How I Started and Stopped Cutting Myself
This is something that I’ve never really talked about before and even my closest friends don’t know about me. Even my siblings that were alive at the time only found out when I told them recently. But here goes.
I used to cut myself.
Leading to Bleeding
It’s so hard to explain what it’s like to cut yourself to someone who never has and has never even imagined it. It loses so much in translation because the feelings and thought process for cutting isn’t in words inside your mind, it’s in emotions and the abstract. Whenever I cut myself I never thought to myself in logical or even rhetorical statements. I spoke in the quiet whisper of scared and angry little boy who didn’t know what else to do and maybe, just maybe, if he could turn this metaphysical pain that is hurting him into physical pain through a nice deep slash it would go away.
What I could never find was the words to say, that I wanted to be a good boy.
The reasons I started cutting myself are also very hard to define because there isn’t just one and there isn’t a hierarchy within them. I also still probably don’t even understand all of it. The simplest one to start with is probably that I wanted to be punished in a way that would make me better, finely.
I grew up with untreated ADHD, which fucked me up in different ways I still haven’t realized. I grew up in the 90s when Ritalin and ADHD were all the rage, and I don’t disagree that it wasn’t over diagnosed, as it certainly was. I fell victim to a weird little backlash though. My parents either consciously or otherwise didn’t believe that I should be medicated for it or that I didn’t have it. They didn’t want me to be one of the zombie kids that 60 minutes talks about. They thought I was just a spaz.
For the record and as a side note, there is no word I hate more than spaz. It’s the word that made me feel broken and that who I am wasn’t an acceptable person to be. It’s a word that hurt me and made me feel that I shouldn’t exist.
To say that I was a problem child doesn’t really do my legend justice. From Kindergarten to senior year I spent more time with the principal than I did with kids my age. I’d get excited, I’d be over the top and I’d be in trouble. I had no filter or moderation and that was coupled with no inhibition. If I thought it, I did it. What was overlooked (or I didn’t know anyone knew) was that I really, really wanted to be a good kid.
At a very young age I learned how that feigning indifference is the only armor you can have when you have no control over yourself much less your world. So I would try to seem like I didn’t give a damn. It was all an act because I did care, and I cared a lot. By fourth grade I was an all-star fuck up. My elementary school Principal Mrs. Crane and my dad were the most punctual of pen pals. At some point she decided to save the trees by only sending one weekly recap letter home about me instead of hourly updates.
It’s hard for me to describe my dad objectively, as I’m sure it is for anyone about their parents. I can paint him as a Saint or as Satan himself depending on what I highlight about him. He had a lot of anger inside him and his own pain. I understand his feeling of “if I could only punch this problem better it’d be done by now” now that I’m older and have his temper. He wasn’t physically abusive for the most part, he hit me very few times that I can remember and if I told you those stories you’d see them as kind of understandable. What he did do is intimidate. A trait I’ve had to unlearn. He would stand over me, scream, yell, throw things, punch the wall and so many other things in moments of pure rage. He lost his temper often and easily at things besides me, but I was his biggest trigger.
I also must explain that I was a largely unsupervised kid, with no structure, no support and no discipline. No one taught me to brush my teeth every day, to clean up after myself and much less do homework. I had to learn these habits and their importance on my own in my early twenties. My dad worked 48 hours a week on an alternating days and nights schedule at a factory job he hated but needed for us to survive and eat. He hates when I say it, but we were very poor. My step mother at the time completely lost interest in me once she had two daughters that were biologically hers. Something I only understand now that I’m older.
My early attempts at self-parenting while I was in 2nd-5th grade were pretty basic. I once tried to ground myself and packed up all my toys, my little tv, and my radio and pushed them into the hall outside my room. “That’ll show me” I thought. It never worked because children aren’t known for there will power.
What I could never find was the words to say, that I wanted to be a good boy, I truly did. I wanted people to be proud of me. I didn’t like the fact that (I thought) everyone saw me as a spaz and a psycho, or that I couldn’t sit still in school or that I never thought before I acted. What I could never explain to him or really to anyone was that no matter what you think of me, how mad you are or how disappointed, was that I hate myself more than you ever could. There was (and at times still is) no one that thinks less of Aaron Haag than Aaron Haag.
Cut To: Despair
There’s a part of you that believes if you can transfer this emotional pain into physical pain through wounds on your skin that they’ll both somehow scab over, heal and become durable scar tissue.
I can’t remember what I was in trouble for this particular time but I remember my dad’s reaction. It started the usual way: he’d learn of something I did, he’d try his best to not lose his temper (he really did try), he’d start to slowly lose that restraint and then he’d explode; except this time he didn’t. All the other stages were the same, but right when the mushroom cloud should’ve happened he lost his words and I saw something that I will never forget, because it’s the worse feeling I’ve ever had. It wasn’t rage this time, it was hopelessness. I saw a man look at his son and know that there was nothing in his skill set he could do to help him.
That was the first night I cut myself. The despair and the hate for myself was too much. Most people think suicide is not wanting to live, which is often true. This night wasn’t that. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to kill. I wanted to kill the person who made me, my family, my friends, my school and the whole world hurt. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted justice for everyone who I saw as my victims. The people I had wronged deserved justice. I had found a way to take the rage I learned by example and turn it inward.
