Self-inflicted scars say a lot more than other scars. They are loud and brash: the opposite of subtle. They narrate stories that were too painful to put into words and emotions that were too large to quantify. They scream fear and insecurity yet are met with ignorance and stigma. I feel guilty as I play my own part in perpetuating this stigma as I choose to cover up instead. As a result, I am found hiding behind a computer screen with a degree of anonymity before I can meet this topic head-on.
Self-harm is a maladaptive attempt at coping. It may be coping with overwhelming feelings of anxiety or a hollow, oppressive emptiness. People have used it to validate their experience of their emotions or to try to re-connect in a period of dissociation. Every person has different reasons for their self-harm and no reason is more valid than another. Though we may be all different, we unite in our shared self-destruction. As a person with BPD, I have used self-harm for many a reason and despite the reason, the result is the same.
What is not the same is the form that my self-harm can take and expanding from that, the ways that other people react to the different manifestations of it. Cutting is met with the largest response. As a 20-year-old female, I have often had disapproving looks thrown my way as if to say “you should have really grown-out of this by now”. Perhaps the worst reaction I’ve had to these episodes was a trip that I once made to a Minor Injuries Unit. A triage nurse called me into a side-room to be assessed and she would not look me in the eye. The only thing she said to me was “so I see you are left-handed” as my injury was on my right arm. What did she want, a medal for her detective work?!
I admit that I am ashamed of my self-injurious behaviour and I doubt that reactions like these were the cause. It is something that will never be logical or rational. Emotions, after all, are quite the opposite of rational but it is easier to accept someone’s actions if they are out of love, for example, than out of loathing. It could be said that it is this self-loathing that people are afraid of more than the injuries and scars. The fact that our society could be a perfect breeding ground for these self-destructive coping strategies is something that we should all collectively be ashamed of and it is this that drives people into denial and marginalising those who are most vulnerable.
So what do these scars say, not to those with them, but those who see them? In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter, but it isn’t. People judge and that’s the truth of it. It is not necessarily out of intolerance but because quick judgements are required by everyone to navigate the social contexts we find ourselves in. But if these scars are found on a professional, be it a doctor, lawyer, businessperson, etc., what do these marks say about the suitability of these people for such large responsibilities? Would a parent want someone to look after their young child if that person couldn’t love or care for themselves? What about a nurse in an emergency department? I wonder if there is some unspoken etiquette as to when scars can be shown.
In other slightly related news,I received a parcel in the post today. It contained the camouflage make-up that I’d spent an hour deliberating over which shade of beige was right for me. Having not seen many others out in the community with visible self-harm scars, I have become self-conscious of the purple slugs that snake up my arm. I am not of the opinion that people should be made to cover their scars but I cannot face looking at them on my arm and don’t expect others to want to either. I admire those people who call them their ‘battle wounds’ and have the confidence to walk into the summer months wearing shorts and t-shirts; they are the poster people of self-acceptance. Instead of following their lead, I will be cowering in my cardigan and jeans or if I can master the art of make-up, perhaps a ¾ sleeved top.