” …occasionally I wished I could walk through a picture window and have the sharp, broken shards slash me to ribbons so I would finally look like I felt.”
~Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
I have been thinking a lot recently about my scars. On my left arm, they start pale, almost the same colour as my skin. Then down a little further and they’re red and raised and harsh. They’re violent and jagged. The full force of my self-loathing in the instances in which I hurt myself always shows up once the scars have healed. I still hide them, most of the time, under long sleeves and bracelets and refusals to ever, ever go swimming. If people do see, they usually ask me. I tell them the truth, without coating it in blackness or sticky-sweet recovery jargon, and they always look awkward afterwards. I suppose I feel the same, feel their eyes burning into where the skin is reddish-purple like a blood-soaked sunset. Even with my long sleeves, my armour and disguise, I feel exposed and raw. A beetle, skewered by a long pin and pinned to a board, and all I can do is wriggle under their gaze. This feeling is getting slightly better, however. I want to feel the wind on my skin.
I used to think they had a certain twisted beauty, a sort of memento mori like a bruised peach or the too-gentle curves of animal skulls, but now I think they are just scars. I attached all sorts of mystical rationale behind it; to feel more alive, I told myself, as I wished half-heartedly to die. Or I’d shrug and play it off as a tortured-artist thing; the pain of life for me was too much. The quicksilver shift in my emotions from the deepest joy to the blackest rages and then to the hottest anger, and I was left playing hopscotch between these states and clutching a razor blade, a kitchen knife, a shard of glass. I have tried to delve into the reasons I did it, and carried on with it even as I cursed it, and I think it was perhaps a shoddy attempt at being able to visualise how I felt about myself. That I deserved scars and blood and the stares of strangers, their faux-sympathy and pasted-on smiles. Or maybe it was just that desire I have to feel the world in all its agonies, to hurl myself into anything and everything and come up bloodied from it. The marks of the world, on my skin. It is wrong to call it art and irresponsible and silly to think of it as artistic expression, but I think in a way it was something not too far from that. Or maybe it started as that, and then became a helter-skelter downwards spiral. Everything else became impossible. Smoking and drinking were to me another form of self-harm, so I smoked and drank more than anyone else I know. I saw what the world did to my skin and I wanted to erase all that from my mind.
“You begin to forget what it means to live. You forget things. You forget that you used to feel all right. You forget what it means to feel all right because you feel like shit all the time, and you can’t remember what it was like before.”
~Wasted, Marya Hornbacker
I have not cut myself in a long time – March, by my reckoning – but, just as the sea will always crash back to the shores, I suspect I will return to that in times of crisis. I hope not. I hope this mostly because I want to wear short sleeves next summer, despite the scars. Maybe even because of them; I’m open about mental illness and my experiences, and to hide these most obvious signs perhaps is telling me that I’m not as accepting as I’d like to be. I was scared for a long time about showing my arms in case it upset somebody else and set off that burning shame and burning need to hurt themselves.
to kill myself in small amounts,
an innocuous occupation.
Actually I’m hung up on it.”
~The Addict, Anne Sexton
Any scars invite curiousity. People ask about surgical ones, and shudder when they imagine the scalpel and the operating table. People see mine, my obviously homemade scars with their twisted edges and dark, dark centres, and wonder: knife, or blade? Or was it glass? Is she still doing it? God, she must be fucked up – and to anyone who has self-harmed themselves, it’s triggering. That gunpowder flashpoint bangbangbang like your heart when you want to do hurt yourself never quite goes away. It’s like the obviously eating-disordered body, like my body when I was sick. You gasp at the bones or the yellowing skin and greying hair, you sigh at the way the scar jolts and judders its way down someone’s arm, but some small sick part of you misses it. Or at least, I find that when I was ill, somewhere in all the pills I took must have been a seed which has taken root just under my ribcage and reached up into my throat and constricted my heart, because it feels like I’m being squeezed by something with thorns, when I see evidence of somebody else’s mental illness in a way that is similar to mine.
My body is a confession, a reminder, a constant companion to the ex-anorexic or bulimic who sees dieting magazines lauded as Bibles and feels that old flash of shame. My scars might spread from my skin to someone else’s. I worry about this. My body is marked by the violence I have done to myself, all the wars that I’m still not sure if I lost. But, to simply say that I should hide away my body and cover my scars and hide all evidence that I ever had an eating disorder is to admit something about how society reacts to illness, and especially to mental illness. It is no secret that stigma is a constant, gnawing problem to those with mental health problems. We have all experienced this, in some form.
There is no easy answer. I would hope that in showing my scars, I can do a little bit to not only make myself an obvious port of call for anyone struggling, but I can also show neurotypical people that I am much more than “just” a mentally ill person. My self-acceptance is such a hard-fought thing, as is my self-esteem, and I want to be at peace with every version of myself. Even those parts of me that I don’t like so much; the messy, stroppy, sloppy parts, the jealous and the angry parts. The self-loathing, self-destructing vicious parts. My scars mean that I cannot ever really ignore these parts, which is good; like overturned stones revealing a whole world of wriggling creatures, those parts must be exposed, examined. In a strange sort of way, I want to demonstrate to people that I’m working on it.
I do not want to compare mental illness to physical illness, since doing so often ignores the nuances of many chronic physical illnesses, and the stigma faced by those who also (like us) have invisible illnesses. But we should see self-harm as a symptom more than anything else. It is a bad way to cope with the world. I have yet to really find a better way. But I want to be positive about my body as it is, without romanticising or abasing my scars. After all, they’re just spaces where there used to be a slightly different type of tissue. They have no great mystical power; they’re not a sign of weakness, but not necessarily a sign of strength. They’re just scars.