One day after a Student Government meeting, 14-year-old Erin Casey* came home from high school and sat alone on her bed. AP and honors textbooks, ballet slippers, cheer pom-poms, and a work uniform were strewn about the pale blue room. With the photographs of friends and family on the walls smiling down around her, Casey made the first of many cuts – gliding the sharp edge of a pair of tweezers across the smooth skin of her inner forearm.
“It is the closest thing you can get to a high without actual drugs,” recalls Casey nonchalantly, sitting in her college dorm room adding an extra coat of lilac polish to her nails. “It releases these chemicals in your brain. I would feel like I had a sandbag on my head and then suddenly it was gone.”
Cutting is a form of self-injury that is used as a coping method for intense emotions. According to the non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms, it is estimated that 4% of the population struggles with self-injury.
“It wasn’t really problematic in the beginning. I’d just cut about once every few months,” says Casey, who struggled with her cutting addiction for three years.
But as the pressures of high school increased, Casey’s cutting became more frequent and the marks harder to hide. Using anything within her reach, from a mechanical pencil to a broken mirror, a razor blade to safety pins, Casey continued to cut in secret.
No one ever thought that the honors student who babysat, held a part-time job and taught dance classes would have an addiction, but she did. Casey kept her cutting a secret for over 2 years before she finally confided in her friend, Jake Anderson* the spring of her junior year.
“I wanted at least one person in the world to know this other side of me.”
Anderson saw Casey’s confession as a cry for help. He went to his teacher, who reported the information to the school’s guidance counselor. At first, Casey denied the cutting, but when she was asked to expose her wrists, she could no longer hide the truth. Casey begged the counselor not to tell her parents, but by the time she got home from school they had already received the call.
“My parents sat me down and I watched my dad cry in front of me,” she recalls. “I couldn’t say anything to deny it, so I lied about how often I [cut] to keep them happy.”
Even though the school required her to go to therapy, Casey still denied that there was a problem. “It was just something that I did,” she explains. “Addictions were for drugs and drinking, not for something like cutting.”
Casey told the therapist exactly what she wanted to hear. “I lied through my teeth,” she says with a laugh. In three weeks she was deemed “cured” and her sessions were over, but the cutting continued.
By her senior year, the cutting became more frequent; she had a powerful urge to hurt herself several times a day. Casey began to realize her addiction was taking over her life. “I knew it was a real problem when I woke up every two hours in the middle of the night with the compulsion to cut.”
She confided in another friend, Natalie Jones*, who promised to keep it a secret. She held Casey accountable for the cutting without making her feel guilty about it. Jones would constantly ask, “What’s our record?” and Casey would tell her how long it had been since she last cut. “She understood it was a process and made me keep track of how long I could go without cutting,” explains Casey. “When I did cut, she would say, ‘Okay, this is Day 1, we’ll do better.’”
With Jones’s help, Casey was starting to recover. She would go weeks at a time without cutting. Jones provided the support she needed and Casey felt like she was finally getting control of her life, but then her family received devastating news.
Casey’s dad was diagnosed with cancer. It set her back to cutting more frequently. Then her thoughts turned to suicide.
She found the thoughts of her demise calming; her suicidal thoughts would lull her to sleep at night.
“It was like a fairytale.” She flips through her journal searching for a passage. Finding what she was looking for, Casey reads aloud: “My dreams and nightmares are so close. I dream of killing myself and my nightmares are of people I love finding me.”
She told classmate Jake Anderson that she had a suicide date planned for after graduation. Although she tried to assure Anderson that she would never actually go through with it, he went to the school’s guidance counselor.
Casey left school and was on 24-hour suicide watch. “I was finally ready to get help,” she says. “I admitted the truth about my addiction. I slowly got better.” By the end of her senior year, Casey finished therapy, her father had miraculously gone into remission and she was ready to start the next chapter of her life.
“For a while I was really sensitive about how many people I told, but now I’m more open about it,” says Casey. Now, she wants to help others who may be struggling.
Today Casey is a sophomore Psychology major at The College of New Jersey and looks forward to going on to grad school. Casey has had the occasional cutting relapse, but she remains healthy and is always happy to share her story with new friends when they notice the scars. Throughout her emotional struggle, Casey learned a valuable lesson about friendship. She believes that her friends were more helpful than any type of therapy. Casey urges anyone struggling with a cutting addiction to “just open up to someone, anyone.”
*Name has been changed.