After self-harming for almost a decade, next week will mark three years since I last self-injured. Before I sat down to write this (and unwrite some parts and write this again), I was reflecting on my experiences since my self-injuries became scars.
By far the most memorable situation, in which somebody directly addressed me about the scars on my arms, actually happened at work when I was working in the hospitality industry as a supervisor. The uniform consisted of a polo top with sleeves that only just covered my shoulders, and although most of my scars are completely white now, they were still very visible. All of a sudden, I was in a professional environment where I wasn’t in control of who saw my scars. I spent a long time trying to find the ‘right’ way to act, and the truth is, there isn’t a ‘right’ way; you have to just follow your instinct. My aim was to wear my scars with pride, and I do now, although I think in the beginning I was only just about comfortable with them.
It’s a relatively small cafe in a countryside setting and we often had regular customers who would become almost familiar to us. On this particular day, I was taking a tray of drinks over to a couple that I recognised. I put down the drinks, my arm turned inward facing the gentleman and as I let go, he grabbed my arm. At first, I didn’t realise what he was doing so was more confused than anything else. I tried to pull my arm away but as I did he pointed at my scars with his other hand and said:
‘I know what this is, you know. I’ve seen a lot of this in my time and it’s very sad. You’re a bright young girl with your whole life ahead of you, what’ve you been doing that for? You’re better than that.’
I have no doubt that his intentions were not malicious. But it did cause me to have a panic attack and cry at work in front of the co-workers that I was managing at the time. My personal space had been invaded, I felt embarrassed and ashamed but mostly, I felt violated. Sometimes, having self-harm scars is like wearing all of your vulnerabilities on the outside of your skin.
I wish I could tell you that this was an isolated incident; but it isn’t.
My scars have been commented on inconsiderately and inappropriately by friends, health-care professionals, bosses and surprisingly mostly by complete strangers.
Here is a list of things that have actually been said to me in regard to self-injury related scars:
- ‘You’re better than that’
- ‘Oh my gosh, what happened to your arms?’
- ‘Have you been in a fight with an animal?’
- ‘If you don’t want people to ask, why do you wear short sleeves?’
- ‘You don’t look like someone who would self-harm.’
- ‘They don’t look good, what’ve you done there?’
- ‘You’ve done a good job at those arms haven’t you’
Here’s what I wish people would say:
‘Would you mind if I asked about your scars?’
- Consent is EVERYTHING. If the person feels comfortable talking about them, they can give consent. If they don’t (and that’s totally okay), they can let you know they would rather not talk about it. Either way, by asking, you show compassion and respect for their feelings.
- If you don’t know a person, it’s always good to think before you speak. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say might be triggering or problematic, or a little bit personal for you to be asking. Maybe try and put yourself in their position; would you like it if people invaded your privacy in that way?
‘If you ever want to talk to me about anything, you can.’
- Saying this gives the person control, it opens a door for them to confide as little or as much as they like. It also lets them know that you care about them without being too intrusive.
It is time to talk, let’s have those conversations about mental health but please be considerate about how you do it.