When Sophie got home, she was clearly unwell and I asked to see the cut. After a moment’s hesitation, she took off her shoes. It was immediately evident that the wound was serious. Infection had caused her foot to swell, a dark purplish stain was creeping up her leg and she was feverish. We rushed her to A&E, where cellulitis was diagnosed. This is a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection, and for the next three days she was on an antibiotic drip in the children’s ward.
Worse was to come, however, for when the nurses undressed her she struggled to conceal her forearms. When I saw the ladder of fine scars, some old and some very recent, on her perfect young skin I almost fainted with horror. I had had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Later, Sophie told me that she had deliberately allowed her foot to become infected. She said she had wanted to die – we hoped that what she really wanted was our help. The hospital immediately called its paediatric psychiatrist, and once our daughter was physically well, we were invited in for family therapy.
Further exploration of the subjects revealed other disturbing features. Our daughter was at an all-girls’ school, whose emphasis on academic and sporting prowess would, we had hoped, reinforce her self-confidence as a quirky individual we adored. She was precociously clever, funny, beautiful and apparently without a care in the world.
What we hadn’t counted on is the way that, in a school like this, competitiveness could apply not only to academic work or looks or popularity but also to self-harm. Our daughter had struggled to find a group of sympathetic friends. At 14, she fell in with a group of other girls whose rebellion took the form of cutting themselves in more and more bizarre ways. From what I have pieced together over the years, it was almost a form of showing off to each other: who had the most cuts? Who had the deepest? Who could cut themselves just before a lesson, or in a school toilet?
I have no doubt that girls and women have always turned their anger and fearfulness in on themselves; fairy tales are too full of women like Cinderella’s sisters cutting their heels in order to fit into too-small shoes for it to be a coincidence, or even a metaphor for the onset of puberty. But I also see this as a hidden epidemic among our young.
I believe that the contemporary craze for tattooing is a part of this. While some do it in the belief that a tattoo makes them look more interesting, many self-harmers have talked to me of deriving the same sensation of “release” from the (milder) pain of tattooing needles that they had from razors.
So, if your child has this addiction, or affliction, how do you move forward? We were deeply concerned for our child, but the family therapy we were offered in hospital was, we quickly decided, a waste of time. Discussing our family’s dynamic with a panel of shrinks, in our daughter’s