By a Reader of this Blog, Who Wishes to Remain Anonymous
Right now, I am a single mom of three (ages 11, 8, and 5) and in a graduate program. I have been working with a therapist since I was 22, I am now 36. I have come to view therapy as a life-process because we are always growing and learning. Trauma isn’t something to just get over—it’s something that intertwines with every aspect of our lives. It can bring sadness and pain, but it also makes way for supreme joy and understanding.
I will answer your questions because I would love to be involved in this process. I will be blatantly honest with you in my answers. I always have a fear for how I say things and that I say them in a way that is understandable and “correct.” I’m going to try to let go of this perfectionist tendency as we look at this issue together.
What childhood traumas led you to start cutting?
This is the background of my trauma. Some of the understanding I have is a reflection with adult and professional knowledge I have gained. When I was 4/5 years old I was sexually abused by a teenage boy that babysat my brother and myself when my mom was a single mom, going to college. My mother is Baha’i, and the teenager was her best friend’s son—both of whom were also Baha’i.
It is unclear how many times anything happened, but at one point he tried to rape me. I was small enough that he could not actually penetrate, but I distinctly remember much of that night, in particular the weight of his body and myself being unable to breathe underneath him. Later in the night when my mom returned home (I don’t remember anything after it, so I don’t know if I woke up or ever went to bed—etc.) I tried to tell her what happened. I fought hard to find the words to describe what had happened and I think sensing my distress, my mom just said something to the effect that I didn’t have to say anymore and it would never happen again.
Well, not only did it never happen again, no one ever talked to me about it again. I was sent back to bed that night without any conversation or understanding of what had happened. I’m sure there was a time that I didn’t think about it, but I remember thinking about it in kindergarten.
Once I started thinking about it, I never stopped. Literally every day, multiple times a day from age 5 until my early twenties, I thought about it. Somehow I had learned that it was not to be talked about, was shameful, was my fault, I was gross, I was different etc. All growing up I had nightmares, flashbacks, obsessive thoughts, and insane fears. I was horribly afraid of men. I kept everything inside and didn’t tell a soul.
My brother was witness to my abuses and confirmed in our adulthood that he often had “played doctor” with the abuser and his brother (who both, I learned later were sexually abused by their father). When I was in third grade, I remember my brother taunting me in front of our cousin saying, “Sarah had sex with the babysitter” over and over.
What happened to cause you to reach out for help?
When I was 18 I graduated high school and went to University. I met a young man from another country who I had a bit of a crush on and it was clear he liked me, but I froze—and freaked out. I was afraid to be anywhere near him so I transferred schools at the end of the term. I went to College in another state.
While I was there I started investigating the Baha’i Faith. Oddly, I didn’t grow up with a ton of Baha’i knowledge. We left the community where the abuse took place right before kindergarten and my mom remarried. We were isolated and we just didn’t do anything Baha’i. So, I declared as a Baha’i a couple months later, I was still 18.
That fall, I studied abroad. When I came home in December, I made a pact with myself to find one person to tell about the abuse. My whole life I had always looked for someone to tell, but no one ever seemed to pass the test. But now as I was looking to not have it “bug” me anymore, I thought if I could just tell someone then I would instantly be healed (yeah, I actually thought that, lol).
So, I decided to tell a professor at school. I was in the education program and he taught the classes on emotional impairments. Lots of reasons I chose him which can be discussed if need be.
Telling this professor kicked me into a level of fear that I think cut me off from reality. I found him after class and asked him if I could talk to him –already trembling and as I spoke, it was like I was listening to myself talk from outside my body—he could tell something was wrong and we walked back to his office. I tried to talk, God help me, I tried.
Looking back I know that I was dissociating. I stared a white coffee cup on his shelf and I barely know what came out of my mouth. At one point I stopped talking—my ears were ringing and it was hard to think. He said, “and he took advantage of you.” To which I nodded. He made arrangements for me to talk to a school counselor.
What was going through your mind when you started cutting for the first time?
It wasn’t long after I told the professor about what happened that I was making plans to hurt myself. I went back to my dorm and hid under my covers for who knows how long. I didn’t feel that I could come out and function—I was terrified to come out.
