This story originally appeared in The Aurora Beacon-News on October 29, 2013.
By: Kalyn Belsha
AURORA — Lago Delsol Guzman stood outside East Aurora’s Dieterich Elementary. It was August, the first day of school, and she was waiting to pick up her 7-year-old sister.
A Dieterich mother noticed that Guzman looked upset. She and Guzman’s mother, Denisse Barrios, encouraged Guzman to sing a song about what was bothering her and offered to record it.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and black athletic shorts, Guzman looked straight into the camera and told her story.
“I was extremely bullied and it led to the point where I was self-injuring,” Guzman said in a video that was posted to YouTube.
The camera zoomed in on the inside of Guzman’s right arm where a faint “I” still could be seen — the letter Guzman carved into herself with a pencil as she spelled out the words “I hate myself.”
“I just wanted to say this song is dedicated for the people out there who are being bullied right now,” she continued. “I am a survivor and I will not sink. It’s rehab time.”
Guzman belted out the lyrics to “Skyscraper,” a 2011 song by Demi Lovato, a 21-year-old Latina singer, who, like Guzman, suffered from bullying and was treated in a rehab facility for an eating disorder and self-injury.
“You can take everything I have,” Guzman sang, stopping briefly as she cried, which she said made her feel stronger. “You can break everything I am, like I’m made of glass, like I’m made of paper. Go on and try to tear me down. I will be rising from the ground, like a skyscraper.”
Bullying started early
Guzman’s experience with bullies started in second grade, she said, when she was at Dieterich Elementary. She was a quiet student, she said, who had struggled since preschool with overeating.
Guzman became the target of a female bully in her class who told Guzman she was fat.
“She would yell at me and embarrass me,” Guzman said. “She was really good at hiding it from the teachers and I didn’t speak up.”
In third grade, Guzman was bullied by a former friend, she said, who urged classmates not to befriend her and also made fun of her weight.
Barrios said she confronted the other student’s mother, pleading with her to put an end to her daughter’s behavior.
“The little girl told Lago she hoped she died,” Barrios said. “She was coming to me all the time and [saying], ‘Mommy I don’t want to go to school.’”
After telling the school principal what had happened, Barrios requested to have her daughter moved to a new third grade class.
East Aurora could not comment on an individual student’s personal record for privacy reasons, but said in a statement that the district does “not tolerate or ignore conduct including bullying… that is sufficiently serious to create a hostile environment.”
Students being harassed or put in a hostile environment are encouraged to report it.
“The district is committed to conducting a prompt investigation and taking appropriate action,” the statement said. “Students, parents and district staff should work together to prevent acts of harassment of any kind.”
Guzman said after the switch the bullying continued at recess and she sunk into a depression. In spring of her third grade year, she started cutting her wrist with the point of her pencil during a test, she said.
“When the teachers would come, I’d put my wrist under the desk,” Guzman recalled. “I felt like it was calm and then I could go back to what I was doing and concentrating.”
The bully moved out of the district later that year and life improved for Guzman. She stopped cutting and worrying as much about her weight.
But the cutting and eating disorder cropped up again when she was in seventh grade at Waldo Middle School.
“The guys would do the contests about who’s the ugliest and prettiest girl,” Guzman said. “I’d always be the eighth or ninth ugliest girl.”
She knew because the boys told her so.
Why teens, children cut
It’s difficult to collect data on how many children and teens self-injure since the wounds often go unnoticed or unreported.
According to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, there were 713,000 visits to U.S. hospital emergency departments from self-inflicted injuries in 2010, the latest data available.
A 2010 article in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, which reviewed research on teens and self-injury during the 2000s found that teens, in general, are at a higher risk for self-injury, and about 15 percent of teens have reported some form of self-injury.
Typically the behavior starts between the ages of 14 and 24, the report found, with a peak during early and late teen years.
Sean Youngstedt, a clinical therapist for Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville, has worked with teens who self-injure for nine years.
He started the hospital’s outpatient program that helps teens recover from self-injury. It’s the program Guzman eventually checked into earlier this year.
According to Youngstedt, self-injury often is the result of an attempt to cope with an overwhelming feeling, or to feel anything at all.
