I discovered my son was cutting after he gouged his hand severely enough to require stitches. It was only after I asked him to wash his hands, and I pulled up his sleeves, that I saw the other marks.
What did I do wrong as a parent?
That is what I asked myself. I was angry and confused. Why would he cut himself? Why would anyone want to deliberately hurt themselves? What I didn’t know was that his internal pain was far greater than anything he could have done to himself physically. I didn’t know that he had been suffering inside for many years and that he had buried his misery deeper and deeper only to have it turn into self-hatred and spill out from self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t know that watching himself bleed helped him feel real, in control, and sane. I didn’t know that every day my child fought to keep himself alive. Every day he won his battle and I never knew there was a fight.
After the anger vanished, I wondered why I didn’t notice that my child needed help. I wondered why he didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t come to me and tell me about his torment.
That is when the blame started.
I blamed myself for not being a good enough mother. I blamed myself that my sweet boy didn’t think I would understand how he felt. I blamed myself that maybe I was too busy or too self-involved or too anything other than the “perfect mother.” I blamed myself that I didn’t know. I believed I should have known. This was my child. Wasn’t I supposed to have some kind of intuition about these things? Wasn’t I supposed to protect my child from all the harm that came into his life, but how could I protect him from himself? How could I take away my child’s pain when I didn’t even know it was there?
How does a parent of a self-harmer heal from the physical pain inflicted on their soul? One small step at a time.
I had many steps to take and lessons to learn along the way. I learned how to validate my son’s feelings so he felt heard, acknowledged, understood, and accepted. I learned that I needed counseling just as much as he did. I learned that I could not fix his behavior; he would have to want to do that for himself. I learned that I didn’t have to be the “perfect mother,” just one that listened to what her child had to say, didn’t judge the choices he made, and loved him unconditionally.
With each step I not only helped myself, but I helped my son. I stood by his side, I helped him through difficult times, I counseled him, and I also reluctantly stood back and let him make mistakes, and each time he faltered, each time he fell, he would get up and start over.
I learned that being a parent wasn’t what I had dreamed it would be, instead it was painful, brutal, arduous, and exhausting. But being a parent was also rewarding and fulfilling and no matter what obstacles I had to face, being a parent always required love and acceptance, that is a true parent, where you learn that you can trade pain for love.