A-Z

Sharon

Age at interview: 37
Brief Outline: Sharon’s daughter is now 15 and started self-harming at around the age of 12. Sharon’s own history gives her some understanding of her daughter’s motivation to self-harm.
Background: Sharon, age 37, is a lab technician. She is divorced and has two children. Ethnic background: White British.

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Sharon first noticed marks on her 15 year old daughter’s arms towards the end of 2011. Sharon was not convinced by her explanations of ‘knocks’ and ‘bumps’ as she has a history of self-harm herself. In May 2012 Sharon saw marks on her daughter’s upper arms which were clearly scars from cutting. When Sharon asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she said, ‘I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want to upset you.’ Sharon had recently told both her children about her own history and initially she thought this had influenced her daughter. She was slightly relieved to find this wasn’t the case and that her daughter had been self-harming for some time, under the pressure of family disruption, low mood, changes at school and, Sharon thinks, some of the challenges of modern teenage life. 

One day in summer 2012 Sharon’s daughter refused to go to school. Sharon returned home from work to find that she had taken an overdose, and cut herself. She was admitted to A & E overnight for observation and then transferred to a specialist unit for further assessment of weight loss. She was admitted voluntarily but has since had treatment under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act following refusal to eat or to accept feeding by a nasal tube. In addition to physical treatment of her eating disorder, and anti-depressant medication, both parents and daughter take part in family therapy, which Sharon hopes will help get to ‘the root of things.’ She also thinks that it helps them both to support their daughter with their own particular strengths.

Sharon has been disappointed with the school’s reaction to her daughter’s problems. Indeed, she thinks the school has just regarded her daughter as ‘a problem’. She has been impressed, though, with the support they have received from the Child Protection Officer who became involved in her daughter’s care after the overdose. The emergency and hospital services have also been ‘fantastic’ in Sharon’s view. She has found support from the parent’s group at the unit and from some internet sites. She is concerned though, that some information on the internet is not reliable and that some sites which young people visit are not monitored appropriately for content which might be likely to trigger self-harm.

Sharon’s advice to other parents is to keep calm and to let the young person know that you are ready to help them. ‘There’s no rulebook,’ she says. ‘Try and keep your cool, I think that’s the main thing. And a hug goes a long way.’ Sharon also stresses that it’s important to get support for yourself.
 

Sharon’s daughter was greatly affected by her parents’ separation, but a lot of other things happened which overwhelmed her.

Sharon’s daughter was greatly affected by her parents’ separation, but a lot of other things happened which overwhelmed her.

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Certainly, with my daughter, I think the separation of myself and her father had a big impact on her, more than we thought it had because she’d always been a very happy-go-lucky, nothing fazed her, nothing bothered her, you know, take it on the chin all the time and I think it affected her a lot more than we thought it would. Also, she was going through puberty, which is a, a hideous time for any teenager.

So she was what eleven, twelve…

Eleven, twelve.

…when you separated?

Yeah, yeah. Also, the school changed from being a school to an academy, which in itself wasn’t an issue, but because her particular year had had a couple of years of getting away with a bit more than they probably should have done. Then the academy came in and it was crack-down and their year had a lot of issues with learning to toe the line again. I think that didn’t help and her friends, she’s had a few, one of her friends had a death in the family and needed a lot of support, another one of her friends moved away very suddenly, which she wasn’t expecting at all. We’d also witnessed an accident at a, a racing meeting where a, a man had died, which we saw. You know, it was close to us, which she’d never talk about. And just little bits and pieces and things like that and I had I had a very bad time for a while. I was quite, quite low, which I think affected her obviously, not that she lived with me at the time and I think that didn’t help as well because I’d moved out. So I think it’s a lot of things just all happening at the same time and, and overwhelming her and she didn’t know where to go or what to do. 
 

When Sharon’s daughter developed an eating disorder the self-harm began to seem less important.

When Sharon’s daughter developed an eating disorder the self-harm began to seem less important.

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It’s, yeah, it was all very quick. I was just, it was literally a few weeks, months of discussing about self-harming with her and her getting over getting over that or appearing to be over that and then she’d cut, taken an overdose, hospitalised and then refusing to eat and just everything within a week. It all hell broke loose and the self-harm became just an element then, rather than being a large concern, it became an element of this stuff that had been going on. And what to deal with first and the most important thing was to get her eating and to stop the weight loss, to get her body well so we could then engage with therapy and trying to find out the reasons behind or what had come towards the depression and the self-harm in the first place, when it first started. It’d obviously become a coping mechanism of some description now but, at the time, it wasn’t important to find out what had kicked that off. It was more important to get her well and save her life, at the time. 
 

