I was at the gym the other day when one of the trainers that I take classes with came up to me and started chatting while I was on the exercise bike. He glimpsed over at my arms as I gripped the handlebars and casually said, “What happened there?” “Oh, the trials of a misspent use.” His face instantly dropped. “You did that?” “Yeah, it was a long time ago.” “You don’t have to say anything else.” He was clearly very uncomfortable with the idea that I had created the scars on my arms myself. I can’t even count the number of times that’s happened to me. If someone hasn’t grown up with self-harm, or with someone that utilizes self-harming behaviors, they don’t even realize that the injury could be something of that nature. Strangers will make casual observations assuming that it was maybe something like a car accident, or sports injury, only to find that it was something of an entirely different emotional plane of experience. To many people it seems unnatural.
I may just catch people off guard with my honesty. A lot of people are ashamed of their self-harming behaviors. I am not. I believe my scars are beautiful and a symbol of my survival. I won’t say I’m proud of them, but I’m not ashamed of them either. Something that helped to keep me alive is not something I believe I need to feel shame for.
My trainer at the gym squirmed and wanted to drop the topic right away. I could tell that he regretted having said anything immediately. This is pretty common. He was pleasant about it though. He didn’t throw out any judgmental statements or question why I would do such a thing.
Judgmental reactions are ones I’ve received often. I get responses like:
Oh my god why would you do that to yourself?
Doesn’t it hurt?
You need help.
Are you crazy? Why would you do something like that to yourself?
And of course, there are the people that care and mean well, but don’t really understand. I will often hear something like:
Next time just call me first. I’ll sit with you until you don’t want to do it anymore. What they don’t understand is that the urge is constantly there. By the time I’m in a state of turmoil that is severe enough that I need that as my coping mechanism, I’m not thinking so clearly about other options, and frankly, I don’t want other people to see me when I’m in a state of panic like that.
Other people have offered to hide my implements of choice. Except, let’s face it, almost anything can be used as a means to self-harm if you’re determined enough.
Probably the worst is when someone begged me, or tried to make me promise to not do it again. I understand that they’re concerned, scared, and don’t want to see me in pain. But they don’t realize what they’re really asking. They may think they’re saying, “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” What it feels like to me is, “Why are you guilting me about something that is helping me deal with an even greater pain?” And guilty is exactly how I feel because I now know that I am causing the person I confided in emotional discomfort. I feel guilty that I’ve upset them. I feel guilty that I’ve now just made them worry more. But mostly I feel guilty because I can’t do what they are asking. If I did promise, I know it would only be a lie. I’d want them to feel better so I would try to take care of them, but the only way to do that is to be dishonest. Because when I do reach a point when I am in need of that knife, I’m going to reach for it, with just one more heaping spoonful of guilt and shame because I’ve now betrayed a promise to someone. The best thing I have found for that is a compromise. I’ll tell them that I can’t promise them that I won’t injure myself again, but I can promise that I will try to find other ways to cope first.
I had one friend that noticed while I was driving us somewhere and he asked me about it. He really didn’t understand, almost to the point of laughable ignorance, but he made a very solid effort to get there. To that point of understanding. Even though he knows and accepts my reasons, sometimes he still says things like, you’ve such beautiful skin, it’s too bad you have all these white scars. I just shake my head and tell him I like my scars. I appreciate that he at least took the time and made an effort to understand it, but I guess you can’t expect everyone, even the people you REALLY NEED to, to ever fully understand or accept your reasons for it. And that’s okay. It’s important that he tried. He made the effort. It’s better than running away from it and rejecting me. It’s important to appreciate the small victories too.
It may seem silly, but having friends that have self-injured like Sister and Zoe, is a huge comfort sometimes. They never look at me with judgment or ask things of me that I know I can’t promise because they’ve been there too. They understand absolutely. Understanding is crucial to those of us that feel chronically misunderstood.
Surprisingly, one of the people that I’ve dated that was the most understanding, was Boring-Ex. I remember very well it was our second date curled up in a coffee shop. He ran a finger down my arm and flat out asked, “Did you do these yourself?” His tone was simply one of curiosity. Not even concern. While it was never something he did, he’s had friends that have before so he was aware of what it could mean to people. He asked me all about it in a way that managed to be supportive and inquisitive without being intrusive. He was actually interested in what it meant to me. At the end of our conversation he told me he thought my scars were beautiful because they were a part of me. The only other time I’ve run into someone that didn’t ever self-harm and was also free of judgment was a friend I grew up with all through grade school. He was well aware of my cutting. One night when his very tactless girlfriend mentioned it in front of me, all he said was, “If it helps her, than that’s all that matters”. I remember being very grateful to him in that moment. Not because I felt my actions needed defending, but that he actually paid attention to me and understood why I did it and it didn’t change what he thought of me.
Strangers, friends, lovers, family… by now I know what to expect from them and it’s easy for me to deal with. The only time I ever really pause, is when medical professionals are concerned. I’m not talking about therapists or psychiatrists. They’re usually pretty good and tactful about those things because they understand the mental implications. But regular medical professionals, doctors, nurses, people like that who often end up treating the wounds but don’t understand the motivations and psychology behind what caused them, are usually the most uncomfortable for me. I’m never self-conscious about my scars, except when I have a routine doctor’s appointment. When the nurse comes in and I have to pull up my sleeve to have my blood pressure taken, I can see that slight hesitation when her eyes see my arms. I don’t recall ever having a nurse say anything to me, but my doctors have. The doctor that finally convinced me to see a psychiatrist was very, very kind. I had gone in for medication to help me sleep. He asked me what was going on in my life, saw my arms, held my hands and told me that he knew he wasn’t qualified to prescribe or advise me in a way that would actually help me. My new GP noticed right away and asked me about it without preamble. I always feel a little smaller when I have to explain it to a doctor that I’m not seeing for a related reason. He didn’t say much, noticed it, asked, wrote it down, and accepted my reassurance that it was behavior in my past and that I am in therapy.
It’s important to remember that medical professionals, teachers, counselors, are people too and self-injury is often viewed as something very unnatural and foreign. I can almost understand why doctors would be unsympathetic about self-harm. People that self-harm and end up needing medical attention usually go to the Emergency Room. ERs are often overcrowded and filled with people that have had serious health complications. I can understand how a doctor would look at a self-injurer and feel anger or disgust because it is a medical emergency that didn’t have to happen. That doctor is now faced with someone taking up their time, money, and resources, taking away time from patients that were injured or sick against their will, in order to patch someone up that “didn’t need to be there”. I can understand where the displeasure would come from. But it’s important to remember that they don’t really understand. They’re people too, but without the psychological education to understand that sometimes for the self-injurer it’s a choice of the ER or the morgue. It’s not a choice of having a bowl of Cheerios or, jeepers, going to the ER sounds like a great way to spend my time at 2a.m.
It would be lovely if everyone were able to take the time and put themselves in your shoes long enough to be a little less judgmental, but the simple fact of the matter is that in this world, people aren’t like that. No matter how much we wish it were different, we do have to deal with the people that are presented to us.
It’s important to be prepared for people’s reactions. It also allows you to prepare yourself for an emotionally uncomfortable situation. Especially if you’re planning on telling someone…
How have people reacted to you when they’ve noticed your scars?