Jo Fitzsimmons (Alumina Programme Manager) tells her painful and difficult story of how she supported her child druing self-harm
Even now when my mobile rings, I panic. Badly.
There was a time when school, the school nurse, other teenagers’ parents, school friends of my daughter, family friends…pretty much everyone, would ring to tell me that my child had a new scar, or posted a picture of their wrist cut, or had told someone they felt like harming themselves.
Even today, 4 years on, I hate my phone ringing. I fear what someone might tell me next.
As a mum of a self-harmer I can tell you this; my child comes from a home of two educated, fun loving parents who laugh a lot and have been able to give both our children a fantastic start in life; surrounded by a close family and many friends.
What I can’t tell you is why my child, then aged 11, started to self-harm.
I can’t tell you about the first time it happened, why I didn’t notice, what my child used.
I can tell you about some of the struggles we all faced, and mistakes we made.
E was a happy child at Junior school, then struggled to transition well in secondary school. They’d done well academically, were on the gifted and talented programme for English and in general, was a compliant, happy child. Or so we thought, until one day, a parent rang to tell me they spotted blood through my child’s school shirt in passing on the way to school.
My husband and I chatted it through and decided to gently open up the conversation, which was painful for us all. What transpired that evening hit me like a brick. It became apparent my child was covered (and I mean covered – upper arms, tummy, legs) in scars and words they had etched into themselves about how they felt about themselves.
E was silent; fearful; clearly in real turmoil that we had ‘found out’. We were silent, fearful and in turmoil that we had this knowledge. We felt sickeningly like failures – what had we done, what hadn’t we done, why would our child to do this to their beautiful body, did it mean suicidal intentions, were they being bullied, and oh – the biggest one – why didn’t we know until now….the endless night of whispered fears between my husband and I as we waited for morning to take our child to the GP.
That trip to our brilliant, gentle and kind GP led to a chaotic, frenzied 48 hours of cutting; now we all knew about it; there was no need to hide it and there no longer seemed to be any control of the self-harming. It felt like, for all of us, it had now taken over our lives.
I know now this is pretty much the story of many parents we have spoken to since – once it’s out there, it escalates quickly. We tried to trust E in their room but to no avail. E moved into our bedroom so at least we knew they were safe at night. In hindsight, would I have done this again, no, probably not. Did it give me some feeling of control? Yes. Did it give E any sense of control? No.
After discussions with school about safety and CAMHS about self-harm risks, E was allowed back to school. Oh boy, what a mistake! Everyone now knew. Comments were made. Teachers didn’t have a clue and were clearly frightened. I spent the day answering my phone to random people I didn’t know who wanted to tell me my child had self-harmed, did I know?? YES!! I knew. I knew what it was like to feel sick every moment of every day. To never sleep for fear or what I would find in the morning. I knew I was trying to protect my other child from ever finding out. To remove as many sharp objects without removing everything for wanting to show trust…
YES! I knew! I wanted to scream - do you know?? Do you know what we are going through?? Or do you just want to gossip about the mess we are in???
Self-harm is isolating. For the young person – who self-harms because verbalising their fears and struggles is too hard, picking up an object to cut or taking medication so they sleep all day and all night is easier in comparison to attempt to talk a language of emotion (which might as well be Russian to them). Friends keep away, what 12 year old knows what to say? Who wants to be associated with the ‘weird kid’?
Self-harm isolates the family. Life doesn’t continue as normal. Fear, vulnerability, distrust, anxiety come into your home. Friends stay away – why would they want to see your child and then have to explain about self-harm to theirs?
Your friends disappear and mental health specialists take their place.
Your world gets smaller. As your child becomes more introverted, so do you by default.
Over a long, painful, dark time we sat it out. Rarely self-harm becomes suicide. For E, the cuts got deeper, we could no longer keep them safe. It was decided they needed more help than we could give and after a few short hospital stays, long term hospital admittance was the only way forward.
There is only a small percentage of self-harming young people who need this level of care. What became apparent was that there were complex issues going on, self-harm was , in fact, a very small – and the only visible sign – of the deeper issues.
We are now 4 years on.
I keep a razor in the bathroom now (for the delights of leg shaving!)
I have a lovely set of kitchen knives I keep in the kitchen.
I don’t hide the medication in the washing machine any longer (yes, I did once forget and I had to explain to the GP that I needed a new prescription and why!)
E changed. Utterly. Completely in every way.
Through working with a committed, supportive mental health team E was able to begin to draw happy/sad faces which they left around the house for us; E wore coloured wrist bands (red for a bad day, amber for a wobbly day, green for a good day) so we knew their moods without them having to say; E started to send long texts to us when life was hard and there was something they wanted heard by us; E even started to argue (I know, but, it was fantastic to hear our child who hated articulating anything remotely disagreeable, say no!); E slowly came back, as a different child.
A child who has words.
A child who can get cross – and not be scared of it.
A child who has a lot of opinions – most of which we are hugely proud of – some, perhaps a little less so!
A child who has a body full of scars, but a spirit full of life, fight and hope.
I would never, ever want a parent to go through the pain but I know if you are reading this, then you probably are.
You are not alone, you are not isolated, you have friends at SelfharmUK who ‘get it’, who aren’t shocked and who will walk with you through this.
If you found Jo's story helpful, you might like to read the second part to her story here.