Trigger warning: self harm, child abuse
Stream of consciousness at 3am on a rainy morning:
I don’t know how to start this story and even if I should, but something tells me to write this down. Maybe it’s to help me cope, maybe it’s to help others know they are not alone. I am a parent whose child self harms, abusing her body to experience feeling, albeit negative. When one does not feel anything at all then pain is a way to feel real. When one cannot express their feelings sometimes pain will explain.
How do we understand this when we only see the results, the trauma, the physical scarring, the broken body? We spend our entire life trying to ensure safety for our children, trying to guide them down a path that will bring happiness, wanting only peace in both their life and our own. How do we ever understand? I have spent many a sleepless night waiting in emergency rooms for my adult child to be helped by professionals. She had physically and mentally passed the stage of being able to help herself. The pain of her illness becoming unbearable. During this time my thoughts would go over the past years to try to make sense of this moment.
Where did I go wrong, where did she go wrong, where did society go wrong and what do I do now? What else can we try to do to stop this vicious disease and to eradicate some of the reasons contributing to these outcomes? There are many questions to ask with very few answers, but maybe it’s the process which heals and helps us get through this. Friends ask how we manage to keep going and to keep trying. There are two answers to this question. Firstly, she is our child and our love for her prevents us from not trying. Secondly her fight is so much harder than ours and yet she keeps trying. How dare we give up when she has not?
This self-destructive path she has chosen seems so pointless and yet an alternative does exist…death… but oh! So pointless. Death will not answer the questions. A painless void is all it will leave. I can only be thankful so far that intelligence prevails in her confused soul. If she dies, what purpose would she have served? Pain for all those who are left to endure. If she lives, more pain, certainly, but maybe, just maybe, some answers will be found. She does what she must to survive this trauma in her life and who am I to tell her how to deal with her feelings? Who am I to criticise another? I can only question my own thoughts and deal with them. Maybe by understanding myself, it will help me to understand a little more about her and her illness.
To do this we must ask ourselves the question of “What is self-harm?” Slicing through the skin with a razor, burning one’s body with cigarette butts, starving oneself, binging, alcohol abuse, most definitely these acts are all self harm and are all acts I have seen first hand. These are more obvious and are our first thoughts of self-abuse. There are more subtle forms of self abuse that many of us encounter without being consciously aware of the effect on our wellbeing. What of the abuse we inflict on ourselves which is often disguised or hidden? How many times do we say YES, when we should say NO? A simple response used daily by many with rarely a second thought. Society teaches us to help others and so we should, but sometimes the messages we get are wrong and self destructive. In saying yes when we are not fully comfortable we often break the boundaries of self-preservation and self-worth. We often push ourselves to the extent of harm. We get sick, we get tired, or hurt and we take on others’ pain and grief as our own. The result of this is often an extreme overuse of our mental capacity. Another negative form of this behaviour is that we will often forget or neglect those closest to us, which in turn, often creates more problems for us to deal with. This is also self-harm as we are only human and only have so much energy to give.
As children we are taught that adults have already experienced life, therefore we should learn from them. We ask our children to respect them and listen to their instruction. We are told to respect our teachers, listen to those in authority. Do we let them know that some elders teachers or people in authority can be abusive or unnecessarily critical? Do we teach them how to deal with this? Do we listen when they try to speak out? Rarely as parents or educators do we clarify this advice explaining the distinction between adults who may be right and adults who may be wrong. I am sure we can agree there are many adults in our lives who do not yet exhibit adult behaviour in the true meaning of the word. We teach our children stranger danger but we neglect to teach them how to identify subtle abusive conduct by not only strangers but friends and family. I believe often this is because we do not recognise these behaviours ourself. Ask yourself about the following everyday occurrences in our lives and then determine what is right and what is wrong and what we often neglect to teach.
Society insists that children participate in sport during their school years. I agree to some extent but there is a time in a child’s life where their focus is on their body which is not always something to be exposed. There are those of us who find it difficult, embarrassing and painful, those who feel inadequate or awkward at school sport. It may be good for our bodies but are we mentally prepared for the ridicule coming from our fellow classmates and the unending barrage of thoughtless comments from our teachers? Maybe less pressure to be perfect and more understanding of how and why would gain better results. Are we teaching children to self harm?
