Thursday, February 14, 2008

Visible Pain Relief: Self-mutilation and Child Abuse

There is nothing "bad" about a child
who chews his or her nails.

Nail-Biting: Parenting Strategies

Does She? Or Doesn't She?

Can't help wondering...
what you're wondering about?

A little neighborhood friend, younger than the child pictured here, bites her nails.

She chews her fingers.

She bites herself on the inner wrist.

I hurt so much for her, knowing the inner pain that makes her need to hurt herself for relief.

One would think with the abuse and neglect in her life, she'd have no need to hurt herself, too.

It doesn't work that way. I know.

I've been a nail-biter since earliest childhood. I'm certainly not bragging about that…but I no longer feel ashamed about it either. Oh, I hated biting my nails, hated myself for not being able to stop, hated the way my hands looked and most of all I hated the expressions of disgust and pity from others.

For what it's worth, I'd bet there never has been a nail-biter who wanted to be one.

I certainly didn't want to be one for many reasons.

I guess you could say I've been self-injuring since I was a baby. My mother loved to tell the story of finding me covered with blood one day. I'd found a package of razor blades, opened them and was happily chewing on them. (No comment on the lack of supervision or whatever…)

When I was a child my father often slapped me across the face for biting my nails… as well as for other maddening behaviors such as my hair hanging in my face, the look on my face, the way I was standing or just about anything it seemed to me. Other people ridiculed, mocked and humiliated me as their ways of getting me to stop. Still others bought that nasty tasting stuff or offered manicure kits, or other rewards as incentives to stop the nail-biting. The school nurse even gave a written permission slip for me to suck life-savors in class.

As you can guess, I didn't just nibble the nails. No. I ripped them off until my fingers bled and the pain was excruciating. Eventually I took to hiding pins in many places for easy access. I used them to dig under the bed of the nail in order to make a place "to get a grip" and rip off a piece of nail.

Eventually I found just digging my flesh with a pin was a good-nuf substitute sometimes. At 15 I played with the razor blades again. By then I was seriously intent on killing myself. I failed but that's another story.

Now I know more about nail-biting and other forms of self-injury. In brief, self-injury, self-harm, self-mutilation, and so forth, include "carving, scratching, branding, marking, picking and pulling skin and hair, burning/abrasions, cutting, biting, head banging, bruising, hitting, excessive body piercing and tattooing."

Self-injurers "tend to have been abused as children." In one way or another, abused children "discover that a serious jolt to the body, like that produced by self-injury, can make intolerable feelings go away temporarily."

The resulting behaviors, including chronic nail-biting, seen as "common symptoms of stress" are variously described as coping mechanisms, "tensional outlets," and a "quick and easy way of defusing great physical or psychological tension."

The reasons for the behaviors include "trauma reenactment, bargaining and magical thinking (if I hurt myself, then the bad thing I am fearing will be prevented), protecting other people, and self-control."

Finally, in severe cases, self injury may be viewed as a "gift of survival," possibly the "most integrative and self-preserving choice from a very limited field of options." Self-injury may be the one thing standing between the person and committing suicide to escape from physical or psychological pain too great for him or her to live with.

For More Information:

Nail Biting: Causes and Consequences
Self-Injury of the Nails and Hands
Nail-Biting: Parenting Strategies
Wikipedia – Nail-biting
How to Protect Your Children From Self-Injury
Self Injury
Self Injury in Adolescents

Self-inflicted Violence
People Who Self Mutilate
Self Mutilation & Suicide
Trauma Reenactment Syndrome

A Child is Waiting,
Take aware,
Nancy Lee
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Megan Bayliss said...

Nancy I am so sorry that you have experienced so much shit in your life. Reading this I wanted to slap your Dad's face and rip out your mother's fingernails.

It is NEVER too late to become the person you want to be - a person with healed finger nails. You are an amazing woman Nancy. My fingernails don't bleed for you but my heart sure does.

You are in my thoughts daily. I am watching and waiting for you to get what you deserve - happiness and peace.

Thank you for watching the children and recognizing that parents can't always parent - sometimes they are stuck, hurt, nail biting children themselves.

Child Person said...

Than you for your expression of compassion and encouragement, Megan. I appreciate both. As for happiness and peace...I admit I don't know what happiness is, but peace is actually mine more often than not.

In some ways, Megan, I too am sorry for all the shit in my life. On the other hand I am so grateful for some things, that might not always seem so obvious as I share these ugly bits and pieces of my life.

The first and most obvious is - as far as we know without my mother and father I wouldn't be here. The second is that they kept my brothers and me which fullfilled the deep need of "belonging" that seems intrinsic in even the worst family situations, and is considered a necessary early step in most hierarchies of needs before development and growth can occur.

Research certainly indicates that may have made all the difference in my survival as an abused and neglected child, and contributes to my ongoing recovery.

The system then was less in every way than now, and now it is nothing to brag about. Except in clearly imminent or nearly possible life and death cases I don't believe children should be taken from families.

I believe the children should be protected from harm and that nurturance should be provided through other means if parent(s) are unable or unlikely to do so.

The family, including cooperative and willing extended members, should be treated, trained, monitored and held accountable on a continuing basis...not through checklists filled out by some overworked caseworker after a hurried phonecall, but by genuine observation by all involved in any capacity with the child.

As for healed fingernails...after learning that self-injury can be a guard against suicide, I guess I'll keep on if ncessary. At least since 1985 I no longer smoke 5 packs of cigarettes a day, haven't had a drink since 1990, no dangerous relationships since 1999, mostly take good care of my health - physical and mental...blah, blah, blah...

I do sometimes wish I could become the person I want to be...but since I still don't know what that would be...oh well...

Megan Bayliss said...

"At least since 1985 I no longer smoke 5 packs of cigarettes a day, haven't had a drink since 1990, no dangerous relationships since 1999"
...and that all makes you even more amazing.
I hope you are writing a piece of pop psychology come autobiography. It is bound to be a valuable additional to anyone's bookshelf.