I didn’t want to die, I wanted to kill. I wanted to kill the person who made me, my family, my friends, my school and the whole world hurt. I wanted to kill myself.
I was only 11 years old.
I wanted so badly to hurt myself, and that same part of me that pushed those toys into the hall years early took control. I went into my room, and found an Exacto knife I had been given for Christmas as part of some arts and crafts set. I remember trying to find the best place. It has to be somewhere you can’t see and somewhere that would bleed too much and make a mess, I thought. I settled on my knee, as it was the thinnest place of skin, it didn’t bleed too much, and I could always just say I fell off my bike.
Here’s the second thing that people who have never cut themselves don’t know: in the moment it feels amazing. For the split second after that blade makes a slit, all that pain goes away like Moses parting the sea, just pushed aside. But the moment it’s over all those feelings and all that pain acts just like the sea and crashes back into place. And you’re just drowning once again.
There’s a part of you that believes if you can transfer this emotional pain into physical pain through wounds on your skin that they’ll both somehow scab over, heal and become durable scar tissue. You’ll build resistance to the pain of you feel. That these feelings of self-hate, chaos, loneliness and twisted justice will become fewer and fewer, but that’s not the case. Just as with Vicodin, alcohol or any patchwork solution you slowly need more and more just get by. I started to cut to release more and more pain that I didn’t know how to deal with. Dad and stepmom are fighting? Cut. Everyone at school thinks you’re a spaz and a weirdo? Cut. Realize you failed six classes and let everyone down? Cut Cut Cut. Anything I couldn’t control was taken out on my skin without mercy.
How I Was Discovered
If my feelings were government secrets you couldn’t do anything to get me talk. I was a god damned iron trap.
I remember the day I was discovered. I was waiting for the school bus and my step mom brought out a rare homework assignment that I actually completed. She noticed there was blood on it and asked me what it was. I froze. I don’t know if it was the shattering shock of being found out or if it was a subconscious cry for help but I just rolled up my pant leg and showed her my knee. Crisscrossed with horizontal lines and scars from the year spent trying to deal with feelings I didn’t understand made her cry on sight.
I don’t remember much after that, I know that I didn’t have to go to school that day and that was nice. I remember going to a shrink for a while. I remember seeing right through the shrink’s bullshit and keeping my mouth shut. If my feelings were government secrets you couldn’t do anything to get me talk, I was a god damned iron trap. So sure lady, I’ll play with Legos and answer your questions, but I know what you’re really asking and I’m not going to tell you.
The natural lack of structure and supervision lead to that fading away again too. No more drug refills, fewer and fewer shrink visits with the patronizing woman treating me like some empty headed dope. Slowly but surely I started cutting again, never at the same amount I did, but when I really couldn’t handle something there was a trusty knife hidden in my room.
What Actually Changed and Why I Stopped Cutting
How I really stopped was more of an accident than a decision. I moved into town instead of living all alone out in the countryside. I started making some friends and making attempts to assimilate. In northern Iowa that meant intermixing with Evangelical Christians, which I had never been before. I didn’t really believe in it all as much as I liked the social circle of the teen group. It wasn’t god or religion that helped, if it works for you, that’s great. It was being around people, making friends and spending less time alone in my head.
The next big change was when my dad and stepmom got a divorce, getting kicked out of the house, being briefly homeless and moving in with a friends family (all of these could easily be their own stories). The second biggest thing that changed the world for me was when I started a pop punk freshman year of high school. I finally had a place that I belonged and could be myself. No one calls the guy in a band who runs around, jumps off stuff and throws guitars a spaz, they call him awesome. There was finally a context to explain me to all the super quiet and reserved small town Iowans I grew up around, I was the punk kid who put on one hell of a show.
I also met my first girlfriend and now wife in my freshman year and learned that there is completely unconditional love in the world. Someone you can tell your darkness too and they won’t run away.
90s, 2000s and Today
The biggest moment wasn’t until I was 22 and I started doing standup comedy in Madison, Wi. All of the terrible things growing up finally worked for me and not against me. The rapid fire brain that went a million miles an hour now is used for riffing jokes and improvising new ideas. The complete lack of inhibition that got me in trouble allows me to speak as fast as I think and make jokes without fear. A father with a hair trigger temper inadvertently taught me how to read people’s emotions and an empathy that makes me intuitively be able to read crowds. Every single negative experience I had growing up has found a way to become a tool for expressing those same thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t handle before.
I still sometimes fantasize about cutting, it’s rare, maybe only once or twice a year and generally when I realize I did something really hurtful to someone I love and care about by being inconsiderate, but I don’t give in. I’ve been through the cycle enough times to know it’ll swing up again if I can just wait for it.
It wasn’t the cutting that gave me scar tissue and armor, it was surviving. It was finding a use for all those moments of pain.
I won’t claim to know anyone else’s story, but I hope telling this one helps someone. I know the darkest, scariest, and horrifying places in my mind but instead of hiding from them or ignoring them I carved my name into the fucking wall so that whenever I visit the hell inside the human mind I know I’ve been there before. Which means I’ve escaped before.
I don’t think writing this will cure anyone else’s pain. You can’t fight someone else’s darkness, but we can sure as hell hand out flash lights.
Aaron Haag is a stand up comedian who lives in New York City with his wife.