When I started self injuring, I didn’t know what to say to anyone. I knew I was feeling absolutely awful, that my mind was churning up with horrible thoughts and feelings, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. It was the self injury that propelled me to a doctor, but it was some time before I told my friends anything was wrong, and even longer before I told my parents.
Most people who self injure keep it a secret, even though they may, secretly, long for others to know their distress. It was certainly a relief to me to let others know that I was hurting. If you find out that your child, relative or friend has been hurting themselves, you may find that at first, they reject you and seem angry. For example, you see when they reach for something some red marks/healing wounds on their arm. Naturally you ask what is wrong, to which the answer may well be “nothing!” or something like “I got scratched by a cat”. What I think I would do then is leave it for a moment, and keep a watchful eye on that person. If they seemed depressed, or angry, and especially if I saw other marks, or noticed they always wore long sleeves, or large bangles/wristbands, or did what I did which is, combined with the long-sleeves, tried to avoid using my left arm, then I would be suspicious.
If I thought my friend was self injuring, then I might simply say, “If there is anything you want to talk about, I’m always here for you.” I probably wouldn’t come straight out with “are you hurting yourself?” It is hard, to “come out” as a self injurer, hard to face the reality of what you have been doing and how really abnormal it is. There is a lot of fear of what someone will say: will they dismiss you as an attention-seeker? will they tell you you’re mad? will they call you a freak and never speak to you again? I feared the condemnation of those I loved most, and I needed to be reassured that they were still close to me, still loved me.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed, to feel sad, to not know how to deal with someone’s self harm. It is also normal to wonder what you could have done to stop it happening. Try not to feel guilty, no one makes someone self harm, it is something that we discover for ourselves, learn off the internet, something which seems like a good idea or the only solution but which turns out to be a really bad one. Even if your loved one says you drove them to it, even if they blame you for the mess they perceive their life to be then you must try to steel yourself and ignore it. Your love and being there will be really important.
Some people wish to hide blades and lighters, or other tools that the person may be using to hurt themselves. I have always been told that this is not helpful, because I know that if I had lacked my blades I would simply have found something else to do it with. When the urge is on you it is hard to say no, and the craving for the “fix” of the pain/blood/whatever attracts the person to it will drive them to seek out something else, and that something else might be far more insanitary or dangerous than the things they had in the first place.
Try to be calm, and not be angry with the person. I most appreciated my friends who took a sort of disinterested interest, much like a doctor did. They let me talk about what I was feeling, but never reacted as though it was a terrible, terrible thing I was doing. It must be very hard to remain detached like that but I found it made them easy to talk to, because I felt they understood and there was no condemnation in their eyes. I’m sure I put them through some awful times, because I felt comfortable enough to say whatever was going on in my head, and I was in a deep depression at the time and suicidal some of the time.
Make time for yourself. It must be difficult to deal with someone with perhaps complex needs and who needs attention, reassurance and love while they do things you perhaps cannot really imagine to themselves. You will be of little use if you burn out, so it is important to try to get a number of people involved, if you can, who can shoulder the burden with you.
Make sure to involve professionals – although my self injury was not directly treated by my psychiatrist, my underlying bipolar depression was, and once that was helped (for a while) my self harming also stopped. I am told that a good therapist can really help.
For Christian parents/loved ones, relying on God during this time is important. Encouraging the person to keep up with praying, perhaps reading some verses from the Bible (they may or may not be able to concentrate on very much), listening to Christian music, and so on, gives a great sense of comfort. Make sure to do similar yourself! Prayer for and with the person can really help, although be aware that they may feel angry or separated from God, and may not want prayers said with them.
There are lots of excellent sites with information for parents and loved ones about self injury which I would like to link to:
Secret Shame has a page which contains information for family and friends. This is an excellent site on self injury, and I can highly recommend it.
Information on self harm from selfharm.co.uk. This is a Christian-run website offering information and resources for self injurers and their loved ones.
Information about self harm from the Royal College of Psychiatrists