Our son is a recently returned missionary, and we learned that his last few months on his mission he had been cutting to deal with his depression and anxiety brought on from living with a difficult companion. Also, at about the same time his girlfriend broke up with him and it was too much for him to deal with. We have gotten him mental health help and medication since his return and he is doing much better I’m happy to report.
But now he is left with absolutely horrifying scars on his chest that take your breath away to see. What can or should we do to reduce such ugly scarring? To even go swimming, anyone who saw him would cringe. And anyone he dated in the future or her parents may potentially want her to run away, not because of the cuts, but because they may represent someone who may not be a stable companion in the future. I don’t feel like I’m a really harsh and judgmental person, but I admit if I put myself in those shoes, that I would be very concerned if my daughter was dating someone who self-harmed.
As a mom I am sick over it and I don’t want the “scarlet letter” on him forever because of how he chose to deal with his pain. Even as his biggest supporter it is traumatic for me to see. Please help me know what I can do.
I’m glad to hear that your son is physically safe and that he’s getting help for his emotional struggles. Your concerns are understandable, especially right now in the immediate aftermath of this painful discovery. You naturally feel protective of your son’s future and don’t want him to face more bullying and rejection when he lets his guard down and lets others get close to him. I’m glad you’re asking about this, as the way you personally respond to him right now and in the future will have an impact on how he copes with the reactions of others.
It’s important that you don’t let your own pain and anxiety about his scarring overwhelm your interactions with him. If your trauma is taking over, then please make sure you’re getting mental health support for yourself. The companion issues, your son’s emotional pain, the cutting, and the scarring can all cause secondary traumatization for you. Left unaddressed, you run the risk of staying in an overprotective dynamic with him where you treat him like he’s weak and fragile. There’s no shame in seeking help for yourself. You’re having a tough time with it and he doesn’t need to manage his own pain while making sure you’re okay.
While you’re working through your own reactions to all of this, please take a close look at understanding why you’re preoccupied with what others will think of your son. Here are some questions I invite you to explore:
- Are you ashamed of how he responded to his pain? Why or why not?
- Does he embarrass you? Why or why not?
- How have his pain mismanagement and scarring changed the way you see him?
- How do you see people who make visible mistakes?
- Do you see him as weak? Explain.
- How do you believe he can become stronger from these experiences?
- What does his suffering mean about you and how you raised him?
While there is a lot of work to do to help him heal from the emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical impact of these experiences, your confidence in his ability to receive healing will give him the strength to face future judgment and reactions from others. Yes, his scars will most certainly draw concern and judgement from others. He will have a choice when others ask him about the scarring: He can be shrink in shame or he can embrace the powerful reality that healing is possible.
If you believe that healing is possible, then the reality of his scarring will provide him with countless opportunities to share his journey. He can validate and normalize the suffering of others. He can warn others of the harms of mismanaging pain. He can rejoice in the peace that comes through true healing. He has a dramatic and powerful story that will undoubtedly bless many lives. So many of us are suffering and mismanaging our pain in less visible ways, so his story won’t be difficult to understand for the sincere of heart.
Our Savior understood that his own suffering, wounds, temptations, and afflictions would draw us to him. Alma taught this powerful reality when he said:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.[i]
He’s in the early stages of his healing right now, but your ability to face his scarring with confidence that he can fully heal will help him face it without shame.[ii] He may not be able to see how his scars will be a blessing to him and others, but you can know this and hold a space for this as you respond to him from a place of courage and confidence. He didn’t know how to manage his pain then and now it’s important for him to learn how to manage the pain he’ll encounter as he’s regularly reminded of this time in his life.
Terryl and Fiona Givens remind us:
“[God’s] divine energies are spent not in precluding chaos but in reordering it, not in preventing suffering but in alchemizing it, not in disallowing error but in transmuting it into goodness. Satan’s unhindered efforts in the garden [of Eden] were simply assimilated into God’s greater purpose…The expulsion from the garden was a happy catastrophe, since it brought forth a remedy that more than compensated for the loss of Eden. Christ’s sacrifice, so dazzling in its overflowing grace and mercy, made it possible for us, in leaving Eden, to return Home. If God can transform cosmic entropy and malice alike into fire that purifies rather than destroys, how much more can He do this with the actions of well-intended but less-than-perfect leaders, [family members, and friends.]”[iii]
Have confidence that your son can experience complete healing, which includes the ability to tell his story of pain and redemption. Trust that he can tell his story from a place of strength instead of shame.
Your family is reeling from the devastating discovery of so many painful realities that will take time to heal. Please don’t rush the process and allow your fear and shame of future reactions keep you from facing him with love and confidence that he will heal and offer healing to others. Don’t worry about how others will respond. Worry about how you’re responding to him in this very moment.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
You can connect with him at:
[i] Alma 7:11-12
[iii] The Crucible of Doubt, pp. 78-9
ElizabethJune 8, 2020
I'm sorry you and your son had to go through this. I just wanted to add that, as a recently returned sister missionary, I don't think that most potential spouses would see self harm scars as a dealbreaker in a relationship. Self harm (and mental health issues in general) are unfortunately very common among our generation; statistically, 15% of college students use it as a coping mechanism. It's certainly an unhealthy way of dealing with things, but there's nothing shameful about it– it just means his ability to cope didn't match the things he had to cope with at the time. I have struggled with self harm in the past but I am confident that I will never do it again, because therapy has helped me find safer, healthier coping skills. I am still working on opening up about it with people, but I've found that my experiences have led me to be able to help several friends to quit self-harming as well. I hope that he will be able to heal from this painful period of his life and see it as a growth experience that helps him empathize and reach out to others. I'm sorry that his mission took him to such a difficult place emotionally and I pray that he and you will find healing and happiness ahead.
A Healing SoulJune 7, 2020
I hear a strong wave of shame in this mother's words, and I want her to know that she can heal from that. Cutting scars are no different from car accident scars or surgery scars. How we react to them can add negative body image to our young people when they already need extra help accessing their divine identity. I would focus on how to work these feelings out of myself. What social expectations am I clinging to? Are these more important than a powerful mother's love for my child? What lingering feelings of betrayal, pain, embarrassment, and shame am I carrying around? How can I let go of these and let Christ heal my child, heal me, and heal my family? These are just beginning questions. I would read anything from Brene Brown for a beginning to my personal healing. Some therapy might help, too. These are real feelings and yet they don't have to be permanent. Everyone in this scenario can access the grace of God which is far more powerful than anything they have suffered through. It is a journey, not an outpatient procedure.