I recently had an awkward experience where my cafe manager caught a glimpse of my forearms and thought I had been in a recent accident. She held my wrist and glanced at the row of keloid scars and said ‘my dear, did you scratch yourself?’ I just shrugged and responded ‘no, those have always been there’ and went to fix the milk stand. I think we were both kind of embarrassed.
There isn’t really a social etiquette for this type of thing yet, it’s like goiters and nose jobs, the unwritten code is that although you can see it is not proper to address it.
It’s not a secret whatsoever that I’ve had a long battle with self harm. My arms tell that story. Too often I let the scars speak for me, because it’s easier to have people accept or reject me upon appearance than it is to actually risk talking about it. Because, like everyone else: I am afraid. I have cultivated a well honed persona that makes me appear outgoing, braised, and unaffected by stares of others. However, to this day I cannot utter the words ‘cutter’ ‘self harm’ or ‘stitches’ without having my stomach drop with shame.
Even when I’m with the people whom I trust most or others who bear the same tell tail marks as I do I can only speak about in the most abstract of terms. I forget the scars are there the majority of the time, i have to, so there is a strange level of shock and disbelief when I overhear or directly receive a nasty comment; the world stops and all of a sudden it’s high school and I am that girl again... that girl who went away and came back changed... that girl with the broken personality.... that girl who you probably heard rumors about.
When I am obligated to speak about it for reasons such as medical history or sometimes advocacy I am telling the story of that girl, because even though I see the aftermath every day in the mirror I still hold to much shame to admit that I am her and she is me. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about how I will be wearing these scars for the rest of life.. I don’t want to think about the ramifications, the awkward moments, the ruined first impressions.
This fear and silence and shame is a result of stigma. My struggle and the struggle of hundreds of other people like me has been keep silent by stigma and societal shaming.
For a long time the belief has been held that we are protecting our youth with silence. That providing information about self injury the same we provide information about drug addiction and alcoholism, will encourage the behavior rather than prevent it. That people like me are contagious and must be tucked away so we don’t infect others with our broken-ness.
This strategy likely made more sense previous to the internet and social media when behaviors like cutting really weren’t public knowledge. But that is no longer the case, many youth today do not only know about the existence of self harm as a coping mechanism, but they probably know of someone who engages in it. What they don’t know, what I didn’t know, is the social fallout that can occur long after the bad feelings fade away and the wounds heal.
I wish I had known the life altering addiction I was starting when I made that first red line on my arm over a decade ago. I was a very cautious kid who had been throughly warned about the ramifications of alcohol, sex, drugs, eating before swimming, not wearing a helmet, Y2K, ingesting candy from strangers, and SARS. Depression and cutting did not make the list.
I learned about cutting on a particularly tight lipped episode of seventh heaven. Shortly after I saw the behavior mocked on a mad tav sketch titled ‘pretty white kids with problems’ . Nether tv appearance said what happened to the characters who cut themselves, although both (even in the comedy sketch) were depicted as deeply ashamed and socially ostracized. Unfortunately, those 20 minute tv appearances did not convey to me the seriousness of self injury. They did not inform me that the rush of dopamine after cutting is just as devastatingly addictive as any drug, and they certainly did not inform me that like drugs it becomes harder and harder to get that relief.
Perhaps, if I had known that cutting would end up would end up limiting my career options, devastating my family, taking over my identity, forever altering my appearance, and generally throwing into question my credibility as a human being; I wouldn’t have made that first red line. Perhaps I would have stopped in time. Perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
I don’t have a solution to the issue of self harm and the stigma that surrounds it. I don’t know what the next step is that could make this better. However, I do know that what we are doing and the silence we are keeping is pushing the problem further underground where it can germinate unchecked. If societal shaming and secret keeping actually made problems disappear instead of fostering their growth we’d be living in a world free of domestic violence, HIV, rape, mental illness, self injury and countless other issues.
An antidote about mental illness that I hear a lot is ‘Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there’, but we can see this. It is here. So now that that’s out in the open how can we help those affected heal instead of hurting them because they have hurt themselves?