An excerpt from “I Only Said” it didn't hurt.
(Marsha is in group)
Miss Tina breaks into my thoughts.
“Today we’re going to look at another aspect of cutting… doing it for attention. Has anyone in this room ever cut so that they would get their parents’ attention?”
She looks around the room. Two kids raise their hands gingerly and look embarrassed.
“That’s how it started for me,” a girl says honestly.
“Me, too,” the other one adds.
“It can be a big problem,” Miss Tina says seriously. “I have no doubt that kids who do this are driven by the same pent-up pressure and pain that has driven most of you to cut in the past. But these kids are not like you who cut in secret and do almost anything so that you’re not discovered. Inadvertently, these kids learn that, when they cut, they get more attention than when they don’t, and so in order to hold someone’s attention, they cut more and more.”
She shakes her head, looking as if she’s in pain.
“These kids scare me to death, because the attention they get is dishonest, and it’ll never be enough for them, so they’re driven to cut more and more. Often they make increasingly more lethal cuts until one day they will kill themselves. Oh, they don’t mean to die, but they’re determined to hold their parents’ attention. Letting out pent-up pressure and pain becomes secondary to their addiction… seeking their parents’ attention. They do this because they don’t believe they can get attention any other way, and in many instances they can’t. That’s what’s so sad.”
She’s quiet for a moment; so are we. I’ve never cut for attention. I’ve always hidden it because I was ashamed of what I was doing. The two girls who owned up to cutting for attention look upset. I think they’re awesome for being so honest, and I smile at them.
“Remember what I told you about some families having hidden rules that say, ‘Don’t feel anything.’ Well, a child in a family like that would be very isolated. Think about it. When you share your emotions and feelings, you get loads of attention. Those who can’t feel anything subconsciously seek another way to get the attention they need and deserve. Sometimes they play mind games, which are fairly harmless but stop them from being truly intimate with others from their ‘Spontaneous Me’s.’”
I glance at Franklin and he smiles at me.
“But other times things get more serious. If they cut and their parents get into a panic, not only will they get attention but they also learn that they can manipulate their parents. That’s really bad, though, because the more a child can manipulate his parents, the more unsafe that child will feel. And the more unsafe that child feels, the more distress he will feel and the urge to cut will increase. Can you see how it’s a vicious circle?”
She shakes her head again, and says, “You’ve no idea how sad it makes me feel, and how much it scares me, because a child like that will push and push, desperate to get more and more attention until one day they’ll cut too hard and will die.”
One of the girls who put her hand up speaks out.
“That’s how it was for me. I felt awful all the time. My parents never gave me any attention; it was like I never existed. I hurt so badly inside. At first I started cutting to let my feelings out, but then when I noticed how much attention my parents gave me when they saw the blood, I got addicted to it. Every time they ignored me, or took me for granted, I cut myself, and they would stop what they were doing to give me some attention. After a while I felt hooked. I couldn’t stop doing it. In the end I cut even though I didn’t have any pent-up feelings to release.”
“Thank you for being so honest, dear,” Miss Tina says. “You’ve described perfectly how this can happen. What can adults do when faced with this situation so that they deal with it but don’t reinforce it?”
“What does that mean?” Leisha asks.
“Reinforcing means, if I reward your behavior, you’re more likely to repeat that behavior.”
“So,” Miss Tina continues, “if the parents, or whoever patches you up after you’ve cut yourself, show any kindness or concern, which of course they will, it will reinforce the cutting behaviour. How do you think adults should handle it?” No one speaks.
“If a kid stands in front of me with blood dripping from his/her arms, my ‘Nurturing Me’ kicks in, which is what these kids are craving. But by being nurturing, I’m encouraging them to cut again. What can I do?” Miss Tina asks us again.
Macy speaks out. “I think you should clean up the mess and ignore it as much as you can, but give the kid attention for something else.”
“Oh, Macy, you’re so smart,” Miss Tina says. “Yes, that’s a good idea, because then you won’t reinforce the cutting behavior, but you will reinforce safe behavior.”
“I have a story about all of this. It’s about the hidden rule, ‘Don’t feel,’ that’s passed down from generation to generation, and how a child learns to get the only attention that’s available to her. It shows you how it can happen, and how once you know these things, there’s no blame, only understanding. Once you understand where everyone in the family’s coming from, how can you feel blame? The story’s called, ‘The Vile Curse.’”
