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.

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
6 min read

Dawn was a junior in high school when her secret was discovered - she was practicing self-harm, she was cutting herself. That was eight years ago. Today, Dawn is nearly 25, and has transformed herself and her life. She has focused her career goals on helping others with emotional problems.

Dawn and Deb (her mother) hope that, in sharing their story, they can help other families come to grips with the problem of cutting.

Looking back, Dawn can see what went wrong. Things just weren't right at home. "I always felt, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of anger, but I didn't know what to do with it," she tells WebMD. "I wasn't really allowed to get angry at home, to express my anger."

Her father demanded perfection from her, Dawn says. "Also, I lived an extremely sheltered, controlled life as a child. I was real shy, real passive. I didn't have hobbies or activities. I didn't belong to clubs. I was always by myself, always in my room. I didn't have a whole lot of friends."

Her mother has the same memories. "Dawn's father was very strict with her when she was growing up," says Deb. "Let's face it, you're the product of how you were raised - and he was raised by a really mean father who was very strict. He demanded that Dawn be perfect. I was just 19 when I got married, and at that age I let him take the lead as far as discipline. I wasn't as strong as I am today. It was only later that I realized, this just isn't right."

When Dawn was age 10, her brother was born. As often happens, the second-born didn't face the same strict discipline that Dawn had. "Her father and I were older then, and we let some things go, her father wasn't as strict with him," Deb says. "That was hard for Dawn."

Dawn was becoming more isolated. "My brother was a real small baby, and my parents were really busy with him. Yet I was going through all this stuff, having a really hard time."

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."

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."

Dawn spent a week as an inpatient at SAFE Alternatives, located in Naperville, Ill. The program provides both inpatient and outpatient treatment for self-injurers. For the rest of her junior year, she was treated on an outpatient basis - taking high school classes at the hospital, while also getting counseling. A van picked her up at home in the morning and brought her home at night.

For her senior year, Dawn went back to her old high school. "That was major," Deb says. "Through the gossip trail, people knew. It was very hard for her to face, but she did it. She graduated with her class. She did very well."

Deb has seen big changes in her daughter. What's helped most, Dawn says, is learning to understand why she was injuring herself. "Now that I can, like, identify what makes me want to do it, it makes it easier to do other things and not do it. I can see the warning signs, like when I start to isolate myself, so I can stop the cycle before it starts."

Deb and her daughter have had many heart-to-heart talks. "I've told her, 'You shouldn't be embarrassed, you should be proud -- proud for all you've been through. You're a tremendous human being. You should view yourself from afar, give yourself a lot of credit for that instead of beating yourself up.'"

Recently, Dawn began cutting again, this time on her legs. "It was easy to cover them with jeans," she says.

But it was Dawn who called the SAFE program for help, not her mother. "I think it was harder for her this time," says Deb. "I told her, 'You need to be very proud that you could reach out. You need to see you're destined for great things. God does not bring us through these things for nothing. You need to see the other side of that circle, to see how strong you are.'"

That crisis has passed. In May, Dawn graduated from college with a major in psychology and a minor in art. She now works for an area agency that helps the mentally handicapped and disabled. She wants to pursue a master's in psychology, so she can be an art therapist. "Dawn found that art therapy helped her a lot with her own problems," Deb says.

Learning to be assertive, to speak up for herself, has been Dawn's hardest lesson. "It's a slow process, because I'm almost 25 and I have to unlearn all the stuff I did as a kid," Dawn tells WebMD. "It's like starting over, learning stuff you're supposed to learn growing up. But if you don't learn it, eventually you're going to crack."

Dawn offers advice for parents: Help your kids develop their sense of identity. "Let kids express their feelings, even if you don't feel comfortable with it. Let them get angry. Let them say what they feel, what their opinions are, so they can learn to speak up for what they think. Kids should also be encouraged to have hobbies, to get involved in activities, to help build their self-esteem."

Kids who are cutting themselves must understand how dangerous it is, says Dawn. "It's a trendy thing, but you're playing with fire. It can get out of control really fast. Find someone who takes it seriously, like a school counselor."

Deb's message to mothers: Pay attention to the clues, and trust your instinct. "Mothers have a great sixth sense, a gut instinct. Always listen to that. It won't steer you wrong," she tells WebMD.

Deb recognizes her own role in her daughter's problems - in not standing up to her husband and not allowing her daughter to have her own voice. "It's a battle, because women and girls need a voice and they don't always have one. That needs to change."