Many live with scars most can’t see
Young woman works to overcome self-injury, and aims to help others cope
For more than 30 years, Aimee Lafave kept a harmful secret.
Being bullied by students at school, who took her lunch, fighting with her sisters, feelings of inadequacy and constant practicing to be the perfect gymnast had taken its toll on the then fifth grader.
Overcome by dread, hurt and anxiety, Lafave found a way to evade the strong emotions she was feeling. She recalled the physical pain inflicted on her during fights with her sister and how it made her feel. Oddly enough, that physical pain helped her cope with the emotional grief. So Lafave, at a very young age, started harming herself.
"I held the pain in for a long time." recalls Lafave, who hid the secret from her family and others. "The part that people don't understand is the release of that inner pain, not feeling good enough, not being accepted."
She’s not alone. It’s estimated that approximately two million people in the U.S. injure themselves in some way, according to Mental Health America, a leading mental health advocacy organization. Self-harm, also known as self-injury, cutting or self-mutilation, occurs when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms herself/himself. The method most often used is cutting, but other behaviors include burning, punching, and drinking harmful liquids.
"I cut my arms," Lafave said. "I cut my legs. I cut on my ribs. I cut. I don't have any particular place."
This is an addiction many have a hard time breaking. Lafave admits she continued self-harming into her adult life – and still struggles today with the desire to injure herself. But she says she’s more hopeful since she came to Monarch and is determined to recover.
Lafave sees therapists at Monarch, and participates in stress reduction group therapy that incorporates mindfulness and relaxation techniques. She also attends Monarch’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), an evidenced-based program that has shown to be effective for people living with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is the diagnosis of many who self-harm. Scientific American Mind reports that up to 14 million Americans who live with BPD, more than those who live with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are most likely to injure themselves and commit suicide.
Experts say people with BPD are not deliberate attention seekers. Instead, recent studies reveal their behavior stems from an unusual sensitivity to subtle facial expressions and extreme difficulty controlling their emotions. Therapies for BPD, like DBT, are now enabling people to overcome and recover from the disorder.
Monarch therapists teach Lafave, and others, to use relaxation and meditation techniques to help them to stop hurting themselves. Lafave said at Monarch she feels validated and accepted – and has learned alternative ways to deal with her situation rather than cutting. She wears hair bands and rubber bands on her wrists. When she gets the urge to harm herself, she pulls the bands and lets them smack her skin.
Lafave has also identified writing as a way to cope, and self-soothing methods, like painting her nails, to help her feel better. She also taught herself to knit and says the sound of the knitting needles and the feel of the yarn is calming.
Her goal right now is to go 90 days without self-injury. She said she also wants to help others.
“I believe in my heart that I’ve gone through this for a reason and I believe that if I didn’t have Monarch to help me to get strong, I don’t know if I ever would be able to share my story,” said a courageous Lafave. “I credit Monarch a lot. I don’t want somebody to feel like I have and I don’ want someone else to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Lafave’s story was recently featured on WBTV-News 3, Charlotte’s CBS affiliate. To view the story or for more information, visit: www.MonarchNC.org/understanding-self-harm.