Sharon talks about the increase in self-harm in young people and the need to tackle it.

Sharon talks about the increase in self-harm in young people and the need to tackle it.

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And friends, could you just talk a bit about what your thoughts are about this idea, which is kind of out there in some people, that self-harm is a kind of a contagious thing among teenagers and that they learn it from each other and so on?

I think there’s certainly an element of some, and, and the minority I would say that would do it for that, oh people do this for attention. It does exist. There are people out there that do that and they are the ones that will sit there and go, “Oh, look at me. Look what I did. Look what’s happened.” And I think that’s what people tag on to, the media or whatever. That’s the idea that everybody does it just to say, “Look at me.” And I think there’s, there’s an awful lot of it out there. There’s an awful lot. It’s, it’s, it’s growing because of the pressures of society I think, it’s just this is what our young people are starting to do because that’s, that’s what they can do. I don’t, certainly, I don’t think it’s catching. I think that, in a way, there are sort of ideas that can be bandied about between, “Oh well, so and so does this.” Not necessarily to think, “Oh well yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll start doing it.” But it’s, it’s much more widely known that a lot of people have this sort of issue and have this sort of coping strategy, whether it’s healthy or not, there’s a lot of it’s about there and if a lot of it’s about there, then it’s not going to be encouraging to other people but they’re going to feel not as bad, I think, maybe in a way. A small comfort that they’re not the only ones. Whether that encourages it or not I, I couldn’t say, but I think society in general has still got this view of, “Oh well, you’ve got to be a complete weirdo or lunatic to do something like that.” Or it’s only certain sections of society or types of teenager that do this. It’s a teenage problem. It’s the ones that want attention. It’s the, it’s the bad kids and it’s not like that at all and it needs a lot more people to realise that and then maybe a lot more young people can find help before it gets to that stage, before it becomes ingrained that this is something they have to do. It’s the only thing that helps and try and stop it before, nip it in the bud, so to speak.
 

Sharon discusses the use of photography for self-expression but acknowledges that some online images could trigger self-harm

Sharon discusses the use of photography for self-expression but acknowledges that some online images could trigger self-harm

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Can you say a bit more about the phrase you used, ‘What is art?’ in relation to photos on these social networking sites.

It’s, people express themselves in various different forms. I suppose it’s a similar argument to what is art and what is pornography, type of thing. What is a self-expression of how you’re feeling, that you’re, you’re getting it out there in photography or drawings or whatever media you use and what is just advertising what you’ve done, basically. I think it can be quite a fine line sometimes and with the internet, how it is now, there’s just stuff everywhere, absolutely everywhere and if you, if you were to search for self-harm, I’d imagine, rather than a lot of self-help groups, the first things that come up would be a lot of images that may well be, “This is what I did today.” Or, “This is what so and so did.” Or, “Look at this. How awful is this?” “Ha ha,” sort of awful, you know, and it’s just very triggering, I think. It can be very triggering for people especially if they’re trying to seek some help, a lot of young people will turn to the internet straight away because it’s easy access, it’s there and it’s, they might not be able to or be in the frame of mind to determine for themselves what what’s been artificially set up or what’s been done as artwork or as a project or something or, or what is real. I think that can be quite difficult for a lot of people to get their heads round sometimes, without it being put on there, “This is artificial. This is not real. Don’t attempt this.” Or warnings or anything. It’s just there and you make of it what you will.

Do you think some people cut themselves as a form of artistic expression?

It wouldn’t surprise me, especially if, if they are taking photos straight away of it and putting it up and blogging it all the time, rather than, “Oh I did this to myself. I feel quite bad. Does it look infected?” sort of comments, especially when things are written, it’s difficult because it’s obviously, in some form it’s their way of dealing with something but it’s not, it seems to be more predetermined that way or if I do it like this or if I write this and then take a picture of it, it will look however they want it to look. I can appreciate why people would do that because it is a form of getting it out. It is a form of self-expression. It is a way of, of telling people something is wrong here, something is going on but not necessarily saying something is going on and I’d like some help please.
 

Sharon noticed her daughter’s scars and tried to talk about them. Her daughter said she hadn’t told her because she didn’t want to upset her.

Sharon noticed her daughter’s scars and tried to talk about them. Her daughter said she hadn’t told her because she didn’t want to upset her.

