Black girls cut, too: Self-harm & Generational Pain in the African-American Community
I started burning myself at the age of 15. A friend and I burned ourselves in an attempt to engrave a symbol on our arms. After going to the local mall and buying a book on witchcraft, we decided we needed a symbol of our commitment to our new two-person coven. We drew up a draft of our symbol containing our initials (S & T) and then proceeded to etch that symbol into our forearms. Our etching tools? A hanger and a cigarette lighter. I remember how the first burn felt on my skin. It was startling, but something about it made me feel alive. Over the next year, my friend and I continued to recreationally burn ourselves leading to the first time I used burning to cope with pain.
The first time I burned myself to deal with my emotions was right after my first girlfriend broke up with me. I was completely devastated. It was a pain that I had never felt before. I felt embarrassed, inferior and unworthy. I did not want to eat or get out of bed, and I had no one to talk to about what I was feeling. The pain of the breakup with my girlfriend was unbearable. What was I supposed to do without her? I thought she loved me. What did I do wrong? How could I fix it? Whatever I did to lose her, I swore I would never do it again. I just wanted her back. My chest hurt. I began to think of how stupid I was for allowing this to happen. Why wasn’t I good enough? I walked to my closet and grabbed a hanger, straightened out its hooked curve and proceeded to heat it up with a lighter. As the hanger turned from copper to black, I prepared myself for the burning sensation. I burned my arm and my stomach, and as I felt the pain, I realized I preferred the sensation of a hot hanger far better than the emotional pain I was feeling at the time. After that night, burning was quickly placed in my teenage coping mechanism tool box and used to protect myself from emotional pain. Whenever I was upset, whenever emotional pain was too much to bear, I burned.
My mom had no interest in talking about my “little friend" as she often referred to my girlfriend. Frankly, she was quite embarrassed and disgusted that her daughter might be "funny" (a black colloquialism for gay). My dad was struggling with my sexuality as well. He wanted no part of it. He made this clear the night he beat me for sitting outside on the steps with my girlfriend. Earlier that evening, my girlfriend came over to see me. My mom was furious. She insisted that my girlfriend leave immediately. Cooperating with my mother’s request, we walked outside and sat on the steps in front of my apartment building. About 30 minutes later my dad appeared. I had not seen him in weeks, and I was surprised and excited to see him. He lived about a half hour away with his new wife and my step brothers. Even though he was not around often, I held a deep admiration for him. He was a hero to me.
"Dad!" I exclaimed. I stood up waiting for his embrace, but he grabbed my neck and dragged me upstairs to our apartment. What happened next was the worst beating of my life. As my mother looked on, my dad proceeded to hit me with his fists. I remember the brown carpet of our two-bedroom apartment vividly because I spent the next harrowing 15 minutes on the floor trying to shield myself from the blows. Thankfully there was a knock at the door. Our neighbor heard the commotion and called 911. When the police arrived, they took me aside and asked if I wanted to press charges against my dad. I said "no" They talked to him and my mom separately and then asked him to go home. Later that night, my dad called to apologize. I was no stranger to my father’s abuse, but I had never been his target. During my parents’ marriage hitting was reserved for my mother.
After some time, the burning seemed to lose its efficacy; this resulted in finding another method to soothe my emotions. I turned to cutting. Cutting was quick and easy. There was no preparation of finding a hanger, straightening it out and heating it. All I needed was a razor blade which I kept in my room. I cut when I had arguments with my mom when I felt rejected by the kids at school or when my girlfriend would pop in and then leave me again after she lost interest. I cut the day the kids at my high school found out about me being gay and subsequently bullying my younger sister and me. Cutting became a part of me; a comfort and It followed me into my adult life.
My experience as a child was a particularly numb. I had a semi-normal childhood complete with long hours outside playing with my cousins, church and made up games, starting at the age of 9, I floated from panic and fear to severe insecurity, to deep states of creativity (writing poetry and songs), That was my entire existence.
I lived in a home where we did not show affection. There were no hugs, no 'I love you's'; we did not talk about our emotions. Yelling and screaming and "whoopings" were the order of the day. I often retrieved switches off of trees acting as an accomplice to my beatings. The small bit of emotion that I received in my life came from my maternal great grandma and sometimes my dad, but a hug or two once a month was all I could expect.