I was a bassoon player and made my own reeds, and I had a tool box in the trunk of my car filled with exacto knives and razor blades. I can’t say for sure where I had the idea of cutting—I want to say I had knowledge of it from one of my classes. It feels like I had the thought that people would cut and feel better. I knew it wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I didn’t care. Something was drawing me towards it.
So, the first time I sat in a chair by my desk in my dorm room. I knew my roommate was out running and I would be alone. I used a razor and drew lightly on my forearm and it merely tingled. The thought in my mind was that I could go deeper and I had a desire to see blood. I made three long, deep cuts. I remember watching blood start to drip down my arm and my whole body relaxed. I just held my arm out and watched it. I don’t remember immediately after, how I cleaned up. I remember laying in my bed, covered, feeling the sting in my arm, and feeling somehow better. Looking back…I was dissociated from my emotions, so of course I was feeling “better.”
What attempts did you make to get help?
The school counselor was not very good—I only saw her once. I was in the Baha’i community and spoke with a Baha’i that I trusted and she helped me get in contact with a therapist in town. Welcome now to two years of hell.
There is so much involved here, I’m not sure how to give you information that you want/need/would be interested in. The relationship with this counselor was not ok. It was manipulative and hurtful although I think we were both trying our best. I continued to cut and often. Arms, legs, breast, abdomen.
I started drinking and smoking pot, which oddly led to bypassing all my fears and I was having unprotected sex with men I barely knew. I was hospitalized I believe 6 times. The last time was a one week trauma program.
I would like to say that the therapy was me getting help, but the only thing helpful through that whole time was the trauma program. My cutting drastically lessened after that.
What caused you to disconnect from and hate your body?
I have always been disconnected from my body. I’ve always had a weight problem and never liked my body. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really realized just how disconnected from my body I am. I don’t feel things that other people feel or notice things that other people notice. I feel numb a lot and have often needed to “check” so to speak to make sure I’m there. The hatred comes from numerous places—my body not responding the way I want it to or looking the way I want it to.
One big difficulty for me is that I was not taught from an early age to take care of my body. So, not only did I have this trauma, but I grew up in a family of “body-loathers.” Even my mom was very verbal that she would rather be thin than healthy if she had to choose. Taking care of one’s body was only about creating a body pleasing to the eye.
When I was 16 I went to a music boarding school for one year and lost a lot of weight. I exercised a lot and became quite athletic. However, in college when I was actively dealing with the abuse, I couldn’t focus on eating right. I remember going for days on saltines, jelly and coffee, because I didn’t know how to cook and I hated eating alone in the cafeteria. When I started working at a bookstore and had money, I ate a lot of junk. After I got married my weight went back up.
My body issues weren’t just about my weight though. The years of not understanding why I felt what I did during the abuse made a huge impact on how I felt about myself. I really came to the belief that I asked for what happened to me and was somehow at least partially responsible.
This is still a struggle for me. Even though my brain tells me one thing, it is a constant fight against my gut instincts…which frankly is another example of how my body betrays me. My body gives me information that I can’t trust. It’s very difficult to love something that lies to you. I think the quote you have listed regarding teaching women and children to not blame themselves [for violence against them] is helpful—an added reminder.
I think particularly the cutting has helped me feel control over my body when I couldn’t control it otherwise. I couldn’t control the anxiety, the fear, the memories that body was experiencing, but I could do something that would make it all stop. This sort of emphasized the separateness of my body from myself. I’ve sort of trained myself to see my body as a separate entity.
What helped you to stop cutting?
I don’t really consider myself a cutter per say…but I struggle with impulses and drives to cut quite often. This is part of why I am trying to connect to and learn to love my body. I don’t see getting rid of those desires without fixing how I feel about my body. As long as I’m willing to look at my body as something it’s ok to abuse, the longer it’ll be an option.
I largely stopped cutting when I got married. When I was 21 I dropped out of school, met a man and married him within 2 months. I was embarrassed enough about the scars to not want him to see anything fresh. I would sometimes bruise myself knowing that I could explain them away better.
