Running from my problems

The reason I work out

A fitness tracker wrapped around a razor blade.

With a group of friends at lunch, the woman sitting across from me asks what’s on my wrist. The plain black surface of my Fitbit doesn’t have any obvious display with the time or anything else, so she’s wondering what this vaguely electronic looking black strap is for.

She wasn’t asking about the faded scars on my wrist that would embarrass me if they were visible to anyone not looking for them. Thin and faded white lines from when I would cut myself with a razor blade in my late teens and early twenties, some going across the road, some going down the lane. She only asked about the strap, but the answer that I didn’t give her was that the the black strap and the white lines are connected by being opposite ends of a spectrum of my mental health.

When I was a teenager, I was a “cutter”, a term that didn’t exist as a general category to label people back when I was doing it. In a way, I wish the term had existed then, because then I wouldn’t have done it. I hate being labelled more than anything else, and I would have hated the term enough to not be its example. Then these stupid white lines wouldn’t be on my wrist decades later.

I really fucking hate them. A permanent mark left over from the fleeting histrionics of a person I have spent a long time trying to disassemble. In many ways, I feel like I spent the first two decades of my life becoming the wrong person, and another two decades trying to become someone else, someone better. Someone that I like, and I do now, but these lines are always there to remind me of the idiot I once was.

Back when I was that other idiot, most of the time I never really wanted to die, because I have always been more afraid of being dead than suffering life. There was only one time when I was on an edge of really contemplating suicide, the only time I cut my wrists “down the road” which means along the length of your arm, following the tendons and veins, allowing for a deeper, more committed cut. Cutting perpendicular to your forearm, “across the road”, means you are fighting against the natural grain of your physiology and is the mark of a poser.

Even that one time I cut along my forearms, I wasn’t forcing death, I was just tempting it. Cutting yourself is hard, or at least it was hard for me, maybe others don’t have the same constraints. My primal instinct to stay alive has always been strong enough to counter any amount of emo Goth teenage melodrama that my higher consciousness might wallow in. There was always a base part of me that would always fight back with an overwhelming resistance that was wordless but would clearly ask the rhetorical, “what the fuck are you doing?” So this one time, home alone in the basement apartment of my father’s house in the last year of high school, just before turning 18, I drank as much alcohol as I could without throwing up, and poured some on my wrists because I thought it might have some aesthetic effect, and wondering if I would be able to catch myself in a moment where I’d push the blade just hard enough to severe a vein properly and maybe catch myself before that part of me that fights for life caught on.

That was the thought process going in, but the reality was that I knew even as I was doing it that it would not be enough to kill me. For all that I had drunk, once the blade touched my skin it’s as if the instinct inside of me was able to dispel all the alcohol in my system and my vision narrowed to a tunnel looking only at what I was doing. With that much focus, no other sound in the world, a razor dragging across and through your skin sounds like tearing paper, and I could feel it in even higher definition. I just wouldn’t let me cut myself deep enough, and I knew it, and I felt like the biggest loser for not being able to commit to hating myself enough to do something about it.

My memories of the night are vague, and at some point I just passed out on my bed, probably from the combination of alcohol and tension. When I woke, there was enough blood that my arms stuck to my sheets, but I could see the cuts weren’t deep enough to be anything more than just cosmetic. It was early in the morning, far earlier than I usually woke up, being the type who was always late for everything. I headed in to school so early I had to wait for the doors to be unlocked. I had a vague idea that maybe I could get some help at my school, that if suicide was not a realistic option, there has to be other paths away from who I was. There was one time, a few months earlier, when I was given the chance to speak to a woman who was some kind of psychiatrist who came to the school now and again, but I had squandered that opportunity by being cynical and dismissive. Now I wondered if I swallowed my pride if I could get the chance to see her again.