I shift in my chair and move Sharsha around so that we’re comfortable. Miss Tina starts to read from some papers.
Far, far away in the land that bobbed in and out of view depending upon the sea mist, high up in the snow-covered mountains, there lived a princess. She lived with her parents, the king and queen. As a baby, Princess Joy had lain in her golden cradle alone beneath a vast portrait, which hung on the wall of the great hall. It was a picture of an ancient king and queen on their wedding day, both sitting on their thrones, rigid and unsmiling, their eyes cold and piercing. To the right of the portrait was a lectern with a great, golden book, not a Bible, but a book that told of the way to be, according to the ancient king and queen.
Some say that a cloud of joylessness shrouded the castle and all who lived in it, a legacy left from the icy, rigid king and queen who ruled hundreds of years ago, who watched from the great hall wall and whose words were spoken and followed through the ages.
The infant princess howled in her cradle, fear prickling along her spine beneath the ancient king and queen’s frozen gaze, one that shriveled her sense of play and comfort. Her parents, who were also anxious beneath their gaze, left their beautiful daughter alone to cry, believing the words written in the great, golden book, “Don’t be too close to other people, for they may steal your land and your worth.” “Don’t be concerned with feelings, for they are for fools and will weaken you,” and “Don’t allow your children to play and have fun, or you will lose control of them.”
As Princess Joy grew up, she shivered beneath the piercing eyes of the king and queen in the portrait that seemed to follow her wherever she went… she was never free from their disapproval.
Deep within the castle, the king’s cook poured a cup of tea and spoke to the gardener and anyone that would listen to her.
“Tis a shame, no good will come of it. I remember when Princess Joy was a baby crying in her cradle, and the nurse begged to be allowed to pick her up, but the king and queen read from the great, golden book.” She shook her head.
“They read, ‘Don’t be too close to other people, for they may steal your land and your worth.’ ‘Don’t be concerned with feelings, for they are for fools and for the weak,’ and ‘Don’t allow your children to play and have fun, or you will lose control of them.’ What rubbish; that’s what I say.” She sounded angry and the gardener looked afraid.
“Don’t let the king and queen hear you talk like that,” the gardener said, “or they’ll send us away and then what will become of our own children? We won’t be able to feed and clothe them.”
The cook was angry and slammed the pots and pans down, knowing that he was right.
“Doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, does it?” she muttered. “It’s a crying shame, that’s what it is. Every child should be allowed to play and have fun, every child should know the joy of being close to others and feeling everything, good and bad, sweet and painful. How do you know if you’re alive if you don’t feel anything? I’ll say it again, it’s a crying shame, that’s what it is.”
She slammed her rolling pin down onto a lump of pastry and began rolling with gusto. “What I’d like to do to all those kings and queens that have done nothing to lift the cloud of joylessness that hangs over this castle,” she hissed.
The gardener left the kitchen, praying that she’d be quiet, for her words, although true, were dangerous. Once heard, they forced the listener to look deep into their hearts and question the words written in the great, golden book. He knew she was right, but he was afraid.
Princess Joy looked out of the castle window with pain in her heart as she watched the servants’ children darting around the castle grounds, laughing and playing. How she longed to join them, but she knew that it was impossible. She had asked years ago and suffered her parents’ disapproval as they read from the great, golden book that told of how one should be, and their displeasure had shriveled her heart further. So the cloud of joylessness continued to darken the castle and their hearts. Not even the cook’s efforts to please Princess Joy made her smile, for over time she had forgotten how to smile. Deep within her was a well of pain, one that was so deep that she couldn’t remember how it had begun or imagine where it would end. As the well of pain became deeper and deeper, a terrible and vile curse came upon the princess, one more terrible than all the writings of the great, golden book and one more terrible than the cloud of joylessness.
It happened by accident one day when Princess Joy had tried to peel an apple. The royal knife had slipped and sliced into her finger. Vivid red blood sprang from the wound, and the princess was so shocked that she just stood and stared at the crimson bead as it grew and dripped to the floor. Something unfamiliar happened to her, something awful but new; for the first time in her life, she felt something other than joylessness, sadness and emptiness.
