Self-Harm: Living in a Scarred Body

Self-Harm: Living in a Scarred Body | Libero Magazine

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Trigger warning: mentions self-harm behaviours and self-harm scars.

When I look down at my hands, I can see white moon scars in the glow of my computer screen. If I were to turn my arm I’d see a blistering red mark on the underside. If I were wearing shorts, I could see six long, thin lines of purple that delicately knit themselves back together on my leg. I’d also see, were I looking carefully, easily more than a hundred scars on my legs alone – the youngest of them violet and the oldest almost the same pinkish color as my skin but somehow shinier and with the grain running the wrong way. I put most of these scars there on purpose. I’m not happy about them.

Sometimes people ask questions. They’ve changed with age. When I was younger and more of these scars were open wounds, someone asked if I cut. On a date once, a person saw my arms and asked me if I burnt myself with cigarettes like he and his friends used to do in desperate displays of despondent machismo. Once, I was wearing bike shorts and my aunt, seeing six lavender tails peeking out on my right thigh, asked “What are those?” When I lied “Scratches,” she said “How long have you been doing that?” I got defensive. I got mean.

Admittedly, I think I was angry because I’ve probably been self-harming for over fifteen years and everyone in my family knows I do it because, frankly, if you start self-harming as a small child, you don’t think to hide it and, eventually, you can’t hide it. I don’t recommend starting. It’s a hard habit to kick. It’s arguably addictive. I can honestly say I never wanted to hurt myself in ways so graphic I’m not allowed to describe them here. But I did. And I hated myself for it. And I hated that there are permanent reminders etched into my body. But I don’t anymore.

I’ve dealt with anxiety using massively self-destructive outlets including punching myself and cutting, burning, but mostly picking, my skin. I feel compelled, at this juncture, as a person who has had so many iterations of self-harm, to include a disclaimer for anyone who has not engaged in multiple types of self-harming behavior so you know that your problem is legitimate:

As bad as these habits are, I object to the current rhetoric surrounding some supposed “hierarchy of gravity” wherein certain behaviors, while self-destructive, are seen as less grievous than others. We should look at self-harm as similar to drug abuse or disordered eating as a response to an underlying problem with, say, depression or anxiety, and we should treat them similarly, thinking of severity as falling somewhere on a spectrum of compulsion and not qualifying it based off of “method.”

Because that’s what self-harm is: a compulsion. It doesn’t matter how you do it.

Currently, I’m trying to kick the habit, though the longest I’ve ever gone without it is a month – the longest month of my life, endured through sheer force of will JUST so my mom would let me get my nose pierced – so I mostly just praise myself for every hour and every day I get through without thoughtlessly picking my skin. I feel compelled, but not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

And that’s the crux of the issue: You wouldn’t know it by looking at it, but lots of people who self-harm don’t hate their bodies. We have a compulsion. And we’re irked when people try to thrust shame upon us. People who engage in self-harming behaviors are not excluded from the body positivity club. So this month, I’m writing for everyone who, like me, has ever struggled with self-harm but feels (rightly so) that they are just as entitled to feel good about their bodies as anyone else.

While there are groups just like those “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” folks, who glorify self-harm, for the most part, those of us who self-harm aren’t proud of what we’ve done. In fact, generally we hide scars and bruises the best that we can and live in fear of not only being found out but, worse, triggering anyone else. But, dang it if we don’t just want to wear shorts like everyone else some days or, heck, even take racy pictures of ourselves because even people with scars sometimes want to feel a cool breeze or, God forbid, a little sexy. It is (ideally) our prerogative as to whether or not we cover our scars. We shouldn’t engage in self-harming behavior (and many of us, myself included are trying to stop), but when we get dressed each day, we are not obligated to hide them or be ashamed.

Short sleeves and short pants or skirts do not entitle people to our lives’ stories, but if we decide not to cover our scars, people will ask questions – sometimes coming from a place of concern and sometimes entitlement. Yes, we need to find healthier outlets for our self-destructive urges and yes we need to be mindful of and empathetic towards other people’s triggers. (Libero has resources if you’re looking and you should totally join me in trying to quit)!

But you know what we don’t need to do? We don’t need to engage in prying conversations with people who are concern trolling (especially if they could be potentially triggering for us) and we don’t need to be ashamed of our bodies on top of being ashamed of a pervasive problem in our lives.

Despite my bad days I, for one, and I don’t think I’m alone here, don’t hate my body – I’ve just been THAT anxious for the past fifteen years or so. The issue is my mind. My mind says “You’re feeling anxious? A smart idea right now would be to let some of that anxiety out through you know what,” and then, through fifteen years of reinforcing those neural pathways, I’ve developed a self-harm addiction.

I’m not alone here when I say I’ve wished someone could just replace my skin or that I don’t feel like there’s any point stopping because I’m somehow “too far gone.” It’s NOT true and it’s essential to our recovery that we allow ourselves the space to get comfortable with our scars.

I want my little white moons and lilac lines to someday be as innocuous as my freckles and moles.

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  • Emma, thank you SO much for this piece. I definitely needed to hear your message, both for myself and for being able to help others. In the end, our scars and our pasts are not who we are, and there is never any reason for shame. Wishing you the best of luck with coping.