By Traci Vandermark and Joy Trimbell
The blood left my head and I felt faint—in need of something to hold on to. As I sat down I tried to process the information I just received. My 13-year-old daughter was a “cutter.”
A thousand questions ran through my head. Why? What in her life is so bad that she feels the need to do this? What have I done wrong as a parent? How can God redeem this?
I had never heard of cutting until just a few weeks before I got the news, and never in a million years did I think my daughter would do this. Cutting is a form of self-mutilation practiced primarily by young girls, but boys are also affected, according to the Nemours Foundation. Though many cutters practice in their teen years, some carry the habit into adulthood, risking injury from infections and excessive bleeding. I knew the statistics but I didn’t know the “why.” And more important, I didn’t know what to do next.
“Jesus, help me,” were the only words I could muster.
The days that followed found me heavy hearted. As a parent I felt isolated, not daring to admit my failure to family or fellow church members. I didn’t want them to know I was a bad parent, and I didn’t want them to think badly of my daughter. God alone was my strength, and even he seemed awfully quiet. There are times in life when solace can be found only in God’s Word, and the promise that strengthened me at the onset was, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, New American Standard Bible).
I prayed. I cried. I asked God to show me what to do and tell me what to say. One quiet night in the middle of my lamenting I sensed him saying to me, “This is not about you. This is about her.” I stopped my prayer and instead of focusing on how I could come out of this shining like a good mom, my heart broke for my daughter.
I needed to feel her heart, to love her deeper than a parent, to love her like God loves her. To see her like God sees her. How could God love her more than I did? And what did he see that I couldn’t see? When I looked at my daughter I saw a beautiful, straight-A student who didn’t cause problems and was a joy to her family. He saw a beautiful girl who didn’t see herself as any of those things. I looked at the scars on her arms and flinched. He looked at her scars and saw her crying out.
As a single parent, I was not alone. God never left my side. I was just too wrapped up in my own self-pity to realize he was near me, and too concerned about appearances to see how my daughter was hurting. When I explained our situation to family members, they asked, “Why would anyone do that? What is so bad?” My daughter Joy answered their questions.
It’s safe to say that people who have never self-harmed will never understand it or the people who have done it. When asked our reasons for it, we’re often at a loss for words. Sometimes we don’t want people to know—or we’re just not sure how to describe it.
I’ve heard many people ask, “What in your life could be so bad that you need to hurt yourself?” I’ve asked myself the same question before. The fact is, no matter what age you are, you can sometimes feel incredibly low—at the very bottom of everything.
I started cutting around the time my parents were getting a divorce. I felt out of control. I could not help the situation. I was depressed at the time about my weight. When I cut, I felt like I was in control of everything that was important. I was in control of how I felt, how much I bled, if I cried or didn’t cry as a result. It was the one thing in my life I had complete and total control over, and I loved it.
Not only did I feel in control; I felt something. I had grown so depressed with everything around me that I almost felt a form of numbness. I went through a time when I didn’t cry for months. I didn’t laugh or smile either. I was alive, but I wasn’t living. When I cut, I felt something. Eventually I didn’t hurt from the pain of piercing my skin any more, but for a while I was just so happy to have a feeling of some sort. I felt pain, but it was better than feeling nothing at all. The blood was a reminder to me that I was still alive, even though I barely felt like I was.
Whether our children, other family members, coworkers, or neighbors, people are hurting much more than we think they are. We do not know the pain that is hidden behind someone’s smile. I had taught my daughter that God loved her and that salvation was found only in him. But had I ever taught her that God wanted to carry the weight of her world on his shoulders? Did she ever truly experience his love for herself?
While I couldn’t push her into a deeper relationship with him, I needed to show her by example. As a single mom who was working hard to make ends meet for us, she saw me leaning on the resources of this world. She didn’t see me leaning on God. She didn’t hear my cries to him at night for strength to get through another day or for a miracle to pay the electric bill. She didn’t see me relying on his supernatural ability and resting in his love for me.
In order for our children to grow up knowing they can rely on God for their needs and take their fears and worries to him, they need to see us doing it. We need to allow them to see us vulnerable before God.
My daughter only saw me handling things in my own strength, which taught her to try to handle all of her problems on her own. Cutting became a way for her to think she was handling them. While I taught my daughter important truths, she did not see them in action in my life.
Deuteronomy 11:18, 19 hit home for me: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (New International Version).
God helped me understand that my daughter needed to see consistency in my life and action behind the words I spoke—that I needed to impress upon her God’s love, mercy, and way of confronting life in this world.
As parents and role models, we have a responsibility to teach those around us that our bodies belong to the Lord. Defacing them or mutilating them is an offense to him. Yet if we don’t show them God’s heart, our words will appear empty and judgmental. When we show those we love that God loves them unconditionally, that his heart breaks when theirs does, they will more readily seek solace in his arms instead of cutting or mutilating their own flesh. When they see his love flowing through us to them, they will be more willing to sacrifice the desire to do self-harm in exchange for the comfort only he can give.
Beauty from Scars
It has been some time since my daughter has resorted to cutting. Although thoughts still cross her mind in tough times, she now puts her thoughts and fears in God’s lap by journaling her prayers and worries to him. When I see the faded scars on her arms, I no longer flinch, but rather thank God for delivering her and me from that dark place in our lives. The scars remind me that God is with us, and they give new meaning to Isaiah 61:3: “To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
Traci Vandermark is a freelance writer in Walton, New York. Joy Trimbell is Traci’s daughter.
Resources to Help Cutters
To Write Love On Her Arms
Facts about depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide
“Help For Cutters and Others Who Self-Injure in Some Way” (with a list of additional resources)
“Cutting” (a great resource for teens)
Scars That Wound: Scars That Heal
A Journey Out of Self-Injury
By Jan Kern (Standard Publishing, 2007)
Chains Be Broken: Finding Freedom From Cutting, Anxiety, Depression, Anorexia and Suicide
By Shannon Rowell (Covenant Media Resources, 2010)
The Cutting Edge: Clinging to God in the Face of Self-Harm
By Jess Wilson (Authentic Media UK, 2008)