"THE INVESTIGATOR," SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, JANUARY 24th, 2009
Forget anorexia. The newest anxiety-related disorder among teenagers is cutting.
Beware: This cutting-edge addiction is not one for the squeamish.
Cutting has become a nationwide phenomenon, extending to Santa Barbara--if swept under the proverbial rug like heroin use and the Mexican mafia's connection to local street gangs.
"It is retroflective behavior," a local therapist told The Investigator. "The subject becomes the object." This therapist treats many Santa Barbara adolescents who cut themselves repeatedly with razor blades as a means of relieving anxiety. "And now they're getting into branding," the therapist added. "They will bend and shape a paperclip into a particular form, heat it until it's red hot, and set it upon the bare skin of their arm--a real, permanent brand."
Cutting with a razor, or glass, or anything with a sharp edge, is done mostly on the forearm, and is then concealed by the wearing of long sleeves. "Teens also cut their legs and feet, and females slash their breasts," said the therapist. "Cutting is not a gender thing, it is an adolescent thing, spread equally between boys and girls, the affluent and the under-privileged. These teens have anxieties, and they discover that if they cut themselves, their anxieties are temporarily eased. What happens is that endorphins are released into the bloodstream from the cutting sensation. This results in a feeling of well-being--and leads to repeated cutting to perpetuate that feeling. If left unattended it only gets bigger. Cutting trumps anorexia nervosa as the new big thing. Anorexia is still around, but cutting is much more prevalent among kids ages 13 to 16."
Cutting has its own paraphernalia and rituals (including dark rap music)--much like the preparation of a dry martini.
"Telling a cutter to stop cutting is like telling an alcoholic to stop drinking," added the therapist. "Our society doesn't teach children the skills they need for coping with stress. But if you look at other cultures, they have tribal rites and adolescent rituals that often lead to mutilation and scarification. Our kids have no guidance from their parents or schoolteachers for healthy ways to channel their anxiety, so they (instinctively) create their own tribal rituals."
Most teens cut themselves to relieve anxiety; some copycat; others cut just to be cool, under pressure from peers.
The Investigator asked a 15-year-old reformed cutter just how common cutting is among Santa Barbara teens. "Oh my God, it's everywhere!" the ex-cutter replied. "Many of the girls even believe their cuts make them more attractive. They are in pain emotionally, and they don't know how else to express themselves. Kids have a favorite place (on their body) to cut--which becomes numb to physical pain--and they love the feeling. With instant messaging and texts and MySpace, everyone is out to get everyone. There's no trust, and there's no getting away from the buzz. Cutting is the ultimate escape, while the feeling lasts. Looks can be deceiving--some of the most popular, well-behaved kids are cutters. It's their way of feeling more in control of their lives."
What was the solution for this cutter to become an ex-cutter?
"I went to a clinic and met other teenagers who had terrible scars from cutting. They had become suicidal. It awakened me from the trance that cutters get into. I found out that kids don't know what they're doing, where their veins and arteries are, and just how close they come to ending their lives by cutting in the wrong place."
Said the therapist: "Parents don't understand what's behind self- injury, and they freak out when they discover their children are mutilating themselves. It is now commonplace in Santa Barbara. It can be treated with therapy. But if left unattended, it only gets bigger. And if an adolescent is still cutting by the age of 17, it can be a very serious matter."
Warning signs for parents that their children may be cutting:
• The constant covering of their arms with sleeves;
• Hanging out in their bedroom with the door locked;
• Disassembled shaving instruments;
• Secretive behavior;
• General withdrawal.
Dear Parents: If you have children between the ages of 13 and 16, take a moment this weekend to examine their arms and legs. If you discover multiple cuts, chances are your child is a cutter, whatever excuses they proffer. ("A cat scratched me," is common.) Cutting tends to be in vertical lines, perpendicular to the arm; right- handers cut their left arms, and vice-versa. Do not overreact with tantrums or threats; neither help. Calmly seek assistance from one of several therapists in town. Recognition of this disorder is the first step to recovery.