Things were rough when Halie was a freshman in high school. Her cousin, who was like a sister to her, had become pregnant and left home. Her father didn’t think Halie should spend time with this cousin, but she did anyway. Her parents fought about it and she felt like it was her fault. Halie didn’t know what to do.
It was then, inspired by a friend — plus an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation in which a girl inflicts self-harm — Halie burned herself with a hair clip and a candle.
Halie’s story isn’t an anomaly. In 2011, her sophomore year, one in twelve teens her age would hurt themselves by cutting or burning. And, according to Halie, at the small school she attended and where I teach, at least seven of her friends (five girls and two boys) were hurting themselves, too. This may seem like a small number, but to put it in perspective, that means at least 7% of my students that year were inflicting self-harm and I only knew about two.
I wish I could tell you that it was the only time she had burned herself, that it was a copycat incident (common among teens who engage in this behavior) she quickly outgrew… but I can’t. While almost all of her friends gave it up or only tried it once or twice, Halie continued to hurt and scar her body.
She said, “I wasn’t able to cry normally, but [the pain from self-harm] helped me cry. The older I got, it became something I felt like I had to do with anything that bothered me or made me upset. I did it just to do it. Then I did it because I felt bad about myself and it gave me some relief.”
In the Degrassi episode, the character cut herself, but the idea of cutting frightened Halie. She thought she might cut too deep and bleed too much. After a friend died in a car accident, Halie used a curling iron to burn herself so badly that she “about passed out” and then had to deal with hiding a two or three degree burn from her family. She was unsuccessful. Her mother saw her arm when they were out shopping for a homecoming dress. After that, Halie switched to a razor blade and her legs.
Her mother knew that Halie was harming herself before the curling iron incident. In fact, Halie told her mom after she did it the first time. Halie was already seeing a therapist who would also ask about it, and over the course of her high school career, three teachers approached her about it. Halie knew she had support but, as she said, “There’s a point in time where you are happy with what you are doing. If they are not ready to stop, they are not going to.”
By senior year, most people knew that Halie hurt herself because she decided to wear shorts to school, revealing the scars on her legs. It was almost a form of therapy. Halie thought if she wore shorts, she would hurt herself less because people asked uncomfortable questions. Answering the questions got easier each time.
Halie made a concerted effort to stop hurting herself during her senior year when she started dating her boyfriend. With him, she felt she had the support she needed.
Halie is now a week away from finishing her freshman year of college. She’s hurt herself once in the last fifteen months. Back in September, school, family, and relationship pressure pushed her to burn herself with a lighter and scissors. Even though it was a fight with her boyfriend that triggered her, she’s realized that she has to be responsible for her own emotions. Her actions revolve around herself and the choices she makes.
Besides, even if the burn brought temporary relief, it also brought longer-lasting regret. Aside from worry about infection and how to hide it, she also had to face hurting the ones she loves. She’s had plastic surgery on past scars to improve her body image and she felt like she was undoing all that work. “It’s hard to feel happy and confident and beautiful when you have all these marks that remind you of how bad things are.”
Scars or not, Halie’s grateful her parents didn’t take drastic measures, like removing the door to her room or hospitalizing her. Her advice to high school girls who want to hurt themselves is: “People want to help and to keep you safe. The best thing you can do is let someone help you.” And to parents and mentors who would remove the doors of their self-harming high schoolers’ rooms: “Extreme measures make [us] feel like [we’re] are not in control of [our] lives.” According to Halie, grown-up’s attempts to help sometimes only make things worse.
If you want to talk to a young person in your life who you worry may be hurting themselves or if you need help preventing your own self-harm, please know that are resources and people willing to listen.