Please note: do not read this blog if you feel vulnerable to triggering issues.
Mental health problems are often thought of as ‘invisible illnesses’; that is, their effects are not immediately obvious to a stranger. There is a notable exception to this rule, however, and those who are familiar with self-harm are all too readily aware of this.
I began deliberately hurting myself around the age of twelve. I knew of two other people at school who did the same, and I decided to see if it helped to relieve my own stresses. It did, and developed into a compulsion over the years. Early on, I made a conscious decision never to let anybody see my scars.
There were three reactions I feared to my scars. The first was that I would be branded an ‘attention seeker’ or a ‘freak’. The two fellow pupils, who I knew self-harmed, had occasionally done so in public. Everybody knew. Everybody judged, including me. I felt their reasons for self-harm were somehow disingenuous; that they weren’t hurting themselves out of desperation to stop emotional pain, but simply to get sympathy.
I now realise that I was a perpetrator of the stigma I claim to be a victim of
I now realise that these people were just as in need of help as I was, even if their motivations and needs were different from mine. These feelings stemmed both from jealousy that they had the support I required, and from a desire to separate myself from the labels attached to them by my peers. I now realise that I was a perpetrator of the stigma I claim to be a victim of.
My second reason for keeping my self-harm a secret was a fear of being exposed for having mental health problems. I didn’t want my parents to know, and this is still important. I didn’t want to hurt them. I didn’t want the embarrassment of trying to explain a behaviour that I, myself, struggled to understand. And, this lead to my third reason - I didn’t want anybody to stop me.
Self-harm gave me control over my life, it gave me respite from the whirlwind of distressing thoughts, and it gave me certainty at a time when I felt lost. Anything I read told me that self-harm is bad, and it must be stopped. I didn’t want to stop; I had no other way of coping. Besides, talking about self-harm was triggering in itself. Visibility made the problem worse, from all angles. So I stayed invisible.
Long clothes were the staple item in my wardrobe
I stayed invisible when I dressed up for discos. I stayed invisible when I excused myself from swimming. I stayed invisible whatever the weather, feigning cold even in the height of summer. Long clothes were the staple item in my wardrobe. Going shopping with friends meant lying, as I pretended not to like anything that couldn’t be improved by a cardigan or thick tights.
My decision to keeping my mental health struggles invisible only intensified their control over my life.
I am now a university student, and my scars are now visible
I am now a university student, and my scars are now visible. I made the decision not to spend another hot day in extreme discomfort, not to let my fashion sense be dictated by anything other than desire and not to obsess over every action with the anxiety of being exposed.
The transition was easy. I was meeting new people and if I didn’t mention my scars, neither would they. On the flip side, if I did choose to mention self-harm to close friends, they then weren’t shocked. I can have intimate relationships without the fear that I am being deceptive – something that held me back before.
There is now an unspoken understanding that I have a problem with self-harm
Becoming visible around old friends was a little harder. I hadn’t worn short clothes around them for many years, and none of them knew the extent of my mental health problems. The first time I wore a t-shirt, one friend remarked, ‘Oh my God, what happened to your arms?’. I told her they were just old scars, and she was satisfied. There is now an unspoken understanding that I have a problem with self-harm, and I feel more infinitely more comfortable socialising with these people.
One definite positive of being visible with my self-harm, is that I am less inclined to act on destructive thoughts. My scars are still obvious to anybody who looks, but they are also obviously old and faded. If I hurt myself now then people will find out. This entails concern from friends, and a wide birth from strangers. I have no choice to hide either, as covering up looks equally as suspicious.
Fear of negative reaction has been a curse for the majority of time I have had mental health problems
Fear of negative reaction has been a curse for the majority of time I have had mental health problems but I feel I have found a way to use it to my advantage. The decision to show or hide signs of self-harm is a personal one, as dependant on one’s circumstances as much as the reception of others. I, however, feel relieved to finally be visible.
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