I love a cutter. Help me help her.
September 3, 2010 11:29 AM   Subscribe

I love a cutter. Help me help her.

I have fallen in love with a woman who cuts herself. I knew that she used to do it, and of course this means she carries the propensity to do it, so it's not a complete surprise. She bears the scars, some in scary places such as just below her jawline. But she has said before that it's behind her, and I did believe her--I think she believed herself--until today. She was helping me at work, and had seemed very sad and withdrawn, but didn't want to talk about it and I hadn't pressed the point. She was about to leave, and I walked out to see her sitting in her car, a great deal of blood dripping down, knife in her hand.

She'd cut the back of her other hand, quite deeply (she will have scars) but not to the point of any serious damage. She was sitting, stunned, near catatonic, barely responsive, shaking. I held her and talked to her and after a while the bloodflow stopped and she became more able to talk ... she said she "couldn't feel anything" and felt compelled to do this awful thing, just to "find out if she was still alive".

I held her some more, got my offsider to cover for me, talked to her ... I found a book that she liked in her car, a book about a rat, asked her to tell me why she liked this book--really just trying to draw her into conversation--and she became convinced of the idea that she should get a pet rat. I was dubious, and tried in my awkward way to establish her intentions for this rat. She normally loves animals, but she was dripping with blood and had a knife beside her, so I was more than a little worried. But she talked about having a pet rat to care for, and so after a while longer, she cleaned up and she and I went to the pet store and bought a young rat (a friendly, cute little thing who curled up in her hair and prompted the first smile I'd seen from her all day) and a cage, food, and litter for the animal. So I'm not worried for the rat's safety, and now that she has the pet rat, I'm less worried for hers. The rat is a focus of care, someone else to consider, a little life dependent on her.

So she does need to be needed.

She very much misses her son, who lives with his father interstate, an arrangement she believes is for the best for his sake. She has in the past had custody of him and has never done him any harm. I believe it is fear and self-doubt that leads her to live away from him, but it's her decision to make.

She and I are not lovers right now, but I do love her, and I believe I will love her as long as I live. If it were my choice, I'd choose her ... but I have come to terms with the possibility of this not happening, and I am open to the idea of being in love with someone else, and while I'm not actively pursuing that, I have dated a little bit. So don't worry about me. This question, as much as possible, is not about me.

She's had an on-again-off-again relationship for a while with a single dad, she's very fond of his little son, and she stayed with him rather too long for the boy's sake. They quite recently broke up, at her initiative, and when we went to dinner last week she seemed very happy about this and proud of herself for taking that step. I was a fling, initially, nearly a year ago, while they were off ... but she made a very strong impression on me, I've stuck around, and I believe we are good friends. She is under no illusions about my intentions towards her - I love her, I want her to be with me, but I want that to be a free and happy choice, not a last-ditch option or running away from something. I've told her as much, and I believe that she believes me. She is attracted to me, we do have a definite chemistry and we enjoy each others company a great deal, but she seems very reluctant to commit to me, and I surmise that for her to sleep with me implies in her mind that commitment, implies accepting that view of our relationship, because that's how I feel about it. So she doesn't want to. I believe that deep down she thinks that she doesn't deserve to actually be loved ... and it seems that merely loving her anyway hasn't been enough to shake that self-view.

So I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to her, holding her, telling her and trying to show her how vitally important she is to me, that she matters more than anyone or anything to me, and not just to me, she has many good friends. I believe and hope that she felt better, especially after buying the rat. She's named her little rat now, and I trust that she will care for it, and that it will give her another reason to refrain from self-harm.

She is a lovely, kind, bright, good person, beloved by her many friends, the most amazing girl. But she is deeply troubled, and feels compelled to harm herself, apparently in this disturbing and frightening way. I truly do love her, but I only want her to be with me if it will make her happy ... and I'm not sure that it will. I'm not sure what will.

Disturbing as I find the cutting to be, and much as I would rather she not do it, if she truly needs to do it, I consider it better that she does it as safely as possible ... is this achievable? How? How can I mitigate the harm without enabling it, express disapproval without prompting "rebellion" against my disapproval? It isn't my place to make her stop; I could try, I would try if she actually asked me to, but absent such a request I don't see how I can and even if she did ask I'm not sure how I could do it.

