Saskatoon teen speaks out about cutting addiction

Aaron Heise started cutting himself to deal with intense emotions as a young boy. He hid his cutting addiction for years from his parents.

Parents urged to watch for signs of cutting and self harm

Aaron Heise started cutting himself when he was eight years old. (CBC)

Aaron Heise, 17, said he started cutting himself when he was eight years old.

"It was the only thing I could think of to do," he said. "I was really confused. Nobody knew what I was going through. So cutting seemed like a logical choice."

Self harm, such as cutting oneself, is a growing problem among teenagers. But many parents are unaware it's going on since kids often hide it. 

The Saskatoon Health Region says as many as a quarter of kids between the ages of 13 and 15 engage in some form of self harm.

An unhappy childhood

Heise said he started having problems when he was five years old. His adoptive father died. His mother remarried and the relationship with his stepfather wasn't good.   

Aaron Heise shows the scars on his arms. (CBC)
He said the next few years were difficult, lonely and depressing. He didn't know how to handle it so he started to cut himself.

"It's a cry for help, a silent I need help, help me know," Heise said. "I can't ask, I don't know how."

Heise kept his cutting a secret. He would use a knife, lock himself in the bathroom and make small, superficial cuts on his arm and back. 

"Physically it hurts but the emotions just seem to leave me whenever I cut," Heise said. "And then over time the cuts didn't hurt."

Cutting became an addiction

The emotional pain continued to hurt and worsen for Heise. At 11 years old, he started questioning his sexuality. The confusion, depression and struggles with his family led to more frequent and deeper cuts, some of them requiring stitches. He was addicted to cutting himself.

"If I had the choice I would have cut every moment of the day," he said. "At that point I was doing about 100 cuts a day or more. I couldn't stop."

Most people who cut do it without the intent of suicide, but Heise made several suicide attempts involving prescription drugs. The last attempt led to a month-long stay at Saskatoon's Dube Centre for Mental Health. It would be the start of his recovery. 

He said he still suffers from depression but he's learned to cope with it. He said he's accepted that he is gay. And with the help of a social worker, he stopped cutting about nine months ago. 

"I can deal with my emotions," he said. "I can experience sadness without it going too far,. It's made me realize happiness is out there. You just need to find it."

Rise in self-inflicted wounds

Carol Metcalfe, a senior social worker with the Saskatoon Health Region, said more young people are engaging in self harm. 

More young people are engaging in self harm, said Carol Metcalfe, a senior social worker with the Saskatoon Health Region. (CBC)
"It is increasing and we're hearing more about it because of social media," she said. 

Metcalfe said people who self harm are usually struggling with intense, overwhelming emotions or feeling no emotions at all. 

"Most of the youth that come to me say I know it's not right to do this I know this isn't really healthy, but they don't know any other ways to cope," she said. 

Metcalfe said teens are spending more time alone because some of their parents have busy lifestyles and aren't available emotionally. 

Allan Kehler, an addictions counsellor and author of 'Stepping Out From The Shadows,' a guide to understanding and healing from addictions.   

Allan Kehler, an addictions counsellor, said for individuals who feel like their world is completely out of control, self harm can be a way to regain a sense of control. (CBC)
He said many boys struggle with self harm, but more than twice as many girls injure themselves. He said for individuals who feel like their world is completely out of control, self harm can be a way to regain a sense of control.

"It has nothing to do with suicide," Kehler said. "It's about regaining power."

He said self injuries can serve as coping mechanisms to manage emotional or psychological distress. 

He said self harm is shrouded in shame so those who engage in it want to keep it hidden from others. 

He said there's still a lot of stigma around self harm and a lot of people are unaware of how to approach the delicate topic.    

"If we can even open up that door of communication and say I don't mean to pry but I just want to let you know I'm concerned and I'd be more than happy to listen if you ever needed to talk," Kehler said. 

Signs of self harm

Metcalfe said parents need to be aware of the signs of self harm.

"What a parent should look for is more secretive, spending more time alone, distancing from their peers, distancing from their family, wearing long sleeves," she said. "Inappropriate dress for the weather is a real important sign."

As difficult as it is to see a loved one harm themselves, counsellors say it's important not to overreact. It's important to acknowledge their struggle and make them feel seen and heard.

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