Cutting to Cope: A Look Beneath the Scars

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It has been six years since Nicole Sharp first picked up a razor blade.

She was just 5 years old when her depression began. Diagnosed with a personality disorder, the now 20-year-old, dressed in long-sleeves, sits on the couch inside her parents’ Grand Rapids ranch-style home, where her memory rewinds to the place where she first began harming herself.

“I was 10 or 11 is when I started getting really depressed,” Nicole said.” It would be just things like hitting myself, or hitting my head against the wall.”

That’s when the shame for Nicole began.

“It’s embarrassing. Not many kids know how to deal with that, especially at 10 and 11,” she said.

Trying to understand the pain she was in and gain control over her urge to self-harm, Nicole began seeing a therapist during those middle school years. But, then she switched schools and just as those teen years began sneaking up on her, those self-harming thoughts came roaring back. Only this time, she had a new method.

“I would buy razor blades from the drug store. For a while, I was doing it [cutting] everyday,” Nicole said. “I have scars, pretty much all over my body. It feels like my skin is being ripped apart.”

Judy Sharp, Nicole’s mother, said the pain of watching her daughter suffer was unbearable.

“I’d say ‘Nicole, please don’t do this. I love you, you know, what’s wrong?’ And she wouldn’t tell me. I don’t think she could explain what was wrong,” Judy said.

Nicole was 14 at the time. Although cutting often times begins in those adolescent years, it can progress well through adulthood.

Penny Hesse, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is now in her 50s, began cutting as a preteen.

“The last time I cut was in my 30s,” she said.

Hesse is now a certified peer specialist at Community Mental Health of Ottawa County. She uses her past experience with cutting to help people like Nicole, who are going through the same struggles. She said she hopes to stomp out some of the misconceptions about people who self-harm. The biggest, she said, is the belief that people do it for attention.

“If I was doing it for attention, why would I hide my scars? Why would I hide and do it?” Hesse said. “I don’t come out and say ‘see what I did?’

Katherine DeVries, an addiction counselor at Pine Rest, agrees with Hesse and explains why people do it.

“It releases chemicals in the brain that can help them soothe and calm down and find relief,” DeVries said.

In fact, DeVries said most of the patients who walk into her office have gone to great lengths to keep their secret hidden.

“Typically, there are people who will have cutting kits and so it’s very secretive,” she said.

Nicole had her own way of hiding.

“I definitely had stashes,” she said. “I would keep it [razors] in my phone, under the case at school so nobody would find it.”

Although scars are often times what people are left with, cutting can carry an even greater consequence.

“People can become over-confident in their cutting and believe they have control over it and then accidentally die,” DeVries said.

DeVries emphasizes the importance in approaching loved ones if someone suspects they might be cutting but said it’s now always easy to spot.

“Looking at wearing long sleeves in the summer is often a sign; wanting to hide when dressing, not wanting to participate in things or isolating,” DeVries said.

It’s been three years since Nicole last reached for a razor blade. With the help of therapy, she no longer has the urge to harm herself but said because of her scars, she’ll forever have something to hide.

“In certain situations, like going on interviews, I’ll always hide them. I don’t let people see them until I’m comfortable with them because I don’t want that to be the first thing they judge me by. I wish I had realized the impact it had on me for the rest of my life because of the physical scars,” she said.

However, there’s one marking on Nicole’s body she’s not ashamed to show. A tattoo that reads ‘strength, hope, beauty, love.’ The ink represents her road to recovery. It’s something Hesse said takes hard work, courage and determination.

“Recovery is a day-to-day process. I think we’re all in recovery to some extent,” Hesse said. “I’m not special because I have mental illness. Everybody’s been down in the dumps and depressed at one time. But, I like to get the word out there that it really can happen, you can become happy.”

As for Nicole’s mom, she wants to send a message of hope to other parents who may be hurting for their children.

“It they are cutting…it will pass,” Judy said. “Every day, it’s like, you know, a joy to have Nicole back. I actually hoped and prayed that someday she would have a story to tell…and she does.”

Pine Rest has a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Program Treatment Team, that specializes in issues of borderline personality disorder and self harming behaviors. You can contact them at (866-852-4001.)

Community Mental Health of Ottawa County also offers services. They can be contacted at (616)494-5545

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  • kdude

    The liberal solution to this problem is to restrict everyone's ability to obtain any item to cut themselves thus protecting all of us further from the actions of ourselves.. There problem solved!!!!

