“I’ve been clean for 9 months now,” she told me. I could hear the pride in her voice as she talked about all the changes she’d made- how different she felt. This girl who had felt so completely lost over a year ago was finally getting her bearings.
Over a year ago we had cried together as she told me about how empty she felt inside- that there was nothing she liked about herself anymore. That to her, high school was a breeding ground for self-hatred. A place where people bullied her. A place where she felt like she was nothing.
I found myself asking how a person gets to this place of feeling like nothing. Looking at Breanna, there seemed to be no logical explanation. She was there in front of me looking bright and full of kindness. She had her whole life ahead of her and it was beautiful. When I voiced my musings she said simply: “A person can go from fine to feeling like nothing.”
WHAT? Why? I thought of my own little boy and was filled with dread at the thought of his perception of himself changing so rapidly. What is happening to our beautiful girls and boys… our toddlers who are so full of love for themselves? These wonderful little people who will so readily tell you that they are smart and beautiful— and these are the same people who feel like “nothing” a few short years later?
Breanna’s first introduction to cutting had been through seeing marks and scars on other kids. And her reaction upon seeing this behavior in her peers was one of surprise and shock at first: “[I wanted] to talk to them; Ask them if they’re okay, but at the same time you’re lost for words and you don’t know what to say or do.”
When I asked Breanna what had changed to make her turn to cutting, I was expecting to hear about a friend or a boyfriend who convinced her to start doing it, but was surprised to find that, in Breanna’s experience, cutting is something that most young people turn to on their own… and that it’s something that most of them do in private.
Enter high school and, with it, a world where 14 year old children are expected to be able to handle adult-like stress and life experiences like adults.
“You don’t want to stress other people out about anything. If I was struggling in school, I wouldn’t want to tell anyone because I felt like I should be able to handle it myself.”
And so instead of talking to other people about her fears and anxieties, Breanna compared herself to them instead. And when she started comparing herself to other people, somehow a failed math test turned into not only feeling stupid, but feeling ugly and unlikable as well. “One thing wrong becomes everything wrong. It’s not true, but it feels that way,” Breanna says.
“It’s kind of like, when you have overbearing pain inside, you’re bringing some of that outside, so that you can kind of control it,” Breanna explains. “Cutting can help you feel something, and show you that you’re capable of feeling pain and emotion when you’re feeling numb and empty,” she continues, explaining her experiences with cutting as an important ritual “It’s almost like you let it all go because you’re focusing on cutting. It’s relaxing— Me time.” She admits, that when she first became engaged in cutting, she didn’t even think of it as being a bad thing.
So how did Breanna start to turn things around, you may ask?
The answer is more obvious than you would think. As I began asking questions about her journey to feeling whole again, I expected to hear about the amazing FACES program where I met her as her teacher and the feeling she had when, together with other students, she had climbed a mountain for the first time and then felt like she could conquer more— BE more. I expected to hear about the encouraging text messages that we had exchanged and the school counselor that she had promised me she would start seeing. And I did hear about all of those things and more… but when I asked Breanna to point to the one thing that had really made her want to stop cutting, I was floored by her answer.
“I talked to my Parents,” she said.
It was an obvious answer, one that a toddler would have come up with. But Breanna wasn’t a toddler anymore and somehow growing up had made her feel like she had to carry the weight of her world on her own.
Prior to talking to her parents about her cutting habbit, Breanna had assumed that doing so would harm her relationship with them. She also worried that her parents “would be really upset; really disappointed in [her]. [She] didn’t want to put that on them… or make them feel like it was their fault.” In some ways, Breanna’s fears were realized when she finally told her parents about the feelings that were leading to cutting. It hurt her parents to know she was hurting herself. But at the same time, she realized something important—something that was a game changer.
As a parent, hurting IS YOUR JOB. Because you can’t feel the kind of love that most parents feel for their children without feeling pain yourself when they so much as scrap their precious knees.
And so in that moment when she confided in them, Breanna’s parents loved her in the same way that they had loved her when they had first gazed at her in a tiny pink hat. They were willing to hurt with her because they knew that fourteen is too young to have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders; any age is too young. But maybe most of us finally figure that out by the time our twenties hit?
These days we hear a lot about seeking professional help. And there is definitely an important place in this world for teachers and counselors, motivational speakers, yoga instructors…. (etc. etc.) But what we can’t forget, is that parenthood is the profession of professions. As parents, we are professional when it comes to loving and caring for our children. They know it and we know it and there is no substitute for that love in all the professions of the world combined. It’s both inspiring and frightening to say, but there it is.
Self-injuring aside, I think that if teens and parents alike could remember this important lesson that Breanna was kind enough to teach me, our schools and our homes would be improved beyond recognition.