We become competitive because we are told it is good to win, even when those who have the talent may not have the desire. Talent does not necessarily come with an inbuilt ability to cope with the adoration and expectation from others. Should we ask before we push… are we teaching them to be the best or are we pushing them to self-harm?
We study excessively because we are told this is the only chance to make something of ourselves. True, this may give us top marks but what about experiencing life, where we will learn so much more? Maybe we should consider the current high dropout rate in the first couple of years of university and ask ourselves why! Are we teaching them to excel or maybe to self-abuse?
Our children are often accelerated in their learning process. Why is that? We do not question this because we are secretly happy our child is considered smarter than others. Once this happens they are put onto a pedestal and expectations grow. We assume they will be able to hold an intelligent conversation, give speeches, talk in front of crowds, control their peers and many other tasks. Some thrive on this, or that’s what we tell ourselves, but some are painfully shy, unsure or frightened but they push forward not wanting to disappoint…once again in many cases this is self-abuse.
Elements of these lessons are indeed very good and should be learnt, but as a society maybe we are pushing for development and perfection way too much. Is less than 100% no longer acceptable? Are we moulding and changing people too often? When we are young teenagers and trying to find our place in this world, we receive so many mixed messages. I as a parent am often confused about what to teach our children. We encourage on one hand to be yourself and not be influenced by others, however we also expect them to fit into the mould society has determined as acceptable.
As parents we are constantly giving advice or consistently steering them to conform with society. Don’t colour your hair, don’t wear outrageous clothes, don’t wear too much makeup, don’t bring attention to yourself. Don’t be controversial, don’t dress individually, do what everyone else does, fit in, conform. We want them to be “normal”, accepted by society because it is easier for us that way. Now ask your self how many times have you openly said “always be true to yourself, stand up for yourself, stand up for your rights, don’t let people walk all over you?” How mixed are those messages?
Society comes with its own set of rules and double standards which also creates so much confusion. Take famous people as an example. Famous people are just the same as everyone else. They started out as everyday souls, whose lives followed a path which ended up being public property. They are famous and the general public often hold them up as gods. There are people who are famous, or who have achieved a high status by sheer luck, some by massive sacrifice, and some who just plodded along and that’s where they ended. Their lives are scrutinised, criticised, adored, and ignored when society chooses. Allowances are made when it suits, just as easily as criticism and disdain are expelled when needed. When people are famous we make allowances, we laugh and encourage them when they are different, difficult or unique. However, if an unknown teenager acted in the same manner, we ignore or criticise or force our opinion on that person. Does this not create confusion in our world? Society makes allowances when it suits them and then questions why we have troubled teenagers and confused adults. Do we not confuse them with our inconsistencies and with our need for acceptance or our need to be inconspicuous? How do we stay unique or individual or uninfluenced if this is what we are taught on a daily basis?
We are expected to do well at school, find a job or go to university, be successful, fall in love, get married, have children, raise them perfectly, buy a house and live happily ever after. How many people do you know who have actually followed this path successfully? That would be an interesting statistic. We are expected to be normal, even though we are influenced by so many different things.
What is normal and what is right?
Is it being a leader, or a follower, being gay or being straight, being married or unmarried, having kids or having no kids, being political or non-political, religious or non-religious, rebellious, compliant, withdrawn or argumentative? Is it being a university student, blue collar worker, creative, talented or academic, famous or infamous? I am sure this list could go on for many pages and all would be normal. If this society needs to grow we need all of these traits and all of these behaviours come with their own set of characteristics and emotions.
So, is self-harm normal? It doesn’t matter if it is normal or abnormal, it happens. And it happens without discrimination. Those who do it will say yes, it gets them through the moment to fight another day and that is normal for them. We as adults hold people in high esteem whom we see as having achieved and we strive to be as they are, but also worthy of our respect are the souls who struggle quietly with their demons and still continue to survive. Those who don’t seem to fit in our society. Those who strive to retain their own individuality against a society who sees them as different.