I went to my school counsellor, and after explaining what was going on and asking if I could see that woman, he told me that, for some vague reason, the woman I spoke to earlier would no longer available as an option. He said he’d be able to get me to a hospital where maybe I could get the right help. I only wanted to speak to someone, but I thought he meant that someone like the woman I saw would be at the hospital if I went there, so even though going to a hospital seemed way more intense than the help I sought, I went along with it. I was told that ordinarily, for the counsellor to take me to a psychiatrist, one would need parental consent, but I didn’t want my parents to know anything about it. It wasn’t just that I had always been somewhat emotionally distant from my parents, because my family just wasn’t the kind that was warm and loving. It was also that this whole wrist cutting thing was part of a bubble of my own creation that would burst if it came into contact with my actual life.

The reality is that most of the time when I cut my wrists, “across the road”, it was a pathetic attempt at trying to illicit sympathy from people I wanted to have sympathy from, and passing judgement on everyone else as being not worth my deep insightful suffering. The whole game was to have scars on my wrists that I would cover with sleeves, exposing them “accidentally”, more or less, at the right time with the right people. Not just girls that I wanted in my life and couldn’t imagine they’d be interested in me for any reason other than sympathy, but a cross section of people from my life that I felt had the right kind of empathy. It’s a little complicated to go into the demographics of who I felt comfortable disclosing this self declared hyper real side of me, but in any case the end result was that it was actually shitty form of judgementalism about the people around me. I had friends who spent time with me, but they were somehow not good enough for me to be honest with. I imagined that somehow people I could share my pain with would be more right for me.

Of course, I was also bursting with hormones, and this concept got wrapped up in my interest in girls as well. Just in the sense that I had some sort of vague idea that one of a number of girls whose attention I wanted would see me as this tortured soul and relate to me on some deep level. I believed at the time that all this self inflicted psycho drama was the result of me being connected to something more important inside of myself than just the mere pursuit of sex. But now I have more perspective and less pride and can see that my desire to have some girl hold my wrist and ask, “what’s the matter?” was just the fantasy born from the pressure created when a sex drive was as much or more constrained by the self imposed restrictions of my insecurities as it was by opportunities.

It turned out that I could go to the hospital if my counsellor got the signatures of a certain number of doctors or some such story, though in retrospect I think my counsellor may have just been lying to me and telling my father about it behind my back. That was a likely possibility in any case, but all the more likely because my father and counsellor had actually known each other since before I went to high school. In the afternoon, I was at a hospital, where a nurse, the type who was immediately tired of my poser bullshit on sight of me, asked me point blank if I intended to kill myself. I said yes, and there’s no chance in hell that she didn’t see right through that, but I guess a teenager who is acting like he wanted to kill himself is a problem in its own way, so she continued to process me. I ended up in a room where they told me that I had to change into a patient’s gown for some routine examinations. Someone came in and took my wallet and keys away with my folded clothes, and it was only after that when I realized this was nothing to do with examinations and was a power move to literally strip me of my ability to leave. I acted out an ineffectual rebellion by breaking things in the room I was in, and after a long wait, a nurse came in with some medication to calm me down. I remember there were some men with her, male nurses or orderlies or whatever, just standing there to convey clearly that if I didn’t volunteer to take the medication, the medication was going to get in me in some way or another. I took the easy route.

That started one of the shittiest few days of my life, I think it was over a weekend. It’s a bit blurry to me, possibly in part because of the medications they gave me, but also just because it was a weird jumbled schedule. I don’t remember eating any breakfast, lunch, dinner, or getting any food at all, though there must have been meals. What I do remember clearly are the genuinely crazy people I met in the psychiatric ward, the people who made me realize that actual psychological disorders are a whole other thing from the self supported angst I was trying to impose on the world. There was the guy I never saw but screamed literally non stop from his cell. There was this other guy who would confabulate everything, so that whatever you asked him, he would go along with. Ask him if he had been to the moon, and he would go off about his life on the moon, and it was amusing to talk to him for about fifteen minutes until you realized that he never stopped, he couldn’t stop. He had no identity of his own, no life, because he couldn’t remember anything of his own self alongside the stories he was spinning based on input. There was one girl my age that I spoke to, who was actually kind of nice and I might have even been attracted to her, except that when she started talking about how she assaulted both her parents with a knife, there was something about it that was not the kind of bullshit that my issues were. I don't think she was a serial killer in the making, I think she might have been preemptively defending herself from her parents, which was sad and scary in all sorts of dimensions I couldn't pretend for a second to understand.

