“Slapped Upside the Head”

This topic comes from my thinking about recent posts on a list serv that I am on (yes, I am learning a bit about technology).  The people on the list are mental health and other professionals as well as trauma survivors, many of whom work in a professional capacity in some way.  The list is designed for people to share resources on trauma and trauma-informed care.

As often happens when the topic of self-harm comes up, the conversation became intense rather quickly.  At first I twinged when a doctor that I respect, who has done groundbreaking work addressing the impact of childhood traumas, used the word “cutter” to describe people living with SIV.  We weren’t people who sometimes cut, we were simply being described as “cutters.”  Rarely has that served anyone.  Yet this type of labeling happens often, whether in the mental health system, public conversations and articles and even amongst people who themselves self-injure.

The conversation got most intense for me when the posts about the term “self-inflicted violence” (SIV) got going.  People, mostly consumers (!), got really pissed at the term.  The term I began using over 20 years ago.  Some of these are people I know and respect, yet I felt myself whirling about accusations that people who live with SIV are not violent, that what we do to ourselves is not about violence but about coping and self-soothing and many of the other things that we already know….  It was as if the reason behind the action should mean the action itself is not violent.

I argued that the term SIV does not imply motive, it is only descriptive.  Of course violence is uncomfortable.  Of course sometimes I used SIV to prevent being violent towards another person.  SIV helped me survive so much profound pain and distress and disconnection… and it is still violent behavior.  My SIV was violence as an act of self-defense.  I prefer nonviolence.  For a long time I found a deep need for violence in the form of SIV.  I am relieved that I was not violent towards another person.  Besides myself.  I was violent with myself.  Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.  Like many abuse survivors, I am not alone with that.  Now I am no longer physically violent and that is a relief.  I am working daily on the other ways I am still cruel to myself.  Life has never been better.

We all have the right to do with our lives as we will, for the most part.  We do not have the right to harm others (except in self-defense).  Some of the ways we bring harm are not illegal, nor necessarily violent.  I can call you an asshole, tell you that you are worthless.  That may or may not impact you.  It will likely hurt you if you are my child.  What if I say the same words to myself?  How many of us are actually comfortable with the way we “speak” to ourselves?

But I digress.  What really got me in my gut were the words a colleague that I consider a friend wrote.  In her post she wrote that if a psychiatrist used that term (SIV) with her, she’d have to slap him upside the head.  I sat back and said “wow.”  Being so upset at the use of the term to want to be violent upon the person who used it.  Of course this is a response to the great harm still done in the mainstream mental health industry as people are labeled and categorized and disempowered or blatantly hurt in many ways.  Many of the cruelest acts in the name of psychiatry happen to people who live with SIV.
But to threaten violence?  It was a great comment, as it took thinking about all of this to a whole new level.  I hope.

If I slapped you “upside the head” would that be an act of violence?   Would it matter why?
If I slapped myself upside the head would that be an act of violence?  Would it matter why?
What is the meaning of a knife in the hands of an assailant?  Of a surgeon?  Of an abuse survivor needing to cope?

These are questions that need many conversations.
The term “self-inflicted violence” is a strong and painful one.  So is what it describes.  And the most pain and turmoil come from what drives the need for the SIV to begin with.  This is all hard.  Judgment is not helpful, not from within or from others.  The word “violence” is descriptive, not judgmental, but many react to the word as if it implies immediate, profoundly negative, judgment.

It has taken great self-compassion to kindly accept the violences I have done to myself.  After all, they were acts of self-preservation at the time.  I am relieved that I was not violent towards others, and there were times SIV gave me the out to avoid that.  When options are limited and distress is severe, life is narrow and survival is a priority.  Without compassion and understanding, from self and others, it is even more difficult to risk change and expansion.  I hope that language, while we struggle with it, does not become a barrier to that process.

I wonder if the intensity of the conversation on the list serv has anything to do with the distance many survivors of violence keep between themselves and those who perpetrate violence.  Those of us who have needed self-directed violence to cope with our woundedness often bring great discomfort to others.  I wonder if being “associated” with the violent other, the “bad guy” is what is so triggering.  If that is so, then how will people heal from violence of any form?  How separate do we need to keep ourselves from each other?   I don’t write that lightly, I think it is an interesting question.

This post was a long time in writing as it brought out many questions in my mind.  It has been a rich, and not easy, time of growth and learning.  If any of you are still reading these posts, I’d be eager to hear your thoughts…

In the meantime I’m just glad that I don’t slap myself upside the head any more!