What can I do? My highest priority here is her happiness. Maintaining a friendship with her is second, her being my girlfriend, perhaps eventually my wife, is third (I do believe she is my soulmate - I have problems of my own, and she really is the only woman I have ever felt so deeply connected to, cared so much about) ... but I would like all three, if possible. Advice and suggestions? Anyone been a cutter and "got better"? Anyone believed themselves undeserving of love, but found themselves convinced otherwise, and if so ... how did he or she do it?

A friend of mine who has had more experience with cutters, due to the circles he moves in, thinks that it is quite significant that she did the cutting almost in front of me, and also that she did it on a very visible body area, her hand. He thinks that this is a wordless cry for help. If so it's a cry I would willingly, energetically (though not happily) answer, but I don't know what exactly to do, and she doesn't seem able to tell me. Any ideas?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Breaking the pattern of self injury is not an easy one (been there, done that, still struggling at times). If she is cutting to "feel" something, there are immediate, short term ways to deal with that feeling in a way that will not leave scars. When she feels numb, instead of cutting she can hold a piece of ice tightly in her hand or against her skin, snap a rubber band against her skin, splash really cold water on her face, etc. The rubber band might work the best because it can be done any time any place and immediately. It still feeds into the "need" to inflict physical sensation on oneself but is probably better than cutting until what's at the root of her desire to self injure can be remedied. And that is something she should really see a professional therapist about. It sounds like she's struggling with a lot of things regarding her self worth and a therapist might be able to help her resolve them. A therapist will be able to diagnose any underlying mental conditions (i.e. depression) and refer her to a psychiatrist if necessary.

In the end though, she really needs to want to get better. You cannot force her and you cannot "make" it better for her. She needs to become whole on her own and not depend on external validation as a signifier of her self worth. Be there for her, listen when she talks and encourage her to seek help. She will relapse and it will probably take a while before she really stops self injuring completely.
posted by radioaction at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You aren't qualified to help her. She needs a therapist. Continue to support her but get her help.
posted by Silvertree at 11:45 AM on September 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

You don't need advice from us or from your friends. You need advice from a professional. Cutting is a sign of metal illness and isn't something you (or she) is equipped to deal with. Yes people do cut and many ultimately get better, often through the help of therapy and anti-depressants that can correct the chemical imbalances in their brain.

If you love this woman, don't armchair analyze her. Help her get her the help she needs.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:46 AM on September 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


You know nothing about her motivations. Your friend knows nothing about her motivations. She may know nothing about her motivations.

You sound like a very sweet, thoughtful person. But I don't think there's any way you can frame your concern as real altruism that treats her as a person and not a future partner. That starts a bad cycle, to "help" someone you have (even passive) designs on. It's a scary thing to be in the mental place that makes self-harm seem like the answer, and it's a real betrayal to find that the people you came to rely on for help did it for some other reason - or to know that going into it and then feel as though you must repay them.

You can be her friend, point her to resources, be supportive and helpful - but stop thinking like she's your damsel in distress, or attempt to make yourself The One she can turn to.


* She has to want to stop. There's a melodrama aspect to cutting - a sort of control you gain by being an actor in a scene - that can be very addictive. The urge itself is very, very hard to ignore. You cannot make it stop or make her ignore it.
* Therapy is immensely helpful. It takes a while. Therapists experienced with self-harm issues can be more efficient.
* She probably has rituals and ways of doing things. You're not going to change anything by suggesting she use clean blades or disinfect her wounds or anything else.
* She doesn't owe you anything insofar as telling you how to help her or anything else. She may not be able to. She may not want to. Either way - if she's signaled that she doesn't want your help with this, I would suggest letting her know you're there and then backing off.

This question touches some raw nerves for me, and all the above should be taken as anecdata.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

She needs professional help. Now. If she won't go, you go and find out from a professional what to do. How to stick by her without enabling her behavior. How to separate her behavior from who she is and what she means to you. How to avoid conflating your problems and your ego with her need for help. You need someone with the right training.