  • samantha bishop

    i use to cut. not for attention but due to the fact I believed I was not loved. it does not give anybody an accuse. I am diagnosed with depression anxiety and ptsd. I am not proud of it but its something I cant help I don't let it effect my daily things

  • samantha bishop

    but there are days where I lay in bed and don't get up I have suffered a lot in my past and cutting seemed to bet to be the only I answer I could come up with it soothed my pain but the pain just came back and when it did all you could do is is cut again my parents didn't know how to help me I was 14 years old also and when I was 19 I overdosed after that it was an eye opener that I knew that I didn't wana die I had so much to live for I was abused at a young age locked in my room all the time a feed cooled hot dogs a cereal everyday for meals I don't want pitty I want people to know that for some people cutting is very soothing for a sick mind but for the half itskeep telling myself I am better then the scars I have now. not healthy I am in counseling now and on meds to help cope with the trouble mind I have I cant say I am cure because to me as a cutter I will never ne the same I will always think about it I just have to

  • Jessica T.

    First, thank you Fox 17 for being willing to address the growing issue of cutting (a form of self-harm). While I have never been a cutter, it is an addiction that may teenage daughter has struggled with for years. I use the word addiction deliberately. If you compare what makes alcoholics go through with the addition with what cutters go through, it is often the same basic concept. (I use this comparision only to stress that cutting is an addiction for many). The majority of my daughters friends have been cutters at some point after 6th grade, although some of them have been able to stop before it turned into an addiction.
    We have a big problem in West Michigan as help for cutters is very limited. Not only in Michigan, but nation wide, treatment centers and therapist want to treat cutting as a secondary issue instead of the primary one. In looking for treatment for my daughter many places that said they address the issue of cutting/self-harm, but it must be in conjunction with drug or alcohol problems, eating disorders, diagnosed bio-polar or sever personality disorders. Cutting (self-harm) is a true issue that often is the only real issue, it frequently the only major issue one has. This sends the message to cutters that they aren't sick enough for help yet.
    We have been to many therapists who claim to have experience with cutters, but most of them have truly only handled one or two cases and were unable to even verify a successful approach. Things finally got to a point where my daughter begged for help and as had watch every other method we had try fail, we had to go for something specific and more extreme (and of course more costly). I made countless calls all over the country trying to find something that could help and then spent hours on the phone trying to convince the insurance company that what they were suggesting hadn't worked and that what I found was our last resort.
    Finally, she went to an intensive program out of state specializing in self harm and it made a difference! She is a different person today than before she went. It has only been five months since she went, and there have been a few occasions that she has resorted to cutting, but each day she grows stronger and more determined to quit and stay quit.
    My daughter has scars all over herself from this (arms, legs, hips). She still hides alot of them intentionally when she is going to be around certain people (or types of people). As a parent it is still painful to see the scars, but it was devastating to see the fresh ones and feel helpless to do anything. In the news story, Nicole's mom encouraged parents that "it will pass" and if your child is one of the lucky ones, it might, otherwise some type of treatment or intervention is needed! This isn't something that parents should ignore and hope that it just goes away. It isn't a suicide attempt, or simply a cry for attention. It is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
    My deepest desire is that there could be some type of support group, designated to self-harm, that my child could go to for the strength, hope, and healing that only another self-harm addict can offer. I wish, as a parent, there had been somewhere I could have turned to find help and someone to lean on that had walked through the pain of their loved one suffering from this addiction.
    At this point, all my family can do is to lean on eachother for support, try to raise awareness with the people that we interact with, be open with our struggle and recovery, and hope that there comes a time when there is a support system put into place in our area.
    Again, Fox News, thank you for being willing to address this issue and thank you Nicole for being willing to share your story.

    • Nicole S.

      Thank you for your insight and kind words, for the time that I was cutting my family tried everything, countless therapists and psychiatrists, a dozen inpatient stays and even a residential facility in Indiana. Nothing worked. I wasn't ready to stop, I was scared, I didn't know how to cope, I just couldn't handle the extreme emotions I was feeling every day (not that cutting really helped!) and cutting was my only coping skill. Cutting is a huge problem but it is a manifestation of a deeper problem, whether it be depression, PTSD, personality disorder or something else, you can stop the cutting but that won't fix the cause. Anyway that's my person experience. Shortly after I dropped out of high school, something changed and I had just had enough, I couldn't go on like that anymore so I was ready and I eventually stopped, got my GED, got certified in billing and coding, I am now disabled with dysautonomia but mentally I am doing well don't even get urges anymore, I still see a therapist that I've seen for about 5 years. If you are interested I can email you the information of my therapist, she is an adolescent and family therapist, she's dealt with a lot cutters before and if your daughter still needs someone I'd recommend her. Best of luck hope you and your daughter are well

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