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Self-harm among teenagers is reaching epidemic levels in the UK. Almost every report shows that it is on the rise. However, it is not just teenage girls or goths who self-harm, as the stereotype suggests. It is a response to overwhelming pain that people use across their lifespan, and across cultures.
When people talk about self-harm, they tend to be referring to things such as cutting one’s body, self-poisoning, pulling out one’s hair or punching walls and doors. These are socially unacceptable forms of self-harm in comparison to more socially sanctioned forms such as binge drinking, extreme dieting or serially engaging in toxic relationships.
The first thing many people who self-harm will tell you is that self-harm is not the problem but an attempt to cope. People who self-harm often speak of the relief the act brings. In the face of unbearable pain, anxiety becomes overwhelming or a feeling of disconnection and numbness takes over. Self-harm punctures these states, returning the person to the body by translating emotional pain into physical pain. Rather than feel too much or too little, self-harm can help people feel like they exist again. This is an act the person who self-harms can initiate and control. Often, self-harm occurs when this is the only freedom left. If this last freedom is taken away, the results can be disastrous.
Most westerners believe that skin is the boundary between “me” and “not me”. Cutting – by far the most common form of self-harm – can serve to reassure someone that this boundary still exists and that they are present in the here-and-now. This function is especially important when an individual has experienced interpersonal violence or when unusual perceptual experiences are violating the experienced body boundary. Self-harm can also help to reinitiate time. In this sense, it is not so different from the function of notches to mark the days on a prison wall; inscriptions allow the individual to mobilise a sense that a different future might one day come in an environment where one feels imprisoned by internal or external persecutors.
In many acts of self-harm, there is more than one part of the self present, and more than one emotional state. The self can be split into many elements, with one dissociated part enacting the role of victimiser, for example, and another the role of victimised. The drive to repetition via skin and razor blade may be both because the individual feels they deserve nothing better, and a constructive attempt to put important scenes in a life into a narrative, to embody unbearable feelings, unspoken thoughts and the unthinkable.
Full article with lots of links: The Guardian