Cutting: How I Stopped Harming Myself and Why We Need to Talk About It

 Robyn found healing after cutting herself for years. She still thinks about it and says it isn't talked about enough. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

Robyn found healing after cutting herself for years. She still thinks about it and says it isn't talked about enough. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

By Jessica Hamlin and Robyn Marshall

Warning: The following story contains content about self-injury that may be upsetting or triggering for some. If you have thoughts of injuring yourself in any way, please dial 911, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find a mental health professional to speak with. See more advice at the end of this article on how to stop cutting or what to do if you feel the urge.

In the summer of 2002 I met Robyn. She had short black hair, chin and eyebrow piercings and usually wore mostly black. She played the drums and was talented at drawing pictures of darker things like skulls. She was beautiful with a punk rock vibe. I thought she was cool but I'm pretty sure I was intimidated by her, at least at first. 

We were both staffing a summer program in Vancouver, Canada for a month and a half. Youth from across the U.S. and Canada visited for 10 days at a time while they learned about faith and the melting pot of cultures in the area and served and connected with some of the hurting people in the city at places like homeless shelters. Robyn and I would return a few months later to Vancouver to attend another program with the same non-profit. As the staff bonded over that summer we shared inside jokes and also some of our struggles.

At some point back then, I remember Robyn publicly sharing that she had a fairly recent history of cutting herself. It was emotional and heartbreaking to hear. While I couldn’t imagine ever cutting myself since I’m squeamish around blood and violence, we all have our destructive coping mechanisms.

For those not familiar, cutting is “non-suicidal self-injury, and it’s defined as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue,” Psychology Today reports. This can manifest itself in people—often young women—cutting the skin on their arms, legs or elsewhere with a blade or sharp object until they bleed. Some people choose to self-injure by burning themselves with a cigarette or lit match, hitting or biting themselves or pulling out their hair. It sounds like torture, but for the people who cut or otherwise self-injure it’s a way they try to cope with and escape from emotional pain by inflicting physical pain on themselves. Similar to eating disorders, it also gives them a sense of control and sometimes euphoria. While cutting is non-suicidal self-injury, people who cut may be suicidal and suffer from depression or other mental health disorders.

After a long and painful journey of emotional and physical healing, Robyn no longer cuts herself and is now a tattoo artist and married mom of two living in British Columbia. It’s been amazing to see photos of her beautiful family and her artistic creations over the years—she still draws skulls plus a plethora of natural and striking designs.

But often as is the case with addiction, thoughts of it don’t go away. Robyn, now 34, still thinks about cutting even though she hasn’t done it for several years. When she met with a mom friend recently who shared that she also had thoughts of cutting, Robyn felt she had to spread more awareness about it, especially for people like moms who aren’t in the usual demographic of young girls and feel they have nowhere to turn for help.

This is Robyn’s story.

 Robyn, at 17, during the time in her life when she was cutting herself. You can see the scars on her arm. She says she doesn't think she's ever shared this photo with anyone. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

Robyn, at 17, during the time in her life when she was cutting herself. You can see the scars on her arm. She says she doesn't think she's ever shared this photo with anyone. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

How old were you when you started cutting?

I was around 11 or 12 when I started.

What was going on in your life when you started cutting?

Our family had actually just gone through a very rough few years.  My sister disclosed about the sexual abuse of her and I, which turned into years of interviews with police officers, lawyers, counselors, etc.

Why do you think you started cutting?

Looking back at it now as an adult and not a hurt, scared little girl, I'm pretty sure it was because of the abuse that I started. I cut off my hair and started dressing like a boy. Doing anything to look "less desirable or pretty.” The cutting was a portion of that, along with the feeling of it. It brought a form of release with the pain. A pain I could actually feel and control. I chose to cut. It's not something that happened to me like the abuse. It was a conscious choice and desire to try and feel through the numbness I felt inside.

What were some consequences of your cutting other than the injury itself?

The devastation to my family. My older sisters didn't understand, they couldn't relate. My parents did their best to love me through it. I lost a lot of friends in my isolation of trying to keep it hidden. Eventually when I stopped cutting I just turned to other things to numb the emotional pain—drugs, sex, anorexia. Again, all crutches that I could control. 

How long did you cut?

Until I was about 18.

Would you call cutting an addiction similar to drugs or alcohol?

Yes. Identical, I would say. It's still something I struggle with even though it's been over for many years now. The desire and craving I now realize and fear it may never go away. I still get triggered by what I watch or just by talking to people about it. I can remember that “good” feeling. 

When and how did you get to the point where you knew you needed to stop?

I had hit rock bottom. The cutting wasn't fixing the "numbness" anymore. The drugs weren't doing it either. My world came to a halt when my parents found out I was dating my much older drug dealer. At this point I needed to either just give into the addictions and die, or fight to live. My family grew up religious with a deep relationship with Jesus. So with the very little strength, hope or whatever that was left of the empty shell that I was, I asked Jesus for His help, finally realizing I had been running from Him, running from the life I could have. The life He had planned for me.
 Robyn, now in her 30s, likes to draw and works as a tattoo artist. She sits beside a piece of her art. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

Robyn, now in her 30s, likes to draw and works as a tattoo artist. She sits beside a piece of her art. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

What resources did you use to help you stop cutting?

