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RESOURCE CENTER AND ARCHIVES

Trussville Baptist caught in painful cycle of self-mutilation finds freedom in Christcomment (0)

February 9, 2006

By Grace Thornton


Underneath the clothes Amanda Gayle Oliver wears to work and church, dozens of faint scars crisscross her skin.
    
They are white, fading and barely noticeable — not the seering, screaming red they once were. But she still knows exactly where, when and how she got each one. The memories haven’t faded much but thankfully the danger has.
    
It’s been more than a year and a half since Oliver, a member of NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville, last cut herself.
    
In a world where alcoholism and drug abuse have become common coping methods for emotional pain, “cutting,” also called self-injury or self-mutilation, has developed more in the shadows. And despite the fact that it is a growing issue, people who haven’t experienced it tend to have trouble accepting it — or even comprehending it.
    
“No one can understand exactly what makes it happen or how hard the fight is when personally, as the one doing it to myself, I never understood why it was happening in the first place,” Oliver said. “I was so scared of myself and what I was doing, but I couldn’t make it stop for a while. I couldn’t make myself want to stop. I found some sort of comfort and safety in a dark place where I know God never meant for me to be.”
    
The dark place — she entered it at the beginning of her sophomore year in college. After a summer of battling depression, Oliver found herself sitting in her dorm room, upset, alone and just off the phone with her boyfriend after another fight. 
    
Desperate to deal with the emotions, she picked up a pair of scissors and turned the blue handles over and over in her hands before finally turning the blades on herself — she sliced the tips of her fingers.
    
The act ignited a treacherous fire Oliver would battle with for four long years.
    
“If only I had let myself feel the anger, pain and loneliness instead of stuffing it down, being afraid of it — not expressing it,” she said. “But if I had, I wouldn’t have learned about the real power of my God.”
    
The realization of the power and love of God was what eventually drew Oliver to put away the scissors, as well as the straight pins, razor blades, box cutters, broken glass from shattered picture frames and plastic from CDs  — all things she said she used to “hate” herself.
    
But for years, Oliver — a Christian since age 6 — bore the heavy burden of the secret, a secret that made her think she needed and deserved to bleed. She taped razor blades inside the covers of notebooks and kept a box of glass shards under her bed.
    
“When a person cuts ... you aren’t doing it for attention, and you aren’t dong it to kill yourself — you’re doing it because you want to live,” Oliver said. “There’s a release from guilt when you cut, but there’s always more guilt that follows because you cut. It’s a vicious cycle.”
    
Kaye Farrow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Trussville, said most people she has talked with who deal with self-injury say theirs started as an emotional response much like Oliver’s.
    
“In the moment, it’s one of those rage things where a person does it and realizes that it is a release — that it overrides the pain,” said Farrow, a member of First Baptist Church of Chalkville in Birmingham. “It comes from the inability to regulate and soothe our own emotions and the need to find a way to override those emotions. Not everybody chooses cutting — some choose eating, alcohol or religion.”
    
All of these, she said, are behaviors created to help people deal with emotions they’ve not learned to deal with internally.
    
“As a religious community, we are so well-versed at hiding our pain and keeping our secrets, and the concept of harming yourself is something that’s so real but we don’t want to talk about it,” Farrow said. “The shame and guilt that comes with it is horrendous and it’s Satan’s favorite tool.”
    
Glenda Isenhour, a licensed professional counselor and vice president for student affairs at the University of Montevallo, said those who cut tend to be more embarrassed by that behavior than those who cope in other ways.
    
“People drink in our society as a matter of social behavior, so drinking to excess is something that we can all still talk about at some level,” Isenhour said. “But people don’t sit around and cut for a social activity, so it tends to be more taboo and another piece of what makes them feel bad, wrong or different.”
    
Thus clothing covers bleeding arms wrapped in paper towels, wounded hips bandaged up. So if the marks are not visible, then how is a struggling cutter recognized?
    
“A normal middle ground is being able to talk about how you feel and not lose control, so if they blow up or withdraw, either one of these extremes could be a sign,” Farrow said. “A change in friends or normal behavior could mean something, too.”
    
For Oliver, the choice was to withdraw. Oliver — Student Government Association chaplain, editor of the literary magazine and social butterfly — stopped going to class and church consistently.
    
For nearly four years, she cut herself. Oliver went through treatment programs, logged stays in mental hospitals and eventually dropped out of school. She journaled and wrote about shame she couldn’t punish herself enough for, guilt she couldn’t cope with, a self-loathing she couldn’t kick. 
    
“She didn’t see herself the way God saw her, and He led her and opened her eyes,” said Sherri Shaw, then Oliver’s Sunday School teacher at NorthPark Baptist.
    
“I got to the point where I couldn’t live like that anymore,” Oliver said.
    
Then everything changed.
    
“Time is truly required in healing, but she began going to the Word to find out who she was in Christ,” Shaw said. “Whenever she would feel shameful, she would go to the Word where Christ said, ‘I bore your shame.’ 
    
“That’s the beauty of the Word — and we have to believe it over what our emotions are screaming at us. Satan screams the lies louder than the truth, so you have to concentrate on the truth and believe that small voice over the loud voices that are screaming in your head,” she added.
    
Acknowledging Christ as the only source of help is the first and most important step in overcoming cutting, Shaw said.
    
In this healing period, experts say it’s also important to:
    
• Change the coping method by discovering who you are in Christ.
    
• Be honest with someone trustworthy.
    
• Get an accountability partner.
    
“God used that time and His healing to show me what true faith meant. My own strength didn’t work. Relying on other human beings never made me well. Dependence on medication didn’t save me. There is no doubt in my mind who rescued me from the greatest storm I almost drowned in,” Oliver wrote in a first-person article that will appear in the May/June issue of Answer magazine.
    
Slowly the voices telling Oliver she was unworthy began to become a little less overwhelming — but it wasn’t without a fight.
    
“One night, terrified that I was going to take one more sharp object to a person I was beginning to love, I sat on a set of stairs in my home and prayed,” Oliver said. “With my eyes closed, I envisioned Him coming toward me, taking my hand in His and placing it in His pierced side. I knew then that He had bled so that I didn’t have to.”
    
In the midst of journal entries laden with shame, guilt and punishment for what she felt were irreconcilable inadequacies, six words of hope shone through — “I am not perfect. It’s OK.”
    
“I learned what true grace was. I am grateful for every day that I live without the label of ‘cutting’ on my life. From this time forward, I will only be labeled as His child,” Oliver said. “I’ll never doubt His power. God made me a living miracle. He saved my life — twice.”

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