8 Responses to ““Slapped Upside the Head””

  1. Marcia Probst Says:

    I have a question on the whole thing. I used diabetes to intentionally inflict harm upon myself and my body as one of my coping mechanisms for a long time. I still struggle with the desire to retreat into that comfortable reaction to stress in my life.

    Would you define that as self inflicted violence?

    I don’t feel that many would, and I often don’t face the prejudices that I see amongst my other peers who have visible scars or who have been medically labeled with one title or another. It hurts me to see folks that were just trying to get by so harshly judged and in my opinion mistreated.

    I did have one psychiatrist tell me he wished I were a “cutter” at one point which I had no idea how to take and just left feeling confused and upset because I still wasn’t getting information on how to deal with things.

    But still because I don’t have those visible scars that doesn’t mean I did less harm to myself.

    While I understand your logic with the word violence being a descriptive thing but semantics have always been a slippery slope. Words hold so very much and so very little meaning based on our culture and our backgrounds. My thought is that most would not call what I did SIV, but some kind of self harm if anything at all. Doesn’t change that it was just a way I got by but the implications in the words affect people strongly.

    But maybe it is that I just don’t know the clinical viewpoint on what I did compared to those labeled with SIV concerns. Again semantics are probably playing a big part of this.

  2. Alexandra Livesay Says:

    In your blog you write, “I wonder if the intensity of the conversation on the list serv has anything to do with the distance many survivors of violence keep between themselves and those who perpetrate violence. Those of us who have needed self-directed violence to cope with our woundedness often bring great discomfort to others. I wonder if being “associated” with the violent other, the “bad guy” is what is so triggering. If that is so, then how will people heal from violence of any form? How separate do we need to keep ourselves from each other?” I found this to be the most interesting part of the blog. As a survivor of violence and someone who has struggled with SIV, I have felt a deep yearning to be near violence (whether SIV or other violence’s I have lived through). For me, it has been something I have struggled with in overcoming my SIV behaviors. Am I worthy of separateness from the violence? I have had a feeling of need for familiarity even when it comes in SIV behaviors. When something is all you have known it is like walking away from a part of yourself. maybe the question shouldn’t be how separate we need to be from the violence or each other but, how do we integrate the feeling of need for that violence so we can move beyond how we talk about it and get down to how we truly heal from it. I wrestle with my case manager often over the SIV behavior being an addiction, a coping skill, or just a maladaptive behavior. My thought is that you don’t learn to inflict violence on yourself by yourself. Rather, you learn from environments that you live in. Like the environment with my case manager is that SIV is “wrong.” I try to instill in her that by telling me it is “wrong” all she achieves is making me feel worse about my past behaviors. I also have the defiant strain in me and when I hear no, it means yes to me. I have been working to educate my case manager that SIV behaviors whether past or present are more than a maladaptive coping mechanism and though it becomes addictive in nature it only does so because it works successfully to get you through the moment. With out effect there would be no reason to continue. I guess in a way I have spent a lot of time defending my right to continue my SIV behaviors in the past, while hiding them as best as possible, but in stopping I found a new sensation that for now is working for me. I have the sensation of newness, hope, and a new confidence that SIV does not have to define me any longer. Violence unfortunately is a part of humanity and whether we try to insulate ourselves from it or not, triggers still remain. I guess to sum up what I am saying is so much more education is needed about how to talk to people who have struggled or are struggling with SIV because how someone speaks about it can not only be a trigger it can be how you come to feel like it defines you.

  3. chrys ballerano Says:

    Hi Ruta… we met at NYAPRS years ago. I co-direct Building Connections: the Sexual Assault & Mental Health Project for NYSCASA- NY’s Coalition against sexual assault. I appreciate the comments and posts you’ve shared through the SPSCOT list and I haven’t been keeping up with commenting there …only rarely have time but did want to say thank you to you! I used to subscribe to TCE years back for nyscasa even though my SIV was more substance related than other forms… still - when I see inebriated adults losing their dinner b/c of out of control amounts of booze…whats the difference? Pretty self destructive…worse actually than superficial marks on the flesh I believe.
    We as a society seem to accept binge drinking and the like despite its deadly consequences but other forms of SIV are still seen as taboo…anyway- I appreciate your honest, clear perspective and courage.
    Thank you! Bravo! may the Spirit of Love always be with you:) Chrys

  4. Zach Francis Says:

    Hello. My name is Zach Francis and I am currently writing a film dealing with the topic of self harm. I have known a few friends who have been involved in self-harm and I used to “punish myself” years ago with my hitting myself. Anyway, I am currently looking through your previous ariticals, blog responses, etc. and wondered if you would be interested in speaking with me. Please let me know. I am also interested in talking to anyone else on this website that would like to talk to me about your journey with self-harm. Thanks!!!