I have cut perhaps 3-4 times in the last 12 years (since my oldest was born). The last time was about 2 weeks ago. I got triggered with the death of a good friend and almost completely lost my ability to express myself. In a fit of obsession and rage I broke a CD case and cut my chest with a shard of plastic.
My kids are what have kept me from cutting though. They don’t know why I have scars and don’t ask—each has asked in their own way at least once, but I have avoided answering and they just know it’s not something to ask about. I’m sure as my oldest is heading into middle school this year, she will learn about it and know.
What’s been helpful in your journey and what’s been harmful?
Well-meaning therapists and friends want to convince you to not harm yourself because “it’s what God wants” or “you’ll just make things worse” but these demands make things worse because they increase shame. Suddenly, then, harming yourself becomes something that needs to be hid—whether it’s overeating, cutting, or anything else.
One of the most important people in my journey has been my current therapist. He has been nothing short of a miracle in my life. I have learned to trust, to love, to be loved, and keep going when things are hard because of him.
He learned EMDR Find term because of me and it ended up being the one thing that saved me from constant flashbacks and obsessions. I can still get triggered, but I can get out of it. I am not DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder) or anything like that, but I do dissociate quite easily when triggered—and even when not.
He’s helped me recognize when I am triggered and dissociated and to know that I can do things to come back to normal. Trust is huge. The interaction with my mom after the abuse and the years of neglect of the trauma compounded the trauma in my body. It also hindered me from trusting my mom and others. My therapist has helped me heal that.
I have struggled with my faith in the past. For a short time, maybe about 2 years, I had to stop attending Baha’i functions and praying etc. because I felt obligated to believe. I didn’t think I should have any of life answers. But as I gave myself a break, Baha’u’llah actually increased my faith. I struggle now as an isolated Baha’i, but I have Baha’i friends all over! I am learning to use the Baha’i Writings to help me live my life.
Also–I went to BNASSA (Baha’i Network on AIDS, Sexuality, Addictions and Abuse) last year at Louhelen for the first time. It was great, with a hint of “oh shit”… after you sift through all of the last letter and this one, remind me to tell you my experience–I don’t want to overload you!One of the most influential writings for me is the Hidden Word:
Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words #5)
This was/is powerful to me because it reminds me that God’s love is constant and unfailing, but if I don’t (or am somehow unable) to open myself up and to love in return, I will never feel His love. In many ways, my healing comes strictly from my desire to know and love God. It’s two-fold because I heal in my journey to love, but am doubly healed when that love is returned.
If you were able to reconnect with your body; and start loving it again, what would you do differently so you knew you’d been successful?
I would eat right and take care of it. I have a horrible fear of cancer and death and I think I avoid eating right because I just don’t care about my body enough. I still, in many ways, view it as separate from me. I want to take care of it so I can live a long time and take care of my kids and have time to know God better. But I drink and eat chemicals (i.e. pop, candy etc.) like they’re going out of style and I’m getting sick. I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s for depression meds. I don’t get physicals or check-ups. Somehow when I was having babies I did and I just dealt with it, but I haven’t been to a doctor since my youngest was born 5 years ago. I want to go and make sure I am healthy, but I’m afraid to. I am pretty sure I have something wrong, if nothing else, then fibromyalgia. I have some sort of cognitive issue, but this point, it appears to be directly related to the trauma.
It has been abundantly clear that I dissociated during my abuse. I sometimes wonder if perhaps because of my young age, it may have negatively affected my development in a somewhat permanent way. Learning to connect to my body has been a huge process. Like I said, I don’t always understand what my body is saying to me. I can’t always control it’s response to various things. For example, I cannot relax intentionally. I have tried to be a part of guided meditations, muscle relaxing techniques etc. and I will either have an anxiety attack or dissociate. This definitely furthers the distance between my body and my mind.
As I’m writing, I’m also pondering that I need to consider that my body and mind AREN’T the same thing and merging them is not the goal…that assisting the collaborative “friendship” between the two might make more sense.
What non-Bahá’í resources have you found on cutting that were helpful to you; and how?