The writings of the great, golden book were so ingrained into her that she didn’t know it was possible to feel anything, so as the stinging in her finger intensified, she rejoiced. Never had she known anything like it, but she was unaware of the creeping, insidious nature of this terrible, vile curse. For although she rejoiced in feeling something, anything, and believed that the well of pain within her was lessened, the vile curse took hold of her in an unrelenting, vice-like grip.
It was like a vile odor, one that poisoned and suffocated the living. It’s creeping tentacles ensnared her, for as the blood dripped upon the polished castle floor, the king and queen were awakened from the teachings of the great, golden book telling how one should be, and they began to show their feelings of concern for their beautiful daughter.
Never had Princess Joy experienced such attention, and as she bathed in their concern, the vile curse was strengthened, for it was only when the princess hurt herself that she received the love she longed for, which is every child’s birthright. Day after day the princess sought the comfort of knowing that her parents cared about her, and as she saw the concern in their eyes while she bled, the curse took hold of her and her fate was sealed.
The cook and gardener wrung their hands as they watched the tragedy unfold. The princess and her parents were locked into a drama that had no solution in the writings of the great, golden book.
The vile curse gripped the castle. The king and queen were in despair not knowing what to do, and being subject to the great, golden book, they were dumbfounded by feelings that they too had never known before. They didn’t know how to be close to each other or how to feel the gift that the gods had given them merely because they were human – the gift of feeling. And as their beautiful daughter became addicted to feeling something, anything, she hurt herself more and more.
Yet the vile curse had a wicked twist. It tricked the beautiful princess. Each time she hurt herself and experienced the joy of feeling, she saw the despair in her parents’ hearts, their anger and their inability to understand her, or reach her. Rather than release the pain of emptiness within her, the well of pain became deeper and deeper until she could hardly bear it anymore. So in her despair, she did the only thing that she knew how to do: She hurt herself more, believing that it would lessen her pain. Deep within her a voice screamed in silence to be heard but was drowned out by the vile curse and by the teachings of the great, golden book.
No one knew that the vile curse had almost wended its way, its path leading to oblivion, the darkness of death. For although each person in the castle from king to cook despaired watching the tragedy unfold, none knew how to stop it or how to choose another path.
None felt the despair as much as the cook, whose own children knew the gifts of laughter, of fun, of feelings and of being close to one another, and as she watched the vile curse take hold of the castle, her anger grew. “Be careful,” warned the gardener. “If you speak your mind, they’ll send us away; then where will we be?”
“I don’t care. It’s getting worse. The vile curse is determined to kill Princess Joy and I will not stand by and watch it happen. Help me to do something,” she begged the gardener.
She wrung her hands and admitted that she didn’t know what to do.
“I can tell Princess Joy how beautiful she is, but what good will that do? It’s not from me that she needs to hear it, but from the king and queen. And how can they tell her what they feel if they are influenced by the great, golden book, which tells them that they shouldn’t feel, shouldn’t be close to anyone and shouldn’t have fun or play…”
“… And that horrid portrait,” the gardener said, shivering at the thought. “It watches me wherever I go, and their faces are so full of disapproval that it makes me feel quite crumpled and worthless.”
That night the pain in Princess Joy’s heart was so excruciating when she saw the anger and anxiety in the king and queen’s faces, that she locked herself in her palatial bathroom and hurt herself so badly that death’s claws gripped her. She lay on the floor, alone and cold, her well of pain deeper than ever while her parents went to bed believing that she had also gone to bed.
Life slipped away from her, and the vile curse laughed as it stepped up to claim her.
And it would have if it hadn’t been for the Gods of the Trees, who know what’s inside every living creature’s heart. As Princess Joy’s spirit was about to join those who float among the trees, a great howl of anger blew through the woods causing the gardener to pull on his coat and leave his house to check his plants.
“Something’s not right,” he muttered to himself as he hurried up to the kitchen door. “Something’s not right, I just know it.”
The cook was still up, making royal muffins for the king and queen’s breakfast.
“Somethinghs not right,” the gardener spat out, trying to catch his breath. “The trees and the wind are acting funny; something’s not right.”
The cook listened, and she too heard the Gods of the Trees howling in the night for the life of the beautiful princess who had almost succumbed to the vile curse.
She ran up the stone steps two at a time and didn’t knock at Princess Joy’s door but burst in, knowing that something terrible had happened. She was too fearful to cry, although she longed to, for she knew the gift of feeling and of being close to other people. As she burst into the princess’s bathroom and found her pale and lifeless body on the cold stone floor, she gasped with fear.
