CHRISTIAN LIFE & GROWTH
By Lea Ann McCombs
See Also: Self-Harm — Practical Help
A shadow fell across the open doorway. My next client stood like a silhouette in sunlight, but her face was dark. A picture of despair. When I invited her into my office, she sank into the chair opposite me, dropped her head into her hands, and mumbled between shaking fingers, "Okay. I'm on five different medications, I've been to eight doctors, been hospitalized three times, and all I want to do is kill myself. No one can help me. Can God help me?" She held out scarred arms and shook her head. "This is the only thing that takes the pain away, when I cut. For a little while the hate goes into my arms and it's not in my heart. But it always comes back. Always."
The ink was not even dry on my lay-counseling certification paper, and my heart thudded uncomfortably in my chest. Johanna* was my fourth client. Ever. Old scar tissue made train tracks up and down both arms, signifying that her problems went way back. Could God help her? Could I? Could our sessions accomplish what no psychotherapist or mental hospital had been able to? I swallowed my doubt and smiled. "Absolutely," I said and prayed frantically that He would.
As a lay counselor, my exposure to self-harm has come mostly from my clients. At that time, it was an area I knew little about, except what I had studied. But studies can never completely describe the shame, the sorrow, and the self-loathing that shadows the faces of those caught in this web. It is those faces that will peer onto the pages as I write and make certain I am capturing the depth of their suffering. I hope I do them justice.
At its core, self-harm is almost an oxymoron. The harm to the soul has already been done. The lesser harm inflicted upon skin, hair, or body parts is done to help relieve the greater pain in the soul. Concentrating our efforts upon the outward manifestations of that pain is to overlook the roots, and that's where the real damage lies. Somewhere back in time, the need for escape was so great that inflicting bodily injury was a relief. It may have begun as a suggestion from a friend, an imitation of something they've seen, or by sheer accident. But over time, it becomes an addiction as strong as any substance and more readily available.
Successful addiction counseling does not focus upon eliminating the substance or behavior. To do so only results in behavior modification, not healing. People who try to white-knuckle their way to sobriety often simply switch addictions, convinced that this need to hurt themselves will never go away.
My approach is to reassure them that I will not try to take away their coping mechanism. I try to instill the confidence that as we work together there will come a day when they willingly leave self-harm behind in favor of God's coping plan. But it takes time. And there will be many relapses. However, minimizing my response to those relapses, and reassuring them that they are making progress, gives them a little extra relief.
My approach is also based upon spiritual healing. It seems that no matter what symptom drives a client to seek counseling, at its root is a spiritual problem. To focus only upon helping them manage the symptom is to put a Band-Aid on a cancerous lesion. So we start with finding out who they see themselves to be. Many times, they don't know anymore. The cutting cycle has taken over, and the shame of it shadows their self-perception. The roots of heart wounds usually go back into childhood or early young adulthood. Many times the self-harm is not due strictly to the current stressor, but each stress echoes the deeper pain that has never healed, until cutting seems the only way to silence the pain.
The most important factor in helping someone overcome self-harm is to help them identify their relationship with God. Many believe themselves Christians and are angry and frustrated that God seems to be silent. Often, however, the case is that they have gone through the motions of receiving Christ, but no new birth has occurred. Over time, it has been my privilege to lead these hurting ones to the foot of the cross. Surrendering their lives fully to the lordship of Jesus propels their healing ahead several paces. It does not mean that the desire for self-harm ends, but that they can now learn to utilize the tools God has equipped them with in order to end this destructive cycle.
We then focus upon their new identity in Christ, and how that affects everything in their world. When Johanna realized that Jesus had died to buy her freedom, and that He wanted her to honor her body as His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19), her eyes widened in shock. She held out both arms and looked at them as though seeing them for the first time. "Then...these are Jesus' arms? I'm cutting Jesus?" She looked up, tears in her eyes. "Then I'll never cut again. I didn't know that."
She did cut again. And again. And again. But I had prepared her for that, and we just went right on as though she hadn't. And all the while, she was growing in her faith and in her understanding of what the cross really meant in her life. She began identifying her triggers, and recognized that much of what she was taking into her mind was dark and worldly, which contributed to her need to cut. When she replaced that with uplifting input (Philippians 4:8), the anxiety began to lessen and her cutting episodes grew further apart.
Olivia*, on the other hand, had started with hair pulling and graduated to pinching herself so that she had bruises all over her legs and arms. When she cut for the first time, it scared her and she reached out for help. It helped her to talk freely about why she cut and what relief that action released in her. She had never been allowed to express that before and she needed validation that her struggle was real. Her self-worth was at zero, so she began memorizing and meditating on Scriptures that countered what she had come to believe about herself. She taped verses throughout her house and had to stop and read each aloud with confidence when she passed it. We also tried different methods of getting the same relief, such as holding a frozen orange in her hand instead of harming herself. Over time, she began to let go of the victim mentality she had adopted and realized she now had something to offer others. Switching mental tracks from angry victim to overcoming victor is a huge leap and crucial to a person's recovery.
Self-harm is like any other self-defeating behavior that begins for one reason but takes over our lives. Time, encouragement, and the power of God are all necessary ingredients in moving out of that mind frame and into having the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). An alcoholic may always struggle with temptation to drink, and self-harming people may always struggle with the need to hurt themselves when feeling overwhelmed. It is important to reassure those we love who struggle with this that Jesus does not love them any less when they give in. As they grow in their love for Him, they start to find the strength to say "no" to those overpowering desires. As Francis Chan says so eloquently, "I can even thank God for temptation, because temptation is another opportunity to say to Jesus, 'I love you more.'"
*Names and situations altered.
Image Credit: skeeze; untitled; Creative Commons
Tags: Biblical-Salvation | Biblical-Truth | Depression | Hardships | Health-Wellness
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Published on 1-18-16