Healing and peace to both of you.
posted by cross_impact at 11:50 AM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I surmise that for her to sleep with me implies in her mind that commitment, implies accepting that view of our relationship, because that's how I feel about it. So she doesn't want to. I believe that deep down she thinks that she doesn't deserve to actually be loved ... and it seems that merely loving her anyway hasn't been enough to shake that self-view.

You need to stop assuming and actually talk to her about this part.

Everything else - it's not within your power to change her and the above answers are right: this isn't something you're qualified to handle. She needs to talk to a therapist and it couldn't really hurt if you did too (but not the same one).
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:52 AM on September 3, 2010

this is about her story with herself.

nobody will cut her down from the trusses other than she, herself. like mercury with his ability to guide people through the underworld, this woman will need to find those guides, and know whom and how to trust them, and only so far.

this is a story about her relationship with herself. there is no one with whom she can entrust this work, process, transformation, all of which only she can do. to her satisfaction. to her healing. she will learn to discern interesting things when people tell her, "i am the only one who can heal you." or other lies like, "only i can heal you." she will heal herself, if she stays. with herself.

people will observe, watch, wrangle hands, be indifferent, not notice at all. this is about her relationship with herself. one day, she'll notice that she is herself. and she will only know in her own words and language. help may mean retreat, may mean finding a good psychologist, may mean reading books, may mean traveling, may mean finding a place most importantly where she can take care of herself. and to fall out of love with the pain and to start feeling enough, where caring about things and about herself means more than the pain or other discomfiting sensations that come with living in a body and living, which sometimes means people opt to not care. this may or may not be relevant to this person.

she knows.

this is a link. it may or may not be relevant.
posted by simulacra at 12:02 PM on September 3, 2010

It sounds a little as though you're thinking of this as something on the spectrum of normal actions, and your friend as a regular person who happens to have a difficult life that she responds to with behavior you consider inadvisable and would like her to stop. Whereas, as others have emphasized, cutting is a sign of mental illness. This woman is very ill. Her illness likely has some environmental component, in terms of her past traumas and current stresses, but there's almost certainly some biochemical element, as well. The cutting may be one symptom, but it sounds as though she's got a pattern of difficult relationships and disordered self-image, which, untreated, would persist and be problematic even if she never picked up a sharp implement for the rest of her life. As a lay individual with no medical training, you have about as much chance of fixing this with love and management and good advice as you would have of curing her cancer or healing her broken leg.

Seriously, just get her to a professional. There are many great people out there who're trained to help with these issues, but you aren't one of them.
posted by Bardolph at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

you are putting yourself in the role of rescuer..which is ok, except rescuers often do not get what they want after all the time and energy put into "the project". Here is a short article that touches on what I am getting at.
You want to fix her--but it may be more advantageous to consider why you desire so strongly to be the rescuer. Relationships are best when they are balanced and equal. Cutting is a very serious problem..I agree with the others who don't think you are equipped to really help.
posted by naplesyellow at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been there. There's no easy way through. I wouldn't recommend it. You can't help who you love. But, do you love her, or do you want to help her? Those two things can be mutually exclusive. Send me a memail if you want to talk. Good luck.
posted by Buffaload at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2010

The third short film in Salt, recently released by the NFB, may help you with background on cutting from teenage cutters' viewpoint.

You can love her. You cannot save her. She can, over time and with help beyond what you personally can give, grow to be healthy. She is not healthy now, so question all your assumptions.
She needs the loving compassion of a friend, not a romantic partner, now. Learn how to be that friend and nothing else.
Professional counsel from someone who works with cutters is in order. Hopefully others can provide you resources in your area.
posted by thatdawnperson at 12:49 PM on September 3, 2010

The preceding answers are very insightful and agree with them. I want to add one more cautionary note. You described for us a recent incident in which this woman was sitting in a car, covered in blood after cutting herself, and you went into the car and sat with her, trying to calm her down. To a casual observer it would probably have appeared that you had assaulted her - in general people are more likely to be attacked by other people than they are to harm themselves, so that becomes the usual assumption. Had someone called the police about this suspicious scene, an overly excitable police officer might very well have reacted violently toward you before even finding out what had actually happened. So you are taking a serious risk here. (And if this woman turns out to be even crazier than you think she is, she could even have falsely accused you of hurting her, and you would be in very serious trouble with the law.)

