Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 17.0 Self-harming

17.0 Self-harming

All of the participants speak of self-harming in the interviews. Self-harming is mentioned 130 times by the participants (appendix 4). Linda speaks of many forms of hurt that people inflict on themselves; intoxication, slashing, isolation, eating disorders, razorblade cuts, cigarette burns, and excessive running. Some also stop washing themselves as a form of self-harm. She says that some boys also cut themselves, but this is more common with women. Linda says that she used to run for two – three hours after being abused and that it helped; she was exhausted and able to think of other things than the abuse. She starts by saying that it is guilt and shame that cause harming oneself, not the sexual abuse in itself, and that eight out of ten users of the Incest Centre in Vestfold injure themselves.

Linda_1:         It’s usually guilt and shame that lead to intoxication, slashing and isolation, and umm (.) and umm developing eating disorders and bulimia and all that that involves…Quite a few people injure themselves a lot, at least eight out of ten of those who come here. They hurt themselves with razorblades, burning cigarettes and ((Makes a stumping motion with the one hand against the other)) others punish themselves by not eating. I think that bulimia and anorexia are ways of punishing oneself, and some use broken glass, rope that they drag over their skin…There are some boys who cut themselves, but there are far more girls. But that’s probably because we have mostly girls here…I did it myself when I was younger. I used to run for two – three hours after I had been abused. It helped get my mind on something else. I ran until I was exhausted ((Places a hand in front of her throat)) so I could stop thinking…Some people stop washing themselves as a form for self-harming. They are dirty and deserve to be dirty ((Bites her lip)).

Linda seems to show that this is a difficult topic to speak about, maybe also shame inducing, by placing her hand in front of her throat when speaking of some of the self-harm she has done to herself and biting her lip when she speaks of the feeling being dirty which some users have and might be viewed as markers of shame (appendix 20). The possible relation between sexual abuse and self-harm, does not mean that all those who harm themselves have been sexually abused. It’s important to note that Linda says that it’s usually guilt and shame which leads to the various forms for self-harm, not sexual abuse in itself.

Margaret and Ruth confirm what Linda says about the different ways in which sexually abused victims harm themselves. Margaret says that those who slash themselves usually do not make very deep cuts; they exercise control during their acts of self-harming. Ruth elaborates over Linda observation that eight out of ten users of the Incest Center injure themselves in on way or another, by arguing that six out of ten users of the Incest Centre in Vestfold injure themselves so badly that they have scars on their bodies. She explains self-harming as the transformation of psychological pain into physical pain, something that gives a temporary feeling of psychological relief. Ruth also speaks of some women who harm themselves by having a great number of different sex partners; they feel that they do not deserve anything better and let others use their bodies. She says that they have developed a “non-relation” to their bodies.

Margaret_1:    They use razorblades, knives and things. They burn themselves with cigarettes…Usually on their arms…They seem to have control because they don’t cut themselves very deeply. Some have to sew some stitches. That’s not unusual.

Ruth_1:           Some cut themselves with razorblades on their nipples, arms and legs. Others burn themselves with cigarettes. It’s very common. Among those I have met I’d say that six or seven out of ten injure themselves so badly that they have scars on their bodies. They transform the psychological pain into something physical which they can control in a way. When I cut or slash myself; I release some of the psychological pain I have inside…This is something that usually diminishes umm there’s less self-punishment when they start putting their feelings into words, expressing the burdens they are carrying. They sort out their thoughts and experiences; umm change their view of themselves. Responsibility, guilt, shame, and then the need to harm oneself diminish. This is because they find a way of channelling it and putting it into words…They feel that they’re not worth anything. They often believe that now I have to go out and injure myself. I don’t deserve anything better. So they harm themselves and feel relief for a short moment…Many women here have had a lot of sex partners. Umm sex with several men at the same time. They don’t have any boundaries. Umm (.) some say that they are searching for tenderness and care. And that’s where they get it when they can’t get it any other place. Possibly they harm themselves by living this way, and they feel that they don’t deserve anything better. They’re used to letting others use their bodies. That’s what they know how to do…They don’t care if they get sick. They hate their bodies anyway. I don’t deserve anything better anyway. It’s a kind of non-relation to their bodies.

Linda speaks of how she harms herself as a child by washing her skin until she felt pain. Later in life she felt everything was filthy around her and she became obsessed with cleaning, even painting the outside walls of her house pink, and vacuuming the driveway from the entrance and down to the mailbox. She does not say that she had any medical allergy, but only that she could not stand having dust around her. Everything had to be clean, which lead her to washing the ceilings, walls and floors every single day.  Her situation became so serious that she started to experience her dead father chasing her around the house. She was finally admitted to a psychiatric clinic and received therapy there for a psychotic condition for three years. Helga explains her obsession with exercise and how she in a sense was intoxicated by it.

