The Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the language of pain
book by Marilee Strong, 1998
Marilee Strong is a journalist. She obviously did very, very extensive research for this book and the hard effort she made is very obvious and helps the book considerably.
This is not, of course, a happy book. It's filled with personal stories of people who have been through extremely intense physical and/or emotional pain and who have found the need to practice SIV, or Self Inflicted Violence, which is most often associated with cutting but can also include hiding and other forms of self-abuse.
(In the section below I will separate my own thoughts by ( ) so you won't confuse what the author knows with what I think is true.)
The author notes that about 2 million Americans each year commit some act of self-injury. That is 30 times the rate of suicide attempts and 140 times the rate of successful suicide attempts.
One of the quotes that I found most interesting from a cutter is this:
"I hate myself. It's almost an insult for people to refer to it as a self-esteem problem. I'm talking active, passionate hatred." ( People who practice any form of SIV are not people who are at ease with themselves or with the others around them. They often feel trapped; inadequate, alone in constant emotional upheaval and pain. They very likely see no ending at all to their situation. Imagine living every hour of every day hating yourself, hating the situation you are in, and knowing that you are trapped in that situation.)
Self-injurers are also not people who are stupid. "Self-injurers are often bright, talented, creative achievers-perfectionists who push themselves beyond all human bounds, people pleasers who cover their pain with a happy face." (This is somewhat similar to the Japanese practice of having "two faces." One face is that which you present to those around you; the other face, usually hidden, is your "real" face, how you really feel about things, not necessarily how society expects you to feel.)
Even someone as famous, rich and beautiful as Princess Diana was a cutter. In an interview she said "You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help."
Not only can these self-injurer hate himself or herself, but their can be a terrible amount of darkness within them. In describing one particular cutter the author says: "She could never cut deep enough-down to the impenetrable blackness, the pitiless void- to release all the rage and emptiness inside her." .
(One way to picture this is to think of a bog. A bog is a pond, the surface of which is covered by a dense growth of plants. To all appearances it appears as solid ground, but if you step on it you could end up going through the plants and into the water below. Now imagine that this pond is a pond filled with painful memories, emotional hurt, rejection, any form of personal darkness you can think of. The plant surface represents the very slender margin for a self-injurer between dealing with everyday things and falling through the plants into the darkness below.)
(For most people, the pond is small and the plant growth on top is pretty much equal to a solid forest floor, but for self-injurers that margin is very narrow. They might even be afraid to express emotion, terrified that they might fall into that pond and loss mental and emotional control of themselves.)
She writes on another page: "They most commonly described themselves as feeling empty inside, unable to express emotions in words, afraid of getting close to anyone and wanting to desperately stop their emotional pain." (In other words, the self-injurer, at some level, really wants help but their fear of getting close to someone and trusting them can be the very thing that prevents them from getting the help they need.)
So why does a person injure themselves on purpose? The cutting (or other form of injury) might give the person a temporary relief from their anxiety, their stress, their "dark thoughts." (It can also be used to regain self-control if the person feels that he or she is about to "lose it" in front of others. It can also be a form of punishment against oneself for real or perceived things the person has done in their life.)
The author says that, behind the symptoms of traumatic stress in self-injurers "...is a range of painful childhood experiences, including emotional deprivation, physical neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and childhood loss."
Notice that physical and sexual abuse are not the only things that can lead to cutting. Emotional deprivation, living growing up without any kind of emotional nurturing in the home, can lead to later problems. (Also, I think that some things not listed above could also be causes such as poor peer relations, constant rejections on overtures of friendship and/or dating and similar childhood/teenage problems might also contribute to the "traumatic stress" that can lead to SIV.)
Another interesting factor that might contribute to cutting is "real or perceived" loss or abandonment. "Self-injurers are acutely sensitive to abandonment. Because they never properly attached to and then separated from their early caretakers, they live in a perpetual state of separation anxiety so unbearable it feels annihilating."
The younger the age at which trauma happens in a life influences how long- term the problems of SIV can become. One very interesting section is this:
"She feels different, defective, out of control. She can neither soothe herself nor trust others to comfort her. There may be large parts of her history she cannot remember." (I doubt anyone can recall virtually anything they ever did, but a person such as this might find recalling childhood experiences to be almost impossible. They might be able to remember perhaps one or two things, but the vast majority of their childhood simply isn't there. Thinking about it conjures up virtually nothing. It's as if the person has an internal VCR that is taping everything that happens to them then is automatically erasing most of that tape.)
The author notes that self-injurers can be, basically, overly sensitive to "perceived threats." Something that, to an objective observer might not seem threatening at all, can be perceived as very threatening by a self-injurer and can trigger an episode of cutting, etc.
The author notes that many women have somewhat negative feelings about their bodies (no doubt, in my opinion, to television ads, programs and magazines that set up an almost impossible physical ideal for women to attain), "...the level of shame and disgust self-injurers feel is in another dimension entirely. We're talking hate, malevolence..." (To a much lesser extent some men have the same type of feelings, but I don't think there feelings about their bodies are tied as closely to their inner core being as are the feelings of women about their bodies).
Another term used in the book is dissociation. The book doesn't offer a simple explanation, and finding one is not easy, but from the internet the simplest explanation I found was that it ranges in severity from the very common experience of temporarily daydreaming to a much more extreme reaction to some trauma where the person basically "buries" the memory as deeply as possible.
Just because the person doesn't consciously recall the incident, though, doesn't mean it won't affect the person, because such buried memories can still have an effect on the person's body and their reactions to things happening around them.
The reason I pointed this out is that the author notes that people having dissociation might respond to closeness of someone with "...panic, rage, and anxiety, and may use self-destructive behavior to create distance and a sense of protection."(I tend to call things like this having overly-effective defense mechanisms.)
The book also goes into various forms of treatment for self-injurers and has a list of resources people can turn to in trying to deal with self-injurers.
This, then, is a really good book to help a person understand SIV. It isn't filled with meaningless psycho-babble. It does have a lot of personal experiences in it, and it presents possible causes of SIV and offers a variety of possible treatments for it.
(All comments about the introduction are mine alone.)
Now, normally I would make a remark about the introduction first, if I even wrote any comments about it at all. In this case, though, I am saving that part for last. The introduction to the book, on the other hand, was written by a woman who is a doctor and had written her own book on the topic. The introduction, by the way, is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the entire book and should really have been left out.
The writer of the introduction brings up a major Christian religious issue- the crucifixion of Jesus, and in a way ties it into the topic. This is a totally inappropriate comparison. There is a massive difference between cutting to try and deal with emotional pain and allowing oneself to be cut by others for a spiritual purpose. There is virtually no relationship at all between the two.
The second major turn-off for me as far as the introduction goes was the writer's joining of trans-sexualism with psychosis, acute alcoholic and drug intoxications. Gender Identify Disorder (which is the proper term) is not a psychosis. It is not a form of intoxication. It is something totally different and by lumping that with the things she does it seems that the writer is broadcasting her own innate prejudice against those with Gender Identity Disorder.
Then she tends to brag about a book she wrote which again is a turn-off for me. The purpose of this book is to try to help people who are involved with Self-Inflicted Violence, not try to brag about something you've written.
Fortunately, the introduction is short and the types of unacceptable reasons in the introduction are not seen anywhere else in the book.