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Vicki

Age at interview: 44
Brief Outline: Vicki is scared about the long-term implications of her teenage daughter’s self-harming, but she thinks positively about the future and hopes that her daughter will be helped by cognitive behavioural therapy.
Background: Vicki is a 44 year old life coach. She lives with her partner, two of her own children and her stepson. Ethnic background: White British.

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Vicki noticed some cat-like scratches on her 14 year-old daughter’s arm and asked her if she was self-harming. Her daughter admitted that she was, and had been hiding her unhappiness over several months. She was very worried about her boyfriend, who was threatening to kill himself. A few months before this she had been the victim of online sexual harassment, and although this had now stopped, Vicki thought her daughter was still very affected by it, including developing social anxiety symptoms. Her daughter also told Vicki that she thought her unhappiness started when her parents split up several years previously.

Vicki was very scared about the self-harm and worried about the long-term implications. She also felt guilty that she hadn’t realised the extent of her daughter’s suffering, and angry with the boyfriend for causing such worry. She says she felt guilty that she and her husband had split up, as maybe her daughter would not then have met her boyfriend, but she realised that this was an idealised vision of what life might have been like. In her work as a life coach Vicki accentuates the positive side of life, and she wonders if this made her seem unapproachable when her daughter needed to talk about bad things happening to her.

Vicki suggested that they went to their GP, but her daughter was reluctant because she felt that the cutting helped her deal with her feelings. They did go to their GP, who was very helpful and referred them for cognitive behaviour therapy. The therapy has not yet started, but they found an Introduction to Therapy workshop useful. 

Vicki’s partner can’t understand the behaviour, but is very supportive. Her ex-husband was very worried and has made an effort to spend more time engaging with their daughter when she visits him at weekends. Vicki has chosen not to tell her step-son, who is 18, about the self-harm just yet, as she thinks he might not be sympathetic. Her 26 year-old son showed his concern for his sister by telling her that he loved her and was always there for her, but both he and his sister agreed that they felt more comfortable with their usual bantering relationship. Vicki’s eldest son is a GP and he has also been supportive. Vicki has been helped by talking to a friend whose niece self-harms, because she understands how helpless you can feel. Another friend who is a life coach has given her positive reinforcement– Vicki says the last thing she wants is someone saying ‘Poor you, isn’t that terrible for you.’

Vicki’s mother was an alcoholic and Vicki herself has suffered from depression and anxiety. She wonders if this might have affected her daughter. Vicki’s sister, brother and one of her sons have had treatment for depression, anger management and anxiety. Vicki learnt from coping with her mother’s alcoholism that you can’t force someone to change against their will, and this is helping her to be more relaxed in relation to her daughter – she will give her every opportunity to get help, but it is her choice whether to accept it. 

Vicki once had a boyfriend who killed himself and although she felt guilty at first, she now says that if someone is bent on suicide you can’t be held responsible. She has told her daughter not to blame herself if her boyfriend does take his own life.

Vicki has found useful information about self-harm on the internet and is helped by hearing other people’s stories. She likes the Young Minds site because it has advice for parents as well as teenagers. She copes by doing meditation and relaxation, and by thinking positively about the future. She hopes that her daughter will be helped by the therapy and that she will be taught different ways to cope with bad experiences in future.

Vicki advises GPs to learn about self-harm and its effects on families, and not to brush aside anyone who comes to them with these problems. She says to parents and carers: ‘Don’t feel alone. It’s hard not to feel guilty because you feel so responsible for your child, but treat the self-harm as their pathway to learning about themselves. If your child wants therapy that’s fantastic, but if they don’t, keep supporting them and give them unconditional love… Stay very strong, look after yourself well and just be there and be loving.’
 

Vicki thought an abusive online relationship had a massive effect on her daughter.

Vicki thought an abusive online relationship had a massive effect on her daughter.

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But there was also a previous incident, which we all believe had contributed to the self-harming, was that in February this year she told me that, no, actually, she hadn’t told me in February. This was when it was going on. She told me in about the summertime, the June, that a boy from school, who she’d befriended, he was an older boy, and they’d kind of struck up a gaming relationship to start with. They used to play online games together and then he asked her to go into Skype conversations with him, which she did. And this kind of snowballed into her kind of being groomed to take off her clothes in front of the Skype camera and perform acts of a sexual nature in front of the camera and she, eventually, told me after this had been going on for probably about six months I think. 

