I spoke in therapy the other week about the frustration I feel at having to bare my soul every time I bare my arms, I’ve been continuing to think over those thoughts and feelings ever since.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under any allusion that I have especially severe scarring, or that I am worse off than people with burns or other scars. This is not a pity party, this is just me talking about what it’s like to walk around in my body.
I self harmed from the age of 14 to somewhere around the age of 22, 23. I stopped self harming on a daily-ish basis at around 19. Inevitably, cutting and burning oneself for that period of time has a considerable impact on your skin. My arms are pretty scarred up. Year on year, as I continue to abstain, the scars fade a little more but it’s going to be a long time before they really become unnoticeable – or even just easy to miss.
Until May last year I had never ever worn short sleeves to work. So that’s roughly 10 years in work wearing long sleeves in every weather – even the stiflingly hot days. In May, at a conference at the University I work and study at, I broke. I was wearing a thin jacket over a t-shirt in 30 degrees. I was running around organising things and I realised that if I didn’t take my jacket off then, at 9:30am, I’d have sweat stains from armpit to ankle by the end of the day. So I whipped off my jacket and did the day in a t-shirt. Presenting my research to colleagues and superiors with my arms on show. Hosting an all day event in an t-shirt.
That evening, stress and exhaustion and lack of food combined to make me roaring drunk after 2 glasses of wine. At dinner I confided in a friend and colleague that this was the first time I had ever worn short sleeves in a professional environment. Something flashed across her face before she spoke – relief I’d mentioned it? Horror I was talking about it? She confessed “yes, [other colleague] and I spoke about [your arms] earlier, do you still do it?”. “No,” I replied “not for years. But that’s just the problem, I have to carry around my teenage self and all her decisions for everyone to see. Lots of people did stupid things as teenagers, but I can’t avoid people making assumptions about me based on what they can see, I can’t leave my teenage self behind”. She sympathised but assured me that our work environment – a university – may be one of the best places to be ‘out’ about something like this. I’m sceptical about that, but that’s another post.
There was a lot of compassion and understanding in the conversation I had with my colleague that night, but her first response, the very first words out of her mouth confirmed what I always fear – the scarred flesh of my arms is a topic of conversation, it is worthy of remark. I have been approached by strangers in the street in the summer who demand to know what is ‘wrong’ with my arms, I was cornered by classmates in Sixth Form accusing me of self harming and demanding I confess it to them, I have been asked by waiting staff, shop assistants, security officers. Somehow, for some reason, visible signifiers of mental distress make your body public property. People believe they have the right to demand an explanation from you, to insist on [one way] emotional intimacy.
I can have a great day, sunning myself on the beach or in the city, shopping, laughing with friends, living life in the most enjoyable and energetic way but a single person, a single remark from a stranger can cut through all that, bring me crashing to earth feeling small and exposed.
“What’s wrong with your arms? You cut them, didn’t you?”
Having self harm scars is like walking around with a mental health hangover. Always forced to reveal more than you consent to people you don’t know. Always knowing that whilst friends and colleagues might be understanding, might not care, it will invariably come after a gasp, a whispered conversation, a furtive look.
Perhaps it’s surprising then, that my primary response is anger. You ask me directly, with no preamble, with no intimacy, what is ‘wrong’ with my arms and I’ll reply “nothing. What’s wrong with your face?” Say “did you cut your arms?” I’ll say “no, I raise tiger cubs”. Call me a liar, I’ll call you a dick.
My body, not yours. Not yours to demand an explanation of, not yours to judge me by, not yours to know me by.
Anger is the big front to the awful, gnawing insecurity I feel about my arms. I wear long sleeves to avoid these questions and assumptions, not to save anyone difficult considerations. I wish the scars away sometimes. But I also think of them as a part of my journey as much as the various tattoos I have. Would I vanish them all tomorrow if I could? Almost certainly yes. Although one of the biggest roles they play in my life today is as a disincentive to self harming again so I waver slightly at the thought of maintaining that resolve without a reminder of why.
Perhaps most frustrating is that whilst the scars on my arms hint at a past and mental health history, they don’t tell the whole story. They give half a picture and a million assumptions and stereotypes about what a ‘cutter’ is. They don’t say “fought past that, deal better now, in control, managing a whole other condition these days” They don’t say “I’m more than this” They don’t say “you see one thing, but you don’t know what it means, where it came from, or where I’m going”. And, somehow, they make me into an awkward teenager in the eyes of people who would otherwise see a thirty-something.
Scarred arms leave me no choice in who knows what, or when. And that fucks me off. But I’m not angry with myself – I’m angry with those people, those strangers, who think they know something about me because of it.