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Yeah, I first noticed a few marks on her arms, underneath her arms about November, December time last year so two thousand and eleven.

Right.

I asked her about them and she said she’d just caught herself, just general knocks and bumps and things but, having had experience myself of self-harm, I could see that it obviously wasn’t. We moved back to here a few months later. I tried to talk to her about it a few more times and she didn’t really say anything but there didn’t appear to be any more. I knew that she’d had friends that had self-harmed and had issues so I, I tended to talk to her as if I was talking about them and saying that, “Oh well, I found out from, from my psychologist that,” reasons behind it and how it can help physically initially, and, and different things, just to sort of get across to her that this is what’s going on, what could be going on but geared as if I was talking about her friends. 

And she just, she just sort of wore a lot of bangles, which was quite noticeable, long sleeves and then we moved back to here in early May and I hadn’t noticed any, she’d been a bit down. She’d been a bit down for a couple of years, up and down, not too bad but history of depression in the family. A lot had gone on. My partner and I had separated over the last three years. She’d had issues at school. She wasn’t happy with the teachers. A lot of her friends had their own issues and she was a great support for them. I’d moved out of the family home and then she’d come to move in with me two years later and then we both moved back here when my ex-husband moved out. So a lot had gone on so I wasn’t surprised she’d been a bit up and down. 

And then I’d noticed, she was in a t-shirt one day and I’d just noticed that the tops of both of her arms were covered in scars, very, very fine and healed, so obviously, reasonably old but absolutely covered and I just said to her, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And she said, “I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want you to upset you.” And I asked her when she’d started doing it and she said, “Oh ages ago, years ago.” And it, it turned out that it was after I’d, after the break-up and after I’d moved out of the home, around that sort of period, so it was around three and a half years ago she’d started. But she’d said that she’d got it under control and she was okay with it and it, and then I moved onto the more recent ones, that was just a couple. She’d had her first serious relationship that had been a bit full on, a bit hectic and they’d both agreed to separate and…

…she’d sort of reverted back to it. 
 

When she discovered her daughter was harming herself Sharon felt sick. Then she gave her a cuddle.

When she discovered her daughter was harming herself Sharon felt sick. Then she gave her a cuddle.

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Just going back to the beginning again, how did you react when you discovered that she’d been harming herself?

First feeling was my stomach dropped and I felt sick and I thought, oh no, it’s really that bad. What’s happened that’s that bad? Why has she felt the need to do this? What have I done? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why couldn’t she come to me? Why couldn’t she talk about it? What could I have done to make things different so she hadn’t felt the need? How long has it been going on? How bad is it? Where else is it? Is it entrenched? You know, has this just been a little, not dabble, that’s the wrong word, but a first, a first try or a first few, which I thought at the time it had been just a few, and then found out later, no, it was an ongoing thing. Yeah, I was upset. I tried not to be openly upset with her because I know that makes her feel worse that she’s upset me. I wasn’t angry with her or disappointed. I, I just said that I felt it was, it was sad that she’d felt the need, that she had to do that and nothing else had helped and that she couldn’t turn to somebody. And how she was feeling and had it been recent and I didn’t ask her what she’d used, at that point. I thought I’d leave that until, that wasn’t relevant at that time, just how she felt about it. What had, what had been the reasoning behind it? Would it, had it been sat and thought about or was it spur of the moment thing? That sort of thing really and then gave her a cuddle.
 

It was hard for Sharon’s daughter to find someone she could talk to.

It was hard for Sharon’s daughter to find someone she could talk to.

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There’s no forum for it. There’s, there’s no forum, at, at school they’re not allowed to, I’m not saying they should be out of control at school, but kids don’t run round the playground and let rip like they used to, you know, or a bit of banter or a bit of play fighting or just kicking a football around. They don’t do it. There’s nothing to get their aggression out and to get their feelings out. It’s not encouraged to have somewhere at school to go and talk about these things, without fear of, “People are going to think I’m weird. People are going to think I’m nuts. People are going to think, this that and the other, you know, and what are my friends going to think.” There’s, there’s no forum easily for them to, to tell someone how they’re feeling. And just try and speak to somebody, I think, because with the best will in the world, parents aren’t always the first people children turn to. Quite often it will be a friend but when you’re in a situation like my daughter was in, she only had a few close friends and the majority of those had issues as well, she wouldn’t turn to them because she was, she was supporting them. She wouldn’t turn to me because she knew I had issues myself and didn’t want to make them worse. It’s, it’s trying to find somewhere that she could go to and she could have talked to other than internet forums that aren’t always very helpful places.
 

