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Addicted to cutting myself - Agony Aunt

Ask Anne

Dear Anne,
I'm 14 and I've been cutting myself for 7 months, mainly because of stress, things going on at home and self-loathing.  I've hidden my scars and lied to my friends and no one knows.  I don't understand why it is bad but it feels wrong and it's become an addiction.  Should I stop?  And if I should, I don't know how to because I always feel I need it to make me feel in control of my emotions and stress.  LS

Dear LS,
Like a fair number of teens you've experienced the urge to self-harm.  Mostly people do it for the same reasons you do: it feels like a way of managing difficult feelings.  It can also feel like an addiction, often because of this emotional release and the short-term distraction from upset, but perhaps also because afterwards people give themselves some nurturing, be it only antiseptic and a plaster.
    
But while the physical pain may temporarily mask the emotional pain, the relief doesn't last for very long, it doesn't solve the underlying problems and it leaves you with feelings of shame and guilt as well as scars.  I very much hope for your own sake that you'll stop, and here are some ways to prepare you for that.
    
It's a good idea to talk to someone about this, perhaps your school nurse or a doctor.  They would however have to tell your parents, which has advantages but your parents may not have the skills to help you and parents don't always respond constructively.  You could however ring the Samaritans on 08457 909090 when you're feeling that desperate urge, or email them via www.samaritans.org.uk and they'll get back to you within 24 hours.
    
The websites at www.selfharm.net and www.siari.co.uk offfer useful information and tactics both for overcoming the urge to self-harm and for managing your feelings more helpfully.  They're written by and for those who know what it's like. 
    
The urge to self-harm comes in waves.  The wave will pass, so you might start by deciding you'll leave it at least 15 minutes before doing anything to hurt yourself.  In that time you could phone a friend for a chat or a good moan, go to one of these websites, ring the Samaritans or do something absorbing to distract yourself.
    
Feelings are messages.  Happiness says "This is good, keep doing it."  Sadness says you haven't got something you want so you have to act differently to get it.  Fear says you feel attacked and anger gives you the power to do something about it.  But feelings aren't always facts.  Lots of people are scared of spiders, for example, but in the UK there aren't any poisonous spiders so the fear is unhelpful and unrealistic.  Therefore you have to think of uncomfortable feelings as information you can ponder to make good, problem-solving decisions.  In that case it's finding positive ways to overcome phobic thoughts.  There's a lot more about learning to manage feelings in constructive, self-supportive ways at www.coping.org.  And a big part of that is learning to like and value yourself.  It's not always easy, but it's important and worthwhile. 
    
You're not finished, you're a work in progress.  You won't always be 14 and living at home.  You don't have to be perfect.  Nobody else is!  LS, you matter!  And you matter to yourself most of all because what you do, think and feel affects you most.  You don't like it when other people criticise you, do you?  So why do it to yourself?  Instead ask your friends what they like about you.  Remember all the people who've ever been nice to you - because you're worth it!  Acknowledge your achievements, however small, and build on them.  Be your own best friend, encouraging and supportive.  Cheer yourself on.  Be kind to yourself!
   
To talk to your mates, let them know that you don't want them to criticise or to fix things for you.  You have resources now for that.  Then they won't feel burdened.  You just want them to listen and be sympathetic.  After all, lots of teens have difficult relationships at home, or parents who row, so don't feel you're the only one.  You might also choose to say to your most approachable parent that you're finding something specific at home, e.g. parental arguments, criticisms or rows with your siblings, very stressful and ask them to help you manage that stress.  It's not your job to fix things between your parents, and you are allowed to ask for help.  They are too!  If it is criticism, remember that parents who don't care about their kids don't care about their wellbeing or behaviour. 
    
I wish you the courage to find new ways of dealing with things that leave you feeling more centered and constructive.  I leave you with the Serenity Prayer of St. Augustine: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."  Good luck - and have faith in yourself!

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