Self-harming: a pain-filled subject

This is post is one not everyone will want to read.  I need to write about the self-harming that all too often is part of the post-traumatic stress that can result from surgery in early infancy.

Why do I feel the need to open up the subject of self-harming?

Because it is so often part of trauma, so common and yet so rarely mentioned.

What do I expect to gain from writing about my self-harming?

For those who self-harm or have done so, I hope they will realise they are not as alone as they may feel.

For those who are close to a self-harmer (whether they realise it or not) I trust that reading my story will make them more aware of what usually causes self-harming and how they could become part of the self-harmer’s healing.

I deeply appreciate those who have expressed their respect, admiration or appreciation of my honesty and openness on this blogsite.  I clearly do feel very deeply and passionately about my subject in all its forms and complexity.  At my age I am thankfully well beyond my blogs affecting my nearest and dearest, myself and my work.

What is self-harming or self-injuring?

It is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue, usually without suicidal intentions.  It may involve piercing, cutting, burning, banging or hitting body parts, and even poisoning.  I am grateful that I self-harmed in only a very mild way, although I managed to do all four of the kinds of self-harming mentioned, and over a considerable time.

It should be noted that those affected by PTSD can also harm themselves in non-physical ways, showing their pain by unusual behaviour in many forms.

Why did I self-harm?

I was very rational about it.  At the time I was very obsessed (and in a very private way) about the 10 x 3 cm scar on the middle of my body left by surgery for pyloric stenosis only a couple of weeks after my birth.

I wanted to experiment what would have caused this scar, what the cutting and stitching must have felt like, how the wounds healed, and what kind of tissue this kind of scar consisted of on and below the surface.  Like most self-harmers I did all this without anybody knowing or even noticing, in high secrecy.  Unlike many self-harmers I did not slash my arms, legs, or torso: I just worked on my scars.  This meant I kept my scarred belly out of sight for more years than it would otherwise have taken me to come to terms with having a very obvious surgical scar.

Only well after reaching adulthood did I ever talk about my self-harming, and then only with my wife; she had some reasonable difficulty understanding me about this, although she has always made it clear that she loves and accepts me regardless of some inscrutabilities!

It is only in recent years that I have come to understand my self-harming more fully.  My experimenting and attempts at re-experiencing were in fact only the tip of a kind of  iceberg.  I have learnt that self-harming in its various forms is a common sign of several conditions, including (in my case) trauma that has not been treated appropriately.  My self-harming expressed my loneliness and alienation, frustration and even anger and hatred, and indeed self-punishment.  It was also a coping mechanism to relieve my emotional pain.  I now recognise all these feelings in this part of my life story.

The trauma of my surgery and all that went with it had been experienced by my body even though my mind was incapable of recording and recalling it.  I believe my self-harming was part of my instinctive self-healing, as I re-imagined, re-experienced and explored what happened to my self so that I could integrate and calibrate my body’s memories and my powerful emotions.  Dr Louis Tinnin has written very simply and accurately about recognising and treating trauma stress, and I have created a link (see BlogRoll at right) to the Freedom’s Calling videos at the Women of Grace website which has valuable video material on the same subject.

What might have helped me to avoid or reduce my self-harming?

Could I instead have worked through the trauma caused by my having had infant surgery?  Today we have a much greater understanding of this whole subject, and this knowledge is shared by far greater part of the population in developed countries like mine.  My counsel on how we can reduce the long-term effect of trauma on children must therefore not be seen as a criticism of my parents or medical lifesavers.

Pediatric doctors need to work towards healing the mind and soul as well as the presenting physical condition.  In my work I have seen far too many doctors speak mere facts and deliberately leave the patient’s total needs for others to deal with.  The parents of a very sick baby need much more than successful surgery, and so does the baby!

Parents must document and communicate their infant’s survival story.  My parents not only refused to talk about my surgery; they made no photos, kept no diary, and destroyed the only bit of my survival story I have ever known existed: my weight chart.  Sadly, mine is not only a wartime austerity story: on the web many survivors tell us their parents told them nothing, not even what caused their scar.  Other parents resort to joking that would paralyse most children from ever raising the subject again.

Therapists and counsellors can teach us all so much about trauma: causes, recognition and healing.  I plead with them to make their knowledge and skills more widely accessible.  During my life’s work I have helped many people as a pastor and chaplain at very little or no cost to them.  As a result I am like most people (even in prosperous Australia) in not being able to afford the high cost of a trauma therapist.  It simply was never on my horizon!  How I would have loved to hear and read what I now learn via the internet.

Which brings me back to why I’m here blogging!

6 thoughts on “Self-harming: a pain-filled subject

  1. wendy williams

    This post is a treasure for me, which I will read again and again. I feel so supported and seen by your words, your emotional tone and your understanding. I, too had infant surgery and self-harmed. Along with your insights, would you say self-harming is a way of gaining control and managing one’s trauma? I can’t tell you how timely your blog post is because I am just now accepting that wounded little baby into my life. She is battered and she silently screamed. I have lifted the restraints off of her baby body and she is so glad to be free. It is so important that counselors, doctors, and parents understand more of the emotional aspect of healing infant surgery without anesthesia–pre-verbal trauma. You, Fred, are a shining light for all of us who suffer quietly. Your words give us strength to know that we can heal.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      I’m glad this post can be a kind of birthday gift for you, Wendy! It’s such a privilege knowing when we each write very personal posts about powerful emotions that we are not freaks or deranged. We have each discovered that some of the self-inflicted pain we can recall was in fact part of our (as you say) gaining control, understanding and management of the damaged baby within us whose silent screaming has troubled us deeply for too long. Yes, we can heal, and it’s a beautiful thing to share this journey with others.