And we contacted the police and the police arrested the guy from school the day after and they seized all the equipment and we’re quite confident that everything was seized and all the stuff that he had on her was destroyed. And we thought, at the time, that she was okay about it all but, looking back on it, I don’t think she had enough support after all this had gone on. I made the decision at the time with the lad that we weren’t going to pursue it through the courts because the main thing for me was that all the stuff had been destroyed. He was obviously, had problems of his own and I didn’t particularly want it carrying of for months and months through the courts and thought it would be best for everyone if it was just put to bed. 

But I think that’s had a massive effect on her and she’d hidden a lot of it and when we actually did get to be talking about her cutting she said, “Nobody realises how upset I am and how down I am and I put on a brave face.” 
 

Vicki's daughter said she was more likely to self-harm when she was upset and worried about her friend.

Vicki's daughter said she was more likely to self-harm when she was upset and worried about her friend.

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She said she was really struggling. And I knew that she had a friend, who was going through various different problems of his own, and he had, in fact, taken an overdose and he was all right again but she was really worried about him. And quite often he would contact her and then go off radar, which I thought was a little bit unfair on her that that she was being told, “Oh, I feel bad. I feel suicidal.” And then he would he would go off radar and she would she would be feeling, you know, really, really anxious about that. And she said that she felt most like self-harming when she was upset about him.
 

Vicki learnt from dealing with her mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work.

Vicki learnt from dealing with her mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work.

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My mother was an alcoholic. She died three years ago and again, that’s a kind of self self-harm and I learnt from dealing with my mum that getting upset about people and begging them to make changes doesn’t work. It has to come from within. You can never influence or force someone to change and that is one of the things that’s helping me at the moment in that I have to be a little bit relaxed about this. I have to just give her every opportunity to get help but I can’t force it on her and I do say this to her that, “This is this is up to you. This is your choice.” 

Let me think - anyone else who’s had, yeah, my sister, she’s had depression. My brother’s had anger management.  Her eldest brother, who’s a doctor, he’s had CBT for anxiety. So there there’s lots of cases of it in our in our family so yeah, we’re quite we’re quite used to dealing with it I suppose now. 

So you’re, there’s a practical kind of benefit from...

Yeah, there is.

That in a sense, yeah.

Yeah. Yeah.

And before I asked you the question, did you make those connections yourself in your head about family experiences and what’s happening to your daughter?

Yeah, definitely, especially after reading on the website that a history of mental illness in the family can also be a factor towards self-harming but we’ve never had actually, we’ve never had a self-harmer, apart from like my mum who was alcoholic, no, we’ve never had a self-harmer.

Yeah.

And I suppose possibly my brother with the anger management I know that I’ve also read that that boys sometimes don’t get diagnosed as self-harm because they will punch things and hurt themselves and it’s not really perceived as self-harm but that, I know my brother definitely did that. And he would he actually broke his hand and busted it up once just through sheer, sheer punching the walls and things. So I kind of classify that as a kind of self-harm too.
 

Vicki is concerned about the effects of internet abuse on her daughter.

Vicki is concerned about the effects of internet abuse on her daughter.

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I obviously, felt really, really angry with this this guy who’d been manipulating her but I do think there is a thing with the with the internet at the moment that kids almost treat it like it’s not real and I was asking myself questions like, “Okay. Would I be more upset if he was physically abusing her?” In the end, I think it had a very similar effect on her on her psyche whether he’d done it online or whatever. The only good thing is that she wasn’t in physical danger. She couldn’t have got pregnant. 

She couldn’t have got harmed in any way like that but I am concerned about it, going forward, what sort of effect it will have on her relationships with people in in the future and she says she is very, finds it very difficult to trust people. But I think I think the main thing that was going through my head was damage limitation. I wanted to take away the main threat, which was all this stuff being uploaded to the internet and her having other people see it, and protecting her from too much rubbish in the future.
 

Vicki knew about self-harm through a friend’s niece so was able to recognize the signs and ask her daughter directly if she was harming herself.

Vicki knew about self-harm through a friend’s niece so was able to recognize the signs and ask her daughter directly if she was harming herself.

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You said when you noticed the scratches that you knew what it was. Can you say a bit more about that, about how you knew?

I had an idea that that’s what it was because I have a friend who has who has a niece who had self-harmed and we’ve had conversations about that so I know that it exists and I and I know what it what it can look like and yeah, I sort of basically had to ask her, you know, “Is that something that that you’ve done to yourself or have you had some sort of accident?’ And she was, you know, she was quite open in saying, “Yes, I have been.” So, yeah.
 

Vicki uses her professional skills to encourage her family to talk positively.

Vicki uses her professional skills to encourage her family to talk positively.

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Are there any positive things that you think come out of your professional world?