  5. Ruta Mazelis Says:

    Hello Everyone, and thanks for amazing conversations. This is what I was hoping for when I was writing, this conversation about what is “violent,” what is “self-harm” and why or why not the ways we “hurt ourselves” matters. There are so many more dangerous and ultimately more destructive types of self-harm that are not reacted to anywhere near as strongly, like you mentioned. When I consider the outcome of not addresssing diabetes versus ending up scarred from cutting, I’d hope you could switch to cutting too! Actually that is not what I wish, as I know that people often have many ways they hurt themselves. And I am most interessted in how we create healing for ourselves and each other (for me, this conversation is part of the answer). How do we build bridges of understanding about all this? What human has not ever done something self-destructive? I ask that question in my trainings and every once in a while someone raises their hand and says that they have not ever done something self-hurtful. I then say something smartass like “we have met the person who can eat only one lays’ potato chip” and watch as the realization comes across their face… We take some forms of self-harm as acceptable in our society, such as unhealthy food and all those sorts of things. Some forms of self-harm we glamorize, like people who work themselves sick for noble causes, at their own expense… So many things to discuss, no? Thanks for writing. And if you’d like to get in touch, please e-mail me at rutamaz@eohio.net. I’d be delighted to learn more about your plans, Zach. Have you seen the film “between the lines” produced by Sophia Constantinou? It is amazing and maybe you’d be interested in speaking with her as well. Feel free to get in touch if you want. Best to all…

  6. Silent Scream Says:

    Hi Ruta,
    I’m sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable giving my true name, due to the nature of confidentiality. My counselor sent me your postings and asked me to take a look at them. I believe that the blogs you are writing are amazing. I am currently a “SIV”, “cutter” or “emo” whatever is the correct terminology. I am currently in my 30’s and have been self-harming since I was about 6 years old. My self-harm has varied at different times in my life, from bruising myself, pulling my hair, starving myself and cutting. When my parents found some cuts on my arm they freaked out on me. They sat me down and yelled at me, telling me that I was crazy, that only crazy people do these things and if they saw it again they would put me into a mental hospital. It didn’t make me stop, it just made me better at hiding it. And it taught me that it’s not safe for my scars to be seen. I dealt with “sex abuse” from a family member, as a young child (and dealt with many different encounters with “abuse” from other men throughout my life), and continued to live with this person until I got married and moved in with my husband. The “abuser” has still been in my life, that is until recently. I have chosen to take a break in my relationship with the “abuser” from my childhood, and have not had contact with any of my blood relatives for the last 8 months as I am trying to get help for myself. I am responding to your question…can we get well if we have a relationship with the “abuser(s)” in our life? I have no idea how to answer to question. It feels too big of a question, that I am not allowed to make a decision about choosing to have relationship with family, regardless of the past. It feels so unfair of me to do to this person, since he has received treatment and has changed. Although, my therapist says that the “sexual abuse” stopped, but that I have been mentally and emotionally “abused” ever since. I wonder, will I ever be able to have a relationship with this person(s) again in my future? They are truly not healthy people for me to have in my life, but aren’t we taught that family is family regardless of anything else, and to honor your parents? This person literally frightens me physically and emotionally, I am so scared of him that I shake and tremble at the thought of him, yet I love him. He is a good man, but I think I just bring out the worst in him. I feel bad taking a break from my relationship with him, but I don’t know how to get better with him/them in my life. Taking a break from these people doesn’t only affect myself, it also affects my 8 year old son, who loves them very much. I feel as though I am tearing everyone apart and that it isn’t fair to everyone else. I believe I self-harm out of anger toward myself, out of rage that’s so pent up inside I feel like I will go crazy, to punish myself for the hurts on my family, I self-harm to blank out so that I don’t have to feel when the world feels like its caving in all around me, I self-harm to start to be able to feel the world around me again, and I self-harm due to anxiety, for the release from it all. It’s my only way I know how to cope with everything/anything in my world. It’s all I know. And letting go of this tool feels like I am letting go of life itself. When I look into my full length mirror and see fresh cuts, I stand there and breathe a deep sigh of relief that the world is as it should be. But if I glance into that mirror and my body shows no cuts, I FREAK! My body is supposed to be hurt, my body is supposed to carry those stripes; It is not alive if it is not bleeding. These cuts/scars are what have kept me alive; I would have been dead a long time ago, if I hadn’t had my blades to get me through. I have just purchased a new home, I want to be able to start out new and fresh, and try to not cut there. But it seems inevitable. Without bleeding, how can I truly live?
    I have another question, does me “cutting” mean that my son will grow up a “cutter” as well? He has seen my scars and cuts, and he asks about them. He is a smart boy, and has finally figured it out on his own and has talked to me about what it is that I do. I am honest with him, but keep it fairly vague and age appropriate. I won’t lie to my son, I know I need to meet his need for honesty and comfort, even when I don’t feel I know how to. I fear that this behavior will be adopted by him, because of me. He is the center of my world, when I am able to be grounded in this world. He is a very happy, very confident little boy, I don’t see him having a need to cut, but I watch him carefully. Many times I have considered leaving, I love him so much, I would rather take the spoiled apple out of the box, than to see him get spoiled too…you know what I mean? But I don’t want to make it worse by leaving him either. Being a “cutter” and a mother is so difficult. Because as a “cutter”, it is a very personal experience. It is something that has been mine and only mine all my life. Something that no one could ever touch and something that no one has ever known about, something no one really cared about. It was mine and only mine. But now that my son has begun to question and put 2 and 2 together, I am lost and feel very exposed and feel that my own little personal corner of the world has been invaded. I fear for the safety of my “secret” and the safety of my own little world, as I am not ready to leave it behind, and I am not yet ready to open these gates for anyone else; not even to my own. I know that sounds very selfish, but it is honest.
    Thank you for giving me a place to go to, to read and to write.
    Sincerely,
    Silent scream