It was a strange whirlwind of a time, and the only lasting impression I have was that I wanted to get the fuck out of it. Maybe that was the point. The worst part was at the end. The thing was that I never intended to disappear for as many days as I had, I had originally gone to my counsellor hoping there was just someone I could talk to a bit. Even though I had a social life that might make me stay out a night or two, There was no way of keeping my absence a secret from my parents forever. The long and short is that a few days later I ended up in a room with some psychiatrist and my father, where the psychiatrist basically made a point of making me open up about all sorts of feelings and details, the pretence being that if I were going to be released into my father's supervision, he would have to know what it was he was supervising. At the time, and actually still now, I just saw it as a ritual to humiliate me to prove how bad I really wanted to leave. Whatever the actual motivations were, I just said whatever I could that would get me through it and out the door. The car ride home was awkward as fuck.

After that, I was assigned a psychiatrist that I could go see, which is all I wanted in the first place, but after having been through the rest of it, I didn’t trust the system at all anymore, and now, looking back, I’m not sure who made what decisions, but basically fuck all those people. Now I know other adults my age and even younger who, when put in similar situations, would handle it as poorly or worse than my counsellor did, so that gives me a little retroactive insight. I think he saw the cuts on my wrist and decided with his complete lack of expertise and an overblown desire to be proactively helpful that the situation needed to be escalated beyond my requests. But, if I could have just spoken to an adult who had the ability to listen… ah, whatever. There's still a bitterness in me about it, but ultimately it’s not important now. I went and saw the assigned psychiatrist once, and to be fair, he was actually probably a competent therapist. I remember him saying that there was no point for me to be there if I was going to resist the process, and just letting me deal with that. He was straight forward and no bullshit which earned my respect. Still, I bailed on the second appointment and never saw him again.

The second time I was supposed to see that psychiatrist after school, somehow I found myself in some room in the school at the end of the day after classes with two girls, one who I had a crush on for a long time and who would later become my girlfriend, and another girl who I don’t really remember that well, she was just in the same advanced learners program I had been in. The other girl was around a corner, just out of sight, listening to some Christian rock radio station, which I remember clearly because at the time it was new and kind of surreal to me that there was such a thing as Christian rock, and enough of it to support a radio station. In any case, the other girl was distracted with other things while me and my future girlfriend kissed for the first time. I can’t remember how I fell into that circumstance, but I do remember thinking I could go waste my time with some asshole psychiatrist who was part of a system that punishes you for exposing yourself, or stay in this girl's gentle embrace and kiss her soft lips. Easy choice.

Which began about a decade and a half of using relationships to avoid confronting myself, and not only didn't do anything to heal any of the issues of which the scars on my wrist were a symptom, but sometimes made them worse. The white waters of my relationships at best let me float in distraction, but at worst made me crash a little harder.

Instead, it was exercise that was ultimately the route out of much of my self inflicted psycho drama. Getting fit didn't come into my life at that time like a bolt out of the blue, it was something dormant, abandoned because the society in and around school didn't see health as separate from sports, and that was a barrier for me. My high school experience wasn't like it's often depicted in American movies, where there are distinct crowds of jocks and geeks and popular cliques and all that. There was, however, a high correlation between the guys who played sports and the sense that joining a team was only possible if you were a type of person that I wasn't and wouldn't want to be. I had enjoyed running and sports in elementary school, but somehow, in high school, the formal manifestation of what it meant to be involved in sports left me on the sidelines.

Instead, I had a small group of friends and one of our favourite things to do was hang around after school and we'd take a ball, a volleyball or football or basketball, it didn't even really matter what, and we'd throw it around. We'd sometimes just play catch, or come up with our own simple games, or whatever. It was casual, and social, and everything that it seemed the official school teams should be but weren't.

