Feature Archive

When Pain Is All You Have

Some people in great emotional pain turn to cutting, burning, and other types of self-abuse. How can you recognize this cry for help?

WebMD Feature

Aug. 28, 2000 -- Lauren McEntire was 17 the first time she intentionally cut herself. She was sitting in a darkened movie theater next to a boy who was her best friend. On the other side of him sat his new girlfriend. "I was jealous. I was scared he wouldn't be my friend anymore," she says, two years later from her home in Austin, Texas. "But I didn't know how to tell him how I felt."

Instead, fidgeting nervously in the quiet theater, she yanked the tab off her soda can. Without much thought, she pressed its sharp edge deep into the flesh of her thumb. The pain and blood that followed made her feel, for the first time, as if she were in control. But with the blood came something more: anger. "A lifetime's worth exploded in that one minute," says McEntire. Within a month, she was a full-fledged self-injurer, graduating to a single-edged razor blade and using it to carve deep grooves into the skin of her arms and legs.

Long misunderstood by outsiders, self-injury (also known as self-mutilation and self-abuse) is finally being taken seriously, and a growing crop of books, television programs, and even a recent made-for-TV movie are spotlighting this surprisingly common phenomenon. The audience is certainly out there: Although few firm statistics are available, those who have treated self-injurers estimate that about 2 million people in the United States engage in some form of this behavior. Cutting is the most common expression of this disorder, but burning, self-hitting, hair-pulling, bone-breaking, and not allowing wounds to heal are other variations.