My teenage years were filled with secrets, and not just the usual kind about who likes who. Painful secrets lived right beneath my shirtsleeves. My friends knew about them; some of them kept the same secrets and others just didn’t know how to help. My parents didn’t find out until my senior year of high school when one day, the pressures of my life became too much. I finally broke down, stripped off the old Army jacket I always wore, and revealed the multitude of scars, scabs, and cuts that covered my arms.
I’d been cutting myself since the age of 12 when I’d accidentally snagged my arm on a nail at stage crew while I was upset one day. Strangely, instead of hurting, the cut felt like a release for all the dark emotions I’d been bottling up. For the next 10 years, when I hurt on the inside, I chose to hurt myself on the outside, too, hoping that I could physically drain my pain and depression.
It’s still scary to speak about this so publicly. I’ve done so on my blog and through my novel, but why bring it to the Forest Park Review?
Because you should know that Forest Park isn’t just home to unique storefronts and cozy pubs. An amazing woman named Karen Conterio lives here. Back in 1985, she founded an organization called SAFE (Self Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives, a nationally recognized treatment program for self-injurers.
Karen is a certified group facilitator with a background in substance abuse. When it came time to do her clinical work, she wanted to do something new. She contacted a psychiatrist at a Chicago hospital who treated self-mutilators and asked for referrals. At first, she only had one client, not nearly enough for a group, so Karen reached out to the media including AM Chicago, which had a brand new host – Oprah Winfrey.
Before long, Karen was on the Phil Donahue show doing the first national TV program on self-injury. She’d been introduced to Wendy Lader, who became her business partner and they’d been asked to write up a treatment plan.
“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” Karen told me over coffee. “We just rearranged it.” At the time, those that self-injured were in psychiatric wards for up to two years. SAFE Alternatives’ 30-day program “was considered radical.”
One of the key elements is that it’s voluntary. Patients are allowed access to their sharps, such as razors for shaving. Karen says that the theory behind the program is “we can’t keep you safe, but hopefully you will utilize us to get past the impulses.”
Karen believes that part of the reason for cutting is an inability to verbally communicate thoughts and feelings. That was something I had to learn on my own and perhaps if I had discovered SAFE when I was younger, I would have learned to express and cope with my emotions in a healthy way sooner.
You can learn more about SAFE Alternatives by visiting www.selfinjury.com or calling 1-800-DONT-CUT (366-8288). They even have manuals available for school professionals. Currently, there’s a waiting list of 300 people for their inpatient program and they are in the process of finding a hospital to host it. But outpatient help is available right in our own back yard. Karen runs a Tuesday night group therapy program in Forest Park. Whether this is something that you or a loved one needs, we should be proud to have SAFE Alternatives here because it means that for many adults and adolescents our town is a place of hope and healing.