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Sunday Republican (Springfield, MA)
October 19, 1997
Author: PATRICIA NORRISSTAFF; SUNDAY REPUBLICAN (Springfield)
On a recent night, at home in her room, the 15-year-old lit a candle, took a knife and made small incisions in her wrist and watched them bleed.
“I was just so sick of everything, I just couldn’t fall asleep until I did it . . . until my blood washed everything away,” she said.
As shocking as Melanie’s behavior might seem, it is hardly new or odd in the realm of modern day adolescence. Experts estimate there may be as many as two million people who engage in similar behavior, including celebrities like the late Princess Diana, who admitted cutting herself while she was married to Prince Charles, and Johnny Depp, who publicly revealed that his arms bear scars from self-inflicted wounds.
Self-injury is defined by Dr. Armando Favazza, author of the book “Bodies Under Siege,” as ological attempt to relieve stress. People may cut, burn, pierce, hit, or otherwise harm themselves.
In the beginning, injuries may be minor and in places where they can be hidden. Cuts are usually on the skin’s surface, just deep enough to feel a twinge of pain and draw blood. But over time, researchers found injuries become more serious due to the addictive quality of the behavior. Self-mutilation is often misdiagnosed because it is mistaken for botched suicide attempts, experts say. Self-mutilators are not trying to kill themselves; instead, they cut themselves to make sure they are alive.
“The tearing open of the skin sets off endorphins which can give some people a quasi-high feeling,” said Dr. Thomas A. Pisano, medical director at Charles River West Hospital in Chicopee.
Recently, Melanie, not her real name, sat with a cup of Jasmin tea and tried to put words to why she cuts herself. At first she made designs, she said. Even her best friend, Jen carved a pentacle into her arm with a safety pin because, “she thought it looked cool.”
But the thin red marks on the underside of Melanie’s wrist look more like indiscriminate cat scratches than patterned artwork.
Melanie, who lives with her parents and younger brother on a tree-lined street in an upper-middle class Western Massachusetts town, said she likes the feeling she gets cutting her skin and then watching it bleed. It helps her release intense emotions she is unable to deal with normally, emotions like sadness.
“It’s like everything is coming out of me,” she said.
Melanie has been clinically depressed since she was 12. She’s been on and off several different anti-depressants, the names of which roll off her tongue like the alphabet: “Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil.”
According to Favazza’s research, she is the typical self-mutilator. She is a white, middle-class female who began cutting herself at age 14. Favazza says most self-mutilators continue the behavior into their 20s or 30s.
There are several theories as to why women hurt themselves but researchers seem to agree women harm themselves because they hold onto emotions like anger, and release it by acting out on themselves. Men, on the other hand, tend to act out their aggression verbally or physically, so they are less likely to harm themselves. But nearly all self-abusers, male or female, begin the practice because they’ve suffered some sort of trauma be it physical or emotional, researchers say.
Melanie’s mother, who agreed to talk under the pseudonym, Janice, is a perky Real Estate broker who, though worried about her daughter’s mental state, is not entirely convinced she self-mutilates.
Janice wonders whether Melanie’s behavior, which she discovered once after Melanie had a fight with an ex-boyfriend and again while being interviewed for this article, is just melodramatics, a case of Melanie performing for “effect.”
Melanie, “has a dramatic flair,” her mother said.
Like when she denounced Judaism and became a witch who practices the pagan religion Wicca.
Melanie swears she’s not acting. She cuts in secret, alone and in places her mother can’t always see – her stomach, her thighs. She has pain, she said. But she doesn’t cut every day and she says she can stop if she wants to, but sometimes her feelings run out of control, like “when you get a certain thought in your head and you can’t stop,’ she said.
At times like that, any sharp instrument will do, said Melanie: a knife, scissors, a box cutter, safety pin. She keeps scissors and a knife in a box under her bed. She made the box while she was “put away” for a botched suicide attempt last year. She swallowed pills. “Enough to make her sick, but not kill her,” her mother said.
Melanie was hospitalized because she refused to promise her psychiatrist she wouldn’t kill herself, Janice said. Janice agreed to keep her her daughter in the hospital to teach her a lesson. But the lesson seems lost. Melanie still talks of suicide. She saved her hospital admission bracelets as souvenirs.
On a positive note, Janice said, Melanie has gone back to therapy on her own accord.
“She seems to like this one,” Janice said. “He seems to understand her.”
But as therapists delve for more explanations on why someone like Melanie cuts herself, shops offering body piercing, burning, branding and tattooing are flourishing.
On a recent afternoon, several young people crowd into an old white house off of State Street in Northampton where Aimee, (pronounced Ah-Mee) Ross, owner of Piercings by The Bearded Lady, readies her makeshift shop in the front room of the house.