Sometimes they achieve outstanding things in their life and sometimes they are shunned and looked down upon. Often in our society we claim them as mentally ill. In my short experiences with what we call “mental illness”, I have encountered all levels. The very successful, talented actors and performers, top level athletes, high profile business people, university students trying to achieve, young teenagers trying to fit in, young children trying to emulate others, rich people, poor people, mums and dads. One common underlying factor with many of those I have met or read about was their intelligent, caring, highly sensitive minds which did not allow them to fit into society. They did not ask for these qualities and their intelligence does not allow them to just give up, so they keep trying to fit into the “normal, accepted” mould.
Self-harm is intimate, self-destructive and personal. My daughter has never intentionally harmed another living soul, I have to add here that it must be said that others have certainly been emotionally affected by her actions but that was never the intent. In fact, she bleeds inside for others who suffer. She takes aboard their pain and questions her inability to help them and make it right. She claims blame for others’ errors and accepts imperfections in people she knows are struggling. No such allowances are made for herself though. When it comes to her own self-worth, guilt, anger and self-hate are more powerful. She must change her thinking before she can heal, but do we change ours? Rarely, because we are not considered as having a mental illness, we are considered as “normal”. We who destroy with our words, our thoughtless criticism, our relentless pressure, our unyielding desire to only accept those who appear perfect. Yes, she must change to be able to survive and it is not our problem, it is hers alone, but if this world is to improve and is to support those who will be our future, we must look at where we are placing our energy. We must broaden our beliefs and allow change and we must accept that people are so individual. I do not advocate crime or bad behaviour, that is not acceptable and the consequences of those actions should be theirs to bear. What society should do is not be so quick to judge. Find out the facts and look behind the action first before you condemn. We must put money into research for those with behavioural illness. We must spare time for those in need and help them to find the answers. We must listen to those who are suffering. Do not harm others and respect their feelings. In my mind these are rules which should never be questioned and should always be taught, regardless of race, colour or creed. Unfortunately, in the world today, we are burdened with people who have not been taught these simple rules and because of this, too many people are suffering.
Once again, I wait for my daughter. This time a therapy session, one of many which leave her in too much pain. Memories from the actions of a so-called adult brought alive again. An adult devoid of respect for her in years gone by. These actions were brutal and unforgiving, but the person imposing them is long gone, their suffering ceased, but hers unyielding. She sits with many others trying to understand, trying to learn how to live with this horrid nightmare bought upon by others. All of these victims many years later being treated for mental illness. The pain and anguish these victims go through is not something I ever want to experience and the sad part of this is that sometimes the perpetrators are often suffering similar pain and anguish. The vicious cycle continues.
Is this the area in which we should be putting our resources? Why do people harm others and why do people not respect? How do we stop them? Is part of their illness because they were restricted from being who they wanted to be? It is hard to believe we are born with these destructive harmful traits. Where did society go wrong? There is much research and money put into medical research to keep us living longer, such as cancer, MS, heart conditions etc. We sink so much money into medical research for transplants and other vital procedures. Obviously this is necessary however mental illness is a major crippling illness and all the hospitals specialising in this area are closing. The only real help of any type that we have been able to find is one that is far too expensive for the average person. Society continuously tell people to seek help, but it is very hard to find the right help and it is costly and exhausting to keep looking. Sadly the process often makes the person with the illness feel alienated and alone and increases their thoughts of being undeserving. Why is this!?
There are so many things in this world that contribute to our lives and so many areas we can lay blame, but will that change us? I think not. Change comes from within and not always by just accepting what others think, but by listening to what our heart and soul tells us is right. There are so many influences in our environment which we can use to excuse our situation, but the reality is, we are the ones who choose to live the way we do. We are the ones who choose to allow these influences to affect us and hold dominance over our lives. Some of us are not strong enough to say NO, so we will continue down that path, but what we must learn is to help and assist those who do not want to follow that same path. Those of us who want to change, be different, explore and be individual. Help them to change what we cannot. Accept them and encourage them to explore. Some will say this would be chaotic, but maybe it would be inspiring and maybe it would help society to grow.
