Like most modern mythology, society’s labeling of adolescents and young adults as “Emos” or “Cutters” is an easy way to place blame and dismiss people who struggle with self-injury. Contrary to popular opinion, self-injury is not a modern fad nor a rite of passage for young people wishing to fit into a fringe cohort.
Self-injury has been around since the dawn of mankind and has been documented throughout the ages ...
The Greek historian Herodotus, wrote of a Cleomenes, a Spartan King who was thrown into the stocks after exhibiting strange behavior;
“And as he was lying there, fast bound, Cleomenes noticed that all the guards had left him, except one, and he asked the man, who was his serf, to lend him his knife. As soon as the knife was in his hands, he began to mutilate himself, beginning on his shins.”
Cleomenes went on to complete suicide rather than endure his imprisonment.
Unto the Other Side of the Sea
In the Bible’s book of Mark, Jesus is said to have crossed the sea to the land of the Gadarenes with the express purpose of visiting a troubled man who lived there. From Mark 5:5;
“And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.”
This is the man who, when Jesus asked his name, said; “My name is legion, for we are many.”
I have written of this encounter in a past article that can be found here. But in a nutshell, I believe that this passage in the Bible is the first documented case of Dissociative Identity Disorder [once known as Multiple Personality Disorder] where a person who has endured early childhood trauma develops alternate “personalities” – or sometimes strong ego states – in order to disassociate from the abuse they suffered.
The Victorian Era
The 1800s saw the beginnings of social awareness and curiosity about mental health issues during the long period of peace that came to be called Pax Britannica in Great Britain and the Gilded Age in the United States. Physicians began documenting the behaviours of prisoners and mental asylum patients in order to attempt to understand puzzling symptoms.
In 1872 the Chief Medical Officer of Chatham Convicts Prison documented 163 incidences of self-injury amongst the prison population that year alone.
Also documented in 1872, a female mental-asylum patient in Utica, New York, stuck 300 needles into her body. This act, however, was not rare to the times …
The Needle Girls
During the morally strict and sexually repressive Victorian Era, a phenomenon spread across Western Europe amongst young women – the practice of inserting needles into their bodies. It would make perfect sense that those young women would choose sewing needles as their tool of choice to practice self-injury because as young women, learning to sew was an activity common to their upbringing.
Doctors at the time had a name for women such as these - “needle girls”. The “needle girl” phenomenon was documented in the 1890s by American Doctors George Gould and Walter Pyle who reported that women all over Western Europe were puncturing themselves with sewing needles - some embedding the needles beneath their skin. The common diagnosis for these women at the time was “hysteria”.
This still often used epithet, is only somewhat accurate. Though cutting the skin – usually with a razor blade – is the most often used method of self-injury, it does nothing but label and dismiss the deep underlying emotional distress that those who self-injure seek to soothe.
What the non-practitioner must first understand is that self-injury is most often a way to reduce pain, not cause it. As a very dear friend put it; “The pain is a byproduct”.
Self-injury takes on many forms. In my own interaction with those who are in recovery from self-injury or still practice it, most give the age they started as some point in their early to mid teens. Yet further questioning often reveals that as small children when they were overwhelmed by strong emotions they were sent to their room by parents who failed to teach healthy ways for their children to self-regulate big feelings. Once there, unable to calm themselves, they would resort to pulling their hair, banging their head against the wall or floor, and even biting themselves. These too are acts of self-injury.
More Than Human
Self injury is not solely the domain of human beings.
|Moluccan_Cockatoo plucking chest feathers|
Many animals will display self-injurious behaviour when in a state of chronic or acute distress. Birds are known to pluck out their own feathers when experiencing the stress of captivity or isolation. Other animals have been known to self-injure when experiencing acute stress by biting or chewing on their own limbs.
Horse breeders and Veterinarians are well aware of Equine Self-Mutilation Syndrome, where-in horses will bite their own limbs and flanks.
Macaque monkeys that have been raised in laboratories have demonstrated that isolation is a predisposing factor to self-injury and the seriousness of their self-inflicted injury is in direct proportion to the intensity of a stimulating event.
In Closing …
Self-injury has been part of the human – and animal - condition from the beginnings of time. A conclusion as to why it exists can be stated by the over simplified statement; “Because it works”. The myriad ways it works will be examined in the next article in the series;
Previous articles in the Self-Injury series;