Yeah, I think I think there’s lots of lots of positive things that that do come out of it. We’re always talking about mind set. We’re always talking about the fact of, you know, if you think you can do something or if you think you can’t do something, either way you’re right. These kind of things, which are about how keeping positive thoughts in your head can actually make life so much easier and negative spirals are also very, very easy to slip into. 

Even when we’re talking round the dinner table and somebody’s said they’ve had a crap day, it’s like, “Okay. Let’s talk about that but also what’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?” And we, you know, we do try and get everyone, it sounds a bit cheesy sometimes doesn’t it, stuff like that, but we just try and get everyone to focus on good stuff and to have good goals to reach for and be very aware that the media and TV programmes and newspapers and magazines are full of a lot of sensationalised rubbish and you can actually start to believe that this is a reality. Whereas in fact the reality is what you make inside your own head and you can choose to become part of a negative mind set and you can choose to be a positive person. And I’m hoping that this this drip feed she’s had of all this positivity will actually help her in the future to understand how she can think her way towards helping herself. 
 

Vicki Googled ‘self-harm’ and found several helpful sites.

Vicki Googled ‘self-harm’ and found several helpful sites.

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Initially, I just I just Googled "self-harm" and just dotted through the websites and I looked on the YoungMinds. I can’t even remember the names of all the ones I looked at now and I am aware that when you do go on the internet, you get, you can get unreliable information so you have to take things with a bit of a pinch of salt. I looked on the NHS website and I think I found one called, Where’s Your Head At, which is a local authority kind of, that that was pretty good and I like I like the way it has things for teenagers and for parents as well, very much like the YoungMinds, because you are in this together and it’s good to have advice for both. But yeah, it was just generally looking for… I Googled self-harm, treatment for self-harm, self-harm symptoms and self-harm causes, all sorts really and just spent, I was just looking at different types of information.

And was that a one-off single occasion information splurge or did you go back to it.

Oh I went back to it.

Time and again?

Yes, yeah, I sort of, I think probably the first day I spent a good couple of hours and then, you know, occasionally, I’ll pick up my iPad my notepad and just have another look and see what’s happening.

And do you still do that?

I’m doing it less and less. I think that the further we get down to her getting treatment yeah, I feel like I’m kind of got to a point where I’ve got enough information and a lot more information, I don’t know if it would help me at the moment.
 

Vicki’s two sons were concerned about their sister and gave her support.

Vicki’s two sons were concerned about their sister and gave her support.

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We told her older brother, who’s actually living here. He’s twenty six. He was he was very concerned and there was this, you know, this moment where he went to have a little chat with her and, normally, he’s very, he just, basically, takes the mick out of her and normal like annoying older brother who just has a laugh with her. And he just went up to sort of basically say, “Look, [sister name]. I’m here for you if you need me. I love you very much and no matter how much of this banter we have between us, you know, I’m here for you.” And he came down, after talking to her in her bedroom, “I don’t know how long I can keep this sort of thing up. I need to go back to being the annoying brother.” And she came down after that and she said, “I hope he’s not going to be like this this all the time because it’s just a bit weird.” [Laughs]. So they both decided to, you know, just go back to their normal relationship and it’s all cool and…

I told her eldest brother who’s actually a GP. He’s quite, he’s very close to her, even though they, you know, they live quite a long way apart, but he will phone her and he will talk to her and, obviously, he was one of the first people I phoned when I when I realised. And he said he said, “Okay. Just bear in mind, when you do go and see your GP, that not all of them are tremendously sympathetic or understanding or. So if you if you don’t get any joy from this GP then come back and talk to me and we’ll, you know, think of another route and...” But luckily, the GP was very, very good and very understanding and, you know, got us there straight away but yeah, so he was, he’s a bit more, I suppose worldly wise than perhaps her other brother was and was able to think, “Okay. I do understand something about this condition.” And it was more about, you know, realising that she just needs lots of support and he chats to her regularly. He’ll phone up and come and visit and just being, you know, a great, great brother. 
 

Vicki has thought and read a lot about suicide. She realises it is hard to prevent and hopes that therapy will help her daughter to avoid feeling suicidal in response to bad experiences.

Vicki has thought and read a lot about suicide. She realises it is hard to prevent and hopes that therapy will help her daughter to avoid feeling suicidal in response to bad experiences.

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You do worry, you do think, oh god, what if anything else bad happens? Will it tip them over the edge and, you know, that the thoughts of suicide, that that’s a big worry and just makes you a little bit more sensitive to everything and you feel a bit more protective and questioning of your parenting skills and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s the, it’s a general overall global impact. It has it has an effect on everything in the in the family life when you’ve got somebody who’s struggling like that, it’s tough. It makes everyone sort of a little bit more on edge and a little bit your stress levels do rise, yeah, definitely. 