As several people have already noted, you are not qualified to deal with this level of insanity. She needs professional help. Do not put yourself at risk.
posted by grizzled at 12:53 PM on September 3, 2010

you are putting yourself in the role of rescuer..


which is ok

No, it's not OK. You should stop trying to solve this problem. For one thing, you're not qualified to do so. For another thing, you seem particularly bad at it. You see the whole thing in terms of your relationship with her. FAMOUS MONSTER is right: you're engaging in your own elaborate train of thought that you're imputing to her. But those aren't her thoughts -- they're yours. If you want to communicate those thoughts of yours to her, OK -- as long as you're clear that they're what you think, not what you're telling her she does or should think.

You seem more interested in creating a lovely story to tie everything together, than in actually perceiving the situation for what it is.

Radioaction suggests using cold water or ice. And that's interesting. But don't expect this kind of thing to work. It's not obvious that the singular goal of self cutting is to feel a strong sensation as an antidote to numbness. There are other appeals, including the idea that you get to retreat into solitude and open up this dark, pulsating thing within yourself that's hidden from the outside world and only you can connect with. One of the self-cutters I've known displayed her scars as if it were a badge of honor. If cold water or ice achieved the same effect just without the injury, she probably would have figured this out by now.

Disturbing as I find the cutting to be, and much as I would rather she not do it, if she truly needs to do it, I consider it better that she does it as safely as possible ... is this achievable?

Oh my God. How could you condone your girlfriend uses violence against herself? Her behavior is not acceptable or rational, but you're trying to come up with a role for yourself of rationalizing and accepting it. Though others have said you can't help her and I agree, I would add that it may be worse than you not helping her; it seems like you actively want to enable her.

I've known several women who engaged in self-cutting. I wish I had had the nerve, back then, to be completely blunt with myself about what it is. People have called it a "sign of mental illness." Yes. But there are other ways to describe it as well. Self violence. Self abuse. You might not want to use those words, but imagine if she were doing it to anyone else -- would you hesitate for a moment to call it violence? I had to decide I would not tolerate violence from someone I'm in a relationship with. It's up to you to decide whether you can accept this.

I'd be interested to know how old both of you are (I'm guessing not much older than, say, 22) and how long you've been together. This is essential info for almost any relationship question. You can answer it through the mod contact form.

She might be able to fix her problem. But you are not the one to fix it.
posted by John Cohen at 12:56 PM on September 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry for the double comment, but on post-view, I want to emphasize grizzled's comment. Reality check: there's a general assumption that if violence occurs within a relationship, it's the man against the woman. No matter what you think of this, I don't think there's any question that this assumption is out there. Well, violence is occurring in your relationship. Though the most immediately disturbing thing when my ex-girlfriend* used violence against herself in front of me was, of course, that she was being hurt, I realized a little later how her attack on herself also imperiled me. If the police had come by, who knows what they would have thought or done?

*Note the "ex," which had everything to do with her use of self violence.
posted by John Cohen at 1:03 PM on September 3, 2010

She should definitely see a professional. I don't have any more experience with cutters than you do, but I recently read something very brief but interesting about it that might be helpful:
[Cutting] stands for a desperate strategy to return to the real of the body. As such, cutting is to be contrasted with the standard tattoo inscriptions on the body, which guarantee the subject's inclusion in the (virtual) symbolic order — with the cutters, the problem is the opposite one, namely the assertion of reality itself. Far from being suicidal, far from signalling a desire for self-annihilation, cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a stronghold in reality, or (another aspect of the same phenomenon) to firmly ground our ego in our bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existing. The standard report of cutters is that, after seeing the red warm blood flowing out of the self-inflicted wound, they feel alive again, firmly rooted in reality. So, although, of course, cutting is a pathological phenomenon, it is nonetheless a pathological attempt at regaining some kind of normalcy, at avoiding a total psychotic breakdown.
The pet rat might be seen as a variation of this - even though it doesn't understand language, it knows she exists and can confirm it for her, another way of rooting her more firmly in reality. So maybe this is progress for her.

