Perspectives From Personal Experience
Edited by Louise Roxanne Pembroke
This e-book is FREE on an ongoing basis
First Published: 1989
Second Edition: 2004
This Edition: 2005
Key Themes: self-harm, mental health services, anthology, suicidal thoughts, personal strength
Perhaps the most important book on self-harm ever to come to print, Louise Pembroke’s book, subtitled ‘Perspectives from Experience’, helps to reduce the mystery and perverse glamour that surrounds this controversial issue. Self-harm is harrowing both for those who go through it and for those who watch while a loved one suffers. To most of us, it is inexplicable. This book attempts to answer the critical question – why? This collection of stories, written by self-harmers themselves, produces a clearer picture of what self harmers go through – how they think and react. This publication is an important text for anyone who has been through self-harm or for those who work with them.
About the Author
The Self-Harm conference was organised in 1989, by Louise Pembroke, then education officer for Survivors Speak Out with the Hackney Federation for Consumers of Mental Health Services. It was funded by Mind and The King’s Fund Centre. Survivors Speak Out is an organisation of people who have survived the psychiatric services. The organisation provides information to individuals and groups who are involved in establishing alternatives to the current services and campaigning against the many abuses within the system.
Self harm is a taboo subject as sexual abuse has been. For those who live with it there is much fear and shame in talking about it. For those who work with self-harm there is great reluctance to face it beyond the stereotype. What remains is a huge gulf which is allowing thousands of people to be abused and humiliated by the medical and psychiatric services. This situation reinforces societies socialisation of women which encourages self-harm. That encourages all of us to be controlled and controlling. We straightjacket our feelings, perceptions and bodies to our detriment because society values it and society permits a narrow range of expressions of distress.
To be driven, quite literally, to tearing our bodies apart and having to endure services which compound the problem speaks volumes about how expressions of human pain are categorised. To cry or fade away quietly is easier for others to bear, but to see someone else tear themselves apart appears incomprehensible and revolting. Self-harm is a painful but understandable response to distress, particularly in western culture. Self-harm thrives in an environment where people are stripped of freedom and control over their lives and yet are expected to behave in a controlled manner. (Prisons, Special Hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, Local Authority care for young people, etc). Self-harm is a sane response when people are gagged in order to maintain the social order. Self-harm mirrors what we don’t want to acknowledge. Explosive feelings implode. Our emotional corset cannot hold the pain in any longer, so it busts. Self-harm is about self-worth, self-preservation, lack of choices, and coping with the uncopeable. To quote Maggy Ross who spoke at the first national self-harm conference in 1989.
“It is about trying to create a sense of order out of chaos. It’s a visual manifestation of extreme distress”.
There are some precipitating factors – sexual abuse, eating distress or psychiatric incarceration, but these factors are by no means universal. The roots and manifestations of this distress can be diverse and complex. There are no rigid ‘personality types’. There is not one ‘group’ of ‘symptoms’.
Self-harm attracts little research interest. Existing research reinforces the typical pejorative stereotypes; “maladaptive”, “deviant”, “a reduced capacity to regulate affect”, “immune responses”, “manipulative”, and even, “passive problem solving style”. It is hard to see how self-mutilation could possibly be viewed as “passive”.
Responses to self-harm are predominantly negative and punitive. Some of the suggested “therapeutic” techniques make me want to reach for the nearest packet of razor blades. People with direct experience and women’s organisations concerned about self-injury would disagree with many of the strange conclusions that have been drawn.
In one paper, a psychiatrist suggests that there are three types of self-cutting ranging from superficial cutting which is supposedly associated with little or no suicidal intent. Through to self-mutilation that results in disfigurement, and is supposedly more likely to occur in individuals with so called ‘psychotic illness’. This equates to alleging there are only three ways of breaking your leg, thus missing the point. In common with attempted suicide, the yardstick used for measuring risk and intent is often the resulting degree of injury or illness. The intent of self-cutting may bear little or no relation to the resulting injury. The feelings may be the same, whether the result is a scratch or a laceration of the bone. These categorisations serve only to trivialise the ‘lesser’ injuries whilst leaving the more ‘serious’ injuries equally condemned to another stereotype. The reasons, motivation and intent for all types of self-harm are as diverse as the reasons for the attempted suicide.