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Why some patients take out their own eyes
February 27th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

Why some patients take out their own eyes

Remember the myth of Oedipus, where the king of Ancient Thebes stabbed his own eyes after he realized he'd killed his own father and married his mother?

As gory as it sounds, intentionally blinding oneself isn't entirely mythical. Although rare, there have been cases of people seriously injuring their own eyes, and sometimes completely removing them. There's even a technical term, self-enucleation, for the behavior of taking out your eyeballs.

Dr. Matthew Michael Large at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues have analyzed the records of this behavior available, and published several journal articles on the subject. Their latest is in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, appearing this week.

Based on more than 50 reports of self-injury of the eyes over the past 50 years, the scientists argue that it is not necessarily a so-called Oedipal phenomenon; people do not generally harm themselves this way because of guilt regarding incest. Instead, it is a symptom of untreated psychosis, Large and colleagues write.

The authors noted in a 2008 study that in no recorded culture is the eye ritually mutilated; in fact, it is the only external body part for which this is the case.

They analyzed 89 published cases describing serious self-inflicted eye injury by patients with a diagnosis of a psychotic illness. Patients more commonly removed an eye than penetrating it, or inflicting other orbital injuries. “Three patients blinded themselves with air guns and three patients sustained eye injuries in the course of attempting to stab their brains with a pen or pencil," the authors wrote.

Many patients also attempted or engaged in other violent acts: Two had previously committed homicide and there were several reports of serious assaults. And some had also tried other forms of self-mutilation: stabbing themselves in the neck, attempting to amputate their hands, or biting off their own tongues. Two patients attempted to amputate their own penises, and one castrated himself.

They cite a 1984 study in the journal Survey of Ophthalmology looking at 33 case reports, which found that half of them were young women, two-thirds had religious delusions and six cited the same Bible passage from Matthew:

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

In 94% of the 89 cases, patients had psychotic symptoms related to the eye - for instance, that the eye was evil or had threatening powers. And some believed that to save themselves or others, they had to sacrifice a normal eye. In 76 of the cases, there was a schizophrenia-related diagnosis.

“None of the patients was reported to have self-enucleated for reasons that could be reasonably compared to the story of Oedipus," they write.

Mostly, patients injured themselves before getting treated. And they weren't only Christians of European descent, as some studies have suggested. Chinese, Japanese, Jewish and Muslim patients have also been documented, Large and colleagues write.

Eye injury of this nature is a medical and psychiatric emergency, they write. Patients should always consult with an ophthalmic surgeon immediately, and they should get prophylactic antibiotics and corticosteroids. A doctor should assess patients for vision loss in the other eye if only one eye was removed.

"Although we hesitate to recommend restrictive treatment for any patient, in the situation of a first or attempted self-enucleation, 1:1 nursing and the application of fingerless mittens and arm restraints until antipsychotic treatment has taken effect might be the only way to prevent deluded and determined patients from blinding themselves," Large and colleagues write in the new study. "Electro-convulsive therapy has also been described as a useful treatment."

Eye injuries are distinct from other forms of self-injury, which don't necessarily have psychotic roots, say ethnographers Peter and Patti Adler, authors of "The Tender Cut: Inside the World of Self-Injury." Cutting oneself and similar methods of self-harm are often motivated by troubled feelings, and see injuring themselves as a way to self-soothe, self-punish, or express inner bad feelings. Teenagers and adults experiencing these feelings are also known to engage in self-injury, as well as disadvantaged populations.

"People with serious psychological problems may self-injure, but at this point in time there are many, many more people who self-injure because their lives are tough and they don't know other ways of dealing with it," Adler and Adler told CNN in an e-mail.

But injury to the eye signifies more serious psychological problems, experts say. "Although to the naked eye these behaviors may appear related, they are probably not that close," the Adlers said.


soundoff (107 Responses)
  1. Yakobi

    I'm just glad I was wearing glasses while reading this.

    February 28, 2012 at 13:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Joyce

    I'm so glad I took the time to see what this article was about.

    February 28, 2012 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Miss Such-and-Such

    1/2 of them were young women? How shocking, since 1/2 of young adults are women. I'm guess most eye-gouging psychotics don't live to be very old.

    February 28, 2012 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. flanative32

    why even report this? was there a mass of people gouging out their eyes??

    February 28, 2012 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. david

    Just Ewwwww!

    February 28, 2012 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rob

    Owe. Owe. Ouch! What a horrible psychosis!

    February 28, 2012 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. SilentBoy741

    Two words: "Jersey Shore".

    February 28, 2012 at 19:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. SP

    hummm ok let's see...a good reason for you to take your own eyeball right now = you can take your own eyeball after reading this article, then buy a fake one – take a picture with it and, then remove it put it into a box and send it to however wrote this article with the words written next to it: "I'm keeping my eye on you"

    February 28, 2012 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. William Weir

    where we're going, we won't need eyes to see

    February 29, 2012 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Eric

      I was wondering how long it would be till someone makes that allusion.

