Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My dear sister, don't cut

Imagine a group of 9th grade girls sitting in a cafeteria. Their table is near the corner and out of the way so nobody can see very well what's going on. One girl slides her sleeve up her arm, indicating a fresh wound, "From last night," she says. She points to another scrape on her arm from a few weeks past. Another girl shyly exposes several scars on her own arm, while another explains that the girls should cut their thighs or bellies instead--so their parents won't see the scars. A fourth girl tells them, "That's so stupid, why do you do that anyway?" She is convinced that they "just want attention."

If someone pressed a knife to your neck, wouldn't you want some attention? If you found yourself being pulled into a dark alley against your will, wouldn't you want some attention? If you were drowning, wouldn't you want some attention? If you saw a house on fire, and knew there were children inside, wouldn't you want some attention? Some help?

I am sad to report that a story like this one isn't as rare or fictional as we might like to believe. And the argument of the 4th girl, that these girls are "stupid" and "just want attention," is a common response. Sadly, not a helpful one.

I have been trying to get my 9th grade Sunday school class (all girls) to talk about some issues that might be bothering them, and someone mentioned girls who cut themselves. I don't if any of these girls who were present do this or not, but most of them knew someone who did. It's not an issue I ever gave very much thought to, so I decided to spend sometime this week researching the phenomenom.

And I discovered that it does happen a lot. And, as I understood from the girls, it happened as a response to some abnormal stress in a girl's life. Relayed to me, for example, was the story of one girl who cut gave the excuse that her father had cheated on her mother.

Unfortunately adultery isn't something so rarely seen these days--we find our politicians and celebrities engaging in it, no wonder that average moms and dads have no immunity either. But would you have imagined, if you were the girls father, that your behavior would cause your teenage daughter to inflict injuries on her body?

If we are to believe statistics that 1 in 10 girls self-harm each year (i.e., cut themselves), that is no small number to ignore. And I for one don't think it's fair at all to label girls who cut as "stupid" or just "attention-seekers." It is very likely that they are seeking attention for a very legitimate reason--they are unable to deal with stress in their life. They might be more sensitive than most, or dealing with very strange experiences, such as infidelity between their parents, or abuse. The cutting actually seems to be a way for them to relieve stress--a kind of screaming that is private, and silent.

What about the showing off? I don't think the girls are showing scars to gain popularity, but they do it really as a cry for help. They won't show parents, for example--thus the idea of hiding the cuts where they can't be seen (belly or thighs.) But even the girls who cut their arms might make a point of wearing long sleeves. But they show others--why? I think the girls really might need help.

One girl in my class told me someone had talked to her about cutting, and it was clear to me at least that the girl was looking for help. Now the young sister wasn't sure exactly what to do, and I don't know what to do. A lot of what I read suggested that first just listening might help, and that going to the girl's parents or family (who in fact might be the cause of the stress) wouldn't necessarily be the best way to help.

I tried to convey to the girls the importance of listening to people when things are going wrong with them, and just listening even if they don't know what to do to help--the girl just might need someone to listen and be a friend. Also I tried to help them understand that it was something serious, and not something "stupid." If a girl was cutting herself in order to cope, it meant she was unable to find another way of coping with her problems. So either a more productive way of coping with stress is needed, or perhaps the removal of stress. And ultimately I sort of encouraged them to listen and not to mock.

It's also worthwhile to point out that it seems like some teens, perhaps instead of or in addition to cutting, might deliberately over-medicate (even with household drugs) or perhaps turn to more serious kinds of drugs.

I would like to hear someone from the Muslim community comment about this, since I don't think it is a safe assumption at all that Muslimahs would be immune from choosing this kind of response to stress in their lives. Reading the stories of some girls who were cutting, stories of abuse, just presented so nonchalantly, it really brought me to tears. If anyone reading could offer some religious or spiritual insight in to the problem of girls cutting themselves, I would really appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaykum sister - I was a former cutter, although I only did it a few times, sometimes because I was going mental inside and I wanted to hurt myself, like I deserved to be abused and scarred. A part of it too was that I couldnt or wouldnt kill myself, but I did want someone to realize how much I was suffering. The hiding it comes from the fitrah I guess, I mean we cant cut and show someone and say see? I dont know, nor do I really understand it myself.

I was non-Muslim when these things happened, and now by the grace of Allah, I know the right way. Love, faith and trust of Allah will help these girls. They need someone to care and guide them gently, and not push them, but listen and let them know they are not alone, they have Allah.

I would love to help more if I could, just say the word in shaa Allah.

Just call me M. if you have any more questions, I will read it in shaa Allah.

Anonymous said...

As-salamu alaykum,

I don't know anybody personally who does it, but I do know of a person who got a tattoo to escape grieving when a loved one died. It was the equivalent to what you're discussing.

Amy said...

Wa alaykum as-salaam sister 'M.'

Thanks for sharing that. I agree that when a "cutter" shows the cut it's not just to say "See?" or to show it off. I think it makes sense the person might feel some revulsion at it and want to hide it... but still she knows she needs help and is confused about how to get it.

Would you say that praying and focusing on yoru relationship with Allaah helped you to cope with whatever feelings led you to cut?

