I'm a Christian and a Cutter: On Evangelical Culture and Self-Harm

How’d you get that scar?
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Jennifer C. Martin
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How’d you get that scar?

“I had surgery on my arm get a cyst removed.”

“I had an accident while climbing a tree.”

“My arm got caught on a barbed wire fence.”

On the mid-section of my upper left arm, I have a deep, obvious scar. I got this scar from cutting myself. I was 16, in the shower, and I was unable to handle emotional struggle in the same way that normal functioning people handle struggle, so I cut myself as deep as I could with a single blade razor. 

I never tell people the truth about what happened. Honestly, not a lot of people ask. Maybe they don’t care, but I’m almost certain they notice. Those that do ask usually get a canned response -- a lie. If it’s someone with whom I am comfortable enough to tell the truth, I laugh it off and make light of it. “Oh, you know, I was just an emo girl with middle class white girl problems.”

At no point do I feel comfortable saying that I have a mental illness. Two, in fact. Major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Those are vague, boring ones. They don’t sound sexy. They sound like problems that could easily be controlled with willpower and perhaps prayer.

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I have many more self-injury scars. They’re not as obvious, but they’re forever on my psyche.

I’m 26 now. I have a job, a husband, and two kids who mean the world to me. Over the years, I’ve had a few relapses into self-harm. There are times I feel out of control due to my disorders. My disease. I’m scared to share these feelings with a counselor or anyone, because I’m afraid people will think I’m a bad mother, employee, or person -- or even a bad Christian.

It’s widely accepted that most churches have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to talking about any mental illnesses or disorders. Alcoholism and drug addiction are widely considered to be sinful in nature, and the perception of mental disorders isn’t far behind. Sure, if you’re feeling blue, you can always talk to the pastor or church counselor. But they are almost never qualified to diagnose disorders or provide treatment or medication.

So there are those of us lurking in the shadows of the pews every Sunday, lying to ourselves and everyone around us. We pretend we’re holding it together. We pretend we’re having a good day. We pretend that we’re just normal and that nothing ever gets to us. And even if someone looks through our façade to see our scars, they pretend they’re not there. Churches of today don’t want to hear about people who are broken inside, or struggling with addiction, or have scars they can’t remove.

Statistics can only guess how many people struggle with self-harm. People feel too ashamed to even admit it at all, and many types of self-harm come in forms that can’t always be detected on your skin. According to some statistics, as many as 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will self-harm at some point in their lives. Even more people will struggle directly or indirectly with mental illness at some point in their lives. And we are tired of feeling isolated and ashamed in our churches.

The church has an obligation to talk openly about mental illness and become a place that is welcoming of those who struggle. Support groups led by the church counselor are a good start. Sermons by people who have deal with mental illness are even better. 

Pastors and church counselors should never tell people who seek individualized support that prayer and more church are our only options for recovery. Trust me, Christians who struggle with mental illness are already praying and seeking God in tears and helplessness. If a church cannot afford to have a licensed professional on their staff, they should have a referral service for people who CAN diagnose and treat mental disorders. Youth pastors in particular should not shy away from having tough, real, frank discussions about mental illnesses and self-harm, because 90% of people who engage in self-harm start experimenting with it as teenagers. They need to know it’s not wrong, and that help is available for them.

You don’t often hear people nonchalantly mention their antidepressant medication at church. You don’t hear people casually chat about making appointments with their psychiatrists. And you most certainly never see people talking about their self-harm scars or telling the story of what happened. But that needs to change.

A man named Jesus was once crucified onto a cross. Nails bore into his hands and feet, a crown of thorns pressed into his temples, and a sword pierced his side. Upon being resurrected, he could have easily come back in an untarnished, omnipotent body that removed all trace of scarification. After all, he is God. But in John 20, he states that he showed the wounds and scars on his hands and side to the disciples as a sign of proof and out of pride -- the ultimate description of God’s manifestation of love for us. It was a reminder of the pain he had gone through for us.

No longer will I be embarrassed by my scars, or my past, or my mental illnesses. I refuse to lie to the face of other people, even if it makes them uncomfortable to hear the truth when it shouldn’t. I won’t worry when I wear short-sleeved shirts in front of people I’ve just met. From now on, I too will show my scars as a sign of how I overcame -- and still overcome -- the pains and struggles I face through my mental illnesses.