Black girls who cut themselves, and the pain of self-injury

african kings

Sometime last year, during the course of a seemingly normal evening, I spotted an oozing gash across my daughter’s forearm. I was sitting in bed when she casually popped into my room to ask me a question. The sight of the wound jolted me awake, and I winced because it was fresh, bright red and fairly deep.

“Skylar!” I gasped, pulling her to me for a closer examination. “What happened to your arm?” She waved away my concern in the nonchalant way that 12-year-olds do when they don’t feel like being bothered to go into the details their parents demand of them.

“Oh, I scratched it on a nail on the bulletin board in music class,” she told me. I knew it was a lie.

Usually, I commence to firing her up for even attempting to get one past me. This time, I left it alone for a few days. I wanted to pay closer attention before I unfurled any accusations. A week later, I spotted another cut. Then another. And another.

The discovery sent me into a panic. What did it mean? Was she suicidal? Even if she wasn’t, could she accidentally dig too deeply into her flesh and slice a major vein? It sounds so dramatic, but visions of waking up in the morning to find her in a pool of blood made me sick with worry.

Aside from watching anguished young white girls mutilate their bodies during the occasional episode of Intervention, I’d probably never had a concerted thought about self-injury. It just wasn’t part of our reality. I certainly didn’t know anyone personally who suffered from the urge to hurt themselves and, whenever I did run across a story, it was never about a black child. As a matter of fact, that cultural aspect ultimately made our situation even more complex. It’s been challenging to shed the stigma that self-injury is confined to white kids. Even I used to think that way.

I kept my daughter’s struggle with self-injury secret for a long time – this is actually the first time I’ve shared our story with a group outside of our circle of immediate family and close friends – partly because I felt like a failure as a mother, partly because I didn’t want anyone to write her off as a troubled child or a razor-wielding psycho.

She wasn’t. My baby was cutting herself – like others before her – to vent her hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy, awkwardness and despair. The point is not to commit suicide. The normal angst of puberty was exacerbated by a tenuous relationship with her father and drama with friends and classmates who seemed to have the most tumultuous, fine-one-day, chaotic-the-next relationships I’d ever seen, even among tweenagers. I’m sure I contributed to her frustration, too. To release the emotions she couldn’t verbally express, she cut her arm and eventually, her belly and thigh, too.