Sometimes you are so low that you don’t know how to pick yourself up. All you want to do is crawl in a corner and die. Most days are like that for my son.
“Carrying the weight of depression on my back, a heavy obstacle to overcome. Looking for a place to set it down and clamber over, but I can’t find the right spot. I don’t know what to do. How will I move past this?”--Matthew’s journals
Matthew mentioned depression when he was eleven years old, saying there was no point in living. I did not give this statement the attention it deserved. I did not realize it was depression. I discovered the slices on my son’s arms in January of 2009, just four months after his fourteenth birthday. Cutting himself wasn’t the first mark of troubled emotions. He didn’t want to go to school, or complete his homework. He was irritable and didn’t want to participate in family activities. He often isolated in his room listening to questionable music. I equated his attitude to “being a teenager.” Physically hurting himself was new. Matthew’s depression wasn’t always outwardly noticeable, there were signs, if I had known what to look for and had thought to look.
Once I discovered Matthew’s self-harm, I did everything I could to help him deal with his emotions. Unfortunately what I was able to give him was not enough. For several months I watched my son struggle with an intense emotional burden that threatened to overwhelm him. He saw psychiatrists and counselors. He took medication and learned therapeutic skills. Despite this, he would come to me again and again with shame and remorse after cutting. Nothing released his pain like self-harm.
After an episode of self-injury the suicidal sadness and anger we saw in Matthew was suppressed, an emerging pattern. Cutting apparently gave him a release from his emotional turmoil, and then he could cope with life. It was weirdly logical, but dangerous. My son spent many months in full-time psychiatric facilities learning healthy skills to apply to his major depressive disorder. During his time in one facility he stated, “Death is my only option out of my emotional pain.” He truly believed that life at times simply was not worth living.
In one week Matthew could waver on the precipice of death and self-destruction and the next week he could stay positive and shift forward. Little by little, and after an enormous amount of work and pain, he was able to see that maybe there was something better than hurting himself to deal with his illness. During group therapy in Matthew’s final day at a treatment center, he told his peers “Hang in there and have hope. It does get better.”
Before full-time treatment, my son was not able to share his emotional pain because of the stigma associated with his illness. He blamed himself. He felt ashamed and embarrassed. So instead of talking, he cut. Not everyone who self-harms is depressed; they may be dealing with another emotional pain, but everyone who self-harms is pleading for help.
I can look back now after a great deal of progress, and after hearing stories of young people killing themselves when the parents were not even aware that there child was depressed, and say that I am grateful my son self-harmed. I would never have thought those words could come out of my mouth, but I know that the alternative is my worst nightmare.
I don’t condone self-injurious behavior; I think it is addictive and destructive. But, I am thankful that my son chose this outward display of his emotional pain, instead of burying it deep within himself, only to carry out the ultimate release.
I am reminded of the story of Corrie Ten Boom who wrote the best-selling book, The Hiding Place. Corrie tells the story of her family and their work to help Jews escape the Nazi holocaust during WWII. The family was discovered and imprisoned, after saving over 800 lives. Corrie and her sister managed to sneak a Bible into the concentration camp, a crime punishable by death. In their horrific living conditions, Corrie and her sister Betsie, continued to “be thankful in all things.” They lived in barracks infested with fleas and found a way to be thankful for the fleas. They soon discovered that it was the fleas that keep the guards from coming in to harass the prisoners and it was the fleas that keep the guards from searching their barracks and finding their Bible.
For many years I was not thankful for my son’s actions to overcome his depression. In fact I was angry and embarrassed. When I was able to step back and see his behavior objectively, I understood that the self-injury saved his life.
If Matthew had not felt the shame of depression, maybe he would have discussed it with me, instead of hurting himself. If he had not felt alone, maybe he would have been able to seek out helpful coping skills from his parents, teachers or friends instead of having to carry the burden of depression all on his own.
I am grateful for my son’s self-harming behavior. He silently screamed for help. He is alive today and doing well, having overcome the addiction of cutting and the stigma of self-harm and depression. He is no longer afraid to ask for help.
LOOK: For the signs of depression.
LISTEN: To your child and yourself, and don’t be afraid to talk about it.
GO: Find the help you need.
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