Beyond the scars — (The Beacon News)

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The Beacon News – Aurora (IL) 

BY KATIE FOUTZ Sun-Times News Group

June 5, 2007

Jen Hatz felt relief when she took safety scissors to her wrist.

It was her freshman year of high school, and stressors had been piling up for the 14-year-old. She was taking four advanced-placement classes, spent much of her spare time in theater productions and felt overwhelmed by what she had to accomplish before graduation. She had been diagnosed with depression after a friend committed suicide, and adjustments to her medication triggered dramatic mood swings.

“It makes me feel sad to see her struggle,” said Doug Thompson (right), husband of recovering self-injurer Emily Thompson, shown here spending time together recently in their Aurora apartment. Doug holds Emily while she chats online with a friend. Above right, Emily says: “When I’m upset and stuff I just go ‘hmmm, my blankie'” about her blue argyle blanket, given to her by her mom when she left for college. Here she takes an afternoon nap with the blanket at home after an early doctor’s appointment.

Recovering self-injurer Emily Thompson rests on the floor as she spends time with her husband Doug at their Aurora apartment. Doug was worried when she laid down because only about three hours earlier Emily had had a grand mal seizure — a medical condition she developed in February of this year. Doctors are trying to figure out what is causing the seizures.

So she created her own ceremony every time she thought about hurting herself. Turned off her bedroom lights. Lit candles and incense. Played a favorite CD, loud. It was soothing because she was in control, she said. And it seemed OK because her friends did the same thing.

“It was my way of taking care of myself because it was a physical problem that could be solved,” she said. “It would distract me from my other problems.”

Researchers and mental-health experts agree that a growing number of adolescents and young adults are dealing with emotional pain by self-injuring.

“Kids are finding new and different ways to cope with their stress, and it’s not healthy,” said Kay Moravek, director of child services and education at Naperville’s Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward. “There’s a huge increase in self-injury.”

Telling her story a few years later, Hatz laughed self-consciously about using safety scissors and women’s shaving razors (the ones with moisturizing strips) to injure herself. Still, the Carol Stream woman feels compelled to tell it — as a speaker with the DuPage County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she shares her story with classmates, gatherings of mental health professionals, support groups for parents of self-injurers and others — to help people who are going through what she did.

At 18, most of her scars have healed. There’s still part of an “H,” the first letter of the word “hate” she etched into her left forearm, that won’t fade.

Auroran’s tale

Aurora resident Emily Thompson wasn’t much different from Jen Hatz. She was an academic high-achiever, close to her parents, and her two older sisters had left for college out-of-state. She first cut herself with a razor blade at age 13.

“That’s when I first had depression and suicidal thoughts,” said Emily, who also is a NAMI DuPage speaker. “There was pressure to be good at school. There was trouble with friends … just general life stuff, but I didn’t have any way to deal with it.”

She felt rapid mood swings with out-of-control rage. Cutting herself released endorphins, and then the pain felt real, physical, concrete, manageable.

“It helped relieve my state of numbness,” she said. “Another reason was to punish myself for getting a B in class when I was in all-AP classes.”

Emily took it out on her arms, legs and abdomen, but no one knew until she was 15. That was when her mom discovered her journal. She was placed in treatment before she was ready, and her avenues for self-injury only escalated.

“I developed an eating disorder even though I was naturally thin,” she said.

At 16, the hallucinations started. Demons and spiders appeared. Men in black peered through her window. Voices told her to cut herself and kill herself. By then, she had upped her once-a-month habit of self-injuring to two or three times a day.

Friends who were worried about her made inspirational tapes, gave her coloring books and wrote down motivational quotes for her.

Thompson was 17 years old when she checked into Linden Oaks for the first time. As an inpatient, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with rapid cycling between mania and depression. Her doctors prescribed medications for mood swings, anxiety and psychosis, and recommended weekly visits to a therapist.

A few months later, she relapsed. During her freshman and sophomore years at the University of Missouri at Columbia, she counted six or seven times that she landed in a state mental health center. She struggled academically and left college after two years.

Thompson’s last hospitalization was about a year ago. There she gained new ways of coping with stress. She found that getting moderate exercise, eating well, writing poetry in her journal, attending support groups, keeping a routine, going out for coffee with friends, taking nature walks, and petting her rabbit, Clover, were healthy distractions that became habits over time.
Not a phase
A lot of parents think self-injury is just a phase their kids will grow out of, said Debbie Hatz, Jen’s mother. That was her husband’s attitude.

Debbie had another way to deal with it. To try to understand what was going through her daughter’s mind, she checked out a couple of library books on self-injury.

At the same time, Jen’s pediatrician prescribed a low dosage of an antidepressant. A psychiatrist doubled the dose.

“This sent my daughter into a tizzy like a top spinning out of control,” Debbie said. “Her teachers said, ‘She’s here physically but not mentally.'”

Jen said her self-injuring really picked up then. Self-injuring became addictive, and she felt she needed to do it more often to get the same results, she said.

Eventually, Jen was referred to an outpatient program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Center in Hoffman Estates. There she learned new tools to use to cope with stress. She wrote down 25 of them and kept the list with her: “9. Read a book.” “15. Paint my nails.” Eventually she memorized it.

Her parents also instituted changes to make sure she no longer identified herself as a “cutter.”

“My parents said, ‘You’re basically getting a new life — new room, new clothes, new friends,” Jen said. “And that was devastating at first. (My friends) knew what I was going through. They loved me!…But the weren’t heathy for me.”

Recovery continues

For both Jen and Emily, recovery is ongoing.

Jen is no longer in counseling but remains on an antidepressant. She’s off to Florida State University in the fall, where she has promised her mom she will find the campus counseling center, just in case. Emily, now 23 and newly married, sees a therapist once a week and a psychiatrist once a month, and she takes multiple medications.

Both have recently found creative outlets: painting for Jen, beading for Emily. They enjoy focusing on the next layer of paint or the next bracelet design instead of fixating on thoughts like “everyone hates me.”

For them, recovery includes speaking publicly. Through NAMI DuPage, they share their stories during counselors’ professional conferences, teacher in-service days, middle school and high school health classes, mental health support groups and more.

Not that it’s been easy to do. The first time Jen spoke — to a group of parents of self-injurers about six months after she was discharged from the hospital — she broke down in tears, and the experience triggered a relapse.

Emily sometimes deflects people’s shock with humor. She recently was getting an MRI scan, and her hospital gown could not hide the tidy rows of scars she had created down her wrist, shin and stomach.

“The nurses asked, ‘What happened?’ ‘Oh, I had unprotected sex with a porcupine,'” Emily said.

Jen said she’s lucky she doesn’t have obvious scars reminding her of her “dark days.”

“I’m very happy with where I am now,” she said. “I feel normal again. I’m still going to have sad days and manic days — just not as intense anymore. They’re manageable.”

— The Naperville Sun