She cradled Princess Joy in her arms, crooning in her ear, rocking her gently, telling her how beautiful and how special she was, oblivious to the gardener, who had awakened the king and queen. They were standing in the doorway, along with all the servants and the royal cats.
The Gods of the Trees stopped howling and a calm came over the castle in the mountains. Princess Joy, hearing the crooning lilt of the cook’s voice, felt soothed and comforted, and for the first time in her life the well of pain began to lessen. As it did, the vile curse was sucked out of the castle and was blown away by the Gods of the trees, whose anger knows no bounds.
The king and queen wrang their hands in despair, not knowing what to do, still being under the spell of the great, golden book. They had no idea how to behave in the same way as the cook – although they longed to, for they loved their beautiful daughter with all their hearts. The cook looked at them, at first with fear in her heart, wondering if they were going to banish her from the castle. But as they edged forward, she smiled and gently placed the princess, who was still very pale and close to death, in their arms.
“Like this,” she said gently. “Show her you love her like this.”
And so the king and queen held their daughter and for the first time in their lives knew the feeling of closeness and joy, as they had named their beautiful girl. A tear ran down the king’s cheek and he felt afraid. He didn’t know how to experience feelings and it felt strange and frightening to him, but he was brave and sat with his feelings until they became less scary to him.
A new day dawned, one where the vile curse could never enter the castle again, for something more wonderful happened that morning. The gardener, who did odd jobs around the castle, climbed a ladder in the great hall in order to paint the ceiling. He had a large pot of paint balanced on top of the ladder, and he whistled while he worked. “Would you like a cup of tea?” called the cook, and being startled, the gardener yelled in fright and lost his footing. He wobbled and grabbed at the ladder, knocking the paint pot over, and crashed to the floor.
“Ahhh,” he cried. “Oh, heavens, now I’m in trouble.”
The paint splattered all over the portrait of the ancient king and queen sitting upon their thrones, their austerity and coldness hidden by dribbles of paint that ran towards the floor.
“Quick, grab something to help me clean it up,” he said and frantically began wiping the paint from the portrait. But as he wiped, the paint was spread further and further over the portrait until there was nothing left of the ancient king and queen, whose frozen gaze had withered the hearts of those before them.
The gardener shook in dismay at the sight before him, but that was nothing compared to what he did when he realized what was in his hand… he had torn pages from the great, golden book and had used them as cleaning cloths!
“Oh, my,” said the cook, with a smile on her face. “Oops.”
To the amazement of the gardener, who was sure that he would be banished from the castle for having destroyed the portrait and words of the ancestors, nothing happened. And he felt sure he saw a faint smile on the king and queen’s lips when he tried to explain. Princess Joy, held for the first time by her parents who had always loved her but just didn’t know how to show it, grew strong and she never, ever needed to hurt herself again in order to feel. Her parents learned from the cook and the gardener how to feel and to be close to one another and most of all how to have fun and play. Little by little the castle was filled with laughter and joy, and the little princess knew her name and all that it meant.
One day when the snows had melted and flowers pushed their way through the earth to the warm rays of sun, the gardener showed Princess Joy how to dig up a patch of earth to plant her favorite flowers.
“You know, in days of old and when the Gods of the Trees ruled this earth, this ground was considered sacred.”
“Oh?” she said, raking through the loose earth.
“Yes, it’s said that hidden in this sacred land is the answer.”
“The answer to what?” Princess Joy asked.
“The answer to everything.”
They grew silent for a while as each carried on digging and raking, enjoying the scent of the flowers on the breeze, the birdsong and insects scurrying to find their homes, when Princess Joy suddenly called out.
“What’s that?” she cried, her fork hitting something solid.
The gardener used his hands to clean off the earth from a tablet of stone, his eyes wide, not having really believed that the land was sacred.
“It’s a tablet of stone,” his voice trembled with excitement, and his hands shook as he lifted the stone out of the ground.
“What does it say?” asked Princess Joy.
He was quiet for a moment as the cook walked up behind them with a tray of freshly baked cookies.
“What’s that?” she asked
“It’s the answer,” the gardener breathed, with awe in his voice.
“What does it say?” Princess Joy and the cook said together.
He paused for a moment and then said quietly, “There is no blame, only understanding.”