On HBO's "Sharp Objects," Amy Adams plays a reporter named Camille, who returns to her hometown, Wind Gap, Mo., to investigate a series of child murders.
Camille, a journalist in search of her big break, is also an alcoholic who drives around drinking vodka from Evian bottles, a former hometown It Girl and a cutter. At the end of the first episode, as she sinks into a hot bath, her skin is revealed to be a thicket of scar tissue.
The show's subplot of self-harm casts light upon an often misunderstood condition. But there won't be another season; Ms. Adams, citing nervous burnout, has quit. "Amy doesn't want to live in this character again and I can't blame her," said Casey Bloys, HBO's programming president.
Self-harm - seen as histrionic and juvenile, gross and taboo - is a tricky topic. I know: I was an adolescent cutter. For years I lacerated my legs and arms with razor blades and kitchen knives. I did it covertly at first and then with abandon. I found it cathartic, and I even compared it to bloodletting.
These were not bids for attention, nor were my gestures suicidal - two of the more common misunderstandings about self-harm. I can't say that I understood completely why I kept doing this to myself. I only knew that I cut myself when words were not enough - when I lacked language to express my quarreling emotions. And that self-injury gave me a feeling of agency over my pain.
People who are stupefied by depression may hurt themselves to feel something where formerly they'd felt nothing much, or conversely they feel too much and wish to release the tension of a distress that seems indefinite.
Experts at the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery define the behavior as a maladaptive coping skill - a disordered way for troubled people "to express feelings, to distract themselves from other problems, to communicate needs, to create visible and noticeable wounds, to purify themselves, to re-enact a trauma in an attempt to resolve it or to protect others from their emotional pain."
The behavior is often present in adolescent cases of depression, and a recent survey from the American Public Health Association found that one in four girls and one in 10 boys reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury. The survey also found that symptoms abated with age: Whereas 19.4 percent of 14-year-old high school students admitted to self-harm, that rate fell to 14.7 percent for 18-year-old students.
"Parents who deal with this often think their child is a clinical anomaly," said Martin A. Monto, a sociologist who conducted the survey, in an interview with The Times in July. "It's certainly not a healthy behavior - it's harmful. But if your child has done this, the data shows that it doesn't make them an unusually ill person."
"Always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones."
Some of the first clinical reports on self-injury in the United States date from the 1896 book "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine," by the physicians George Gould and Walter Pyle.
They wrote of patients they called "needle girls" who would prick themselves with sewing needles, and described "removing from one subject's arms 94 pieces of glass, 34 splinters, two tacks, five shoe-nails, one pin, and one needle, besides other things which were lost."
Not long after I cut myself for the first time, around age 16, I began to use cocaine and heroin intravenously. I'd felt menaced for many years by a depression that led me in search of blackout relief. Cutting and IV drug use seemed somehow to supplement each other, and this behavior carried on into my 20s.
When I cut far beyond the tendons in my left wrist in 2015 - severing the connection between my hand and my forearm and requiring emergency tendon repair surgery - I knew that I had gone too far. The surgeons acted fast and were able to repair my sundered tendons with tiny stents. They intervened early enough to rescue my nerves from atrophy, though I couldn't feel my thumb for a year.
After I made the cut, there was a moment when the blood became so dark that it no longer looked crimson but indigo, and as it fell in a deluge against the bathroom tile, it really did seem like darkness pouring out of my soul - and I was afraid. I didn't want to die.
I still suffer from depression. Recovery requires daily maintenance, and even the plateaus feel like hard-won triumphs. Through therapy I have learned to contextualize with language the feelings that seemed to me so inexpressible as a teenager.
I have not cut myself in a couple of years now, and it is becoming harder for me to understand the person I was back then, who left behind such scars for me now.
But if I could speak to my teenage self or to any teenager who feels plunged in despair, I'd tell him or her to hang in there, because happiness, or at least something like contentment, might just be a game of learning to stick around.
Mr. Wooten is a
The article appeared in The New York Times.
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