Reporter: Tara Brown
Producers: Stephen Taylor, Ali Smith
It's hard to imagine anything more confounding: the idea that someone could deliberately hurt themselves over and over again. And all to make themselves feel better inside.
It's a hidden epidemic. And yet, doctors estimate at least two million Australians self-injure - usually by cutting into their own skin.
Many sufferers are vulnerable teenagers, often dismissed as simply self-destructive or attention seeking.
But the young women you'll meet on Sunday night say that's not what it's about.
They also insist they don't want to die. In fact, they claim hurting themselves is the only way they can stay alive.
Viewers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.
Phone number: (07) 5478 0202.
Facebook: Self Injury Recovery
Facebook: Therapy for Self Injury.
STORY – TARA BROWN: At 24, Ally Dower likes to play with fire. She loves the edginess of it – the buzz that one mistake might lead to disaster. But this is not the most dangerous thing she does.
ALLY: I don’t remember why I chose self-harm. The chaos and the feelings that were all trapped inside my head got to a point where I needed something.
TARA BROWN: Since she was a young teenager, Ally has frequently cut and scratched herself, slicing open her arms and legs. Self-harm has been her only way of coping with overwhelming anxiety.
ALLY: I was a balloon that was over-filled, and this little cut or this little scratch would open up a tiny section of the balloon – and it wouldn’t pop, it would just be able to release a little bit of pressure.
TARA BROWN: Was it addictive?
ALLY: Yes. I didn’t even think before I went and used that tool, before I went and self-harmed, because I knew it would work.
TARA BROWN: Ally Dower is not alone. You might not be familiar with the self-injury phenomenon, but 200,000 Australians harm themselves each month. 26-year-old Jessica is one of them. She’s been cutting herself since she was 14. The scars on her body mirror immeasurable emotional pain. Can you actually tell me what it physically feels like to cut yourself?
JESSICA: It stings like mad at first, and then you kind of go numb for a moment. And you get this like, rush. It’s like all of a sudden you can breathe. It’s like - you feel like you have an elephant sitting on your chest to start with, and then once you cut it just - it’s released. And you just go, “Ah, I can breathe.” I can breathe for that moment. But then the guilt comes, and it’s - it’s not worth it.
TARA BROWN: Jess and Ally have found the courage to let us into the secret world. All they want is understanding for a condition that most often attracts loathing and ridicule. They both felt an inexplicable drive to hurt themselves, and once they started, they couldn’t stop.
JESSICA: I found the sharpest thing in the sewing kit and I just sliced up my arms. And that moment I kind of realised I’d found it - something to break the depression momentarily. As much as I hated it. I felt guilty and psycho and crazy and I had no idea what I was doing.
TARA BROWN: But you must have also felt good, for you to keep doing it.
JESSICA: Yeah, it gave me that – that temporary relief.
TARA BROWN: Relief from the anguish of sexual abuse. For two years, from the age of 11, Jess was preyed upon by an adult close to the family.
JESSICA: I thought that it was my fault, that I was the one who caused the sexual abuse to happen in the first place, that I was somehow luring that person. And yeah, I felt like everything was out of control. Except the cutting. Yep. That’s the only thing I felt like I had control over.
TARA BROWN: It’s not just sexual abuse. The reasons people hurt themselves are many, but it’s the numbers that really worry psychiatrist, Professor Graham Martin. His own recent study identifies for the first time the true extent of this epidemic.
GRAHAM: 8% of our population has at some stage hurt themselves deliberately to manage some kind of emotion. 8%. Now you could say, “Well, 8% is a very small number really.” It’s nearly two million people!
TARA BROWN: That’s a lot of people in pain?
GRAHAM: Yes. It is a mix of sadness, and anxiety, and panic that is so painful they just can’t put up with it.
JO: Here comes Daddy. Hi Daddy! Hi Daddy!
TARA BROWN: If there’s any need for proof that self-harm doesn’t discriminate, meet Jo Fincham.
JO: It’s a good playground.
TARA BROWN: A great playground.
JO: And it’s a great place to bring up kids.
TARA BROWN: On the surface, she has everything: an idyllic existence on the land, a beautiful baby daughter, and the farmer - her husband Rob.
JO: We’ve talked about marriage. And about, like, living on the farm.
TARA BROWN: Famously, Jo and Rob fell in love on ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’ three years ago.
JO: You’re gorgeous.
TARA BROWN: But behind the fairy-tale is a lifelong struggle with the urge to hurt herself.
ROB: She’s a cracker, isn’t she?
JO: I remember it so clearly, the first day that it happened. And, um. Sorry. Just getting a bit – sorry. Um, it was - um, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just an immediate reaction. I just thought that the first thing that I had to do was to hurt myself. And so, and that was the catalyst of the beginning of it, which, you know, went on for years.
TARA BROWN: At 35, Jo last hurt herself 18 months ago, but still she fights the impulse to cut, scratch or burn. Those who do it say it’s about having some control in their life. But, as Jo first discovered as a 14-year-old, it’s a condition that very quickly takes control. At its worst, how often were you doing this to yourself?
JO: I would have been cutting or scratching myself daily. It was always done in places that were hidden, that were secretive. Like webbing in fingers, in toes. Um, tops of my legs, cause I don’t like to show the top of my legs.
MARIA: You just looked fabulous on the night. You really – you really, I thought, mmm, Audrey Hepburn, eat your heart out. You looked gorgeous.
ALLY: Oh, thank you.
TARA BROWN: Like Jo, high school was not a happy time for Ally Dower. She was a perfectionist who couldn’t meet her own demands. She was bullied and she was drowning in anxiety. Her only relief was to mark her body, to the heartache of her mum, Maria.