Sharon wanted to find reliable research-based information and properly administered sites.

Sharon wanted to find reliable research-based information and properly administered sites.

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I think it’s, the important thing is finding reliable researched information. It’s very easy to, to look for anything and get onto a website that’s got a forum, that is just people chit-chatting and spreading their opinions. It’s much more difficult to find somewhere that has got researched knowledge and background, as well as people talking and talking about their experiences and, and what they found helpful because it is helpful to, especially with things like medication, to discuss with other people. “I’ve had this. It’s not listed in the side-effects, has anyone else noticed this? Should I go and see the doctor?” But it’s got to be people that, it’s more helpful if it’s people that have experience and, certainly, if it’s, if it’s administered and, and watched over by people with expertise and that have done research in those areas. It’s not just an opinion or hearsay. 

Are there particular sites that you can kind of name that you’ve found helpful?

Off the top of my head, BEAT is one that’s quite often recommended for people with eating disorders. I get e-mails regularly, a newsletter from Psych Central, which I’ve found quite beneficial because it’s, it’s literally a, a weekly e-mail with different bits and bobs on it and you can dip in and out of it as you please. But then you’ve, it’s down to you to then follow-up from what they’ve linked, where it’s come from and who’s put it there in the first place. That’s a couple that I use and the one that we’re working on with this.

Obviously, that’s why I’m doing it because I think it would be very beneficial. I think it would be very good, especially in slightly more unusual circumstances where, for example, a parent has self-harmed and then a child self-harmed and, you know, there’s, there’s going to be people out there like that and there’s going to be people out there that think they’re the only ones. And even if that’s just a small comfort for someone to know that they’re not the only ones. This has happened before and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, it’s, it’s not them. It’s not their fault. This is the way things are nowadays and I think that could be very helpful and you can, you can talk to, to people and share experiences and, and ideas on how to handle things. Even if it’s just getting things off your chest or, you know, we had a really bad day to day, such and such happened and oh, you know, if you need to talk you can send me a message or if you need to talk to an expert, ask a doctor or look up, is this a side effect from something or is it a sign of something? Where do you go for help? And to have lots of links from there of where to go, who to talk to, where to get help in one place, would be very beneficial. 
 

Sharon had to run the household as well as visiting her daughter in hospital. She needs time for herself to keep well and support her child.

Sharon had to run the household as well as visiting her daughter in hospital. She needs time for herself to keep well and support her child.

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In practical terms, what sort of impact does it have on everyday life?

It makes it very busy. Although I have one less child at home, I work full time. My weekends are taken up with visiting and there’s only set visiting days and hours. You can’t just go anytime so the times that I do go I’m obviously there for a while. So that takes up two to three nights a week. I don’t have a car at the moment so I get buses, which is obviously extra time on the journey. Luckily, she’s very close to home but it’s, you know, to get there you’re talking three quarters of an hour there and three quarters of an hour back plus the time that you’re visiting. On top of that, you’ve got to do your normal household, keep the house clean. I still take her laundry and deliver stuff and I’ve still got a child who, although he’s eighteen, he’s still here, he’s still at home and he still needs support and looking after. So everything that comes with normal, normal life. There’s bills to pay. There’s a mortgage to sort out. There’s things are going to go wrong that need attention and I’ve got myself to, to look after. I think that’s the main thing I’ve learnt recently, is to, to have time for myself, not in the, in the sense of I need to be on my own but if I feel that I’m not doing very well, if I feel really tired and I can, I’ll have a sleep. Just simple things like that because I need to be well to look after her and to support her. This is the easy bit because she’s not here. It’s when she comes home it’s going to be the harder bit and I’ve got to be well and well enough in myself mentally and physically to be able to offer as much support as I can.
 

Sharon describes why she thought the psychiatrist treating her daughter (who had an eating disorder as well as self-harming) was ‘ideal’.

Sharon describes why she thought the psychiatrist treating her daughter (who had an eating disorder as well as self-harming) was ‘ideal’.

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What was it about the psychiatrist that you thought was ideal?

He’s I knew she wouldn’t be able to twist him round her finger. I could tell from the way he spoke to her that she wouldn’t get away with just shrugging her shoulders like she does because he’d just say, “Well, that’s not an answer is it.” And that, I don’t know, it was just his demeanour. It was firm but you could tell he cared. You can tell that he’s got experience. He’s been doing this for a long, long time and he wouldn’t get angry or frustrated with her if she wasn’t talking to him or, or anything. He’d voice his opinion. He’d talk to her and he’d ask her questions and I don’t know, it was just his, just his general demeanour. I knew that she wouldn’t take to him because of how she was but I knew that he’s the best thing for her, it’s just the, just the way he comes across.

