Former cutter launches self-harm support group
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Sept. 30, 2011 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated Oct. 2, 2011 at 5:02 a.m.
Jennifer Bays appears on the surface, a typical teenager.
The wide-eyed, 19-year-old Victoria resident appreciates colorful makeup, modish clothes, and dialoguing about future life plans.
But the scars on Bays' forearms reveal how only a few years ago, a future of any kind may have never come to pass.
"I was so out of control, very suicidal. Mom didn't know what to do with me," Bays recalled. "It was pretty violent. I was rageful."
Bays spent four years of her life as a self-harmer. More specifically, she was a cutter, or someone who cuts their flesh to deal with emotional turmoil.
Bays' cutting stemmed from early childhood bullying and other self-image insecurities, she said.
Her raised, crisscrossed scars are prominent from wrist to elbow, as well as other, more concealed areas of Bays' body.
But she considers herself today, a survivor of self-harm; her scars a stamp of God's mercy and salvation.
"I'm not embarrassed by my scars, they're my testimony," she said.
Using her four-year battle with self-injury as a catalyst, Bays is spearheading a one-of-a-kind Victoria-based support group for self-harmers.
"There isn't anything like it in the area, definitely not in Victoria. Most self-harmers have nowhere to go," she said, mentioning how difficult it was to find self-injury treatment for herself a few years ago.
The onset of cutting for Bays began at 14, shortly after moving to Victoria from Houston.
A new friend demonstrated for Bays how a razor blade on skin could lessen emotional burdens.
"It was a razor blade like you'd use to shave your legs. She showed me how to cut and said it would release pain," Bays said. "She wasn't a great friend. I guess I was mixed up in the wrong crowd."
Her introduction to the blade five years ago, would lead Bays down a turbulent road of psychiatric and medical treatments, hospital visits, more than a dozen daily prescriptions pills, cycles of rehab and suicide attempts - forcing her to drop out of school and nearly robbing her future altogether.
"I basically have an eighth-grade education," Bays said. "I'm working to get my GED though. I want to finish school and go to college."
Even though Bays was indeed suicidal, attempting on at least one occasion to slit her wrists, self-harmers aren't typically trying to kill themselves.
A report from the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, states "Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration . with self-injury comes the possibility of inflicting serious and even fatal injuries."
Self-injury, which can include cutting, burning, pulling hair, scratching, may also shadow numerous mental illnesses: eating disorders, depression and personality disorders.
It's also prominent with teenagers, affecting children as young as 11 years old.
Bays said multiple doctors through the years offered diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression, ADD, ADHD, among others.
"I didn't know you could have all those at the same time," Bays said, smiling. "I have to laugh about it now. I was so lost, I just find it a little bit humorous. I know that sounds terrible, but I just needed so much help."
At one point, Bays was consuming 13 daily prescriptions, from anti-psychotics, to anti-depression pills. The mixture of prescriptions in high doses had severe side effects, which ultimately increased her cutting for a time and caused seizures and tremendous weight gain, she said.
So while doctors and psychiatrists waged a medical war against the cutting, Bays' family waged a spiritual battle against her compulsions.
"I knew God would be the only way she'd recover from this. Some of it was demonic, no doubt," Kathy Bays, Bays' mother, emotionally recalled. "We would speak prayers over her, out loud. That's one thing my church (Faith Family) really taught me. I finally told Satan one day, 'I am not giving up on this kid.'"
Kathy Bays said their family suffered while her daughter was in and out of medical treatments. Medical bills piled up, and it seemed her daughter wasn't getting any better.
But Kathy Bays said everything changed when doctors realized her daughter had a hormone imbalance.
"My testosterone and estrogen levels were off the charts. That can make you aggressive," Bays said.
Once doctors were able to regulate her hormones, Bays was able to drop the daily medication dose from 13 pills to two, and substitute a progesterone cream to help balance testosterone and estrogen levels.
"I saw a difference in her after three days," Kathy Bays said.
Bays recognizes her recovery from cutting isn't typical. She's baffled doctors with her speedy physical and psychiatric recovery. That's why Bays credits God for saving her life.
"The only reason I survived this was God," said Bays, a member of Faith Family church. "I'm not in recovery; that girl (who used to cut) isn't here anymore. It's a part of my past."
Now that Bays is marching proudly down recovery road, she decided it's time to assist other self-harmers find support and healing.
Bays' self-harm support group is scheduled to launch the first Thursday in October through Faith Family's faith-based Celebrate Recovery program. Bays will lead a break out group for individuals and families who need to pray and dialogue about self-injury.
"Self-harm isn't just for cutters, it's for people who pull their hair out, or burn themselves, or scratch their skin," she said. "This group isn't a substitute for medical treatment, but it will help self-harmers and their families be able to pray and ask questions."
Knowing she will never be able to fully conceal her scars, Bays has decided to embrace her past, and looks at the marks as a reminder of how far she's come.
"I don't get depressed when I look at my scars. I was just another kid going through life," she said.
Staring at her daughter, Kathy Bays tearfully said, "She really is recovered. This is who she was when she was little. Now she has the skills and tools to help others."