  7. Ruta Mazelis Says:

    Beloved Silent Scream,

    If you read this you’ll know from the most recent blog post why it has taken me so long to respond and for that I am truly sorry. Your words spoke directly to the core of my heart. There is so much I want to say but I will try to not go on and on… So many of the feelings, circumstances and reasons for self-injury that you wrote about remind me of my journey and that of many others. So many of us live with the repercussions of abuse and all sorts of trauma and, at least for me, the journey of healing from that seems lifelong. That’s ok with me, I am at the place where life, with all is challenges, is more amazing and delightful than I could have imagined. Simple freedoms, such as not living behind locked doors, the ability to feel even the uncomfortable feelings, and the belief that I have a right to follor my dreams and tend to myself, still amaze me.

    I hope many people respond to what you wrote, esp. other mothers who live with SIV. All I can say is that your love and concern for your son are the ground upon which he can learn about his vaolue and life. No one lives without some form of self-harm, no on is perfect. If you understand what drives your self-injury (the profound trauma that you survived and that still has a hold on you in the form of your worry about the relationship between you and the one who impacted you so deeply) then perhaps you can lessen your fear of your son needing SIV in his future. You are not abusing him. You have his needs as your priority. Certainly he must feel the deep caring you have for his very being… Certainly it must be difficult figuring out how to help him understand your scars, just as it will be to explain that there are people in this world who hurt children and all that sort of thing…. but I truly hope that you can see yourself as a stong and deeply caring survivor and mother who just so happens to still need SIV at times to cope.

    One more thought that wants to burst… Freeing myself of the misguided belief that family of origin is most important and a lifelong obligation has been one of the most difficult and healing things that I have done. I still have some connections that have some of the guilt, misguided responsibility and shame that I felt in your writing. Yet most of the time I choose to spend my time and energy with people I admire, whom I trust and care for deeply (not by obligation or guilt) and who inspire me. Not many family members fit that description. My friends do. It has changed the world for me.

    I hope this is helpful and that we get to hear from you again.

