Willow, by Julia Hoban, is about a seventeen-year-old girl who is grieving. A few months ago, Willow's parents died in a car accident--Willow was driving the car. Now she lives with her older brother and his young family. She has started her senior year at a new school. And she has found a way to cope with her pain.
But it's not a good way.
When Willow starts to feel overwhelmed, she finds a solitary place, and she cuts her arms, legs, or stomach with a razor.
Self-injury is defined as intentional infliction of self-harm to the body for purposes not socially recognized or sanctioned (in other words, under most circumstances, piercing your nose or getting a tattoo is not considered self-injury). Self-injury can encompass lots of different behaviors, including cutting, burning, scratching, or bruising the skin, ripping or pulling out hair, or even swallowing toxic substances. Like Willow, folks who self-injure do not intend to kill themselves.
Now, get ready. Here are some scary stats: Some large studies indicate that somewhere between 10-24% of adolescents self-injure. One study indicated about 11% self-injure repeatedly. The rates are highest in adolescent females. Keep in mind, though, it's hard to know for sure because most people do this behavior in secret and conceal it from others. But you've probably seen some of them around--sometimes those scars are hard to cover up. Just the other day, the cashier who scanned my groceries had rows of telltale pink-and-silver scars up and down her arms.
Until relatively recently, it was believed that self-injurious behaviors almost always occurred in the context of some identifiable mental illness, like depression or borderline personality disorder. But newer research challenges that assumption--and again, it's hard to know, because many people who self-injure never get care.
People self-harm for LOTS of different reasons. Yes, some do it for attention. But most don't. More often, it's a way to do one of two things: either numb emotional pain OR to feel something in the face of emotional numbness. Some do it to feel some control over themselves, to cope with anxiety, to relieve stress or pressure, or to re-enact a trauma. In other words, there is no one reason why a person would harm themselves like this. But generally, you can think of self-injury as a coping mechanism--one that works in the short-term but is extremely maladaptive.
Willow cuts to avoid emotional pain, to bury it beneath the physical pain. She goes through her days hoping to stay numb to everyone around her and to the deep well of grief inside of her. But she's not just avoiding emotional pain--she's avoiding ALL feelings. So what does she do when she meets Guy, an intelligent and sensitive dude who shares her literary interests and is eager to get to know her?
You should read this book and find out. The characters and the relationships among them are really well done. In fact, hands down, this is the sweetest romance between two teen characters I've ever read. The way they get to know each other, and the way Willow copes with all of it, is pretty riveting (Guy is also adorable and utterly swoonworthy). Her journey is not easy or trite; it's heart-rending and genuine.
Have you read this book? I know there are other books that include characters who self-injure--have you read any of them? There's some debate over whether books like this are "triggering", meaning they might make a vulnerable teen want to engage in the behavior portrayed in the book. What do you think about that?
For tons of information and resources on the nature self-injury (and how to identify, prevent, and treat it), check out the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults.