How to Recover from the Scars of Self-Harm

Warning: The content in this article discusses distressing themes including self-harm and suicide, which some may find triggering. If you’re struggling or need support, call 1-800-273-TALK or dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

What does a self-harmer look like? For years, we’ve associated self-harm with damaging stereotypes, as if self-injury is an issue limited to those seeking attention for the wrong reasons. However, these stereotypes perpetuate harmful ideas about self-injury that downplay the serious and lasting self-harm scars on every victim.

To shed light on the scope of self-harm, we decided to open the floor to members of our staff. Employees of different backgrounds from across the country volunteered to share their stories and struggles as self-harm survivors, more than we initially expected. On a personal level, it was sobering to realize that so many of our colleagues had experienced many of the same struggles.

The stories shared solidified the reality that self-harm can impact anybody regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, or location. Although self-harm and self-injury mean different things to different people, it always reflects a cry for help and deep-seated unhappiness.

What Exactly Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is when someone hurts their own body deliberately.[1] This is often depicted as a person:

  • Cutting or piercing their skin with sharp objects
  • Hitting or punching themselves
  • Punching objects like a wall
  • Burning themselves with cigarettes or matches
  • Breaking their bones.

Women more often self-harm than men, and the desire to hurt themselves typically begins in the teen or early adult years.[2] Some people self-harm for short periods and stop, while others may do it compulsively and struggle to end the behavior.

Often self-harm reflects the inner mental abuse that someone subjects themselves to. More than anything, risky behavior and self-injury stem from self-hate and a desire for escape. Hitting, beating, or cutting yourself is often a physical expression of the way you’ve torn yourself apart in your head.

For those like Erin Furlong, self-harm manifested as picking her fingernails until she bled in order to distract herself from feeling. “Physical pain was a release,” she told me. I understood all too well what she meant.

“For me, self-harm was cutting myself, burning, injuring myself to escape and draw attention,” Joshua Sprung told me during our interview. He had initially begun cutting himself hoping to get the attention he desperately needed. “I wanted someone to notice.”

However, in many cases, self-harm is most used as an expression of control. For many struggling with self-harm, being able to choose when and where you feel physical pain can soothe the need to feel in control of something. This held true for Bretney McWhorter, who would rip her toenails off, and once even branded herself in times of stress.

What Sparks Self-Harm?

Self-harm can be both a symptom of mental health conditions and a standalone mental health issue. It often indicates a need for better coping skills. The conditions most often associated with self-harm include borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[3]

The causes of self-harm are diverse. The greatest risk is among people who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse. People are also at a greater risk for self-injury if they binge drink or use illicit drugs because they lower self-control.

Often, the desire to self-harm comes from feelings of overwhelming anger, frustration, or pain. When you’re not sure how to deal with those emotions – or have been forced to suppress emotions as a child – self-harm can feel like a release.[4] Injury may bring an endorphin release that improves your mood. Or if you feel numb, injury can be a desire to feel something “real.”

Self-harm isn’t the same as attempting suicide, but it does increase the risk of feeling suicidal and acting on those urges.

In Erin’s case, it all began with a suicide attempt. After experiencing the emotional release that came with self-injury, it spiraled for years before being addressed.

Bretney struggled to believe that others would only love her if she was perfect and began punishing herself for not reaching unrealistic expectations. “It felt good,” she told us, her voice tinged with shame. “It was a relief that let my outside match my inside. It was like chasing a high.”

For Sadie Lockhart, childhood trauma led to a pervasive feeling of numbness throughout life. Self-harm allowed her to finally feel something and morphed into an addiction. “I finally started to feel something,” she said when speaking about the first time she hurt herself. “Feeling is hard.”

Self-harm can start small and snowball into a bigger issue with time. It’s also possible that it began with a distressing incident that leaves the person searching for a way to cope. Regardless of the initial incident, it’s significant to be mindful of the hurt others carry and potential triggers.

Can You Be Addicted to Self-Harm?

For some people, self-harm is a struggle distinct from their substance abuse issues. For others, self-harm and substance abuse are synonymous, and both come to an end at the same time.