When I started my next relationship at the age of 18, I continued cutting. The fast moving, highly contentious and abusive relationship was a constant trigger for me. At the age of 31, I started dating my now wife. I did not tell her about the cutting; she discovered it by chance. One night while lying in bed watching television, she placed her hand on my stomach. I jumped from the pressure of her hand. “What’s wrong with your stomach?” She asked. “Nothing, I’m fine,” I said. My wife, not one to take no for an answer, lifted my shirt. When she did, she gasped at the sight of slashes on my stomach.
The night before, we had one of our usual dysfunctional moments. Our ability to communicate as a couple was below mediocre. Our arguments were filled with unhealthy learned behaviors, underdeveloped emotions, and unfinished childhood business. Two hurt children eventually become two hurt adults doomed for failure when they try to form a union. At the time, I traded my daily three anti-anxiety medication for a glass of vodka every morning before work. Additionally, small bottles of airline sized vodka littered the floorboard of my car as I often had to come to the car during the day for a drink.
When our arguments became too much to bear; When I felt like she was slipping away from me, I cut. At some point during the argument the night before, I went to the bathroom as I always did to cut. After her discovery, I came clean. Her reaction was one of fear and confusion. “Black people don’t do things like this.” She said. “How do I know you won’t cut me too?” “This is weird,” she said. She became distant. She refused to sleep in the bed next to me. I had never thought of my cutting in the context of race. I was crushed that she thought I would ever do anything to hurt her. I explained that my cutting was about me not about anyone else. For the next few months she was uneasy, and for the first four years of our relationship, she became reluctantly accustomed to my cutting.
The fact is black girls cut, too. According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, young black women are often more likely to participate in self-harm than their white counterparts. The study also revealed that fewer young black females receive psychiatric care. While this problem exists in the black community, its existence is hidden, ignored and even feared when discovered. Emotion in the black community is often viewed as inherently “white”, this comes from not having a channel in which to communicate the extreme traumatization that began with slavery. Then, once we were granted freedom, it came without proper preparation, counseling or any appropriate outlet to start anew and heal our emotions. This learned behavior has continued in the rearing of generations after slavery where emotional health is seen as secondary to survival. My propensity to cut and burn myself was rooted in generations of pain and emotional trauma.
I had unknowingly inherited the generational habit of staying silent about my pain. I watched my mom wear sun glasses to work to cover her black eyes but never talking about how it made her feel. I witnessed my grandma secretly mourn the loss of her two boys through misdirected anger and hurt. I had taken on my dad's habit of replacing the pain from his childhood with alcoholic and rage rather than simply saying he was still hurting years later.
My inability to process my pain and process what I was feeling manifested into two decades of trying to cut or burn the pain away. I wanted the pain to seep from my veins rather than my heart, where it hurt the most. I did not know how to handle a broken heart, rejection, or abandonment. 27 years ago when I felt that first burn, it was a welcomed sensation compared to the numbness I was accustomed to.
It has now been seven years since I have cut or burned myself. The last occurrence was unlike the others. Rather than responding to my cutting with fear, my wife's response was one of compassion. After she discovered I cut, she embraced me, and I sunk into her arms. For the first time, I felt safe. We cried together, vowed to explore emotions together and from then on when I felt the urge to cut, I spoke instead. When I felt abandoned, I said it. When I felt fearful of losing her, I said it. When I felt crazy, I said it. Little by little, the voice of my pain replaced my urge to hurt myself. I was unknowingly breaking the generational cycle. This has, in turn, resulted in forgiving myself and forgiving the adults throughout my life who I thought failed me. How could they possibly address my pain if they had not yet addressed their own?
The research on this subject is difficult to find. Other than the aforementioned British study, and an article written by an African American mother’s experience with her then 15-year-old daughter’s cutting, the information is lacking.
In the absence of resources, and research I offer my story as an introduction to the subject of self-harm and a source of support for families and individuals who may be suffering. This is in no way a substitute for medical advice; my hope is that my transparency will act as a catalyst that aids in breaking this generational pattern.