A mother’s perspective on self-harm
Reprinted from "Young People: Self-Injury" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (2), p. 17
I recall my girl, prettiest doll ever: blond curly hair, the bluest eyes, her grandfather’s dimples, and a smile that lit up the universe—a sight to see, like a glimpse of the dancing northern lights. Her inner core pure, strong and true: my kind-hearted, loving Leo, Sierra.*
Troubles began in kindergarten. The other kids were relentlessly mean. One of her teachers told her she was stupid and wouldn’t amount to anything—in front of the whole class! When I confronted the teacher, I was told that that my daughter had provoked the bullying and the comments.
It was painful to watch my baby’s self-esteem wither. For Grade 8, I registered her in what I thought would be a better school, uptown, away from where she had grown up. It was a chance to meet new people, take advantage of new opportunities. Her aunt taught at the school, which was a bonus: if she needed to talk to someone, she could go see her aunty.
The move was a big mistake. Sierra constantly worried about what the other kids thought. For example, the kids at the new school wore designer clothes. I couldn’t afford designer clothes for Sierra, let alone all the accessories that went with a designer wardrobe. Sierra felt like she didn’t fit in, and she started withdrawing further into herself. At home, most of the time she sat in her room alone with the door closed.
At school, rather than reporting to a teacher when she was bullied, Sierra would retaliate by saying hurtful things to the children who taunted her. These children would then tell a teacher, and Sierra would get mislabelled as the bully who initiated things. This label stuck with her. Once, Sierra witnessed a group of children lock another child in a dark cupboard. When she told me about the incident later, she said how horrified she had been, how scary it must have been for the child. She immediately went to help, but a teacher walked in and accused Sierra of having locked the child in the cupboard. Both children corrected the teacher’s false perception, but it was distressing for Sierra to be the automatic target of the teacher’s accusation.
Things got worse. Sierra stopped taking her lunch to school. When I expressed concern, she told me a teacher had said she was going to get chubbier if she kept eating so much, and the other kids had started calling her fat. It became difficult to convince Sierra to go to school. Often, she would leave the school grounds after I dropped her off.
One day in conversation, Sierra referred to herself as “emo.” I had to look up the word. My online research turned up pages of images of teens in black clothes with dark hair and makeup, even black nail polish—exactly how Sierra had begun to dress. When I scrolled further, I saw images of cuts on an arm, slashes to a leg.
I began to wonder if Sierra might be cutting, particularly when she stopped wearing shorts and dresses and started wearing pants all the time, even in summer. I bought a book on self-harm and read why young people might choose self-harm as a way of coping with their inner demons, including childhood trauma, depression, the feeling that they don’t fit in and the need to feel in control.
As strange as it sounds, cutting may be the only pain the cutter feels in control of. When the emotional turmoil becomes too much, the cutter “controls” the emotional pain through self-harm. And self-harm behaviour can be easy to hide. Sharp objects can be concealed, and scars can be hidden under clothing. I didn’t confront Sierra about my suspicions then, but I tried to keep a closer eye on her.
At the end of Grade 8, Sierra decided she wanted to move in with her dad. She figured things would be better in a smaller town. She was also curious; she had never lived with her father and his new partner or her several younger siblings.
While she lived with her dad, Sierra and I talked often and she visited me in the summer. But she seemed to be withdrawing more and more. She told me that her temper scared her. She didn’t know what to do to calm herself; she would go out at night drinking at the lake a few minutes away from the house, get angry and punch things.
In Grade 10, Sierra dropped out of school. Her temper continued to affect her relationships with the adults in her life. Once when she came to visit me, we argued and she became really angry. She was screaming and slamming doors; I was worried that if she left the house, she might not come back. Finally, she yelled, “Do you want to see my legs?!”
Without waiting for an answer, she pulled her pants down. On her legs were millions upon millions of tiny little cut scars—even full-out words, quotes. One in particular is burned into my mind: “I hate lies and liars.”
I tried to stay calm and not over-react. I said, “Oh, my baby girl,” and I reached out and pulled her close. I held her tighter than I ever had. She cried in my arms, and I stroked her hair and told her that everything would be okay.
Afterwards, we talked. She told me how long she had been self-harming and how frequently. We talked about why she cut and how dangerous it was. I didn’t freak out, and I didn’t judge her. I just listened. I think I was able to do this because I had prepared myself for this moment—I had read the right books, I had practised what to say ahead of time.
We also talked about other coping mechanisms she could try when she felt the urge to cut. She began to wear an elastic band on her wrist to snap against her skin when the urge came. We talked about how she could go for a walk when she was upset, leave the room if a conversation upset her.
She refused to see a counsellor. Finding the right services in a small community can be difficult. But after we talked, things slowly started to improve, and she cut less and less.
Sierra is now 23 years old and doing much better. She still self-harms, though rarely, and she isn’t as sad as she used to be. But she refuses to talk about the childhood bullying, and she never returned to school.
Sierra still deals with some difficult issues. She has depression and severe social anxiety. She won’t go out without me to the grocery store or the bank; she won’t even talk on the phone. While she has always been anxious, these problems have become more severe since she quit school. She is now on medication under the care of a physician, but her mental health issues are challenging and improvement is slow.
Despite this, Sierra and I are close, and she’s now comfortable talking to me about her feelings. I think my ability to be available to Sierra, to listen to her pain without judgement and without expressing my own fear, has been an important part of her recovery. I will always be proud of the beautiful young lady she has become, despite—perhaps because of—her battle. I’m more than ecstatic to be her momma until the ends of the earth and home again.
I’d like to emphasize to other parents how important it is to love your children unconditionally. Educate yourself, try to understand their perspective, empathize with them, give them hope and accept them for who they are—as a whole package. They will always be your children, whose tiny hands grasped your fingers tightly when they were small, who will walk with you, look up to you and perhaps always expect you to pull them out of danger. We do a lot for our children, but perhaps the most important thing we can do is listen without judgement.
As a parent of a teen who self-harmed, I found Steven Levenkron’s Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation very helpful.
About the author
Joleen is 43 years old and has a 23-year-old daughter. They both live in the Interior of British Columbia. Although Joleen and her daughter’s father separated when their daughter was about two years old, they have an amicable relationship and shared custody of their daughter