Cutting: One Girl’s Story and how it Changed my view of Parenthood

Inspired by Breanna

http://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2014/02/28/what-to-do-if-your-child-is-cutting

“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.

Enter cutting.

“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.

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10 Responses to “Cutting: One Girl’s Story and how it Changed my view of Parenthood”

  1. Beth says:

    I really love this post Jen! I know you’ve been wanting to write it for a while and now I know why! It’s a hard subject, but you wrote about it so well. Honestly, I think that’s my biggest fear as a future parent, what if my kids don’t feel they can communicate with me when they need help.

    • Jen Bowden says:

      I can relate to that fear in a big way! I’m so glad that we’ll have kids in high school at the same time so that we can help each other out. Thanks for reading, Beth. You’re going to be one amazing mom.

  2. Heather says:

    I one day hope to be a parent. Thanks Jen for reminding me about the important things that a parent should prioratize and to be always open with your children.

    • Jen Bowden says:

      Thanks for your comment Heather. Openness goes a long way, for sure… And you can always practice by being open with your own parents now. But you probably already know that because you are wise beyond your years!

  3. Cheri says:

    Thank you for this amazing post. I have remembered how much of a struggle my own high school years were for me and I worry every day that I may not be approachable for my kids as they work through these transitional years. I probably spend too much time trying to keep those lines of communication open, but you reminded me why it is so important to let my kids know how much support they really have from me and how quickly things can change. So even though I am having my doubts about whether I am pushing too much or not, I appreciate the gentle reminder that its never too much to show your kids that you are on their side.

    • Jen Bowden says:

      Thanks Cheri! You bring up a good question: how much parental support is too much? And I think you answered it yourself by saying there is no such thing. You can’t ever spend too much quality time with your children or show them that you love them too much.

      Having said that, if a parent feels that there might be something going on with their teen that should be talked about, open ended questions like: “Do you feel safe talking to me about things that are going on in your life?,” can go a lot further than a yes or no questions like: “are you cutting?” (or whatever the issue of concern is), because they remind your child that you’re interested in them and that you’re there to support them while still respecting a genuine need to feel trusted.

      Also, one on one time is the best! My dad and I would always take the dog for nice long walks when I was in high school. But it can be anything (as long as the TV isn’t involved).

      Keep up the good work Cheri. It sounds like your children are pretty lucky to have a mom like you!

  4. Valerie Thomson says:

    Thanks Jen. I wish all parents could read this when they are feeling the pain that comes with the job. Of course I wish youth understood this too. I have feelings of regret that I let feelings of fear and wishing things to just be better, keep me from some open dialogues. Society will keep throwing new pains at our youth…cutting, addictions, immorality, gender confusion…parents now and of the future need to remember Breanna’s remedy.

    • Jen Bowden says:

      I know what you mean. Sometimes we have the tendency to think that talking about something might legitimize it or give it power… making it more real somehow? But if it’s happening then it’s already real. I think the fear of coming to terms with the realities of our situation can be a big hurdle for teens as well as their parents in having important conversations. We can all be a little bit more brave in this regard. Love you mom. Thanks for reading.

  5. Leah Thomson says:

    I know I’m kind of late on this one… but I’m still trying to catch up! This story reminded me of a time in middle school when my Social Studies teacher was asking what some general attributes of parents are. Some answers came; they provide, nurture, protect… I raised my hand and said that parents are teachers. I was shocked when my teacher laughed at my answer. He thought the idea that I could view my mom and dad as people qualified to teach was hilarious.

    Like you said, there is a time for professional help from teachers, therapists, doctors, etc. However, the things that I have learned from my parents are so much more significant than what I have learned in classrooms. There is no equivalent to the teaching that is done in the home.

    • Jen Bowden says:

      Thanks for sharing, Leah! That is such a good example of the limited lense through which we sometimes view parenthood. I think we really miss out when we parents fail to see ourselves as teachers. My article focused on the benefits that children get from using their parents as a resource… but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more joy out of life than when I teach my kids something that is valuable to me. It’s just the best 🙂

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Posted in: Fifteen, Mother Heart