For most people who self-injure while nurturing a drug addiction, abusing drugs is a manifestation of this self-abuse. Sometimes, drugs and alcohol will only cover up the underlying issues of self-harm, and getting clean and sober can uncover these issues.

Why is self-harm so addictive? One member of our staff who asked to remain anonymous shared that she began self-harming for emotional regulation from self-loathing. This later lent itself to her addiction, and eventually, her self-harm tendencies became synonymous with drug use.

“Addiction evolved into a new form of self-harm,” she drawled in her Southern accent as she shared her experience with me. “Both were unhealthy coping mechanisms for self-loathing.”

“Drugs and alcohol put a blanket over my self-harm, and after getting sober it was like the blanket was pulled off,” Brittany O’Malley told us over the phone. Even after getting sober, however, her self-harm persisted for another year.

Treatment for Self-Harm

With self-harm, treatment is often necessary to address the underlying causes of the desire to cause injury and pain and develop new coping skills. A thorough evaluation is necessary to identify potential mental illnesses and develop an individualized care plan.

Treatment for self-harm often includes:

  • Psychodynamic therapy to explore past experiences and emotions
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to recognize negative thought patterns and increase coping skills
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy to learn positive coping methods for emotional overwhelm

Depending on the severity of the self-harm, treatment may include inpatient or outpatient settings.

How to Recover from Self-Harm

Although it’s possible to stop self-harming on your own, for some, it takes intensive work to stop the self-harm addiction. This often includes diving deep into the underlying emotional issues that have been covered up and avoided through self-harm.

For Joshua, the majority of his self-harm tendencies came to an end when he was taken to a psychiatric ward. “My mom saw my cuts, and it all stopped when two men showed up at my door to take me to the ward,” he said.

Jordan has a similar story. Self-harm was one of the first addictions that allowed her to feel in control of her life. Only after visiting stress centers as a minor and intense therapy did Jordan get “clean” from cutting.

“You have to think about the people who love and care about you and how it will affect your body in the long term,” Jordan told us as we sat outside our office. Her arms are riddled with pale, overlapping scars. “If you wouldn’t cut or hurt those you love, why would you do it to yourself?”

In Brittany’s case, self-harm resulted from undiagnosed mental illness, and she used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. It wasn’t until she went to a mental health facility and found the right medication that the self-harm came to a halt.

“The twelve steps were the foundation, but not the cure,” Brittany said. “I had to discover more pathways to true and total recovery.”

A Message for Those Still Struggling

Self-harm might be a personal coping mechanism, but the reality is that it impacts so many others. There’s no shame in asking for the help you need because so many people are willing to give you love and support.

“What we need to do is hold their hand through the fire,” Bretney said as our conversation was coming to a close. “We must let people know they’re worthy of love and don’t need to hurt themselves.”

She wasn’t the only one with something to say for those who are still struggling with self-harm.

“It’s important to remember that you’re not wrong or at fault for experiencing or talking about trauma,” Justin Roshto shared with me. He had been in and out of post-acute care and treatment from the age of thirteen until seventeen.

Justin was excited with the prospect of being able to help humanize the issue of self-harm. After experiencing sexual trauma as a teen, he abused drugs to numb his emotions while cutting to feel something that wasn’t internalized.

“Things get better the more you talk about them and let yourself experience them,” he told me at the end of our conversation. “The heavy emotions aren’t the only ones there.”

For Bretney, her journey with self-harm has helped shape who she is today. Although she wishes she could have arrived at who she is today without having gone through the pain, she’s proud of how she can be there for others who still struggle.

“As your scars heal, so will your soul,” she told me before our interview ended. “It will start giving yourself love and the power to share your story in a way that can help others who are struggling.”

Are You or a Loved One Struggling with Self-Harm?

Whether you want to seek help for your self-harm or you recognize the signs in another, recovery is possible. Just contemplating whether you can overcome self-injury is the first step, and Recovery Unplugged is here to help. Contact our admissions team to learn more about your treatment options.

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