When family, society reject them for being gay, youth often turn to cutting, using physical pain to cope with distress of coming out
Giancarlo Mossi fell in love with a boy and fell in love with cutting at about the same time.
The more he loved the boy, the more he had to cut. He was ashamed of his sexuality, and cutting took his shame away — or so he once thought.
Most people cringe at the thought of using a razor blade to slice their skin and reveal a letting of blood and a rawness of physical pain.
But the blade was Mossi’s tool of choice because it was more precise. It was more precise than the string he drew back and forth to create a "sawing feeling" on his skin, or the teeth-sharpened plastic pen cap he used crudely in a pinch.
Mossi said he cut because it helped him cope with his feelings. "I liked it because it relieved the emotional pain and I got physical pain instead, and that would eventually go away," he said.
But when he cut himself to the point the wound would not stop bleeding, Mossi was forced to get help. He went to the Timberlawn Trauma Program in Dallas. But, he said, "I kept being gay a secret."
According to Dr. Reece Manley, a pastoral counselor in Addison who has worked with cutters, "It can be terrifying to grow up LGBT."
Manley said that our culture is "passively angry at gay culture and expects [young men] to group up and have girlfriends."
Indeed, Mossi said his mother rejected him when he was outed while in another treatment for cutting at Green Oaks. She told him, "I disown you."
Mossi said he really beat himself up for being gay. But eventually a friend led him to Youth First Texas, where he was not only able to get some counseling but also find his passion in singing with the musical group Dallas PUMP, conducted by Jonathan Palant, a YFT board member.
Palant has provided emotional support to Mossi and other cutters at both YFT and as a high school teacher. He said that while he wouldn’t profess to know why any one individual cuts, "One can equate cutting to excessive drug use or alcohol."
Palant said he believes, in part, that cutters and many LGBT youth are simply not given a chance for a free and healthy form of expression and they are led to some form of coping behavior. He believes that Dallas PUMP provides at least one healthy outlet for them.
Mossi said he found real family and acceptance at YFT and with the PUMP group. He said, "This is the chance to accomplish the dreams I never thought that I would have."
Mossi, 18, had cut himself more than 100 times before he stopped. He said he now knows that he has people that love him and he would be hurting both them and himself if he were to continue.
"With the emotional pain gone, I just stopped," he said, adding that he told himself, "I don’t need this anymore."
While Mossi began cutting at age 15, fellow Dallas PUMP singer David Negrete began when he was just 12 years old. The first time was a suicide attempt.
In contrast to Mossi, who cut to cover up internal emotional pain, Negrete originally cut as "a cry for attention" from his mother.
He said, "My family didn’t react in a way that was appropriate. They tried to scare me out of it, so I did it even more."
Negrete said what he really wanted was for his mother to come and check on him and be concerned, "but she wasn’t."
Negrete had come out to his mother at age 11 and he said it really hurt when she couldn’t accept his being gay. After he determined that his mother didn’t care, the motivation for cutting changed for Negrete to one of covering up emotion. He said that cutting was his solution for any unwanted feelings.
Negrete, 20, who cut several times a week, said, "From 13 to 17, it completely took on a life of its own. Any feelings — I would cut. And the cuts got worse and worse."
Negrete cut in places that are not as visible, but would still cause a lot of pain, such as on his inner thigh and underneath his forearm. To increase the amount of pain, Negrete would use a heated razor blade so he could experience simultaneous burning and cutting sensations.
Other cutting tools that he used included ripped soda cans and broken light bulbs.
Negrete said he was "grounded" by his mother for four years so that he would not be influenced by others to embrace his sexuality. But, he said, "She thought she was doing what was best for me."
Thanks to counseling and support, Negrete hasn’t had a serious cut in more than two years, though he said he had a single relapse a year ago.
"I see this as a disorder, like a drug," he said, "and it takes every ounce of will power not to cut."
He said that his mom is coming around now and they recently went on a double date to the Dallas Symphony together: Negrete and his boyfriend, and his mother and her new boyfriend.
Judith Dumont, director of Youth Services at YFT, said that cutting among LGBT youth at the YFT center is quite common. According to a 2008 YFT study of 100 youth, 56 had at some time in their life previously engaged in some form of self-mutilation. Eleven of those youth were still self-mutilating.
In contrast, according to psychotherapist Steven Levenkron, author of the 2006 revised book "Cutting," about one in 50 adolescents are engaged in a form of self-hurting.
Dumont said that some cutters cut not to exchange emotional pain for physical pain, but so they can "cry and feel again."
Negrete agreed: "Sometimes I felt empty and void of feelings, so I cut to feel."
Dumont also said that cutters often live in a trancelike state and "the action of cutting shocks yourself back into your body."
She said, too, that many cut their own physical matter to see "if they matter or not."
"For some," she said, "as they watch themselves heal physically, they understand how resilient they are as a survivor. It becomes a testament that they can get through what is so painful."
Dumont said that people often conflate suicidal cutting with self-mutilation, but the two are separate issues. She explained, "While sometimes suicide does accidentally happen while cutting, the motivation for cutting is almost the exact opposite. … Cutters sacrifice a part to preserve the whole of their selves."
Two things are usually common to all cutters, according to Levenkron. They are an inability to think and a feeling of rage, such as toward a parent, that can’t be expressed. He said one of these two things leads to feelings that the cutter feels must be "drowned out."
"Whitney," a queer woman who asked their her real name be withheld began seeing a therapist at age 13, but didn’t start cutting until a year later. The cutting continued for seven years until she was 21. Like Negrete, she said she "used cutting to regulate my emotions."
She said the cutting took place in a mental middle ground between being planned and being impulsive. "I would see an object and want to use it to self-inflict," she said.
Manley said that while cutters are aware they have cut, the actual moment they cut is largely unconscious. He said there is a "trigger point" of emotion at which they lose self-control and awareness, and they self-mutilate.
To understand the motivation, Manley said it important to "look at feelings before, during, and after the cut. This will open up a big clue and become a rich sample as to where the desire comes from."
Whitney, who is now 26 and finishing up a college degree, said her motivations are even still fuzzy to her to this day. But she believes it revolved around feeling lonely, empty and rejected.
She said, "I felt like life was out of control, that I was not understood, and I wasn’t getting what I needed from my parents."
Whitney, like Negrete, kept her cutting a secret. If she told anyone, then they would take away her coping method. But through therapeutic counseling, Whitney was able to learn that she "was only hurting herself," and so she no longer continued to cut.
Unlike Negrete and Mossi though, Whitney, who identifies as queer, doesn’t believe that her sexuality has had much impact on her desire to cut. But because she has never been able to come out to her mother, it had played a role.
Whatever the root reason is, Manley said, it is important that the cutter get help from mental health centers such as Timberlawn in Dallas. He said in most cases, "you have to intervene with a cutter. … Cutting can be very serious. It can take your life."
For more information on Youth First Texas, see YouthFirstTexas.org. For more information on Dr. Reece Manley, see MyHorizons.org.
Renee Baker is a licensed orthopedic massage therapist and transgender diversity consultant. She may be reached online at ReneeBaker.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 11, 2009.