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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Self-Injury: One Family's Story

A mother and daughter tell their story about self-harm and how they finally got the strength to get help.

A Sheltered, Strict Childhood continued...

By age 13, Dawn was making threats to kill herself. She went into counseling, but things didn't get better, her mother says. By age 14, she was seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with depression.

There was something else no one suspected. Dawn had begun cutting herself. "I'd never heard of cutting," she says. "I thought I'd made it up. For me, it was something that I thought might make me feel better. It was like, I'm going to do this and see what happens."

Hiding the Cuts

In the beginning, she didn't cut herself very often, Dawn explains. "I started to see it was making me feel better, so I kept doing it. I would do it in the bathroom at school... hiding in a stall during lunch time. I used a paper clip that I would sharpen with a file. I just did a lot of little shallow cuts... I didn't want to need stitches. I hid it for so long because I never needed medical attention."

Dawn was hiding her cuts under long-sleeved clothes, another clue that no one noticed.

At one point, Dawn mentioned the cutting to a psychiatrist, who shrugged it off as "typical adolescence," she says. That left Dawn with a clear message, "I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. The more upset I got, the more I would do it. By the time I was 16, I was doing it almost every day."

But Deb suspected that things weren't right with her daughter. She began reading Dawn's diary. In it, she found drawings that showed deep sadness. She found one drawing of cutting marks on a person's arms, and she knew that person was her daughter.

"As a mother, you don't want to think your child is that unhappy ... it just boggled my mind," Deb tells WebMD. "Even when I saw clues that something was wrong, I would push them away." But she did some reading about self-harm and cutting. Then she confronted her daughter, as well as her daughter's therapist.

Everything came to head - with Dawn finally admitting that she was cutting herself. The therapist pulled out of the case, saying she didn't feel comfortable handling it. Deb kept her daughter home from school the next day. "I sat at the phone, and made a gazillion phone calls in this area to find someone who helps with self-injury. From a local therapist, thank God, I found the SAFE (Self Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives program."

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