I had the most amazing counselor. She gave me some tools but also let me find my own that worked for me. For about 2 years after I stopped I had Post-it notes on every surface I could see. I had to have daily reminders. Some of the main ones that helped me said:
“Don't make a permanent decision based on a temporary feeling."
"It won't last forever."
"You are worth more."
"What about Braeden."
Braeden was my new baby nephew. He was born probably around the same time as my cutting. I remember being in the hospital admitted for what felt like the hundredth time. My mom always sitting beside, leaned over and said, "What about Braeden?" How are we going to explain to him that he used to have an aunt but she killed herself? That he's supposed to have someone else to love him but they chose to leave?" This is what helped me in my depression and suicide attempts. 
The cutting needing to be a daily choice not to do. To know that I deserve better. To lay it down at the feet of Jesus and know that in Him I can get through it. I had lived many years ignoring Jesus and not thinking He could help. But once I surrendered my life to Him I knew it would never be the same. There was no way I could live without Him in it anymore.

Are there resources you use now to help keep you “sober” from cutting?

There aren't. Which is extremely unfortunate. There are organizations to help bring awareness. But in my experience nothing like AA would have for an alcoholic. I learned to put people I trusted in my path to keep me accountable.
 Robyn with her husband and two children in front of some of her art. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

Robyn with her husband and two children in front of some of her art. (Photo courtesy Robyn Marshall)

We usually hear about cutting in terms of teenagers, especially girls, but you have mentioned how thoughts of it also affect women and moms. Can you talk more about that? 

I find I'm kinda in an awkward state in life. The Christian, stay-at-home mom who battles addiction. Not a very talked about demographic. I did think for the cutting urges that I was alone until I had dinner with a stay-at-home mom friend who knew my past and started asking me questions about it. She hadn't done anything yet but she expressed how the urges and desires to cut were strong. Maybe it's a bit of her postpartum. Maybe it's a reaction for moms who feel like they have lost themselves and are so drained that they need to escape reality. I now fear that there are many more moms struggling with the same urges, but they’re afraid to speak up since cutting has such a stigma around it. That it's for teenagers, or for attention.

Does there seem to be a common thread you’ve seen among people who want to cut or do cut?

In my experience it's all walks of life. Guys, girls, young, old. People who have experienced a traumatic event or not. 

Looking at it now I feel like some people who cut do it for a sense of power; a control over their life that they [think they] can take back. It takes a lot of mental and emotional power to put a blade to your skin and … to see your own blood pour out. I think it's that high of power that gets addicting. No different from someone addicted to working or thrill seeking. I think the drive of either wanting more or losing control of power is what we all do. It just manifests itself differently.

The Good Stuff.

We asked Robyn about some of her favorite things. 

 Robyn, 34, is married with two children and lives in British Columbia. 

Robyn, 34, is married with two children and lives in British Columbia. 

Fave workout/way to move: CrossFit

Fave wellness practice: Being vegan 

Fave self-care practice: Pedicures 

Fave hobby: Drawing 

Fave food: Tacos 

Fave drink: Black coffee 

Fave snack: Popcorn 

Fave kitchen gadget/appliance: Rice cooker! 

Fave place in the world: Honestly, wherever my family is.

Who or what inspires you and why?

The artist Emily Carr has always been a huge inspiration for me. She lived and died for her passion. She was who she was with no regrets or concerns of others’ opinions. 

Fave quote/saying/mantra:

"If you want to change the world, go home and love your family" - Mother Teresa 

Fave workout song: Anything by Rob Zombie

If you had a theme song, what would it be and why?

"Sometimes you can't make it on your own" by U2. It's my wedding song. It pretty much sums up my relationship with my husband when we first met. 

Fave book: Love in the Time of Cholera

Fave movie: Amelie


How to Stop Cutting

If you’re having thoughts of cutting, tell a loved one or mental health professional so you can get help and learn how to cope in a positive way. You can find affordable mental health services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Visit http://www.samhsa.gov/treatment or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Psychology Today shares ways that people can help prevent non-suicidal self-harm:

In a 2015 study, researchers asked people who formerly cut themselves why they stopped. Two of the main answers were:

  • Almost 40 percent said that they stopped cutting when they came to realize that they could handle feeling crappy for a while and that they would probably feel better soon.
  • Nearly a quarter (24 percent) stopped because they felt someone loved or cared for them—they may have entered a loving relationship or their friends made them feel worthy and cared for.

What to do instead of cutting

Talking with a mental health professional about the emotions behind your desire to injure yourself is very important. It may be hard, but it’s a major step to healing and moving forward in a constructive way.

More from Psychology Today:

If cutting is a way to feel deep dark emotions, experiment with ways to feel those emotions safely: listen to music that matches how you feel, have a good cry, or write out your thoughts in a journal, even if you just write page after page of profanity in big black letters. If cutting is a way to release tension, move your body—visit a boxing gym or go for a long, pounding run.
Try to wait it out. It will be excruciating, especially at first, but the urge to cut will eventually pass. Promise yourself (or someone who loves you) that you’ll wait at least 20 minutes after the urge to cut. [And perhaps do some of the activities suggested above to get your mind off it.]

Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.