By Lisa Shrewsberry
From all outward appearances, McKenzie Walker had it all: a loving family, a yearbook-confirmed reputation as the prettiest girl in school, academic and social success. Were it not for the marks on her arms kept mostly hidden, some healed to white, some in fresh red rows, none may have learned of her problem on the inside.
“I went through a bad breakup and felt worthless. I had been a cheerleader, a softball player, I was in gymnastics, my grades were really good …” and then she made the first cut — not for inclusion on another sports team, but with a razor.
“TV had a lot to do with it. I’d watched shows where people did it. It helped them, in a way. I tried it and it helped me; it was kind of like I could turn all the pain on the inside into physical pain instead of emotional pain.”
McKenzie equates the relief she felt cutting her own skin as “hurt that made you forget about the other hurt.”
McKenzie is what most call a “cutter,” what is also categorized as self-injury, self-harm or self-mutilation. Once knowledge of her scary and misunderstood addiction became known, a Facebook and Instagram firestorm ignited. She lost her friends. She was called crazy by both her peers and trusted adults. She became a frequent target of bullies in school and her grades dropped.
For a time, as an emergency response to her cutting, her family placed her under constant surveillance. Still, in spite of the erosion of the life she had known, she continued to cut through a backlog of emotional pain by cutting herself.
Mom Lisa Walker, a nurse practitioner, remembers her initial response to the prolific marks on her daughter’s arms, catching a glimpse of them one day in short sleeves. McKenzie gave her the excuse that “it was the cat.”
No one, not even her medically minded mother, understood it entirely at the time, but her brain had grown dependent on the endorphin release connected to cutting. Her compulsion brought with it a strange comfort. In McKenzie’s private world, it served as reminder that she was real when she felt anything but.
Consulting psychologists, other parents and support group leaders and books, mom Lisa turned her medical connections into resources to help her understand her daughter’s perplexing condition.
Eight million men and women, mostly teenagers, are self-harmers, Lisa discovered.
Many kids McKenzie’s age have experimented with self-injury or SI, using a razor or other sharp object, an eraser to abrade the skin through friction, lighters to burn themselves or, as some mental health professionals classify, even excessive tattooing or piercing. Some even go to the extreme of breaking their own bones, Lisa learned.
In untreated cases, the practice can continue through early teens into adulthood.
Similar in etiology to an eating disorder, to bring a sense of relief from anxiety and a feeling of being in control of one’s own body, self-injury is often mistaken as a desperate cry for attention. What sufferers really want is emotional release.
After learning more about the condition and after several cutting scares, one leading to a brief in-patient stay at an out-of-state specialty center, McKenzie has worked through the internal conflicts triggering her impulse to cut. Today, she is moving toward healing.
With online communities promoting the practice of cutting, and after her daughter admitted to setting up several anonymous accounts to communicate with other cutters not interested in recovering, Lisa felt opening up with a healthy and safe support group was one way to combat the illness. Scars and Stories, her support group for those wanting to recover from SI, began two weeks ago and now meets the third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at Beckley United Methodist Temple’s The Place.
Lisa knows there are many more stories to be told and believes many families are unaware their children are self-harmers.
Parents, she says, must also know that through counseling, psychiatric intervention, behavior modification therapy and, in some cases, antidepressant therapy, they can get their child onto the pathway of recovery.
McKenzie still feels the impulse to cut on occasion, and under times of extreme pressure, she acts on that impulse. The most recent time she cut, she didn’t get the same sensation she used to. Her once high pain tolerance has increasingly lowered.
“I feel like it is something that I will leave behind me. I use to think I would never let it go.”
She was the one who first suggested to her mom to start the group for others like her.
“It’s kind of good for other people to know there are those who have this problem. When people found out what I did, some were like ‘Oh, I understand,’ but they didn’t.”
United Methodist Temple has adopted Scars and Stories, committing its support to growing it to help reach teenagers and their families through awareness and education.
Now past the immediate shock of her family’s ordeal, Lisa can see clearly enough to believe her daughter’s experience can be used to make recovery better for others.
“Sometimes I regret everything I’ve lost and I’m ashamed. But other times, I focus on wanting others to learn so they won’t do it,” McKenzie admits. “It’s a lesson. When I was the popular one, I never cared about anybody else. Going through this has made me a stronger and a better person.”
For more information on Scars and Stories, call 304-575-0835. The group meets the third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. in Conference Room A at The Place at United Methodist Temple, Beckley.