You think she believes she doesn't deserve to be loved, but maybe she believes there is nothing there to be loved. A possible danger here is that the more you express to her how you idealize her and how everyone loves her, the more unreal she feels.

I could be totally wrong, but I'm getting the impression that some part of you resents her for cutting herself. You say the rat is "someone else to consider" - other than herself? The afternoon after the incident, you say you spent the afternoon telling her how important she is to you, how she has many friends. I'm sure this was helpful to her, but isn't there also a double meaning here? Maybe part of you feels that (what you think is) her suicidal behavior is letting down the people that love her, letting you down. I'm struck by your repeated denials of being motivated out of your own needs, when no-one has accused you of that. It suggests you have a guilty conscience.

Do you feel she's not meeting your needs, that her mental problems are an obstacle to both of your emotional satisfaction? If so, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that this is inappropriate. I would think about to what extent your attempts to rescue her are ways of earning something from her, a secret deal where you are there for here and she gives you what you need in exchange, which leads you to feel resentful when she doesn't live up to "her side" (really, the side you've assigned her) of the bargain. At the same time, she might be making progress, which may be because of you. But don't undo all that progress by being unaware of your own emotional investment in the situation.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:17 PM on September 3, 2010

I used to self-mutilate. I got better.

It's a coping mechanism. If you have problems with depression or anxiety (who doesn't) it's very easy to get stuck in a very unpleasant emotional place. For a long time the only way I knew to end anxiety attacks or crying jags was slicing myself up.

There are methods and tools for working your way out of the very deep dark pit of depressive episodes.

Some of them healthy coping mechanisms that won't quite work at first but with practice will become second nature; writing exercises, deep breathing, meditation, positive self-talk, talking it out with someone, etc.

Some of them are destructive and short-term; drugs, cutting, etc.

I don't think I've ever written an OMG THERAPY answer on AskMefi before, but seriously, helping people with mental health issues learn the coping tools that can help them deal with their problems in a constructive way is exactly what a good therapist is there for.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:04 PM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

You cannot fix this for her. I cut myself as a teenager, and my loving and beloved friends could do nothing to stop it, because they could not change or control how I related to myself or my problems. They could not change what happened when they got off the phone or went home or just gave me space to think for ten minutes, and I was left in my own company. When my mother found out what was happening, she took me to a plastic surgeon to see about fixing the scars. I wish to this day she had sent me to a psychologist instead. What eventually helped me was moving to a new place and a healthier social environment, and also struggling for years to develop different and better ways of coping with stressors and conflicts.

Regarding your friend, you really can't change things for her (even if she did eventually decide to start a romantic relationship with you, it wouldn't resolve her underlying problems, any more than giving someone an ice cream cone will mend a broken arm -- they're simply unrelated). However, you can encourage her to make positive decisions for herself. Those would be:

1) Urge her to seek out a psychologist/psychotherapist who can help her work through her serious mental health issues. Clearly her own methods of coping with her pain are imperfect, and on the most literal level unhealthy. A therapist can help her understand and work through her issues, and learn better coping strategies, in a safe and non-judgmental environment. You, or any other well-meaning friend, are not an adequate substitute for this.

2) If there are aspects of her life or environment that are making her actively unhappy (bad job, a negative relationship with another person, distance from her child, etc.), encourage her to change them. When a person is depressed and in pain (as your friend clearly is), even problems with straightforward solutions can seem insoluble and immense. If she chooses to tell you about something that's dragging her down, make sure she knows that there are better options for her, and that if she wants, you'll help her reach them. Obviously she has to make the decisions for herself, and badgering her isn't helpful, but just letting her know that it's within her power to change her life for the better is a good message to send. Note, however, that even if she does make some positive changes in her life, this will not magically cure her mental health issues. At best, it will give her a boost toward having the energy and hope to start working on them.

