A fifteen year old girl named Lindsay walks into a bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror. She notices the razor blade and looks at herself again, seeing nothing more than a body without a soul. Her parents divorced and seeing herself as completely unattractive, she starts to cut herself. At first it hurts but she continues to cut until she bleeds and realizes that there is life within her. She has never felt so alive (Strong 36- 37). Lindsay was displeased not only within the life she lived, but within herself as well.
To prove to herself that she was indeed alive, she chooses to cut herself. In the book A Bright Red Scream, by Marilee Strong, it explains that, “researchers have begun to uncover the complex ways in which cutting provides both psychological and physiological relief from states of overwhelming tension and arousal” (43). It continues by explaining that, “cutting redefines the bodies’ boundaries, differentiating self from others. Blood flowing from wounds proves there is life inside the body instead of nothingness” (47).
Lindsay doesn’t know who she is in her mind, cutting herself helps her with that quest for self awareness and confidence. There are many terms for it; self-mutilation, self-injury, and self-abuse are some. For the purpose of this essay it will be referred to as body modification. Since the beginningsof time, people have engaged in body modification for many purposes. Body modification has been used to demonstrate feats of strength, to adorn oneself, or simply as a rite of passage. However, there are people who engage in it to escape feelings of anxiety, feelings of loneliness and a sense of helplessness.
In his book Bodies Under Siege, Armando R. Favazza, M. D. , expounds on the motivation behind this kind of Body modification ,”it provides a temporary relief from a host of painful symptoms such as anxiety, depersonalization, and desperation… self-mutilation is a morbid form of self help” (xix). Body modification is also seen as an addiction. Seventeen year old Stephen, a self-mutilator, claims that when one engages in acts of body modification they are rewarded with an endorphin rush (Strong 150).
There is no doubt that throughout time body modification has held great spiritual, political, and religious significance, but in current times it is sad but true: body modification has branched off into a dark realm, attracting as its victims people with feelings of apprehension, confusion, and hopelessness. Body modification has been known to cause psychological and physiological effects. The psychological effects that modification can have on a person vary. Armando R. Favazza, M. D. discusses the feelings people encounter after they engage in self-mutilation:
They report feelings and thoughts about overwhelming guilt, loneliness, boredom, irresistible destructive urges, sin, persecution, helplessness (especially when confronted by hallucinatory visions and voices), demon possession, dissatisfaction with their sexual anatomy and gender identity, a desperate need for comfort and solace, and disordered social relationships. (223) Body modification doesn’t just cause these feelings it is also a result of these feelings. There are some people, however, that feel that body modification can be a form of therapy, especially when a person has had an abusive childhood.
In her book, Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink, Kim Hewitt states that body modification may be “attempts to self-heal, or at least self-medicate,” (6). Favazza agrees that self-mutilation and/or body modification can provide “temporary relief” and control of the pain caused by the stresses of everyday life. However, he also believes that this relief is only temporary and deep down a self-mutilator feels miserable (288). Body Modification can not only leave the self-mutilator feeling dismal, but their friends and family as well.
Cathy Collins boyfriend of eight years had left her after her self-mutilation had left him with feelings of misery and unhappiness (Edwards 1). From time to time, people who engage in body modification claim that during body modification they have a feeling of transcendence and a sense of control, the ability to abolish any boundaries in their way. Aimee Elizabeth Bell recalls her first experience cutting, “It surprised me that I had been able to do that to myself. But it also felt kind of good to have control over something like that. I had the control to make my self feel pain or not feel pain” (Rochman 1).
Aimee also said that when engaging in body modification she experienced an unusual feeling of safety one that she hadn’t felt before. The physiological effects can be explained in Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink, Hewitt explains how pain can physiologically alter consciousness and can be used to escape the distressing feelings of everyday life (118). “A group of neurotransmitters called enkephalins may also play a role in self mutilation. The enkephalins are opium-like substances produced by the brain and various glands; among their actions are the suppression of pain and the regulation of emotions” (Favazza 262).
Enkephalins are closely related to endorphins and the effects of enkephalins are similar to that of opium and heroin. As explained in the book Discovering Psychology by Hockenbury & Hockenbury, “When injected into a vein, heroin reaches the brain in seconds, creating an intense rush of euphoria that is followed by feelings of contentment, peacefulness, and warmth” (154). Eventually a person will begin to associate body modification with positive feelings and when a person begins to feel anxiety, depression, or unease they will self-mutilate to feel better (Favazza 262).
Just like a drug, people who discontinue the use of body modification tend to go through withdrawals, which create increased tension, anxiety and apprehension (Favazza 267). During the seminar “Identity by Choice,” held at Paradise Valley Community College, one of the speakers had explained that in the past she would get anxiety or panic attacks and result to cutting herself. The feeling of turning flesh into an open wound would give her an endorphin rush, the power to control. There is some confusion about people who engage in body modification; a general belief is that they have suicidal tendencies.
However, this is not the case in most situations; Collins explains how she did not want to die, “What people didn’t understand was this was my way of staying alive. ” It is true in most cases, if some one wanted to kill themselves they would go ahead and do it. Body modification is a cry for help, and there is help out there for those who seek it. Project SPEAR an organization founded by Sue Ozolins, is a self-help group for those who deliberately harm themselves and others. Project SPEAR offers strategies to assist in solving individual and present day problems (projectspear.com).
Project Spear is not the only organization out there, “Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader started S. A. F. E. (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives, the nations only inpatient center for self-injurers, in Chicago in 1985″(Edwards 3). For Collins, the S. A. F. E. program had proved to be a successful one. “I don’t believe I’m cured. But I feel like I have a choice not to do this. And I have a choice now to let myself feel. “(Edwards 3).
Edwards, Tamala M. “What the Cutters Feel. ” Time. 09 Nov. 1998. EBSCOhost Full Display. 01 Nov. 2001.