I met a girl named Lucy a few weeks ago. She is the middle child of a conservative family. Lucy is a 14 year-old Hispanic girl who identifies as bisexual. Lucy is also what some would refer to as a “cutter.” Being a middle child can be difficult enough. Being a bisexual one makes things all the more difficult. To be a young teenage bisexual middle child in a conservative family is more than Lucy can bear sometimes. And so, to deal with the pressures that come from all of the cards that Lucy feels are stacked so firmly against her, she cuts.
It started by accident really. Sitting in her room one afternoon, reeling in the words of her parents’ last tirade about how her Facebook profession of love to another female was bringing shame to the family, she scratched herself in a fit of anger and frustration. The scratch did something for her. Lucy said that it was as if a release valve was opened and all of the emotions that were overwhelming her from the inside escaped and set her free. Free from the pile of disdain and loathing that her family had just dumped on her. Lucy figured out rather quickly that she could not only make herself feel better by cutting, but she also found that self-mutilation was one thing she could control in her life. Her sexuality was not something that she could change nor could she change how her parents chose to deal with her. For Lucy, ‘cutting’ became that: a sense of control.
The freedom that Lucy felt she had gained from ‘cutting’ quickly became something else. Lucy was cutting so regularly as way to deal with life’s difficulties that it just became another thing that slowly took control of her rather than the other way around. What started out as small incidents of self-harm in secret corners of her bedroom quickly turned into a near obsession. By the time I met Lucy she had been hospitalized at least three different times and her cutting had become such a frequent thing that you could barely see a patch of skin on her arms that did not have scars or freshly healing wounds.
The first time Lucy opened up about her ‘cutting’ she talked about the loneliness of being different and the helplessness of not being loved by the ones who are supposed to love her, “no matter what.” There was such power in words adorned with so much pain. My job was to “fix” Lucy. Get her to learn better coping skills for dealing with difficult emotions. I did that. I taught her strategies to manage anxiety, cope with sadness, and deal with pain and disappointment. But every time that I left Lucy, I couldn’t help but wonder: was she really the one that needed fixing? Sure, she was using dangerous coping mechanisms to deal with issues that affected her. Certainly she needed help finding other ways to cope. But, all of the strategies in the world can’t help her family change the way they feel about her sexuality. No coping skill I teach her can ever make the pain of being put down by her own family at all bearable. How can any coping skill make her feel loved and accepted by those she loves the most.
Cutting is an epidemic that is much more wide spread than any average person could ever imagine. Kids today are doing it much more habitually than ever before and the cutting gets deeper and more widespread. Today it seems more like a team sport as kids are enlisting one another to join in the behavior. The sad part is that the fix is usually much simpler than their worried families may dare to believe.
Being a teenager is a difficult part of life. What makes it more difficult is that teens are not yet developed enough biologically to be able to solve life’s difficulties in very productive ways. They need “Us,” the adults in their lives to help them along. Why do we instead provide them with additional baggage to carry in the already heavy backpack of life. Love, accept, validate, embrace, support, acknowledge. These are but the things that they seek. These are the things that they require in order to survive life. It is what they deserve, simply because they are. Loving a child with all that makes him or her different is not a choice. It is a requirement!
“To all the Lucy’s in the world; we hear you!”