I understand that seeing your friend bleeding was very disturbing for you. However, the cutting is just one aspect of a much larger mental health problem, and focusing on it exclusively isn't very helpful. It can't be fixed independently from everything else that's going on with her. What this episode can be, however, is a signal to both of you that she's not OK, and that she needs professional help to begin her healing process.
posted by unsub at 4:30 PM on September 3, 2010

1. Cutting is an addiction like alcohol. This sounds like a relapse. She should do what alcoholics do during a relapse. She should call a therapist (possibly one she's already worked with).

2. She should talk about the behavior, what led her to do it, and she should learn other ways of producing the release that comes with cutting. For example, snapping a rubberband against the wrist. Using ice cubes instead of knives.

3. She should recognize her triggers and either avoid them or learn how to cope with them as necessary. Is stress a trigger? Then she should try exercise. Family? She should see or communicate them in small doses.

4. Cutting is not usually a precursor to suicide. People who engage in self-harm behaviors want to live but have harmful coping mechanisms. Regardless of what others say, cutting is a coping mechanism. It's not a good one. It's disturbing to others and harmful, but taking it away from her, challenging her on it, will only be more harmful. Don't encourage the behavior, certainly. But in a moment where she is calm and behaving as the girl you know, suggest clean knives. Really. The greatest risk to her, other than accidentally cutting too deeply, is infection.

5. There's a great book out there on this very topic that self-harmers and those who love them really ought to believe. It's a true eye-opener into that world for those who are otherwise unfamiliar. The person who wrote it was one of the first to realize that self-harming is not always an indication of other mental illnesses, and that showing scars like a badge of honor is indeed an indicator of wanting help. But it's a way of asking for help by saying, "See how much I don't need help! I see how I'm not ashamed of how much help I don't need! Look at all that help I'm not taking!"

6. You cannot stop her. You can support her. You can help her see a therapist. But you can't stop her. It sounds to me that this was a relapse, unless she was being less than truthful with you initially. And I think you have handled it very well. I also think she needs to check in with a professional (see point 1) for a tune up. If she's been coping well and not cutting for awhile and this was a first incident, then she might just need a few weeks of talk and self-reflection to get back on track. If this was a relapse, then it needs to be treated as such by her not allowing it to be more than that. But that's up to her.

You can MeMail me if you want.
posted by zizzle at 5:25 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

*read, not believe
posted by zizzle at 5:27 PM on September 3, 2010

You can't. Try to convince her to start seeing a therapist and especially try to convince her to keep seeing the therapist. You're not in the right position to do anything about it itself.
posted by devilsbrigade at 6:04 PM on September 3, 2010

I have no way of knowing if what I say is relevant to what your friend is going through. Your friend needs the help and guidance of mental health professionals. You cannot do this on your own and it is too much to ask of yourself. Think about it--she needs lots of people to rely on, it's a lot healthier than just having you. The same goes for you. It's a lot of stress being someone's one and only support, and stress makes everything more difficult--which is counterproductive to what you're trying to achieve.

People above seem to have a lot better handle on cutting, specifically, so I will just tell you my experience by answering your questions. Again, I don't know if they're relevant or not and please, please get professional help in addition to the information you're getting here.

Advice and suggestions? Anyone been a cutter and "got better"?

I never specifically cut myself but used to self-harm in various ways. Yes, I got better, mostly by reducing the amount of stress in my life and being as stable as possible for a few years (no break-ups, consistent employment as much as possible, same apartment, keeping in touch with all the same friends). To do this I really had to go against the part of my personality that likes to keep things changing and gets mad at people and wants to ditch them. It also helped that I had a large stable group of low-intensity friends through a church group, that I could see every week just by showing up to the same place.

In the past I had a lot of trauma, insecurity in terms of food, living situation, relationships. My life was a big ball of chaos. When I was under stress I would either feel intense emotional pain and distress, or dissociate--essentially feel "unreal" or like I wasn't in my body.

This would happen at times when things changed, I got in a fight with someone, interpersonal stress. When I was in an unfamiliar setting, I would get the dissociation especially. It's very disconcerting. Unfortunately it wasn't always predictable or based on how unhappy/happy I was--meaning that even if I wanted to quit a job, for example, and it was the best thing for me, just the fact that something changed was really difficult for me and could cause me to dissociate.

