“I felt almost caught in the middle. My mum looked to me to communicate with my brother and get him to open up. I felt really pressured and anxious and always imagined the worst. It felt like it was up to me to make him better.”
Information (written with the help of my younger sister)
Siblings of people who self harm often describe feeling lost and isolated, afraid yet uncertain of how to help or approach the situation. Anger is also another common emotion, especially when it can seem that all the focus is upon that one person and their emotional issues. Discovering that a sibling is self-harming is both shocking and bewildering, prompting you to question how your family could go from suddenly seeming normal to being so troubled. I asked my sister how she felt during the period of our lives when self-harm seemed to dominate. She described initially feeling completely terrified; wanting to hide every knife, razor and sharp edge to make sure I was safe. She confessed that she thought I was going to commit suicide; a fear that a lot of siblings and parents have when first discovering a loved one is self-harming. However it is most often the case that people who self harm seek only to inflict pain temporarily and do not in fact seek to commit suicide. Self-harming is used to help someone cope, not to end life. Self-harm enables someone to express their feelings whereas suicide stems from a desire not to feel anything anymore. Appreciating this difference can help you to understand the mindset of the person struggling – self harm is a coping strategy that can help the sufferer deal with times of intense emotional distress, when it all seems overwhelming.
Talking to your sibling about why they feel the urge to self-harm and when they are most vulnerable to it can help you to feel less critical of the behaviour. My sister explained to me that when she understood some of the reasons and triggers behind it she felt she could approach me as her sister, rather than seeing me as a sufferer. Recognising the difference between the person and the self-harming is important as it helps the sufferer to feel less alienated and will help encourage them towards recovery. Recovery is not often a simple and straightforward process; it can take time and often includes a few backwards steps. This can be particularly frustrating for you as a sibling as it can seem that progress is not consistent. The best way to look at recovery is to compare it to a journey through which every step, backwards or forwards, strengthens the person and leads them even closer to that point of complete freedom from self-harm.
My Suggested Action Plan
Communicate with your parents so that they can understand the situation from your perspective and the impact your sibling’s self-harming is having upon you. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel too much pressure or responsibility. Keeping lines of communication open will ensure everyone is being heard at all times.
While your sibling’s self-harming may seem completely out of character, remember that they are still the same person but that they just need more support. Do treat them like normal, (however difficult this is for you) and refrain from either directly tackling them on the subject or avoiding it altogether. Spend more time together and remind them of the good times you’ve had in the past – reminiscing can help you to feel closer and is a good way to lead into a deeper conversation.
As a sibling you’re in a really good place as your brother or sister can often feel most comfortable talking to you. Unlike your parents you can understand any social or academic pressures they may be facing and help them to identify what could be behind their self-harming. It is tempting to avoid socialising with them, especially if they have become withdrawn but do include them in social activities and group events. Self-harm can cause the person to be particularly introspective; helping them to look to future goals can help gain a wider perspective.
Do remember to look after yourself as well. You may want to confide in a good friend, teacher or counsellor who can listen without bias and offer an objective view on the situation. It might be a good idea to let a teacher, who you trust, know about the issues you’re coping with at home so they can help with any work commitments or academic pressure.
Photo by JK Califf