Imogen Smith with her mother, Jane: ‘For a long time there was very little fun or humour in our home.’ Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
Taken from The Guardian UK which is located HERE.
Imogen Smith, 22, has just graduated from university: she is bright and bubbly. But her smile disappears as she shows me a picture of an unhappy-looking, hollow-cheeked girl lying on a hospital bed, her arms streaked with cuts. “That was me a few years ago,” she says.
It’s hard to believe. And what’s even harder to take in is that those gashes were self-inflicted. Imogen cut herself, regularly, over several years. She and her mother, Jane, want to talk openly about it in the hope of helping other families to deal with what is often a hidden problem. Experts say as few as 12% of cases of self-harm receive professional help.
Jane, 54, and her husband Richard, 64, who live in Somerset, realised that their eldest daughter was self-harming when she was in hospital with anorexia. “Self-harming is often associated with an eating disorder – but that’s not something I knew at the time. And one day when we went to visit Imogen, a nurse said: ‘Have you noticed the scratches on her arm?’”
Jane hadn’t – nor did she understand, at first, what the nurse meant. “But next time we went there were many more cuts – and it began to dawn on us what was going on.”
For Imogen, self-harming was a response to feelings of powerlessness. “I felt angry. I felt caged,” she says. “When you’ve got anorexia you want to exercise a lot and you don’t want to eat. In hospital I wasn’t allowed to move at all, and they made me eat. I think part of me just wanted to get back at them for keeping me there.”
Once it became clear that Imogen was doing it, the staff took care to ensure she didn’t have access to anything sharp. After a few weeks, she was discharged from hospital and successfully treated for anorexia at a specialist clinic. But when she eventually came home, five months later, the self-harming resumed.
It’s difficult to convey what motivates an individual to self-harm, says Imogen. “But stress is a big part of it. In the clinic I’d known what each day held, what the parameters were. Going back to my old life, in the middle of my GCSE year, was very stressful.”
Cutting herself brought temporary release from that stress, she says now. “I felt overwhelmed, overloaded, panicky. All these emotions crowded in, and when you make the cuts, it’s as though you don’t have any thoughts in your mind at all.”
Most parents, says Jane, react by denying what’s happening, by expressing outrage and shock, and telling their child not to do it again; what few do is investigate the physiological mechanism involved. Jane did.
“I discovered that self-harming reduces blood pressure and releases endorphins. I don’t condone it, of course, but knowing that helped me at least understand why Imogen would want to do it. But I still had to deal with the terrible reality.”
Imogen’s self-harming affected the whole family. “I don’t want to blame her in any way for this, but I think it’s important to share it so other families understand how much everyone is affected,” says Jane. “What we went through was very tough on our marriage. Imogen was in her late teens when it was going on, and my younger daughters, Harriet and Olivia [now 20 and 17], were in their mid and early teens. It was a time when Richard and I might have had more time to ourselves.
“Instead, we were plunged into constant worry: I’d wake up every morning wondering what the day held, whether Imogen would be going to harm herself, what I could do to make sure that she didn’t.
“Our social life disappeared – some friends understood, but there were those who didn’t, who just thought she was looking for attention, who thought we should tell her to pull herself together to force her to stop. It’s not something you can talk to other people about – it’s a very lonely experience, as a parent, to live through.
“For a long time there was very little humour or fun in our home – it was as though the life was sucked out of us.
“Older members of the family found it especially tough to deal with – my mother was so upset. She’d say: ‘Why is it happening to this generation? I lived through the war and we experienced terrible things, but no one was doing this.’”
Recognising that she was depressed finally started Imogen on the path to recovery. “But it wasn’t an instant thing. Medication made me feel better, but I was still very stressed, and there were still times when I self-harmed. It’s not the sort of thing you can just snap out of overnight.” The attitude of her family, she says, was a crucial part of her recovery. “Once my mum understood what I was going through, she listened to me, she didn’t judge me. You need the people around you to understand why you’re self-harming – if they just berate you, it makes you feel worse than ever and then you’re even more likely to keep doing it.”
Jane, a former headteacher, says the hardest thing for her as a mother was realising that she had to stand by her daughter. “You don’t have the insight to know why your child is self-harming, you can’t begin to know what’s driving her to do it, but you still somehow have to find the strength to stand up for her and genuinely respect her, despite everything. “
Jane also became aware, she says, of the danger-points when Imogen was at risk of resorting to self-harm. “I started to recognise when she was getting wound up to the point where she’d do it. I developed tactics that helped deflect it – we’d talk about other things she could do to relieve the stress, like being around other people and not shutting herself off on her own. Sometimes she just needed a big sleep because that reduced her anxiety.”
It’s now more than three years since Imogen self-harmed, and she is about to start a job. So are the bad days behind them? “I was about to say we were back to normal,” says Jane. “But on reflection I think our family life is better than it was, and richer than it was, for having gone through such terrible times.
“I’d never have wished our nightmare on anyone, but working through this means we appreciate everything we’ve got as a family so much more than we did before.”
• The Parent’s Guide to Self-Harm: What Parents Need to Know by Jane Smith is published by Lion Hudson, £7.99. Further information: www.mind.org.uk
Filed under: Anorexia, Christian Counseling, Christianity, Eating Disorders, Self Injury/Cutting | 2 Comments »