Cutting and Self Mutilation
Copyright, Jason Block
What is cutting? Am I a cutter?
Sadly, it is fairly common for survivors of sexual abuse (and other types of power abuse) to indulge in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting. Cutting is willful injury to one’s self using something sharp. Obviously, the motivations for cutting can lead to other forms of self-mutilation (I used to pull out eyelashes and locks of hair, for instance) besides actual bloodletting. The key point is that all of them hurt, and all of them cause some sort of damage to one’s body. On ASAR, the phenomenon has become known in general as “cutting” because more people seem to have specifically cut themselves than hurt themselves in other ways. This is not to invalidate anyone else’s experiences, it’s just that “cutting” has become a convenient label.
Why do I do it?
There are several theories as to why people indulge in self-mutilation. One is that it’s a control issue. When children are abused, they are in a situation of no control. Their abuser(s) can hurt them any time, and the children are largely (if not completely) powerless to stop it. When the child grows older and is faced with stressful situations, there is often a strong desire/expectation for some sort of pain, since pain is associated with stress in that person’s mind. People who have had these associations forced on them frequently cut themselves because this is a pain that satisfies the psychological desire for pain, and is also a pain that the victim can stop. At last the person is in control. And while the cutting itself is harmful and can cause shame and guilt later, I can tell you that the control feels good.
Another theory is that people who were abused as children often have been taught (by their abusers, or by others who have denied the child’s experiences as being valid) that they are bad people, who should by all rights be punished. Sometimes people like this turn to behaviors like sado-masochism, or bondage-and-dominance in order to get the punishment that they want. Others can’t ask others to punish them, so they punish themselves with cutting.
A third theory is that cutting is a manifestation of a desire to become physically unattractive. This is often true of girls who are constantly bombarded with messages (overt and subtle) that they are beautiful and therefore desirable. They naturally reason that if they make themselves unattractive, no one will rape them because they will be undesirable. This chain of reasoning can also lead to compulsive eating behaviors that leave the abuse victim overweight and thus outside of what this society calls attractive.
Of course, every person is different, and there are many less common theories as to why people are cutters. If you are a cutter and don’t fit any of the above models, so what? That doesn’t mean your situation is fundamentally different or less valid. Also, it is common for more than one of these thought patterns acting in concert to produce some very complicated rationales for self-mutilation. These desires can be quite strong, and often a cutter will not know why s/he indulges in such behavior. I didn’t know why I cut myself for a long time; all I knew was that it hurt but I really couldn’t stop myself. I liked the pain, because it meant that I was strong. Strong enough to overcome my own natural instinct to avoid pain, and strong enough to endure the pain without crying out. For me, there was something about seeing real red blood coming out of lines in my skin that made me feel very alive (a powerful thing during a time in my life when I felt/wished otherwise that I was dead).
What are the Results of Cutting?
Cutting is a mixed bag, but most people agree that in the balance it’s a bad thing. Cutting can make you feel powerful. It can make you feel in control. It hurts, and that can make you feel alive. But it also can make you feel guilty for “being some kind of a sicko,” and feel shame for having done it. Those are the sort of things that take away from one’s self-esteem. And of course, a lack of self-esteem can lead people into bad relationships and other non-healthy situations. Mental concerns aside, cutting causes real physical damage to your body. There is also the possibility for infection and/or tetanus (especially if unclean steel implements are used for the cutting).
How do I stop?
If you are a cutter, you probably want to stop. The following are some of the arguments against cutting. Reading them should give you some good clues as to how to stop. At the end of this section is my story of cutting and how I stopped.
Cutting is damage. By cutting you injure your body. This is not a good thing. Your body is important. It’s the only one you’ve got and it should be taken care of. It would be harder to live a fully happy life with a damaged body, especially if part of that damage you did yourself.
Cutting is abuse. As a sexual abuse survivor, you’ve already been subjected to more abuse than anyone should be. Your abusers hurt you, why should you heap more abuse on yourself? You don’t deserve that kind of crap.
By cutting yourself, you’re buying into an unhealthy behavior pattern that was taught to you when you were a child. What happened to you then was wrong, and perpetuating that behavior pattern now isn’t healthy for you either. There may be some security in familiarity, but most people agree that it’s not worth the heartache.
Cutting often stems from a desire for control. Take real control of your life and yourself and stop.
I was a cutter. Here is what made me stop. First, I wanted to stop. That’s important, because I believe that you can’t change your own behavior unless you want to. I knew that it wasn’t healthy. I would get stressed out, cut myself, feel better, and then feel shameful and guilty. Finally, a good friend of mine talked some sense into me and made me realize that I was just giving myself more abuse. Until then, I hadn’t realized that’s what I was doing. I decided that I would just not let myself do it any more. I simply and stubbornly refused. I’ve always had problems with self control, and breaking promises to myself, so this was a good test for me, one which I’m proud to say I passed. One thing that helped me not relapse into cutting was finding alternate methods of releasing stress. Running up and down the stairs in my dorm worked pretty well for me. There were times after I decided to stop when I wanted to cut myself, and had I not had established alternate things to do to relieve stress, I probably would have given in. Don’t get the idea that merely deciding not to cut myself anymore was all it took to remove the impulses and desire to do so; far from it. It took a few months of doing other things when faced with that impulse to change my behavior pattern.
That’s my story. I hope this and the other information helps you or someone you know to become a healthier and happier person.