Wearing my heart on my sleeve

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.



Filed under self harm, symptoms and habits

4 responses to “Wearing my heart on my sleeve

  1. Deep insight into self harm! Thank you for sharing your personal experiences to give us the opportunity of learning more.
    Sending light and love,

  2. Well said – you’re more than justified (although you don’t need _me_ to tell you that!) at the anger towards others who make assumptions on the basis of something they know nothing about. The more I learn and understand about self-harm, the more I realise that it means different things to different people, and different things to the same person at different times, and assumptions, even by those who are also self-harmers, are never helpful. I am in my thirties and only started self harming about two years ago – I have to keep it absolutely hidden for personal and professional reasons, and as I cannot stand the thought of it being ‘taken away from me’, I tend to cut in a very small area on my hips, which is not visible to anyone. Sometimes I get incredibly frustrated and need to do more, in which case I ‘allow myself’ small cuts on my arms or legs, but only ever one at a time, and so small that I hope they are not noticeable to anyone. Please do say if you’d rather not discuss it, but may I ask how and why you got to a place where you stopped self-harming? I am still very much ‘in it’ and self-harming feels like a a logical answer to a serious problem, and I fear that unless I deal with the actual issues first, one coping strategy will simply be replaced by another, and if my track record is anything to go by, it is likely to be one that is potentially more destructive to others, and not just to myself (e.g. obsessive relationships etc).
    I can so see how visible scars makes your body ‘public property’….it actually reminded me a little of being pregnant and how that has a similar effect in so much as people feel it’s their right to comment and even touch you in places they would never dream of if you weren’t! I’m sorry, I don’t mean the comparison to be trivialising, as obviously the two situations are very very different, but the concept that by doing or being ‘some way’, you inadvertently make aspects of yourself ‘public property’, is an interesting one…..thank you for writing, and sharing this….

    • Hi, thanks for reading and sorry to hear that self harm is something which you struggle with.

      I think your comparison to the way people respond to pregnant women’s bodies is spot on. Very similar privacy invasion.

      I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a sure fire guide to stopping self harming. For me, there were a considerable change of personal circumstances making me feel less trapped, a new medication which alleviated my most severe depression and anxiety, and, sadly, a bit of a shift from one unhealthy coping mechanism to another. As you fear, I also switched from one bad strategy to another and often use alcohol at times I previously used self harm.

      That said, the thing that made the biggest difference was definitely just deciding to stop *for me* and making little deals with myself – swear off self harm for one night, deciding I wasn’t allowed to cut on weekends, or on weekdays, enforcing a 1 hour – or more – delay between impulse and action. Rewarding myself for managing to abstain with a new dvd or particularly delicious pudding. Small steps really, nothing which shocks the system, just trying to develop new habits in place of trigger>urge>immediate reaction which characterises self harming.

      • Thank you so much for the reply, I really appreciate it. I think you’re right, it has to be a decision _for me_, and I’m definitely not at that point yet. The delay between impulse and action is definitely helpful. I find that this in itself means I self-harm less than I might otherwise do, though thankfully, because my will-power is close to nil, the delay is often imposed by external circumstances. I have small children and a busy job and oftentimes when I feel like self-harming it’s simply not possible in the situation I am in, or my husband has asked me to do x or y in terms of household stuff, and then in an hour or two’s time, the urge is not quite so strong….changes of personal circumstances have really helped me in the past,but that’s not really possible (or desirable) for me at the moment. I’ve consdiered medication, but am still to petrified or ‘losing myself’ or of ‘feeling empty’, to try. The citalopram is sitting in my cupboard, untouched….
        Thank you again for taking the time to reply!

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