I was student council president in high school! This is the first sentence I scream at men from Bumble, the first time we meet. I want them to know that they’re dealing with a people person. I played tennis! I spoke at my high school graduation and quoted a Disney movie!
I carried this smiley, eccentric persona into college. Everyone on my small suburban campus always told me how silly they thought I was. People knew me as the person who led spiritual retreats; the human who accidentally unplugged her headphones in the library’s “quiet room” to gift my fellow students with the musical stylings of Rihanna’s “Skin”; the sophomore who was once giggling so devilishly that the R.A. who looked like Justin Bieber requested I tone down my drunkenness. I wasn’t even drunk. This is the kind of behavior I felt was expected of me.
I’m made up of a million different pieces. My love for dogs, my inability to parallel park, my ability to eat 68 tater tots in one sitting. I also like tequila, hate onions, and am terrified of the characters from South Park. People are complex, and so am I!
When I was 20, I entered my junior year of college. That school year started off with a boom. Literally. My appendix burst inside of my body. It’s my go-to fun fact whenever I’m at an orientation for a new job or I’m looking to pick up a strapping young gentleman from my local bar. Anyway, my burst appendix and the fact that I couldn’t eat bread for the first few days of junior year threw me for a loop. Then I became a R.A. for about 20 women in an all-female, all-freshmen dorm. At first, my residents hated me. They truly did — they’ll tell you. One time I heard scratching at my door, and I called my mom frantically, whispering, “Mom, I think they’re trying to break in. I think they’re trying to KILL ME.”
Three or so weeks into the semester, we had to have a meeting with my R.A. boss — that’s how much they hated me. At the end of the meeting, one of my residents exclaimed from a couch in the back of the room, “We have a list of things that Katie does that upsets us!!!!” and I remember thinking, This is the most beautiful mix of horrifying and hilarious that I have ever encountered. We grew to love each other, though; we quickly learned we were all just a group of kids trying our best to get through the day without crying or displaying any remote hint of vulnerability.
I also learned that I hated my major, which at the time was teaching. I was spending half-days in a second-grade classroom as a student-teacher, and I watched one student, who couldn’t have been older than 7, repeatedly arrive to class shaking from hunger. Another second-grade student told me that his mother had to sell his dog for milk money. It was fucking heartbreaking. There was no bright side to it. These children were getting the worst deal, and it felt like there was little to nothing I could do to stop it. My reservations about teaching grew. I knew I loved kids, but I wasn’t sure if I loved teaching them and I wasn’t sure if I was equipped to try. And I hated myself for that.
It was not just that I didn’t think I was a good person; it was also that I truly believed that I was a bad person.
Around Christmas, I started to let negative thoughts about my life get the better of me. My sadness owned me. I have vivid memories of eating waffles on Sunday mornings with my bubbly, blonde friend Devon, only to end up in my room 20 minutes later, alone and sobbing into a pillow. For no explicable reason! I started to develop and nurture a hatred for myself. I felt like I had nothing figured out. I believed that I deserved to be miserable. It was not just that I didn’t think I was a good person; it was also that I truly believed that I was a bad person.
I live in a privileged world where they are myriad tools, methods, and professionals who could have helped me then, and thoroughly help me now. I did not want that help then, however. I wanted to be able to control the me whom I hated (the sad, complicated person) and still be able to put forth the me who I presented to the world (a perpetually cheerful people-pleaser). I couldn’t be both. Only one version of myself felt remotely lovable.
So towards the end of my first semester, I selected what I felt was a rational and productive coping tool. I started cutting.
If you are suddenly feeling very uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Cutting is the holy grail of uncomfortable topics. I’ve discussed my experience with self-harm at length, a few times, and each time it kind of plays out like a scene from Phantom of the Opera. Everyone gets REALLY quiet. Everyone gives me REALLY sad eyes. Is it weird and wrong to appreciate that sympathy? I do genuinely appreciate it. I think I appreciate it because — and I can only speak from my experience — to feel what I was feeling when I did what I did felt like the epitome of loneliness.
It’s so strange to me that I remember random and minute details about when I started cutting. Yes, I remember the dangerous isolation I felt, but I also remember my black futon from Walmart and my wooden dorm furniture. I remember thinking my room was huge. It was the first time in my life that I had my own room, and it felt like the loneliest place on earth.
