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The Art of Bloodletting

Junkies live and die by their needle. I lived by my blade. There is little disparity between the two instruments: both penetrate the flesh causing extreme feelings of euphoria. Yet whereas the needle implants, the blade releases. All drugs and intoxicants constitute forms of self-destruction, or mutilation. Blood was my drug. And what a potent and brilliant one it was. I cannot think of any other times when I felt the essence of “Om” enrapture my soul.

My habit was inspired by uninhibited anger and desperation screaming out in torrents of blood streaming down my thighs. It was pure empowerment. With blade in hand, I had control over everything. I left this world. There was only me, in my room, and I was God. I was in control of my pain, my misery, and my life. But I wasn’t in control of much else.

Some folks use knives or other sharp objects, but a straight razor was the only one who could make the cut for me. It split the sinews so precisely that it required little or no effort on my part to dig into muscle tissue. These thin steel fangs could easily be purchased typically in packs of five at any local hardware store for two or three dollars, and without being questioned by the cashier; my scars were strategically concealed.

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Crying Through their Cuts

Kevin sits alone in his dark dorm room on a Tuesday night. To his professors and friends, this 20 year-old college sophomore is a “regular guy.” But tonight, Kevin’s academic and relational pressures combine with ongoing family difficulties in a mix that leaves him feeling angry and out of control. He’s not crazy. He’s not suicidal. But something is definitely wrong.

Kevin responds to his roller-coaster emotional state through a distressing and regular ritual that’s become his secret coping mechanism. He removes his shirt and runs a razor blade across his stomach and chest. When finished, he’s covered with a mess of bleeding cuts. Amazingly, he says he “feels better.”

What Kevin says about this habit seems absurd; “I feel like there’s something terrible inside me that I have to get out any way that I can. I think that’s part of the reason why I have to bleed. Afterwards, I feel cleansed. I feel like whatever was crushing me before has been removed. I feel calm and in control.” Beneath his shirt, unbeknownst to even his closest friends, Kevin wears the cries of his heart and soul on his chest. Because these marks are usually outward manifestations of inward pain, one researcher has called self-mutilation “the voice on the skin.”

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Self Mutilation

“Cutting, burning, and poking needles in my arm is a security for me because I know that if all else fails and leaves me feeling empty and emotionless, the pain and blood will always still be there for me” (18 year-old waitress as quoted in Favazza, 1988). Within the past two decades, many different variations of deviant self-harming behavior have become more commonly recognized by members of the health professions, social scientists, and the general public. There has been an escalating awareness about the plight of those who engage in behavior like that described above. The prevalence is now thought to be about 1,400 cases per 100,000 population (Favazza, 1987). Professionals within the health industry have labeled this behavior with many different terms. In fact, one article lists 27 different labels for this type of behavior (Kahan and Pattison, 1984). However, the three most common labels that have emerged are self-injurious behavior, self-harm, and self-mutiliating behavior.

This form of behavior is not really new. Many case reports from earlier psychologists report similar forms of behavior. However, for many decades, self-mutilation has been seen only as another form of suicidal behavior. The first known author to s uggest otherwise was Karl Menninger. In his 1938 book Man Against Himself, Menninger wrote that “Local self-destruction is a form of partial suicide to avert total suicide” (p. 271). He had formulated a very important principle, but at the time, no one was willing to deal with self mutilation in depth. The issue of the difference between self-injury and suicide will be addressed later in this paper. Suffice it to say that it was not until 1983 (Kahan and Pattison) that self-mutilation began to receive more attention within the fie ld. Today, over 250 articles and more than five books have been written on the topic. One of the most prominent researchers within the field, Armando Favazza, has done a great deal of work on how self-mutilation relates to psychological, sociological, and cultural forces.

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What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the practice of deliberately damaging body tissue as a way of coping with inner feelings. It is often misinterpreted as a suicidal act when usually nothing could be further from the truth, however as self-harm is a symptom of a person in great distress there is a higher chance of those who self-harm going on to attempt or commit suicide.

When I use the term ‘self-harm’ on these pages it is with no reference to suicidal intent as for me and most other people who do this self-harm is about preserving our lives and not ending them.

Methods vary from cutting the skin with razor blades, knives or broken glass to burning, scratching, hair pulling, biting and punching and although some of these methods may appear to be more extreme than others no method implies a greater amount of personal distress. Anyone who self-harms in any form is hurting emotionally and just because you think a person ‘only pulls their hair’ doesn’t mean they can’t possssibly feel as bad as a person who cuts or burns.

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