The statistics are alarming. From 2009 to 2014, the number of girls between the ages of 10 and 17 hospitalized for intentionally cutting or poisoning themselves has more than doubled. This isn’t the first time I’m reading about this. But it’s certainly time to talk about it.
In my work with inherited family trauma, when I see a child who injures herself, I’ve learned to probe into the family history. The self-injurer could well be reliving aspects of a trauma she inherited from her parents or grandparents, though this is not always the case. Self-injurious behaviors can arise for other reasons as well.
Epigenetic research, now making headlines, is both compelling and disconcerting at the same time. We’re now learning that our parents’ and grandparents’ stressful experiences, the traumatic events they found difficult to deal with, can be passed on to us, changing the way our genes function for generations. As a result, we can be born reliving the pain of the past. That’s what happened to Sarah.
Sarah was now 22, but had been self-injuring since she was 15. She had been lacerating her arms, legs and abdomen (usually with a rusted razor blade) so terribly that the cuts often became infected and she would need to be hospitalized. Hospitalizations for depression were also frequent for her.
One day during one of our sessions, I asked Sarah what she thought about when she felt the urge to cut. I was surprised by her answer.
“I don’t deserve to live,” she told me.
“What have you done?” I asked. “Who have you harmed?”
She shook her head and looked down into her lap. “No one. It’s nothing like that.”
My next question yielded the answer I was searching for. Whenever we carry feelings or act out behaviors that seem out of context in our life experience, I’ve learned to ask questions that excavate the family history — sometimes even the family burial grounds.
“Did someone in your family do something terrible? Did someone feel that he or she needed to die for something that he or she did?”
After a long minute, Sarah gasped and then went still. Her eyes widened, and she began to speak as though she were out of breath.
“My grandmother. My father’s mother. She got drunk and crashed the car into a pole. My grandfather was in the passenger seat. He went through the windshield and bled to death. My grandmother — she’s the one who would have felt that way. Like she needed to die.” Sarah’s breathing escalated into panting and jagged breaths.
“What happened to her? How old was your father?”
“She kept drinking. She drank all the time. My father was only 12 back then. It was terrible for him. He lost his dad and pretty much his mother, too. My dad hated her after that. She died when he was 20. He never really forgave her.”
Everything was now out in the open. Sarah made the link she’d never made. Her cutting revealed the tragic family story, a trauma she had perhaps biologically inherited. When Sarah sliced into her body, it was as though she were punishing herself for what her grandmother had done. It was really her grandmother who felt she deserved to die for what she’d done. Yet here was Sarah acting it out.
Sarah finally began breathing normally. It was the first time she had an explanation for the feelings she carried in her body.
The parallels didn’t end there. When Sarah cut herself, she also recreated the lacerations that killed her grandfather. Deep lacerations from the windshield glass caused him to bleed to death before the ambulance could arrive. The puzzle pieces that had been missing were now latched together. The big picture was finally in full view. Sarah was now ready to heal.
I asked her to light a candle and visualize having a conversation with her grandmother and grandfather. Science shows that visualizing an action or conversation can have the same impact as actually doing it in real life; the same neurons and regions of the brain become activated. In Sarah’s inner image, words of forgiveness and feelings of love were expressed. When the session ended, it was as though Sarah’s grandparents could now rest in peace, and with them, the trauma that had fallen epigenetically into Sarah’s lap.
In the weeks that followed, Sarah reported a new feeling inhabiting her body. It was as though her grandparents had become guardian spirits watching over her. The experience of their presence in her life was palpable. A conscious feeling of being supported by them had overshadowed the old feelings of wanting to die and needing to cut into her body. These feelings no longer had to emerge unconsciously. For the first time in seven years, Sarah stopped cutting into her skin. There was no need to. What had been unexpressed in the family had now been given a voice. It no longer had to be etched.
Though not always the case, self-injuring behaviors can be a call to pull back the curtains that shroud our family history, and force us to ask questions. What really happened back there? How could we be repeating the pain of the past? And what can we do to bring about healing in our family?