I remember the scissors I used the first time I cut myself. They were huge! They had bright red plastic handles. One of my residents left them behind when we were decorating our hall for Christmas. Or a fellow R.A. left them behind in my room in the midst of frantic panic-decorating. I don’t remember. I just know that they weren’t mine, and that one day they were just there and available.
What goes through your mind the first time you drag a dull decoration scissor across the vein side of your wrist? I’m not sure. I don’t remember. It’s not uniform, anyway. These things are never uniform. I do not remember what I was thinking. I just remember how I was feeling. I remember feeling that I had never felt such profound sadness or loneliness in my entire life. I also remember thinking that it was the beginning of my new life — it was the beginning of a life that would only feel that sadness and loneliness. I genuinely believed this.
Suffice it to say, I needed help. I desperately, unbelievably needed help.
I didn’t get help, though. Not for a while, anyway. I kept cutting, but I had it under control. I did it occasionally, to blow off some steam. It was my thing. If people at my college could sneak kittens into our dorm rooms (this really happened) or chug Four Lokos like their lives depended on it, I felt entitled to my thing. I clung to my deranged line of thinking.
It’s difficult for me to talk about this sometimes, because I still feel guilty discussing it. No one, at the time, was dying. I felt like I didn’t have the right to be so intensely sad. I woke up every day feeling the complete depths of my sadness, and then throughout the day I’d grow angrier and angrier with myself for doing just that.
The scariest and most dangerous part of falling apart is how sneaky I was about it. I hid what I was feeling somewhat well. I was cutting for months before I told anyone. I remember feeling exhausted all of the time. I was struggling to separate the miserable young woman I allowed myself to be behind closed doors and the positive sunflower I portrayed when urging students to come to baking floor programs.
But all good things must come to an end. When the weather gets hotter, you can only wear long sleeves for so long without people being like, “It’s 80 degrees out here. Why are you wearing a fleece North Face, psycho?” I remember a third-grader noticing the bandages on my arm. I remember the horrified look on my friend Alex’s face when he saw the same bandages. He just knew. Sometimes people just know. And then all the versions of you are out in the open. Everyone can choose whether or not they want to see.
Once I hit bottom, I no longer felt like I was completely drowning.
With cutting, and allowing myself to be sad and to feel everything that made me who I was, things really did get worse before they got better. I remember getting in trouble with my R.A. boss because she found out I had been self-harming. She reprimanded me in a basement of a school building that was under construction, and I remember thinking, This is the lamest Saw movie I have ever seen. Anyway, I hit my bottom.
I felt like walking, frizzy-haired human garbage. I had to beg to keep my R.A. job and try to salvage what was left of my personal relationships. I had to tell my mother about what I had been doing behind her back for an entire year, and it was the saddest conversation I’ve ever been a part of.
Once I hit bottom, I no longer felt like I was completely drowning. I sought counseling, saw a doctor, and finally found a way to be one person.
There seems to be an omnipresent population of people who will constantly discount the reality of depression and self-hatred. I have encountered a million and seven people who have preached the importance of picking yourself up, not allowing yourself to be swallowed by any emotion. Prioritize your good fortune and your good health. Smile through everything. You are not allowed to acknowledge or publicize your pain.
Nothing is ever that simply addressed or mitigated.
I can only speak from my experiences, but when you are in it — when you live in a homebase of pure and all-encompassing self-hatred — it just rules everything. It is there when you wake up, it’s there when you’re eating waffles, and it feels like it will be there forever.
I have not had a cutting episode in almost four years. I’m still the zany person in your office. I will talk to any willing and breathing thing about my dog for a minimum of 40 minutes. I’ll also ask you if you’d like me to bake cupcakes on your birthday! I have my moments, however. Moments when I’m tempted by the release that self-harm used to offer me. I’d like to think that we’re all multi-faceted. I’m still learning to accept that part of myself.
The point is you can be bubbly on a Monday and crying publicly on a Tuesday. You can talk about your love for cotton candy and your struggle with self-harm minutes later. We are not just one part of ourselves. We are a million different things.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.