In fact, I had similar problems to your friend after I broke a relationship off. It wasn't that I was unhappy, but it was a big change and it just flipped a switch in my brain and bam, out of nowhere I was dissociating. The fact that it was so out of left field was really disturbing and upsetting for me. So it makes sense, to me, that this happened after a breakup that your friend initiated and was happy about because it is a big change for her.

Why did I self-harm? Physical pain or other intense stimulation helped interrupt the negative emotion or distract me from it, or if I was feeling numb it helped bring me back to feeling like I was inhabiting my body. Holding an ice cube in my hand definitely helped, and that's what I did the last time I had a strong urge to hurt myself (a year or more ago). It is painful and distracting but doesn't actually cause any injury. The rubber band thing never worked for me because it didn't hurt enough but I guess it depends on the person. If pain is her goal there are a lot of painful things that she can do that aren't dangerous.

I also ate a lot of weed cookies during one particularly bad period, they seemed to help me get through it but I don't think that it would be healthy for everyone and definitely not as a long-term solution--just because I couldn't escape that particular stressful situation for a while.

I had no intent to permanently harm myself; that was not even on my mind in any way. Nothing was on my mind, really--it was all about desperately trying to escape what I was feeling at that time. I cannot guarantee this is the same for your friend.

I have to wonder why she has a knife in her car at all? Did she see this coming and carry the knife with her? Once she's able to think about the situation rationally and calmly, without getting the same feeling (this could be a very long time and this is probably something that she should do with a mental health professional), she might be able to figure out what triggers this behavior so that she can avoid it. I have, at times, when I felt it coming on, gotten rid of things that I would use to self-harm or asked someone to be with me. Sometimes I could not do this effectively because it was like an addiction in that way--I would go to whatever lengths to do it.

Obviously for me breakups were an issue so I avoided them by avoiding unstable relationships. Essentially I was dating someone when I realized this and I just kept dating that person. I resisted the temptation to do the breakup/makeup/breakup thing that I used to do a lot. I would impulsively want to break up with the person a lot, but I never did. It might have been smarter just to not date anyone at all, but I was already dating someone who is a kind, stable, gentle, and very dependable person; I could easily see a relationship making me worse if it was with someone unstable, unpredictable, emotionally intense, aggressive, harsh, etc.

Anyone believed themselves undeserving of love, but found themselves convinced otherwise, and if so ... how did he or she do it?

I'm still only somewhat convinced! It took time and avoidance of stress and change, first. It was like my emotional/mental house was in a tornado because my life was so unstable. I had to wait until the tornado was over before I could think about how to fix things.

Basically, I had to have lots of external security and stability for a while because I didn't have enough internal security or stability to deal with stress. Once my life was more predictable and I wasn't constantly reacting to things, I was able to think more rationally on a consistent basis. The tornado had died down for long enough that I could get to work on fixing my house.

I could think about things like "am I lovable?" without being overwhelmed by emotion.

Then I was able to start reality-testing--basically looking at my thoughts: "I am not lovable" and comparing them to reality: "people are nice to me, they help me with things, they are happy to see me, they spend time with me". Another thing I had to deal with: "I am not a good person". That is something I'm still working on, too.

Now that my house is fixed, I can deal with quite a bit of stress. It's like I rebuilt my house to withstand tornado-force winds. But without that break I wouldn't have been able to do it.

The best thing for me was stability and predictability, so my advice, if I'm going by my experience, is to be as predictable and calm as possible, don't stress her out, don't try to change your relationship (don't try to date her or try to sleep with her). Essentially, don't be one more thing that she has to cope with; instead be a predictable source of stability, familiarity, and comfort. This is where it's important that you have other people to turn to so you don't quash all your intense emotions and you have somewhere to go to get your needs met without worrying about destabilizing her.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:01 PM on September 3, 2010

Check out this website. There's a lot of good information here that my partner and I both found useful under similar circumstances. Cutting is something that can be very hard to understand or to explain. Good luck to you both.
posted by mkuhnell at 7:53 AM on September 4, 2010

I just want to say: showing her how much you love her isn't going to make her love herself. It's not going to happen. You can't fix someone's self-esteem by repeating how inmportant they are to you. You can't provide her with her own sense of self-worth. No matter how much you wish you could...