  2. Deborah

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It is so helpful to have acknowledgement I had many many eye operations as a young child, yearly till I was 15 and old enough to say “no more!”. Over the years I have bashed myself, threatened to cut myself, threatened my partners with knives and I never knew why for years. I was in a constant state of hyper-reaction. I couldn’t rest and at any moment, triggered by one thing or another I would run, scream, get confused, walk for miles, cry hysterically or for years drug myself out with anything I could. There were other traumas that I experienced. One followed another, I was so unstable. I have had so many different therapies and worked hard for some sanity since I was 30. I am now 55, and work with SE and cognitive therapy. I am still coming to peace with myself. Still looking to find endorsement for the ways I have behaved because there is so little information, so it is so heart-healing to hear stories like yours. I am exhausted and have tried hard to be like everyone else: I have started businesses, tried to hold down jobs, and I haven’t been able to sustain my energy because this system is so tired from the trauma. I am finally coming to a place of self acceptance and understanding… hard won. 54 years ago when I first had a GA and was hospitalised, surgeons, nurses, society… the system had no idea of the sensitivity of children. Mum was only able to visit for half an hour a day. Thank the goodness that we have begun to understand. May we fully grow to recognise the incredible intelligence of the child’s being and treat them with the care that is essential to their well-being.

  3. Wendy

    Dear Deborah, I’m so glad that you made it to a place of stability and healing. I relate so intimately with what you’ve written. I had an infant surgery at 3 weeks old to repair pyloric stenosis, a closing of a stomach valve, which led a very unstable life until I was 26 years old when I began to make headway with a wonderful therapist. I’ve been working on myself successfully ever since. (I’m 59 now). Self-harming was a way of life for me. As a child, I mercilessly peeled skin off my cuticles, toes, and the bottoms of my feet. I choked myself to see how far I could go. As a teen-ager, I cut my arms with razors and engaged in a steak-knife juggling act at home after school, both my parents at work. I carried a switchblade everywhere; it was the only way I felt secure. The cutting and self-harming of my mind was, in many ways, even worse. Such criticism and hatred I flung at myself. I was in a constant battle, and I relate to what you said about being “exhaused.” What I’ve come to realize is that I have had Post-traumatic Stress Disorder almost my whole life and all these self-harming strategies were ways I tried to cope with the anxiety, stress, and torture of an early operation whereby I was separated (in an isolated recovery room) from my family for two weeks. I can’t imagine having a surgery every year! (I may or may not have had anesthesia for my surgery.) Which is why I say it’s a miracle you are alive. What you’ve done to heal yourself is amazing! I have a blog at where I’ve written quite a lot about my journey of healing from PTSD if you are interested. In any case, thank you for making your brave comment here on SIS. I’ve often fantasized at how healing it would be to form a rock group and call it The Knives or The Cutters. We could all scream out our pain on stage to the whole world. In the meantime, blogging is a big part of the healing for me.

  4. Kay

    Hello, thank you all for posting your stories with such insight and honesty. I had horrific experiences of botched operations as a child of 8 and 9 and I was also humiliated, abused and neglected by medical staff and carers. It took me a long time to begin to relate my experiences and the ways I hurt myself to self-injury/self-harm, but it has become an area I am passionate about and that I do a lot of work in. I am trying to begin a research project on precisely this topic – the experience of enforced medical treatments for children (especially children with disabilities) and its relationship with self-injury/self-harm. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that it is very hard to get funding/a post to do this research, but I am more hopeful and re-inspired from reading your posts. I know there are such powerful stories that need to be heard and I hope I do get the chance to contribute to changing attitudes and awareness and in doing so validating my own and others’ experiences. So thank you again and I hope that this site is and remains active!

  5. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thank you so much, Kay, for telling us the readers of this post something about your story and hopes. I would urge you to make a basic start as soon as you feel ready.
    Like you I have been passionate about my subject area for most of my life, and have been researching my field for some 15 years, almost only via the web. Valuable networking resulting from this work has added much to my insight, reach and feeling supported.
    In case you don’t realize it, I assure you there is a lot on the web about many aspects of self-harm: information, academic work reports, personal stories, etc.
    Late 2010 I felt ready to start this blogsite and I add a post (usually) once a week. The traffic and feedback have grown far beyond my expectations.
    I would love to have funding and get academic credit for my work, but like you find it unlikely that will happen.
    It is very encouraging to me that reading some of my work has helped you to feel more hopeful about and inspired to get your own poignant and powerful story “out there”! Go for it!
    I’ll be here as long as I can, and I’m aware that I still reach only a tiny fraction of those I’d like to challenge and instruct about my “take” on infant surgery and related matters.


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