    All the best,

    Ruta

  8. Silent Scream Says:

    Hello again Ruta, thank you for your last response. I hope you are doing well. I have been trying to overcome my cutting, and have had a period of doing well, but health related issues with the people I hold dear in my life has set me back. I am scared, angry at myself, and have not been able to overcome the urges to hurt any longer. Cutting feels safer, than letting others in. What does it feel like for the “normal feeling” person to need someone else? Does it feel like love? Or does it feel like death knocking on their door? Is there really people out there who like having people in their lives, that they need? I don’t understand this feeling! I HATE this feeling of needing certain people in my life! I hate the way it feels, I hate the way that it hangs on me, the way that I can’t breath fully-deeply-purely, unless I know they are okay. It feels like jail, It feels as though these people that I need in my life, are the guards outside my jail cell. They can go wherever they want, do whatever they want, live their lives, feel fully, love deeply. But me, I’m just stuck here, within the cold boulders and iron bars which surround me. I’m not free! I don’t know how to feel fully, how to truly love deeply, I don’t know how to escape. The torture within my dungeon is the constant risk of losing the very few that I need in my life to breath, to speak, to smile, to open my eyes for. Needing someone in my life, feels like jail, as if I am simply sitting on the cold stone, deep within the shadows of the corner, just shaking, rocking, lamenting in fear of the ones I need, leaving me, dying, hurting, the fears of being left completely all alone. At least the guards, look at me, at least the guards know I’m here, once the guards leave, will anyone even know that there is a little girl in here, behind the iron bars and shadows, somewhere on the cold stone floor? Will anyone care who is here within this prison, and will I forever be left here, waiting, shaking, rocking, lamenting? Everything feels cold within me, my heart feels cold, the blood running through my veins feels cold, nothing feels right, nothing feels safe, nothing feels promised for tomorrow! Nothing feels rock solid, everything feels circumstantial, conditional, unreal. My blades they used to be everything/everyone I ever needed, so long as I had my blades, I didn’t need to talk, didn’t need to write, didn’t need to feel, didn’t need to speak, didn’t need to be heard. I could scream my feelings through the slashes in my skin, and all could be well again. I could go on, be who I needed to be, act as I needed to act, pretend as I needed to pretend, where the mask I am expected to wear, so long as I had my blades. Can I go back? Can I trade my need for people in for my need for blades? Can I change that longing inside? Can I turn off the cries of this little girl, reaching out through the iron bars for her daddy’s hand? Can I turn off the need to see anothers eyes looking into mine? Can I turn off the need to have someone elses ears hear my voice, to have their skin feel mine? The need to be real to someone else? Is it possible to turn off these longings, these needs, after they have been touched by another? Is it possible for my blades to fill these needs within me, yet again? I can’t make my blades hate me, I can’t make them walk away from me, I can’t love them too much, or hate them too much, I can’t suffocate them by my need for them, I can’t drain them, I don’t have to worry about them leaving me. And truly, what does it mean to need someone? Does it mean selfishness? Is it selfish to need another? To need them to breath, to stand, to survive, to go on? And truly, what does it really mean to have someone? People say, “I have my family”, or “I have my parents”, or “I have my friends”, or even “you have me”. But what the hell does that truly mean? Because to have something means that I own it, to have fifty bucks means that it is mine to keep, to spend or to save , to have at my own disposal. But no one can be owned, sold or saved. So, I don’t have anyone, truly. They can walk away at their own will, they can walk away from me tomorrow, they can be taken away, killed, lost, hurt. They can be gone, without me having any choice in the matter. So WHY?! Why do we say that we have someone or that someone has us, when it couldn’t be farther from the truth?! I hate these feeling I have inside. I hate this fear I have of being left completely alone, being alone. I hate feeling like just this little girl, reaching up to my daddy, only to realize that I am all alone. I hate this feeling when this world I am in, feels so vast, and yet there is no one else here with me, I am completely alone, in the shadows! I feel this need inside to push away, to push away from everyone I am close to, everyone that I love, to lock myself away somewhere, and allow no one near. I am deeply afraid, so afraid of needing people. I don’t know how to be able to not need these few people in my life, but its not safe to need them! I don’t feel safe at all! And yet I NEED to feel safe! Everyone is going to leave me, I can feel it, it is coming, or has it already come? I don’t know. My heart is heavy, I can hear my pulse in my ears. I am ready to run, but I don’t want to lose these people in my life. I am scared, so very scared!!!! I feel so alone, so undone inside, I feel so confused, I don’t know whats true anymore! I don’t know who to believe, who to cry to, who to run to, who really wants to be here, and who doesn’t. Who is safe, and who isn’t? Who won’t leave, and who will? Which part of me is feeling what a normal person feels and which part of me is starting to lose touch with reality? Which part of my feelings can I trust, and what can’t I trust? Can I truly trust anyone? So what does it mean for others to need people in their lives, what does it mean for others to have people? Do other people feel like me? Or am I alone in this as well?

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