MARIA: It was amazing, actually, that we could find gloves to cover all that mess up. Well it was. It was disgusting.
ALLY: Thank you. I guess, for me, self-harm was my way of saying, I’m hurting myself because there is stuff going on up here and I don’t know how to stop it.
TARA BROWN: I’m hurting myself because it makes me feel better?
ALLY: Yeah, I’m – yeah, and - and that’s the biggest irony is, it does. It’s so utterly effective and it does make you feel better.
TARA BROWN: When you saw those marks on Ally’s arms, for the first time, what did you think, and what did you feel?
MARIA: I thought, what could be so bad that you would want to cause - inflict that sort of pain on yourself?
TARA BROWN: Were you horrified by it?
MARIA: I was absolutely stunned. I – I didn’t actually know what to do.
TARA BROWN: Maria did do everything she could. She relied on professional help and her mothering instincts - rubbing cream into her daughter’s scars, which means she is no longer scarred. But for Ally, her mum’s efforts only left her feeling ashamed and isolated.
ALLY: It almost felt like I was - I wasn’t allowed to be who I was at that point in time.
MARIA: But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, “Ok, it’s alright, go ahead and do it.” I just couldn’t have.
TARA BROWN: Is that what you wanted to hear?
ALLY: I didn’t want to be told that what I was doing was so horrendous, and so bad, and so, “Oh my god, how could you possibly do that to yourself, how could you be hurting yourself?”
TARA BROWN: Jessica had a similar reaction when her self-injury was discovered. Her family was angry and scared. But she’s also felt scorn from others. So the people who are negative towards you about it, what do they say your motivation is?
TARA BROWN: And is it?
JESSICA: It’s not about attention-seeking for the sake of attention-seeking, or being cool, or copying other people, or fitting in or anything - that has nothing to do with that.
TARA BROWN: Is it about trying to take your own life?
JESSICA: No. It’s actually a survival tool. It prevented me from trying to take my own life for a very long time, because at least I had that moment of relief. It’s not a suicide attempt.
TARA BROWN: Even the medical profession has difficulty understanding those who harm themselves. According to Professor Graham Martin, some are loathe to treat them - with compassion, or even anaesthetic.
GRAHAM: I hear of therapists running away. I hear of people in hospital running away. Nursing staff who can’t face up to somebody who has cut themselves deliberately. Because they’re not important, and they did it to themselves, and they’re just attention seeking. I don’t believe any of that. I think when somebody goes to these lengths, they need help.
JO: It’s a bit of a chance to have a bit of a chin-wag about what’s going on in schools.
TARA BROWN: Jo Fincham is one who does want to help.
STUDENT: How did you cope with it?
TARA BROWN: Regularly, Jo talks to young people in the hope they’ll talk back.
JO: There is no shame in admitting that you have a problem, and there is no shame in admitting that you need help. Because I’m quite normal, and I was a self-mutilator.
TARA BROWN: In some way, helping others gives Jo the strength to resist the baffling temptation to hurt herself when life gets tough. Are you happy now?
JO: I’m really happy, yeah. And it’s - I’m, you know, I’ve got a fantastic husband, I’ve got a beautiful family, I’ve got, you know, Darcy, our daughter - we’re trying for another baby and um, you know, I just feel like life is really good at the moment.
TARA BROWN: Everyone copes differently. Ally uses a super list of strategies, designed to take up every minute of her day. On top of full time work and full time study, there’s Fruit Ninja, meditation, and music. And if it’s still all too much, there’s the ice tray.
ALLY: So, I just have like, ice cubes. You may have two.
TARA BROWN: Oh thanks.
ALLY: And so you - basically, you just hold it. And you hold it in your hands as tight as you can, and it doesn’t hurt for the first couple of seconds, and then it starts hurting.
TARA BROWN: It might hurt, but the ice won’t harm.
ALLY: Yeah, it obviously can be a little bit uncomfortable.
TARA BROWN: It’s cold! This technique satisfies the urge to cut, without drawing blood or leaving scars. Does it actually feel like self-harm to you? Is this the actual sensation?
ALLY: It’s like a dulled-down version of self-harm.
TARA BROWN: The good news for Ally Dower is that she’s winning the fight to stop hurting herself. She still thinks about it too much, but hasn’t done it for more than two years.
ALLY: Today I experience wisdom, laughter, and harmony of thoughts. It’s huge, because there was a time where I was self-harming every day.
TARA BROWN: Does that make you feel good about yourself?
ALLY: It makes me feel like there’s nothing that I couldn’t achieve.
TARA BROWN: That must be a good feeling?
ALLY: Yeah, it does feel good. Still getting used to that idea.
TARA BROWN: When you look at your scars today, what do you think of them?
ALLY: I feel like they’re my battle scars. They tell a story. And they’re a part of me now.
TARA BROWN: Jessica’s journey continues to be a difficult one. Her emotional pain hasn’t gone away, but thankfully the way she controls it has changed dramatically. After more than a decade, she’s finally breaking her addiction.
TARA BROWN: Do you think you’ll ever stop?
JESSICA: Yes. It’s been two or three months now since I last harmed myself.
TARA BROWN: But when did you last have the urge to do it?
JESSICA: Two days ago. But I’ll stop. Eventually, I will stop.
TARA BROWN: I hope so.
JESSICA: I will. I know I will.
TARA BROWN: The young women who spoke to us are working to build better and healthier lives for themselves and others. So, if you self-harm or are tempted to hurt yourself, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. They are there to help.