      February 29, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse |
    • Rahmat

      Merry Christmas to you and yours, Bill! Robin looks like he's in for a painful time in that Batman #33 cover (and Santa doesn't look like it's going to be fun for him eihetr on Action #105.

      September 11, 2012 at 22:21 | Report abuse |
  10. negligence///!!!!!!

    Interesting article#**

    February 29, 2012 at 03:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. mmi16

    Sick Sick Sick

    February 29, 2012 at 04:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. TJ

    They forgot to mention people who get murderers eyes transplanted and then start seeing things the murderers did, 'cuz that happens a lot, too.

    February 29, 2012 at 05:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. doug

    weird and I think I have something in my eye

    February 29, 2012 at 05:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. magnus

    if you take out your own eye than you deserve to perish. disgusting.

    February 29, 2012 at 09:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Viral Eh

    Hahaha a pirates tale...... Thank god for protective glasses

    February 29, 2012 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. palintwit

    If Sarah Palin gouged out her own eyes would she still wear those stupid glasses?

    February 29, 2012 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. MissyK

    I had a friend who, after a night partying, tried to take out her contact lens and ended up with an eyepatch for a few weeks b/c she had worn her glasses that day.

    February 29, 2012 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Simon

    So this behaviour has to do with some sort of psychosis? Really, ya think so?!

    February 29, 2012 at 13:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mimmo

      Thank you, Betsy, enraging sujcbet tho it is. People who use their age and power to abuse children, well, words just fail me. And people who change laws to protect the predators are guilty of criminal conspiracy in my farmgrrrlll book. And hugs to your amazing friend in the previous post. He shows the good side of the human race.okay, more coffee! *stumbles off for Oxdown and stimulating beverage*

      September 11, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse |
  19. alex

    I wish CNN would just shut down theirweb site. I am really tired of pathetic artciles like this. I just don't know why and how they come up with stuff like this.

    February 29, 2012 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Leila

    Not a particularly edifying article. However, when I teach Oedipus again next year, I will provide a copy of this article just for "fun".

    February 29, 2012 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. ctb67

    Sooo, that explains St Lucy gouging out her eyes so she would be unattractive to males and thus serve the lord more completely.........hmmmm............even as a former catholic, I found that just..........hmmmmmm

    March 1, 2012 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Daphne

    So true. Somewhere along the way, the media came to regard baalcne as the pinnacle of journalism. Balance is a false goal. If you have a spokesman opposed to child rape would you bring on a proponent for baalcne? If you have someone commenting on the roundness of the Earth would you bring on someone to argue that it is actually flat just so you can say you covered both sides? Of course not.The primary goal of journalism is not baalcne, but truth. And you do not need an advocate of lies to baalcne that perspective.

    September 14, 2012 at 01:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Harlan

      baalcne

      December 28, 2014 at 17:41 | Report abuse |
  23. Judith Dupree

    my younger sister did this to herself last October. It is un-fathomable that someone could do this to themselves as it is very difficult to remove an eye but she managed to do this while in a hospital ER awaiting examination. She did it, we suppose as she will not discuss it, with her own hands. Can you imagine the poor ER nurse who came into the room to discover this horrific scene? She had such beautiful eyes but has been a tortured soul her entire life. It saddens me so that her existence has come to this; a blind, mentally handicapped person living in a Psychiatric Hospital.

    March 13, 2013 at 13:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. vanessa monique hales

    "Self-enucleation" was also notably studied by Doctors in a medical experiment held in Nuremberg, Germany. Does the Nuremberg Experiment sound familiar? Contrary to this article, these patients did not do this consciously stemmed out of their own unique psychological thought.(which is also driven by a chemical imbalance in the brain) These patients, or test subjects, removed or injured their eyes after being administered dangerous concoctions of hormones and chemicals cooked up by the Doctors. Depending on dosage, the formulas or mixes of these medications also caused other types of neurological reactions. After triggering the behaviors, Doctors could then diagnose and deem the patient as Psychotic so as to continue onto another level of “treatment”. They, or anyone else given this recipe, including you, could have the same unconscious, immediate biological response, of “taking out your own eyes”. The drug’s observed reaction in humans: both hands make strong thumbs up, stab backwards at face into the inner corners of the eye, tear eye out outwards away from nose, and pull hard-like pulling a rip cord. This particular methodical act of yanking out one’s own eye, was discovered as being an innate human survival mechanism to stop unbearable chaos or sheer agony in the brain. Thus, the individual is forced, from the act of pulling out the eye, to give themselves their own personal lobotomy to stay alive. This horrific drug from Neuremberg, was conceived as an optimal effective weapon of biological warfare and torture against the enemy or P.O.W..

    September 27, 2013 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.