I haven’t found anything recently. I remember a long time ago reading “Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation” by Steven Levenkron, but I don’t recall if it was actually helpful.
I think one thing that’s helped me along the way is understanding the role of dissociation—it’s kind of a continuum of severity. There are times when I am in it really far and I have extreme difficulty in pulling myself out—it is almost always a trigger that puts a piece of me largely back in the original trauma in some way. The most effective way out is through grounding—which I never really understood in my late teens/early twenties. Grounding for me includes splashing cold water on my face, holding an ice cube, having a conversation about ANYTHING with someone else, snuggling my dog etc. I am not always aware I am triggered and I am not always willing to ground myself. It’s kind of a freaky conundrum.
I’ve been learning to understand what happens when I want to cut. Essentially I have 5 drives that I get kicked into when I’m triggered. Two of these are most likely to lead to wanting to cut/hurt myself. There’s not really a better way to describe them than to call them drives. I copied and pasted these from a journal I was working on—I think it makes sense, but if you don’t understand something I can clarify. Again, this isn’t a multiple personality thing—it is, however, a dissociative thing. When any of these drives (not normal) are pushing me, pulling me really hard, I can pretty much guarantee I am at least partly dissociated.
A-Normal: neither motivated nor stagnant, sometimes on autopilot, I do what needs to be done, my body is usually sore. I am more consistent in what needs to be done like errands or cleaning. I am most forgetful, brain doesn’t work really great, but I can push through for things like homework. I usually wake up in this drive.
B-In Control: I am confident, verbal, eloquent in speech, motivated, humorous, strong, capable. I have found myself in this drive during an interview that I excelled in. I have done homework in this drive. I have changed my major numerous times to more powerful, difficult, time consuming, engaging programs. I feel completely healed and connected to God and everyone around me. I make big decisions in this drive. Can last minutes or hours…not usually more (although I recently was here for about 6 days). I often crash after being here for a while.
C-Power Seeking: Often when I am alone, at night. I am seeking control, feel like “screw the world”, may drink, make careless or immoral choices and feel good about it. Destructive, suicidal thoughts, cutting thoughts. Usually will neglect school work or other jobs/duties I have. Tend to play raucous music for long periods of time and the songs become a part of me. Can’t bear to listen to unwarranted noise. Kids talking, TV, neighbors stress me out and make it worse. High need to be alone. Strong desire to change my appearance, make up, hair, clothes, might feel my body is stronger or more fit than it actually is. Oddly, I sometimes actually AM stronger than I normally am. I have been in therapy with you in this drive. Usually I won’t cry. I might swear a lot. The last time I was here was Thursday night. I came home from TC, slept for 3 hours and woke up in this drive.
D-Obsessive: This is one of my scariest, most frustrating drives. It usually involves searching for answers, usually w/an attachment to the abuser somehow. This has brought me across the state looking for answers about him, trying to figure out trauma. Can last hours or days. I get very angry when people (like kids) distract me and I will yell at them. I feel my head being pulled in many different directions. Chest hurts, easily slip into flashbacks, dissociations, most likely to cut or otherwise hurt myself, feel weak, cry a lot, scared, need to do things right, body memories. Feel lost, trapped, alone, like I want to “get out”. Obsessive sometimes falls into Power seeking.
E-Dissociative: Triggered. headaches. can’t think and thoughts aren’t ordered well, need to be alone. Hate people, can’t be by people–even my kids. Extreme fatigue, head feels light and dizzy. Will tell the kids to “get away from me” anxiety, don’t feel my body entirely, feel tingly. things are blurry, sometimes disproportioned. Hard to swallow–sometimes feels like I’ve forgotten how. Sometimes The obsessive and dissociative seem to alternate together.
1)normal, I have a full range of emotions and feel most connected. Sometimes I am depressed in this drive, sometimes I am happy and functioning.
So, I will read through the other things you have sent me and offer my thoughts on them. I really appreciate your interest in me—it always helps when someone sincerely cares and I would love to be able to help others!
For more information on this topic, please see: Why Do Teens Cut and How Can We Help?
Are you a cutter, or someone who’s lived with a cutter? I look forward to hearing some of your thoughts. Please post them below!