Last week was an incredibly difficult one for me. Over the course of it, two different young men came into my office and admitted they intentionally cut themselves.
The first was a 26 year-old fashion designer who sliced the area under his eyes. To cover the scars, he wore thick black glasses with darkly tinted lenses. From the outside he looked like yet another creative young man living a fabulous life in New York City. Underneath this veneer, however, lurked an incredibly painful truth.
The second was a 28 year-old Ivy League educated lawyer who used a kitchen knife to cut the skin around his shoulders. On paper and in person, this young man personified the American dream. It was only after he removed his shirt that you realized the depth of his emotional nightmare.
Although I work with all kinds of addictions and have seen all sorts of self destructive behavior, the level of emotional pain that drives these men to cut themselves is one that I have a hard time holding. Yes, I have years and years of training and lots of professional degrees, but seeing emotional pain through such a raw and graphic expression is an experience that still rattles me to my core.
It’s also an experience that makes me incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do my work. If in my presence human beings can open up and share their pain, they can begin to slowly and cautiously develop healthier ways to manage it.
In general, people intentionally cut themselves because they either feel too little or feel too much. For those who feel too little, intentionally cutting oneself makes them feel alive. The pain of the wound serves as proof of their existence.
For those who feel too much, cutting oneself provides a point upon which overwhelming emotions can be located. Where before emotions swirled around like a tornado out of control, the self-inflicted wound gives psychic pain a place to touch down on.
But once inflicted, the cut provides only temporary relief. After the physical pain subsides, the person is with left with a sense of shame, self-loathing and hopelessness.
In order to heal from emotional pain, we must develop the capacity to hold and discharge it. This takes courage, time and practice.
It also takes the presence of a compassionate and non-judgmental person with whom we can share our deepest, darkest secrets, our fears and insecurities, our frustrated dreams, our hopes misplaced and our sense of not belonging. In short, we need to share with a trustworthy person the very things that make us loveable and human.
For the two men mentioned above, their journey of recovery will be both challenging and rewarding. In it, they will confront truths they’d rather avoid and learn that emotional pain, like physical pain is one that can be contained and managed. Their journey will take strength and resolve, but strength and resolve are two qualities they have plenty of. By facing down their fears and revealing their truths to me, they have taken the first step towards freeing themselves from paralyzing emotional pain and self-inflicted destruction. I consider it a privilege to be a part of their path.