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Students share hope, help for breaking the cycle of self-destructive behavior

Monday, July 27, 2009

Many young people battle cutting and eating disorders. It helps when friends and relatives align with the person against the illness.
Courtney Lovett didn't want to let her friends down. Knowing that her friends wanted her to be happy, and disapproved of her compulsive urge to cut herself, helped Lovett break the cycle of her self-destructive behavior. Now Lovett and other students at her high school are reaching out to other young people, sharing their experiences in an effort to foster prevention and provide hope to others struggling with self-harming behaviors.

Cutting to control the pain

Hurting oneself externally comes in many forms. Cutting one's skin with a sharp object is most common, but there's also burning.

Lovett, a senior, used to engage in the latter. "It didn't quite satisfy like I needed, but it would take the edge off and was small enough not to be noticed," she says.

The satisfaction Lovett talks of is what gets people hooked on hurting themselves. Once they try one method, most usually want to try more to see what relief other methods will bring.

The temporary relief and satisfaction brought on by physically hurting oneself becomes an addictive quick fix for whatever emotional problems or difficult situations the person goes through.

One misconception, especially for cutters, is that people who hurt themselves are doing so in an attempt to end their life. Junior Sarah Ballin displays scars on her arm that have gotten her sent to a counselor every year since she's had them.

The scars Ballin has on her arm have gotten her weird looks from teachers and fellow students. Cutters hope that, even if non-cutters don't understand the behavior, they can have compassion and not judge based on the scars.

Deadly disorders take control of those desiring to be skinny

Other methods of handling emotions and stress such as eating disorders can be just as destructive as self-harm.

"The eating disorder mindset takes over people," says Carolyn Costin, founder and clinical director of The Eating Disorder Center and residential centers and author of several books. "They will say 'I don't like cheese' because they may be afraid of the fat. It's actually fear that makes them say they don't like it."

Fear of food is just one potential part of an eating disorder, but the way the person feels after eating certain foods does influence the amount they intake or if they try getting rid of it afterwards.

Much like cutting and burning, eating disorders can become compulsive no matter what health risks may be encountered.

Common health risks associated with anorexia include electrolyte disturbances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and loss of muscle mass. Recurring bouts of vomiting can also cause dehydration and disturbances in electrolytes, which are made worse with laxative or diuretic use or by consuming excessive quantities of water. Fatal abnormalities in heart rhythm can occur, the stomach can perforate from binging, and vomiting can cause tears in the esophagus, gastrointestinal bleeding, and ulcers. The more serious health risks take longer to be detected or to become worrisome enough for the people with eating disorders to seek help.

Leaving shame behind

"The first step [in getting help] is acknowledging there is a problem," Susan Steely, a licensed professional counselor of Good Therapy Works, a Midwestern counseling center, says. "Listening to other people [helps]; they may notice it or point it out first. Sometimes we can't see the truth for ourselves. Seek someone in counseling to deal with [the problem]."

Professional guidance is often advised. Having friends or family supporting one's recovery also helps.

"What really helped me [stop cutting] was that I had friends who said I shouldn't do it," Ballin says. "It wasn't always enough, but it helped. I'd be like, 'Kevin loves me, and I don't want to let him down.'"

Costin also feels that having a support system around an individual during the recovery process makes a difference. For parents and friends to better help their loved one, she offers this advice: "Understand that the person is taken over by their illness. Friends and relatives have to align with the person against the illness. It is important not to be in battle with the person."