One of my friends, Morgan, who was sometimes on school teams, though never quite "in" socially with them, started going to the gym at one of the community centres. He wanted to become more of a proper athlete, and as part of that he wanted to bulk up his tall and thin frame. I just tagged along with him at first because it seemed kind of like an extension of the casual quasi-sports athleticism we were already doing. That this happened just after my time at the psychiatric ward was entirely coincidental and was on the surface so unrelated that at the time I didn't even consider a connection. Nonetheless, something just clicked. I now know from extensive reading that exercise has all sorts of positive impact on one's brain chemistry, that there's an argument to be made that exercise is more effective than anti-depressants. But I didn't know that then, I just had a vague sense of a correlation between hitting the gym and feeling generally better about life. I also remember one time being in a locker room after working out and my brain taking a snapshot of the image of my scarred arms in front of me as I put my sweaty gym clothes in a gym bag. It struck me that it didn't make sense to be simultaneously improving and damaging my body, and if you were going to be doing either, the better choice was obvious.

Sometimes I tell people in simple terms about how going to the gym makes me feel better, and it comes across like I'm saying that the gym is a euphoric experience that's immediately accessible to me. It's not, though. I often have to drag myself to the gym in spite of wanting to stay home and watch TV or play video games or whatever, just like anyone else does. In recent years, I've become sensitive to how I feel mildly more positive about life after I've been exercising for a few minutes, but that is a subtle nuance, not an overwhelming sensation. That on it's own is not enough to drag me out of my bed on a rainy morning.

You would drag yourself to the gym, regardless of your mood and regardless of the weather and regardless of anything if someone put a gun to your head and said they were going to kill you if you didn't. Of course I don't face any penalties that immediate. But I do feel an existential mortal consequence lurking just under the surface if I fail to keep active, keep moving, challenging my body enough to keep the right chemicals in my brain flowing. There have been countless times when laziness kicked in and darkness creeps into me over weeks and months. It involves becoming a different me, so the initial symptoms are subtle and indistinguishable from just continuing to perceive life as I do. But, I become more prone to seeing the negative side of things, I feel like being single is a condition and not a circumstance, I think of my future goals as petty and unattainable anyway, and on and on into a whirlpool of doubt, self criticism, and fear. I get night terrors, I start to overeat to compensate for my loneliness, I get into pointless arguments with people. All of which are the tip of an iceberg of a whole personality I could become. There is no gun, no physical death, but is becoming a different person any less a destruction of self?

I don't believe that growing up just conveniently happens, and so that person who cut his wrists isn't automatically regulated to my past. That emotionally weak child who turns to self destructive behaviours is still somewhere inside of me, I've felt his presence sometimes, and I would do anything to not be him again. Going to the gym is a small price to pay so to be able to live my life as the me I want to be. A little swimming stops a lot of drowning. Metaphorically. I can't actually swim for shit.

There are ancillary benefits, like body aesthetics and energy levels and more resistance to illness and that kind of thing. But really none of that matters. And my concept of health has become more all encompassing than just hitting the gym. I manage my calories and watch my body fat and I don't eat refined sugar and monitor my protein intake. It's become a whole lifestyle for me, with lots of parameters and personal tweaks. All of it, though, comes down to just one thing. The part of my body that I’m really taking care of is my brain.

If I don’t, if I stop moving, then I will become that person that I now resent and hate for all the opportunities he squandered from childhood through to lingering effects all the way up to my mid thirties. I don’t often look at or think about the scars on my wrist, but when I do, they remind me of who I don’t want to be, that inside me there might still be some part of me that might lash out against me if the rest of me is too weak to fight it.

So the real answer to "what's that on your wrist?" is that the Fitbit is kind of just a toy, a helpful but not critical addition to my lifestyle of fitness. How accurately it helps me track my calories burned is not as important as the fact that it's symbolic to me, so that I can look at my wrist and see progress forward, instead of the pit I used to fall into.