Teens who self-injure may be facing a life crisis, like a divorce or death in the family, or are living with parents who are stressed. Childhood abuse and trauma can lead to self-injury and so can bullying and academic pressures. Children with anxiety and eating disorders have a higher risk for self-injury, Youngstedt said.
Self-injury causes a release of endorphins that can relieve some pain. But over time, the injury has to increase in severity and frequency to have the same effect, creating a cycle much like a drug addition. That cycle can cause a loss of control and feelings of shame.
Youngstedt said those who self-injure often hide the behavior from their parents and friends because they fear a negative reaction or having to stop.
“It’s not uncommon for schools to notice it before the parents do,” Youngstedt said, adding that Linden Oaks receives many patient referrals from schools.
His program serves 12- to 20-year-olds. On average, he said, his patients are 14 or 15. A large majority are teenage girls.
He sees spikes in patients when school is in session, Youngstedt said, likely because school can be a stressful environment. There are theories that self-injury often starts in middle school, he said, because that’s when students explore their identities and deal with heightened peer pressure.
Society’s focus on instant gratification, he said, can negatively affect how teens cope with their emotions.
“Kids have learned that if I cut, it may not solve the problem, but it will at least bring some relief,” he said. “Dealing with stress is not always instantaneous. It takes time and effort.”
Guzman started skipping meals in seventh grade and continued in eighth grade.
She dropped about 30 pounds in five months, she said. At lunch time, she gave away her food to friends.
“I really was hungry, but I thought I was doing a really good job,” she said. “I would cry looking at myself in the mirror.”
She read depressing quotes on the Internet, she said, and often found herself looking at photos of skinny models and dancers. She cried in her sleep and didn’t want to come out of her room.
Guzman told herself: “That you don’t need it, that you’re fat, just look at the other girls.”
Barrios said she noticed that her daughter was losing a lot of weight and became concerned. In September 2012, Guzman finally sat down with her mother and came clean about the cutting and how she’d lost so much weight.
Barrios, who is a single mother of three, kept a close eye on her middle daughter.
“I told her that she has to eat and she just was telling me I really don’t know how hard the school was and that I didn’t understand her because I hadn’t been in her school and things had changed and it’s nothing like the old schools,” Barrios said.
When Guzman’s eating disorder intensified and she started having suicidal thoughts, Barrios sought professional help.
She took her daughter to Linden Oak’s self-injury recovery program from mid-March to June. About one week was spent in in-patient treatment, Barrios said, which is reserved for severe and potentially life-threatening cases that need to be monitored 24/7.
The rest of the time was spent in outpatient treatment, Barrios said.
Youngstedt said that program consists of six to seven hours of daily behavior therapy in individual, family and group sessions.
Teens learn how to assert themselves and express their needs, he said, as well as identify what they’re feeling and how to calm down and tolerate difficult emotions.
The program also focuses on raising a teen’s mood, possibly by doing activities, and learning to live in the present, instead of fixating on the past or future. At the same time, parents are taught communication skills.
It’s been several months since Guzman stopped treatment, but she said she still is trying to recover 100 percent.
Now a freshman at East Aurora High School, she follows a meal plan that her counselors set for her. But after having to gain weight at Linden Oaks, she still winches when she weighs herself.
She likes to read a paper she received as part of her program that helps calm her down. She is working with her school to avoid bullies. In the past she’s eaten in her teacher’s classroom instead of the lunchroom.
“To be honest I’m still struggling,” she said. “There were moments when I wished I just had the eating disorder and never spoke of it. Mostly now I’m glad I’m healthy again.”
She says she wishes she’d told her mother sooner, that she hadn’t lied to her therapist and counselor, saying everything was OK.
She hopes the singing video she posted on YouTube will be an inspiration to others battling bullying to speak up.
“It’s just something that people can know they’re not the only people out there who’ve been teared down and hurt and feel like they’re nothing,” she said.
Barrios, who cares for elderly residents who have memory issues at Asbury Gardens in North Aurora, a supportive living program, recently changed her hours so she can be home more often after-school and on weekends.
She said it’s hard to raise her three daughters, work and stay on top of Guzman, always making sure she’s eating and checking her arm for marks.
“I’m still approaching her a lot,” Barrios said. “Her self-esteem is still low. She’s afraid to gain weight. I’m working with her little by little. One of the things I do to keep her going is I always tell her that I love her. That it doesn’t matter what happens, that she is my daughter.”