Self-Harm and the Burden of Youth
I work with a lot of young people. For twelve years I have spent a lot of time being a mentor, advisor, confidante, and guide to countless teenagers and young adults. And I love the work that I do. Especially because it isn’t work to me, it is a natural extension of who I am to be the support for those around me, especially the younger ones that are hungering for some genuine connection.
The other day I was working with a young woman. She’s a beautiful girl, in her early twenties, who has had a really rough time. She came in to our appointment and started telling me, relatively quickly, how she’s fed up with life. She’s tired of other people telling her what is good for her. She’s tired of being the scapegoat and pedestal prize of her parents. She’s tired of friends that don’t seem to get her unless they’re getting something from her. “I’m fucking over it,” she says.
“So, what do you do when you’re fucking over it?” I asked her.
She pulled up her long sleeve and showed me a forearm thickly crosshatched with tiny cuts.
“This,” she said. She waited for a minute.
“That, huh?” I said. “I know how that is." I waited for a moment, choosing the best words for what I had felt when I was her age. "It’s like draining the poison.”
“I just don’t fucking feel anything, so I do this. It helps me feel something again. And people don’t get it. I'm not going to kill myself. If I wanted to fucking kill myself I’d kill myself.”
The first time I put a blade to my skin to “feel anything” but what I was feeling was my sophomore year in high school. My Algebra teacher was waddling around the front of the class, looking like Chris Farley as the guidance counselor that lives in-a-van-down-by-the-river. I had a keychain from a knife shop in the mall. It had a razor blade in it. As I drew that blade across my arm the sting and burn made me feel...something. A mix of fury, rage, and a deep, muzzled sorrow seemed to leak out in tiny red rivulets.
Years later I realized that what I was doing was adding poison to the well. But in those, my younger years, it was easy to mistake this self-wounding with power. In a world that seemed so spun out and bent on its own destruction and that, I felt, refused to acknowledge my existence, cutting was an act of rage and defiance that alleviated the hurt, if only for a little while.
We live in a culture that demands we wear the mask of propriety and complacence. As far as our emotions go, there is a cult of silence around the more extreme expressions of what we’re feeling. We are not allowed to express grief and sorrow without being labeled weak or being clinically diagnosed. From the relationships we have with others, to the way we communicate with ourselves, we are constantly and consciously expected to succumb to the “I’m okay” grayscale of living. Our experience is not supposed to inconvenience anyone or break the Stepford façade of prime-time programming. And yet, there is an ocean of “inconvenient” emotions that floods every part of our lives.
Our human experience is about much more than this tuned out, dumbed down way of perceiving the world. It is rife with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats that call on us, each and every day, to be fully in the experience of living. When we deny those parts of ourselves that carry the inconvenient emotions we create a legacy of suffering that will be passed down to our children. They, in turn, will often not know where these intense feelings of sorrow and rage come from. What’s worse, they have little if any guidance on what to do with them. And so they take up practices of literal and figurative bloodletting.
In traditional cultures, there are ritualized rites of initiation that welcome the young person into the village as an adult once they've overcome a set of physical and spiritual trials. In many of these cultures, the physical ordeal involves some type of body modification or scarification to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. This is not a simple passing from one life phase to the next, it is a community-driven ritual that symbolizes the literal death of the child so that the fully-formed adult may take her place in the village. It is an initiation into a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, to carry both joy and grief, and to be beholden to something much greater than your own needs and desires.
The absence of these rites of initiation have left a vacuum in our society. Young people hunger for what initiation provides: a clearly defined end to childhood, a physical ordeal that pushes them to a deep understanding of their own mortality, the potential to fail at becoming a fully-fledged adult, and being welcomed back to the village once the initiation is passed. You see, a big part of initiation is the witnessing of the young person's willingness to lay it all on the line for their people. This means accepting the sorrows they bear as a part of a greater whole. With this comes a genuine understanding that this life is not about solitary suffering, to be endured in silence. We are all pulling our part of the weight for the whole, and so private sorrow becomes public. It becomes our work to be catalysts for this sorrow, to transform it through ritual and through tears, so that new life may spring from it. It is an offering to the continued life and thriving of the people.
In our society, the grief that we do not allow ourselves to feel becomes the burden of the youth. It is in them that the unhealed wounds of past generations come to rest. And what are they starving for? Being seen. They are hungry for someone to bear witness to what they are carrying and what they have gone through. It took me years of painful experiences and hard inner work to realize this was true for me. When I did, I saw that what young people are so desperately seeking is to be welcomed into the village of humanity for who they are, not for who they are expected to be. And they must be welcomed by those that have the willingness and authenticity to stand bearing their own wounds, as an offering and a teaching of what it takes to be human.
I invited her to sit down. “You see this one?” I asked, pointing at a jagged scar on my arm, “this was when I was about your age…” And so the journey through that familiar landscape of sorrow and fury began to unfold as we walked it together.
When she left she walked with her head higher and her feet a little lighter. She came back to tell me that she was going to try to find a different way to deal with things. Not a guarantee, but a step in a less painful direction. What cannot be unwoven with institutionalization and chemical numbing starts to fray and come apart with genuine human connection. It is our task to be willing to step into the vulnerability and authenticity that requires.
The young people in our world are inheriting too much suffering and heartache that has been left undone by preceding generations. If they are to navigate the difficult times ahead, they must know that we have also walked the deep cavernous trenches of heartache, sorrow and rage. They must also know that they and their sorrows are welcome at the great banquet table of life. The blood they shed is the blood of the people, the sorrows they carry are the sorrows of us all. When they realize this, suddenly the ache has a purpose and no blood needs to be unnecessarily spilled.
*Originally published as Inlak'ech Transpersonal Coaching