Cutting to Cope: A Look Beneath the Scars

Posted at 10:59 PM, Nov 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-12 09:58:55-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It has been six years since Nicole Sharp first picked up a razor blade.

She was just 5 years old when her depression began. Diagnosed with a personality disorder, the now 20-year-old, dressed in long-sleeves, sits on the couch inside her parents’ Grand Rapids ranch-style home, where her memory rewinds to the place where she first began harming herself.

“I was 10 or 11 is when I started getting really depressed,” Nicole said.” It would be just things like hitting myself, or hitting my head against the wall.”

That’s when the shame for Nicole began.

“It’s embarrassing. Not many kids know how to deal with that, especially at 10 and 11,” she said.

Trying to understand the pain she was in and gain control over her urge to self-harm, Nicole began seeing a therapist during those middle school years. But, then she switched schools and just as those teen years began sneaking up on her, those self-harming thoughts came roaring back. Only this time, she had a new method.

“I would buy razor blades from the drug store. For a while, I was doing it [cutting] everyday,” Nicole said. “I have scars, pretty much all over my body. It feels like my skin is being ripped apart.”

Judy Sharp, Nicole’s mother, said the pain of watching her daughter suffer was unbearable.

“I’d say ‘Nicole, please don’t do this. I love you, you know, what’s wrong?’ And she wouldn’t tell me. I don’t think she could explain what was wrong,” Judy said.

Nicole was 14 at the time. Although cutting often times begins in those adolescent years, it can progress well through adulthood.

Penny Hesse, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is now in her 50s, began cutting as a preteen.

“The last time I cut was in my 30s,” she said.

Hesse is now a certified peer specialist at Community Mental Health of Ottawa County. She uses her past experience with cutting to help people like Nicole, who are going through the same struggles. She said she hopes to stomp out some of the misconceptions about people who self-harm. The biggest, she said, is the belief that people do it for attention.

“If I was doing it for attention, why would I hide my scars? Why would I hide and do it?” Hesse said. “I don’t come out and say ‘see what I did?’

Katherine DeVries, an addiction counselor at Pine Rest, agrees with Hesse and explains why people do it.

“It releases chemicals in the brain that can help them soothe and calm down and find relief,” DeVries said.

In fact, DeVries said most of the patients who walk into her office have gone to great lengths to keep their secret hidden.

“Typically, there are people who will have cutting kits and so it’s very secretive,” she said.

Nicole had her own way of hiding.

“I definitely had stashes,” she said. “I would keep it [razors] in my phone, under the case at school so nobody would find it.”

Although scars are often times what people are left with, cutting can carry an even greater consequence.

“People can become over-confident in their cutting and believe they have control over it and then accidentally die,” DeVries said.

DeVries emphasizes the importance in approaching loved ones if someone suspects they might be cutting but said it’s now always easy to spot.

“Looking at wearing long sleeves in the summer is often a sign; wanting to hide when dressing, not wanting to participate in things or isolating,” DeVries said.

It’s been three years since Nicole last reached for a razor blade. With the help of therapy, she no longer has the urge to harm herself but said because of her scars, she’ll forever have something to hide.

“In certain situations, like going on interviews, I’ll always hide them. I don’t let people see them until I’m comfortable with them because I don’t want that to be the first thing they judge me by. I wish I had realized the impact it had on me for the rest of my life because of the physical scars,” she said.

However, there’s one marking on Nicole’s body she’s not ashamed to show. A tattoo that reads ‘strength, hope, beauty, love.’ The ink represents her road to recovery. It’s something Hesse said takes hard work, courage and determination.

“Recovery is a day-to-day process. I think we’re all in recovery to some extent,” Hesse said. “I’m not special because I have mental illness. Everybody’s been down in the dumps and depressed at one time. But, I like to get the word out there that it really can happen, you can become happy.”

As for Nicole’s mom, she wants to send a message of hope to other parents who may be hurting for their children.

“It they are cutting…it will pass,” Judy said. “Every day, it’s like, you know, a joy to have Nicole back. I actually hoped and prayed that someday she would have a story to tell…and she does.”

Pine Rest has a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Program Treatment Team, that specializes in issues of borderline personality disorder and self harming behaviors. You can contact them at (866-852-4001.)

Community Mental Health of Ottawa County also offers services. They can be contacted at (616)494-5545