SHIT happens and we go on. Self-worth, self-esteem and confidence with our own being, is something we need and will be felt when we self-nurture a little more and when we extend tolerance and respect to people so they are able to be themselves.
Footnote 1 (2007)
I wrote these notes in 2004 and now 3 years later, little has changed. My own tolerance is better, but my energy is drained. With this comes more frustration, anger and disappointment…
A second child, one who has already endured watching her sister go through enormous pain, one who has tried to learn and gain insight from this, one who was become stronger for this experience, one who again is individual and trying to fit into this society and now one who has herself experienced abuse by a fellow human being. How do we all deal with this. My anger is extreme and my thoughts confused. I feel alienated by society, I question is it me once again? Why would I not think this? Two children, both caring, genuine, beautiful people. It seems obvious to me that I should have raised them to be less thoughtful, less caring, and then maybe they would not have been so easily abused. Society has to change. We need to be more aware, we have to stop abuse, both mental and physical. We are destroying ourselves. So much talk of keeping our environment green, our environment includes our actions. How can we keep our personal environment clean?
Footnote 2 (2010)
Another 3 years on and again little has changed. The world changes slowly but constantly we hear of personal destruction of human beings at the hands of people who should not be in the public forum. The lack of mental health facilities, the lack of funds for research, the lack of care in general for all people. Sexual assaults, child pornography, shootings, people trafficking, increased use of drugs and alcohol and exploitation on every corner. The list is endless and I am not too naïve to realise this is all part of society. My complaint is that not only the victims of these hideous acts, but also the perpetrators, have very little options for help. I am by no means condoning violence of any type and I have little sympathy for those responsible for these crimes. My anger lies with the people who have power in this world. They who have control of where our money is spent. They seem unable to see the extreme need for money for mental health, research and institutions to care for the wide spectrum of deteriorating care in the community. Social security is mismanaged and chronically understaffed. Public hospitals are old, inadequate and chronically understaffed and underfunded. Private hospitals are overstocked and unaffordable, mental health facilities are non-existent. Private health care is extremely expensive. Jails are overloaded and mismanaged. The court system is out of date and acutely in need of investigation. This morning on the news was the announcement of a massive amount of money issued to upgrade the Opera House. I can only hope this will help keep a few more homeless people sheltered during winter, because it is certainly not going to help anyone in need.
Footnote 3 (2011)
The government has finally thrown some money into mental health. Not nearly enough though. A new private hospital has opened and some new ways are being tried. This is a great thing and for those of us who are able to afford private health insurance, we will try once again, but for those not so lucky no real changes are occurring. The government generously offers some free psychological sessions, 6, maybe 12 or even 18 if you are lucky. We can only hope this will help some get help before their illness or trauma eats them alive. For those who have passed the initial onset of the trauma, for those who are chronically affected by mental health it hardly touches us. We currently see a psychologist twice weekly and a psychiatrist monthly. This goes on 52 weeks a year, ie 100 odd sessions, so how do we pay for the other 82 not covered by medicare? We work and work and neglect the people who need constant care. Ironically self-harm persists and grows in this instance, not only with the patient but with the family.
A positive note, research is happening, new treatments are being used and hopefully these will continue and some will be helped. Education is broadening and acceptance is more widely experienced. I worry though, that parents or society in general are not being educated in simple kindness and acceptance in this fast moving world. Political correctness is killing our freedom of speech. Political correctness is not allowing individualism, and weak governments are not adhering to our general safety. How long before we go back to the dark ages and hide our mentally ill away from society because the problem is too great to tackle?
If you are suffering please reach out for help
Mental health line is 1800 011 511
If you cannot get through to the Mental Health Line, call:
- Lifeline13 11 14
- Kids Helpline1800 55 1800
- Suicide Call Back Services1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue1300 22 46 36
- Mental Health Triage Policy
- Call Handling Guidelines for Mental Health Telephone Triage Services
- Resources for the Mental Health Line