Linda_1:         It disappears in a way (.) with time, but it takes a real long time, and I know that a lot of people do it ((Scratches her head)). When I was young I couldn’t do it because we didn’t have a shower, but we got one later ((Presses her thumb against her lips)) (.) and I washed and scrubbed myself clean; and I really scrubbed ((Scratches her chin)) myself till I was sore and in pain. I could never get clean enough. I always felt filthy. I had a relapse when I was an adult; I lived then where I live now. I felt that I was so dirty so I painted the whole house pink ((Laughs)) and I vacuumed the driveway all the way down to the mailbox. I couldn’t stand having any dust indoors. I walked around in the house all day washing the walls, ceilings, and I washed the curtains every single day. There wasn’t a single mite of dust inside (.) the house…When I started to be psychotic all of the abuse with my father came to the surface again. He came alive for me again. I felt that he was chasing me ((Laughs)), until a few years ago.
Kaare:             You’ve been psychotic?
Linda:             For three years.

Helga:             Exercise and exercise. I had to exercise. I got sick if I didn’t exercise. It didn’t hurt. I can’t remember that it hurt. All I remember was that I got high from it. I’ve had obsessions…It was sick. I can see that know. ((Shakes her head))

Eight participants speak of washing themselves as a form of obsession. They mention this 27 times in the interviews (appendix 4). They speak of how they tried to wash away their shame and tried to be something that they were not. Camilla and Ellen both say that it helped a bit there and then. Ellen washed herself to such an extent that she still has scars from it. All of them say that it was not possible to wash away their shame, they never felt clean.

Sally:                          There are many ways people try to wash away their shame. You try to be something you’re not.

Dagny:                        It’s not easy to wash it away.
Camilla:          I still wash ((Laughs))
Kaare:             Does it help any?
Camilla:          Umm there and then it does. But I’ve got eczema from washing so much. That’s what I get for doing it. It becomes a compulsion (.) in a way. But it helps there and then. It’s not a problem for me anymore. (.) No. I don’t think time makes it much better.

Ellen:              I understand all that about feeling dirty. (.) In the beginning I had to shower and scrub and wash myself, and I could never get clean.
Helga:             I’ve done the same thing.
Ellen:              I’ve still got scars from doing it.
Kaare:             Did it help any?
Ellen:              Yes it did, there and then. But I couldn’t stay in the shower all day.
Helga:             No matter how much you try to wash yourself, you can’t get rid of it.

Ruth argues that starvation is also a way many try to harm themselves. She argues that this has to do with control. Transforming psychological pain into physical pain gives them the feeling that they are in control. Many feel locked up, humiliated, and incapable of acting and controlling their lives. Inflicting damage to oneself seems to be a way of regaining a kind of control.

Kaare:             Is starving oneself self-destructive?
Ruth_1:           Yes of course, but it’s also a part of one’s image of being in control. Umm many people experience the world as unpredictable, out of control, where abuse in a way never has any rhythm. It becomes routine after a few years, there’s more abuse, then they see it coming and try to avoid it (.) then it happens again. They know their abuser. It might just be the look in his eye or the tone of his voice. Something he says tells you what he wants but you never know when it is going to happen. So in order to have some control you can start harming yourself, for example by developing an eating disorder. At least a lot of them say that this makes them feel in control. It’s easier to relate to the physical pain than to the psychological pain that’s inside of you. It’s very common. They transform the psychological pain into something physical that they can control. They’ve been locked up for years. Incapable of acting. Humiliated. Umm (.) not having any control (.) unable to escape. They’ve been painted into a corner. ((Locks one hand inside the other and tightens her grip)) Completely locked up.

Milligan and Andrews (2005) have carried out a study of 89 women to determine how childhood physical and sexual abuse and the accompanying shame and guilt contribute to self damaging behavior. They have also examined the mediating roles of shame and anger as links between childhood abuse and inflicting injury to oneself. Their data shows that:

All shame, anger, and sexual abuse variables were significantly related to self-harm, but only body-shame showed an independent relationship when all variables were considered together (2005:13).

Body-shame was most strongly associated with sexual abuse. Both child sexual abuse and body-shame made significant independent contributions to self-harm; however, bodily shame demonstrated the strongest effect, partially mediating the effect on sexual abuse. The study to Milligan and Andrews (2005) demonstrates a significant statistical relationship between shame and self-harming behavior in women and seems to confirm the information given by the participants in my study.

In this section, I have shown that harming oneself is common in users of the Incest Centre in Vestfold. It appears that as many as eight out of ten harm themselves in various ways, and six out of ten harm themselves so badly that they have scars from self-inflicted wounds. Transforming psychological pain into physical pain seems to give a kind of temporary relief. Self-harming seems to stem from feeling shame and not directly from the sexual abuse. In addition, self-harming does not seem to solve any problems; on the contrary it seems to cause even more shame and guilt in a negative evolving self-harm spiral and thereby increasing the suffering. Ruth speaks of a “non-relation” that many people have to their bodies. I will now take a closer look at what the participants say regarding the body and its relation to shame.

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