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Stacy's Story

January 09, 2020 - 6 minute read

Helping Hands

I first met Stacy* when she was in the third grade. At that time, her teachers had expressed concerns about her socialization in class. She was struggling academically, missed several days of school and had trouble making friends even though she had attended the same school since Kindergarten. Unfortunately, my time at the elementary school was limited to 3 ½ hours a week. When I first met with Stacy, she was very timid but willing to check-out my “office” and look at some of the activities I would be doing with the groups. I sent her home with a permission slip to join the group and told her I would be back the following week. The following week the teacher informed me that Stacy’s mom had contacted her and did not want her to be a part of the social skills group. I thought that was the end of our interactions.

Initial Intervention
A couple months later the teacher approached me again and stated that she had convinced Stacy’s mom that the group I was doing would be a benefit to her based on the other students that I had been working with in her class. Her mom agreed and Stacy joined one of my groups the following week. She knew one of the students that I had been working with and they seemed to get along well. She continued with me for the remainder of the school year, ultimately around 10 sessions. Though her academics had not improved much the teacher reported Stacy was having fewer negative interactions with peers and seemed to be happier. My hope was that she would continue to grow by using the strategies I had taught her.

Fast forward several years, many changes had occurred in the district’s counseling program. My time at the elementary school was eliminated and I was needed full time at the middle school. Stacy came to the middle school as a 6th grader. We were fortunate enough to have two full time counselors on site at that time and she was on my partner’s case load. I would see her around campus, and we would say hi as she remembered me and I her. She looked to be doing well and the transition to middle school seemed to be going well for her. I soon found out that was not the case. She started to see my partner (I think it is important to point out that my partner is a male) and he told me she shared that she had worked with me in the past. Since I had learned in our time of working together that her father had a very limited involvement in her life, I thought working with a positive male role model would be a good thing for her.

Reconnecting After Several Years
Fast forward again to the middle of the next school year. The negative peer interactions began to reappear and escalate. My partner began to have problems with connecting with Stacy and her mom expressed she would prefer that I work with Stacy again. My partner asked if he could share some of the things that Stacy had shared with him and they were both in agreement with that. Stacy had started “cutting”. Her negative self-image had plummeted. She could not maintain friends as she would expect them to understand and try to help her with the problems she was having. Most of her friends would try for a time period but it would inevitably become too much, and they would turn away from her. Stacy’s reaction to this was to lash out at them both in person and on social media, which caused disciplinary action.

I started working with Stacy at the middle point of the school year. At our first meeting I let her know that I knew she had been using self-harm. She agreed to show me, and it took everything in me not to cry. On the inside of both arms she had at least a dozen, two-inch long slash marks. To my relief most were superficial; however, many of the other marks would likely take a long time (if ever) to fade away. She told me she had used scissors (sometimes in class), a razor blade, and paper clip. I asked if her mother had seen them and she said, yes, she cleaned them, kissed them and put ointment on them. The last time she had cut was about a month ago.

I wondered what had made her stop and she said she made a promise to her mother. I had some work to do and I knew I would need some support; I am a school counselor, not a therapist. I reached out to our mental health therapist for her guidance and with my own prior research on the topic we agreed to see what I could do to help and what referral recommendations were practical. Stacy and her mother were happy with that as they had tried to seek some outside counseling previously but were unable to make any connections and made minimal effort for any other follow through.

Stacy’s Individual Struggles
Stacy and I met weekly and she shared more of her story. She had not cut in more than a month and a half and stated that she had not had the urge. She still had limited contact with her biological father. He had been in and out of mental health facilities and her mother did not allow them to talk. Stacy, however, had found a way around that and via social media had some communication with her father, that her mother was unaware. Stacy was also upset that she rarely talked to her oldest sister who had moved out to start her own life. Stacy had been introduced to her “step-dad” and stated that she liked him but still wanted to be able to communicate with her biological father. When I probed why she cut, she explained herself very matter of factly. It was the only thing that gave her release of her inner pain. She stated that she would start to feel this pressure inside and sometimes listening to music or watching videos on YouTube could take it away. Other times the pressure was so intense the only thing that helped was cutting. She shared that it was the one time she had total control over the pain. She started and stopped it. She could control how long or how intense the pain would be. Cutting was about controlling the pain.

We ended the year with one more cutting incident, which Stacy reported was due to her mother taking away her cell phone as well as a problem she was having with one of her friends. Before the school year ended, I again urged her mother to seek the help of an outside therapist and she stated that she would investigate it.

Need for Sustained Support
When Stacy returned to school for her 8th grade year, the change in her appearance was drastic. Her hair was dyed jet black, her eyeliner and make-up were black, and she wore black clothing. Due to the normal hectic beginning of the school year it was not until the 3rd week of school that I was able to see her for a session. The session was quite disturbing since she made little effort to talk and was extremely standoffish. After much probing I finally just asked her to show me her arms. With minimal resistance she rolled up her sleeves and there were at least 20 marks on the inside of each arm. She expressed to me that her inner pain had gone from having control over her cutting to thoughts of wanting to cut even deeper. She also expressed she was having suicidal thoughts. In the extensive research that I have done, self-harmers do not tend to have suicidal ideation; however, in this case where there was a lack of mental health support, the situation had intensified. I called the Crisis Response Team in the area and she was taken in.

It is my hope that this story resonates with others, helping them to realize the importance of seeking professional guidance before a behavior gets out of control. Simply telling a self-harmer to stop is not enough. The behavior has become a habit that allows the abuser to cope with personal stress, just like an eating disorder, smoking or another addiction. A replacement behavior and therapy with a specific intervention plan are necessary to stop this type of behavior. It is about getting back control, even though it is such a negative action, over your life when you feel you have lost control.

Stacy is now enrolled in an online high school. I am lucky enough that she lives in a complex where I know someone, and they see her on occasion and say she looks good. I hope to hear about her in the future.

*Name change to protect the confidentiality of the student.

Elizabeth Burright, M.A. PPSC, has served in public education for 24 years; four years as a middle school math and science teacher and the remaining 20 as a school counselor for middle school grades 5-8. She received her MA/PPSA at Azusa Pacific University and her culmination project was on self-harm. She has been an adjunct professor at Concordia University Irvine since 2014.

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