The Ashes of Abuse

As you know, I work with kids in foster care.  This means that most of the kids I work with have been victims of abuse in some way, and thus I deal with the ashes, or the aftermath of abuse on a regular basis.  What may surprise you is that you likely deal with it as well.  According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually abused.  That is a huge number and this statistic does not include physical and emotional abuse, or neglect.  Odds are high that someone you know has been abused.

Abuse is like a forest fire consuming life and leaving destruction in its wake.  Where there once were trees, vegetation and animals, a forest fire leaves blackness and ashes.  Survivors of abuse can carry many scars..the ashes of abuse.  These ashes can take many forms, but the one I am thinking about today is self injury: cutting.  Of all the ashes I have encountered, this was one of the hardest one for me to understand.  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  Perhaps you feel the same.  Recent events have given me some new insight in to this coping mechanism.  I would like to share what I’ve learned, maybe it will help you better understand someone you love.

First, a disclaimer, I am not a “professional”.  These are my “lay man” thoughts. They are worth whatever value you choose to give them.

To understand self-injury first you need to think about how a child’s mind works.  They do not process information the same way that adults do.  They tend to think in a very black and white manner and when things go wrong as in abuse or divorce they blame themselves.  Often they are too young and too immature to understand the abuse, but somehow they “know” it is their fault.  Sometimes when the abuse is severe or lasts over a long period of time the child’s mind may block it out. Then later as an adult, the painful memories begin to surface.  [Side bar: The topic of recovered memories is a controversial one.  I believe that there are cases of “false memories”, however, I also believe in recovered or repressed memories.  These are the memories I will be addressing here.]  Even processing the memories as an adult, the child’s feelings of guilt, shame and black and white kind of thinking are strong. 

So imagine yourself as a child (or an adult dealing with repressed memories) the pain and shame feel like lava flowing through your veins.  You desperately want an outlet for the pain.  Then the idea comes to you to cut yourself.  I have heard of children as young as seven cutting themselves.  I have no idea where they get the idea from, but for older children and adults, I imagine they hear of others doing it. First they are bewildered by it as you are, but then one day when the pain is very intense; the idea seems very appealing.  It is like a craving.  It is hard to imagine how intensely you could desire to try it, even though you have never done it before but the feeling is there.  Whether it is the child’s black and white frame of mind, or a white blindness caused by the emotional fire within, you do not think about where this could lead to.  The future does not exsist at that moment, only the present and the pain…releasing the pain.  You can visualize the knife, visualize the cut, the blood escaping.  Ah, relief.  Somehow, the bleeding is like a pressure valve, a release.  The physical pain?  It is punishment.  You feel shame and guilt for the abuse and someone must be punished.  You must be punished.  And so you cut and for a time, you feel better.

What you don’t realize in that moment is that this release is so powerful that it is addictive.  From the very first cut, the addiction begins.  As in many addictions, after the indulgence you feel shame…ironically one of the very things you were trying to escape.  You are ashamed, embarassed and you vow to never do it again, but already the pressure is starting to build again. Soon all the old pain and now the new shame will again fight to be released.  Thus the cycle begins.

Like any addiction cutting can consume your life.  You find you have to wear long sleeves even in hot weather to cover the scars.  You begin to lie to people you love to hide what you are doing and one day you cut too deep and the bleeding won’t stop.  You have to go to the emergency department.  You can’t hide your addiction from the staff or your family and you feel their puzzlement and disdain…you shame grows and with it the need to cut…again.

If you know someone who cuts themself, remember that this is a visible part of a much larger problem.  Simply addressing the cutting, or other self-injury will not solve problem.  The most helpful thing you can do is reassure them of your love, your unconditional love and acceptance.  Encourage them to seek counseling. 

If you cut, it does not make you a bad person.  You are not bad; you are hurting.  What happened to you was not your fault, not now, not then.  You may feel very alone, but there are people who care about you.  Often they want to help, they just don’t understand what you need.  Seek counseling.  And remember what happened was not your fault.

After a forest fire there is blackness and ash, but somewhere beneath the ash, there are seeds.  Seeds created for “such a time as this.”  Seeds that do not germinate until after they are exposed to the intense heat of a fire.  Now in the blackness they begin to grow.  In time, these seeds become plants and slowly, so slowly the mountain turns green once again.  With time, the area becomes beautiful and filled with both plant and animal life once again.  This is how a forest heals.

People can heal too. . .with time.


  1. Two of my children have cut, on was a victim of sexual abuse, they have described it to me as having a total lack of feeling to forget the abuse, then the cutting lets you know that you must feel because you are bleeding, one said she could not actually feel it. This is so strange to me, because I am a wimp when it comes to pain (except childbirth)I would never consider sliding into base in softball, it might hurt!! Thanks for you post. i miss you!

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