The room is cordoned off with heavy blue-green curtains. An old metal ophthamologist chair sits in the middle of a dingy, white floor while the autoclave, a sterilizing machine, whirs in the background. A plastic pumpkin head filled with candy sits atop a loveseat next to trays of metal jewelry she will insert into people’s tongues, belly buttons, ears and other places, like the nipples and genitalia.
Customers fill up her living/ waiting room as soon as she opens for business. Ross works six days a week, noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. She’s open until 8 p.m. on the weekend. There are no regulations or restrictions governing body piercing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, she said. But cities like Quincy and Northampton are considering restrictions since the practice is so popular. Ross’s customers on a recent day are twenty-something college students, some who have traveled from as far a way as Shelburne Falls. The youngest person she has pierced was 11, said Ross. The girl came with a parent to get a nose ring. Ross won’t pierce minors without parental consent.
“I think people are returning to their tribal roots,” said Heather M. King. King, 21, has come to support her friend, 23-year-old Kachina Yuryan, while she gets her belly pierced by Ross. King, dressed in a flowing tank dress with pants underneath and a fuzzy, angora tam, says body modification is, “the only thing left for people with all the advances in technology society has made.” King pierced her own nose five years ago, an act she said, “wasn’t too smart,” but she wanted the skinny hoop through her right nostril “to mark a time in her life.”
“It was more spiritual than anything else,” she said.
Ross said she is tired of the comparison between self-mutilation and piercing, branding or scarification she sees as body modification. Ross takes her work seriously, spiritually even. She has studied under the guru of body modification, Fakir Musafar.
Musafar, 66, who owns a state-licensed school in San Francisco specializing in body piercing and branding, began secretly sticking needles in his face and cutting himself as a boy growing up in South Dakota, after looking at pictures of tribal customs in National Geographic magazine. Musafar, who acknowledges he once bound his waist to 19 inches and sewed weights to his penis to elongate it, believes self-injury can be a controlled, positive experience.
In the epilogue to Favazza’s second edition of “Bodies Under Siege,” he writes that everyone has the urge to cut and feel themselves heal. Body modification is an outlet that can save people from the depths of mental illness, he says.
Ross took a five-day course with Musafar, “Basic Body Piercing/ Intensive,” where she learned, “relevant human anatomy, piercing aesthetics, techniques, safety and after care.”
Ross, an upbeat woman, with closely cropped hair and a beard, hence the name of her shop, has 24 piercings: several in her ears, another on the bridge of her nose, one in her chin, nipples and genitals.
“To people in this (Western) society, this looks ugly,” she said.
This, “mostly Christian” society is against piercing or scarring because, “you’re supposed to treat the body like a temple.”
“Well, what’s wrong with adorning your temple?” Ross asks. “Who are we to say what’s ugly or not?”
In addition to her piercings, Ross was professionally cut on her upper thigh, a ritual she does once a year to bring focus to her life and let go of family problems and business worries.
“Bloodletting is a personal sacrifice,” she said.
It is cleansing, she said.
This “cleansing” is not unlike how Melanie feels after she’s “let out the bad.”
Ross sees the parallel, she said. But the difference is about control.
“People who mutilate, are out of control,” she said. “With a ritual, there is a beginning and an end. There is an intent.”
Cutting does not consume Ross, she said.
“I feel empowered after it’s done,” she said. Then she goes about her business, carries on friendships and basically enjoys life, she said.
But many in the mental health field say the lines between body modification and mutilation are too easy to cross.
“It’s (the parallels of body modification and mutilation) definitely not something to dismiss,” said Beth Tabor, senior psychologist at Charles River West Hospital. Although Tabor is not ready to put Melanie and the girl next door with a belly button ring in the same category, she sees the behavior as moving along a continuum, with someone like Melanie being at the moderate end because she’s not, for instance, cutting off limbs, as some psychotic patients do.
It is interesting to note that many body modifiers have suffered some sort of physical or mental trauma, said Tabor. Even Ross concedes many incest survivors body pierce, “to reclaim their bodies.”
Laurel A. Alexander, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who worked closely with Tabor during an internship last year, has found a correlation between self-injury and a history of trauma. In her preliminary study of 186 college students, 80 percent of which were girls, she found that students who engaged in body piercing and other forms of self-injury (ranging from the mild, like ear-piercing to the severe, like engaging in sexual behaviors that lead to pain or injury), were more likely to have been a victim of a violent crime, or in a physically abusive situation.
and bor try to help teens identify when they are feeling stress and teach them how to deal with their feelings without hurting themselves. Some techniques include aversion therapy, like snapping one’s wrist with a rubber band when the urge to cut arises, or using prescribed drugs to prevent the high experienced through cutting.
Back in Melanie’s dining room, Melanie says she’s trying to stop cutting. But cutting, like girls on diets, seem to be all around her – at the hard-core rock concerts she attends, in magazines, even on the arms and legs of her best friend.
“The sad thing is people who see it, they think it’s cool, so they start too,” she said. “It’s all too weird.”