dr. Levenkron concludes: “We can’t just take away the razor blade and say, ‘Now you’re all right.’ The razor blade is the tip of the iceberg.”

But “Maria” says no matter how long it takes, she’s going to hang in there so she can learn how to cope with her pain without shedding her blood.


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