Have you come across in your reading an association between self-harm and suicide?

I have read that a lot of the time that self-harming actually prevents the suicide – it’s a coping mechanism but also there are incidences of people who commit suicide have been self-harming in in the past. So that there is a relationship but it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you self-harm you’re more prone to suicide. That’s what I’ve learnt. 

Very nice summary of that literature but I was just wondering how that affected your own fears for, about suicide that you’ve that you’ve mentioned.

I had a boyfriend who committed suicide once and that actually caused me to process a lot of my own thoughts around it. Initially, I felt very, very responsible and, as time has gone on, I realise that I couldn’t have prevented it. I did a lot of reading and stuff around suicide at that at that time and yes, I know that that no matter what is happening, what, no matter what how much you try and influence somebody, if somebody is hell bent on suicide then then they’re going to do it and you can’t you can’t be responsible. And this is something I’ve told her as well about her friend who has taken the overdose and thinks about suicide it’s, you will never be, never blame yourself. You will feel guilty, of course you will, but it will never be your fault. And obviously, when I’m thinking about my daughter, I can rationalise it that it wouldn’t be my fault if she ever did commit suicide but it still wouldn’t make it better. It’s still something that I want to prevent and I’m hoping that the therapy will help her before it ever gets to that sort of point.
 

For Vicki’s family the impact of her child’s self-harm was like ‘being hit by a sledgehammer’.

For Vicki’s family the impact of her child’s self-harm was like ‘being hit by a sledgehammer’.

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The overall impact has been one of initially, being hit by a sledgehammer [laughs] and it does make other things a little bit harder to deal with because you’re on you’re on this sort of heightened level of stress, even though you know you can really try hard to stay positive, there is still, it’s it does affect everything. It, you do, you do worry, you do think, oh god, what if anything else bad happens? Will it tip them over the edge and, you know, that the thoughts of suicide, that that’s a big worry and just makes you a little bit more sensitive to everything and you feel a bit more protective and questioning of your parenting skills and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s the, it’s a general overall global impact. 

It has it has an effect on everything in the in the family life when you’ve got somebody who’s struggling like that, it’s tough. It makes everyone sort of a little bit more on edge and a little bit your stress levels do rise, yeah, definitely. 
 

Vicki wanted to help her daughter by understanding why she self-harmed and supporting her.

Vicki wanted to help her daughter by understanding why she self-harmed and supporting her.

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Can you talk a bit about how you feel information helps you?

I think it’s getting an understanding of why people feel it helps and looking at other people’s case studies, just hearing other people’s stories, makes you feel like you’re less alone in it all and you can gain a lot of strength from that kind of thing, even though you don’t know these people, it’s like, okay, it’s good to it’s good to hear that other people have had the same sort of emotions and as yet, I don’t know if I’ve been able to find anything that can truly help me help her with the actual act of self-harming. I think that’s all got to be down to, getting right down to the root cause of why she feels like doing it in the first place. And there’s all sorts of things like how to deflect the need to harm by things like crushing up paper, holding ice cubes and she’s just like, “Mm. Nah [laughs] I don’t think so.” One of, one of the things is a cold shower and she says no, are you mad? What could be more mad - a cold shower or [laughs] yeah. At the moment, I haven’t been able to find anything that that I feel can make a real impact so it’s all about just supporting her through to the therapy stage and hoping that all her mind can be unpicked and put back together again in a way that that’s good for her, so yeah.
 

Vicki realises it’s hard not to feel guilty, but advises other parents not to blame themselves but to stay strong in order to support their child.

Vicki realises it’s hard not to feel guilty, but advises other parents not to blame themselves but to stay strong in order to support their child.

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I think to other parents and carers, it’s don’t feel alone. Try not to feel guilty. It’s very it’s very hard not to feel guilty because you feel so responsible for your child but treat it as their pathway to learning about themselves. I think sometimes things need to get really bad before they get better and that if your child does want to get therapy, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, keep supporting them anyway and keep giving them that unconditional love because that’s what everyone needs. It may be that one day they will feel able to get to get treatment but don’t blame yourself too much because having a negative worried parent around, I don’t think is helpful. I think if you can stay balanced and if you can stay normal and keep being supportive because you can’t be supportive if you’re a mess yourself. You have to stay very, very strong for that person who’s struggling. And yeah, look after yourself well and just be there and be loving.
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