I think you should confront her, insist that she get help, and then separate yourself from her. Be a friend, only.
posted by Locochona at 8:35 AM on September 4, 2010

What locochona just said isn't completely true. Being told, repeatedly, by someone I love that I was loved and valued and important *did* help me come to value myself and I'm not sure I could have done all the necessary self-work without that support.
posted by mkuhnell at 10:59 AM on September 4, 2010

I spent several years recovering from self-injury which meant several years of not having razors in the house, not being left alone if I'd been drinking at all and smoking because it was a less destructive way of hurting myself that also gave me tools (breathing) and time (heading outside) to manage the triggers to cut.

I don't wear my scars with pride but they are a part of me. I avoid short sleeves in the office because I'm not about to have that conversation with an employee or boss but in public I am over feeling like I need to be ashamed of having been so mentally ill in the past. I last cut about 4 years ago and there was a gap of 2 years before that relapse (the relapse proving to me that I can't actually control my drinking in any meaningful way so I need to stop if I want to be healthy). I found the self-injury aspect of my depression and anxiety was comorbid with alcoholic behaviour. It was also part of PTSD.

It took years of work. Yes, I was supported by the other anachronism BUT that support came well after I'd decided to help myself. We were friends and housemates at the worst of it but there was no way a relationship could have grown out of that as a foundation. After I'd started the work, we negotiated a relationship that explicitly doesn't have him as a rescuer. That role has a finite end and it deliberately places you in a more powerful position. Cutting often has connotations of control and rescuing her does not help fix that underlying need for control - it simply transfers the problem onto another false 'fix'. If you become her control then what will happen when things go wrong? Either in terms of arguments between you or in terms of you not offering that control any more?

And being at the other end of the tunnel - if she's carrying knives she isn't helping herself. I know several people in crisis points who were given permission by therapists to ritualise and normalise the cutting in order to prevent more dangerous situations (breaking windows to get a shard of glass etc) but it wasn't an ongoing thing and it was considered last resort style help. Knifing herself on the back of her hand in a car is a crisis point in and of itself and not time to break out the 'love of my life' decisions.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:42 PM on September 4, 2010

I was a fling, initially, nearly a year ago, while they were off ... but she made a very strong impression on me, I've stuck around, and I believe we are good friends. She is under no illusions about my intentions towards her - I love her, I want her to be with me, but I want that to be a free and happy choice, not a last-ditch option or running away from something. I've told her as much, and I believe that she believes me. She is attracted to me, we do have a definite chemistry and we enjoy each others company a great deal, but she seems very reluctant to commit to me, and I surmise that for her to sleep with me implies in her mind that commitment, implies accepting that view of our relationship, because that's how I feel about it. So she doesn't want to. I believe that deep down she thinks that she doesn't deserve to actually be loved ... and it seems that merely loving her anyway hasn't been enough to shake that self-view.

Does she have any other close friends she can confide in? If it's just you, then by all means, try to help her. But if there are other options, it sounds to me like you're not the best person to be playing this role. If you do, you should be aware of what you're signing yourself up for - the odds are strongly against the two of you ever being together. You're both making a lot of excuses and inventing a lot of reasons why you're not together right now. I've done this. It never results in the two of you together. So, here's a question: if someone else came into your life tomorrow who you were attracted to, would you be willing to date her? Or would you not do that, because of this person. If you would, everything's ok. If not, well, you're in a bad situation - if you asked the same question without including information about the cutting, everyone would be telling you as much, and advising you to run away, cut her out of your life, etc. I'm not advising that, but I am advising caution.

If you honestly can say that you want to support her through this without ever getting to be with her, then go for it. But I'm going to suggest therapy for you as well as her while you do this. A good therapist can keep an eye on your involvement here, and make sure you aren't losing yourself in trying to save someone else.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:28 AM on September 9, 2010

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