Cut to the truth
Why people harm themselves, and how to talk to them
I found out my 18-year-old daughter is cutting herself. She always has been a model student and hasn’t rebelled in any way. Her mother and I are divorced, and now she is living with me and attending junior college. I have gotten her into counseling, but I’m afraid and confused. How do I talk to her and understand why she is doing this?
“I’m not at all surprised that she was a model student and hasn’t rebelled, because cutting is a very private way of rebelling,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi, spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park. She shared her own experience in discovering that one of her favorite congregants was cutting.
“It was the same sort of thing: straight-A student, model kid. And she was doing it because she felt like there was so much pressure on her. Not pressure that her parents were putting on her, but perceived pressure that she needed to be perfect.”
While it was “a big shock” to the girl’s parents, Alfi said, “If I were the parent, I would first try to educate myself to understand the whole phenomenon of cutting, because it’s relatively new. I don’t remember people doing this when I was a kid.”
Alfi speculated that cutting was a way for this child to “have some control in a life where she didn’t feel like she had control.”
She advised parents to be “gentle and inquiring” rather than “punitive” in talking with the child, and also to “not overly berate themselves, because it’s hard sometimes to really know what’s going on in your kid’s life. In the best situations, communication with teenage children is difficult. They may be feeling things they don’t know how to express.”
Rev. Jim Truesdell, minister at Pioneer Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), questioned whether the child felt guilty or responsible for her parents’ divorce.
“Part of cutting, as I understand it, is punishing yourself,” he said. “I’d really want to know, ‘How did the divorce make you feel?’”
He echoed Alfi that cutting is “a recent phenomenon.”
“And I think for most adults, a frightening one,” said Alfi, “because it’s so outside of our reality. If you didn’t know anybody growing up who did it, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Wearing weird clothes and listening to sad music, that’s one thing,” said Pastor Andy Flowers, at Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland.
Alfi added another insight gleaned from her research, that people who cut “say they do it so that they can feel something, because they’re so emotionally numbing themselves. I think this goes back to examining the divorce: Is she cutting herself off emotionally because it’s too painful to deal with?”
“From what I understand, it’s really addictive,” added Flowers. “It’s hard to stop even when you want to because of the adrenaline. So it helps to have some professional help to get some accountability and communication opening up.
“It seems like there’s something missing,” he continued. “Maybe there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s not there. And that’s what we [as pastors] are there for. Because people come in with this big God-shaped hole that they don’t know how to fill. They’re really incomplete and empty and try all kinds of things to fix it, but nothing works except for God.”
“God and community,” said Alfi. “Finding God through connecting with other people. Having real, meaningful connections and relationships.”
Truesdell turned a compassionate eye on the father. “Imagine what he’s feeling, thinking his daughter is cutting herself. The guilt. I mean, this guy would need as much counseling as the daughter.”
Alfi added, since divorce is painful for children at any age, “It’s critical how you get a divorce. The divorces I’ve seen that are successful for the families are the ones where the parents don’t forget that they continue to have an obligation to those children; that whether or not they want to be married to that particular person, they’ll always be connected because of the children, and you have to really look at how to make it less painful for them.”
Truesdell’s church offers a liturgical service for divorce, which gives children the opportunity to “say goodbye to this marriage.”
“If you’re married by a member of the clergy and you sanctify it, then it would make sense that you also need words when you end it,” said Alfi. “It’s not simply a financial affair or a government contract.”