He’s very fair and he always asks her opinion and asks her and involves her, whether she’ll voice anything or not, she’s always involved and he always makes a point of saying, “This is, you know, you, you can talk about this. You can ask me things. You can tell me things. If you want me to shut up and go away, tell me to shut up and go away and I will. If you don’t want to talk to me today, that’s fine, just let me know.” So she’s not pressured all the time and he, he keeps you up to date and he listens. He listens to her. She doesn’t think he does but he does. He listens to her opinions and he listens to, to mine and her father’s opinions and talking about things that have happened in the past. Things like, she was very concerned she wouldn’t be allowed to stay vegetarian. He said, that’s not an issue as long as she’s eating healthily. She was also very concerned that they’d make her gain an awful lot of weight to be a normal, as it were, weight when she’s always been a slim build but he’s listened that she’s always been a slim build. I took her, her red book from when she was a child, photos of when she was younger and more recently, like a few years ago, five years ago so they can see that she’s always been a slim build and he has taken that on board. And he does talk to her about it and he always explains to her why he’s doing what he’s doing and what he thinks they should be doing and then how does she feel about that, whether she answers or not, but he does engage with her and he’s, I don’t know, he’s just good. I like him.
 

Sharon thought the staff in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service were ‘brilliant’

Sharon thought the staff in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service were ‘brilliant’

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The CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service] team were very nice that came out and spoke to us. Then the psychiatrist from the unit came out and interviewed her and he was very good. She didn’t take to him straight away but I did. I thought he was ideal and, and the staff at the unit have been absolutely fantastic, absolutely fantastic because she’s had some foul moods. She’s had some really foul swings but they, they’re a brilliant team. They really are a brilliant team and she is very supported, regardless of what she says, depending on what mood she’s in, she does get an awful lot of support there. They are very good and they make me feel very, very supported. So we have the parent forum every week, where we can just sit back and have a coffee and a natter or ask something but the team is always there. I can phone any time to talk to any of them and they phone with regular updates or concerns or, or good news. So yeah, they’re, they’re really, really good.
 

Staff at the unit where Sharon’s daughter was an inpatient were experienced in all areas, not just eating disorders.

Staff at the unit where Sharon’s daughter was an inpatient were experienced in all areas, not just eating disorders.

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But now she’s got people around her that are experienced in all, all the areas, not just, it’s not a specialist eating disorder unit. They’re there for everything. Obviously, no sharp objects are allowed and they’re, they’re very mindful of what the young people have access to and it’s, it’s talked about and there’s other people there that have got similar issues. She has individual therapy with a named nurse. She speaks to a psychiatrist as well, well he tries to speak to her. She’s [laughs] she’s not keen on chatting to him but we also have, we’ve started family therapy as well now. 
 

Shouting and screaming won’t help, says Sharon. Keep your cool and find support for yourself.

Shouting and screaming won’t help, says Sharon. Keep your cool and find support for yourself.

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I think the first thing is on discovering that you suspect self-harm, don’t lose your rag and shout and scream at them. You’ll just drive it underground and scare them and upset them. Obviously, not every young person is going to turn round and say, “Oh, yeah, actually I have been doing this.” But try and be encouraging that there are places to talk, to go to, people to talk to. There is help out there. That it’s not a dark, nasty, seedy, disgusting habit or something that, that you think they’re just doing for attention because it isn’t always. You know, it’s and if, if you seen it, they’ve either let their guard down or they want you to see it. You know, that’s a little, a little acknowledgement that, they won’t admit it, but if they’ve enabled you to see what’s going on, that could be a little sign to say, “Look, you know. I need some help here.” And that’s what you’ve got to give them, is help and shouting and screaming and getting upset and stressed isn’t going to help. That, that’s just going to send them away. And you’ve got to find support for yourself. You’ve got to try and look, go to your GP, go online to a reliable source, phone a specialist and say, “Look, this is what I think is happening. How do I find out? What do I say? How do I broach it without upsetting or turning them away? What can I do?” And that’s, that’s, it needs to be there to for people to be able to look and say, “Look, this is what you can do.” There’s no rulebook. Try and keep your cool, I think that’s the main thing, and a hug goes a long way.
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