Anonymous said...

Since converting to Islam I dont do it anymore, because I do feel that what I did was wrong at the time, and now I know the only answer lies in Allah.

There are days though, where in my mind, I am right back where I was before. I want to do something, anything to relieve the pressure, and for some reason it lies in hurting myself. But, as you mentioned, being a good Muslimah, praying, making duaa, and seeking His help alone is the only thing that really has worked. By having complete faith, and surrendering my will to Him alone, I know that each pain is a test. I think that those who continue to do such things cannot possible have a healthy relationship with their Creator.

I also think that some people must focus the pain inward because they do not have enough self esteem, do not feel capable or have been taught they deserve this (by being abused in some way), or simply NOT taught how to manage the normal pains in life.

It takes a lifetime to undo behaviors that we grew up with though. As we know now, the answer lies in faith alone, and His punishment and reward. The closer we can become to Him, the less we will suffer and feel the need to abuse ourselves any longer.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the answer lies with drawing near to Allah(SWT). But many kids who grow up Muslim only learn a rigid set of rules to follow without the spiritual aspects of Islam. So, they move their limbs without moving their hearts. I think that if you can inspire in them a yearning for Allah(SWT) as he is at every moment there if they call Him. As for cutting from a scientific perspective, some psychologists say that it is often times a way to relieve stress and tension, meaning that after cutting they feel a sense of control and relief. But for myself, self-abuse always came from self-hatred. I am not sure why I grew up hating myself and I have never been able to gain a self-esteem despite significant achievements. But I was physically and sexually abused as a child in the eighth grade, and it is difficult for a child to know how to react to this and they often blame themselves, and thus cutting is a way to release this energy.
May Allah(SWT) increase them in their Faith, Heal their wounds, and guide them on a way that is best in the this life and the next. Ameen.

Amy said...


I am thinking about trying to talk with the girls abotu belief in the Qadr of Allaah, and developing a strong faithful/spiritual relationship with Him, so they feel they can trust Him and call on Him when they face hard times.

And remind them also of the blessings that they might not notice in their afflictions, and the benefit of making du'a.

Do you think this might help the girls, and maybe offer them a way to help any girls they know who might be cutting?

Anonymous said...

It certainly is the solution in shaa Allah, but try to keep a good relationship with them so they feel 1) they can confide in you and trust you 2) then perhaps they will want to listen to your advice.

Listen a lot first, and get them to open up and feel close to you, then keep trying to talk to them about Allah, and how the hard times are on a trial and we must be patient - and how Allah loved the Prophets so much, that He gave them the MOST difficult tests... Over time in shaa Allah it can decrease their fears, lonlieness and pain. Allah with you in shaa Allah, and may He reward you for your efforts, ameen

Amoola said...

assallamu alaikum Amy,

It is definately something that affects every society no matter what the culture or the religion. I don't know what makes the youth make that very first cut, but from speaking with some young sisters before I found that they knew people who had cut. I wondered if perhaps this was the reason why they had started. Being in a place of despair, and then wanting to relieve it by seeing if cutting would help. Of course I could be wrong.

Trying to bring these girls closer in their relationship with Allah will help them to stop what they are doing, but in the end it has to be a choice that they make themselves. Just be on their side, and try to set up a little support network e.g. if there is a girl who cuts give her the number of a sister or close friend who she can ring when she has that urge. Unless the girl is being abused at home by her parents, I do think that mothers should be involved. It is a hard decision to take involving parents, but in the end, they are the closest ones to their child who can monitor their progress.

I dont think showing off the cuts in a group is ''showing off'' either. I think it is a cry for help, but how can they help each other when they are all in the same boat? It would take one cutter to say that it, i'm not going to do it any more, and perhaps try to get the others in the group to make the same pact.

May Allah help you to help the girls sis. In this day and age, they need a role model and confidante, and I believe that they have this in you.

Much love


Anonymous said...

All can say is a muslim girl wouldn't dare to do that. Basically if your faith is strong and you trust you Creator(whatever religion it may be) you will definately find peace and solution in your prayers. What i have noticed here in USA is ppl don't follow their own religion, that is the reason they don't find any place to go to? For me, cutting or punishing urself is no solution to any of ur problems, that is "stupidity" for sure! Most of the muslims are religious and they trust Allah, they know that He is the only one who is going to help in "any situation"!! Also it depends on ur upbringing and culture.
In a nut shell, you gotta trust yourself and most importantly TRUST ALLAH! He knows the best, he knows what has happened and what is going to happen in future, am i not right??

Amy said...

Anonymous -

If every Muslim teenage girl had strong faith and trust in Allah then maybe she wouldn't consider it--but look at the Muslims today. You said most Muslims practice their religion--but do they? There are so many teenage girls whose parents might send them to Sunday school or religious programs once in a while, but who don't bother to practice Islam much themselves. The girls grow up in a secular world without any proper grounding in faith--because nobody is teaching them faith.

I think it's too high an expectation to say that all Muslims should have strong enough faith when they don't have anyone to teach them. Obviously, if a sister resorted to cutting herself I think it would demonstrate a lack of faith or shortage of it at least--but is that her fault?

The solution then is to help strengthen her faith.