In October, 2010 in Akron Ohio I had the great pleasure of presenting to the self-injury group and working closely with the girls in the group. The term self-injury was used no matter what the method of self-injury the girls used, because the girls found the exact terms such as cutter or burner etc. was too triggering. They were still actively involved in self-injury and were looking for ways to deter themselves from self-injury and help them cope with overwhelming feelings.
Creative activities were used for group member self-expression. The girls learned alternatives to self-injury using all 5 senses sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. For example for taste it was suggested to suck on a mint or chew on some peppermint gum, to taste things that have a strong taste to them, they tried it out and liked the idea. Another example they practiced was with smell, using scented hand lotion , anything mentholated (vick's vapo-rib) etc. The girls enjoyed learning about all the alternatives towards the five senses and agreed that this may deter them from using self-injury at the time they were feeling like hurting themselves.
The girls also learned about alternatives to self injury related to their category or state of mind. For example if the category was anger, the alternatives were tearing up newspaper, ripping apart an old cassette tape, throwing ice cubes at a brick wall or throw eggs into the shower. If the category was visual, they could draw red lines on their arm with a washable, non-toxic felt marker, they enjoyed that technique. They could also draw slash lines on a piece of paper. Other categories were restlessness, emotional regulation, sensations, focusing and creative, we reviewed all the alternatives for self-injury and they chose the ones they thought would help them and promised to try the alternatives.
Another activity was a visualization of a waterfall of light, they were able to listen to a visualization and after they would draw what they saw. This activity reached out into their subconscious and able to bring that forth into their drawing. They all were so creative and made beautiful drawings, however they were shy to presenting their drawings, but two of the girls did present their drawings and why they drew what they did. It was explained that sometimes people can't actually visualize and the drawings can be thoughts or feelings that person may have had.
The girls opened up slowly during this group, however they did all explain how they felt about their counselors and the treatment they had received from hospital emergency visits for their self-injury. The consensus was that they felt misunderstood and their counselors didn't really help them. They also said the emergency room personnel were rude to them and treated them poorly. They feel overall that they are misunderstood and people don't take the time to get to know them for the people they are and they only focus on their self-injury and wanting them to stop. They appreciated the group they had with me and the creative ways they can learn to express their feelings that are so hard to talk about. I was grateful that these girls allowed me into their intimate group and opened up to me and I let them know the appreciation I had for their attention to my group presentation.
Overall, I learned from them that they all have issues they are struggling with and they are being looked at as self-injurers instead of teenagers with issues. They are treated poorly by their counselor who focuses only on them stopping the self-injury and not providing an alternative that will work for them. This group wanted to be appreciated for who they are not what their behavior is. It is important to try to understand the underlying issues of the self-injury and what the function of the self-injury plays in their life. Treat them with dignity and this will bring a person one step closer to helping the self-injurer.
Kimberly Beck is a counselor and a doctoral candidate with a special interest in Self-injury. Other interests are PTSD, trauma, and Borderline personality disorder