Based on the self-injury forums I’ve occasionally perused (here’s where I shamelessly endorse buslist.org – a spectacularly understanding, supportive, and safe on-line environment for those looking), and people I’ve spoken with, apparently I’m in the minority in my comfort level with my self-injury scars in that I don’t make any effort to cover or hide them. Maybe it’s because a lot of my early worst and most frequent cutting happened while at an adolescent psych unit (I was a pretty notorious, and overall difficult, patient) where a lot of the other patients either had, or were still actively self-injuring, and evidence of past self-injury wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it’s because I was a competitive swimmer and there was no way of not displaying scars in that domain of my life. Or maybe it’s because I’m just too damn stubborn and refuse to wear long sleeves when it’s hot outside, or go out of my way just for the sake of making other people more comfortable (the majority of my self-injury scars are on my arms; I also have a scattering on my stomach and thighs.). I don’t know. But for whatever reason I’ve practically never felt that I needed to cover up my scars.
I say practically, because there are a couple very specific exceptions to this. There were a few interviews for volunteer positions and jobs as a teen that I was advised by well-meaning people, who did work in the mental health field, to wear long sleeves. Advice to which I obliged because I understood the very real chance of the perception and stigma of the scars, and the resulting impression of me they could give the interviewers, posing a barrier from getting the position. The only prolonged period of time I consciously covered my arms was the first few months of high school. I was starting out already feeling very different having missed the entire previous school year because I was in the hospital until April, which made me a year older than my classmates (what felt like a big deal in grade 9), and I didn’t know anyone at the school. No one knew about my past, so this was a fresh start. I was going to be a completely new person. As anyone who’s tried starting all over knows, it turns out you can’t run away from yourself, so it was really just a matter of time until I caught up to me, told a few people about why I was a year older and a grade ahead in math (did manage to get that credit in the hospital), and within a month or two I allowed my arms to breathe again, unrestricted by sleeves, thereby baring everyone witness to my arms decorated by white and pink lines.
The years of uninhibitedly showing my scars has provided me an unintended sociological study on reactions to scars. At this point I’m actually a little surprised when people ask “what happened?” because it is so blatantly obvious to me that they are the result of self-injury, but I also understand that my perspective is going to be different from a lot of people’s. When I notice someone with multiple scars that are varying lengths of straight lines, I immediately jump to self-injury (I’ve come to wonder if I’ve ever incorrectly pinned someone on this). Granted, when I do notice it doesn’t really make a difference whether or not the scars are the result of self-injury because I have a simple rule when it comes to scars: DON’T ASK, TELL WHAT YOU WANT.
A couple weeks ago I read Tina Fey’s 2011 book, Bossypants. (Shameless endorsement #2: I love her. Loved the book. Embarrassed it took me this long to get to. Yes, you should read it.) Fey has a scar on her face from an attack in an alley when she was 5 (by a stranger, no less. As a person who’s studied crime, it’s remarkable how many stereotypes and fears the story fits, and how unlikely that is to actually happen. Something about its uniqueness tells me that the universe knew she was destined for greatness. But I digress). Early in the book she mentions the incident and scar in order to say why she isn’t going to talk about the scar. In her explanation, she says:
“I’ve always been able to tell a lot about people by whether they ask me about my scar. Most people never ask, but if it comes up naturally somehow and I offer up the story, they are quite interested. Some people are just dumb: “Did a cat scratch you?” God bless…Then there’s another sort of person who thinks it makes them seem brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct to ask me about it right away. They ask with a quiet, reigned empathy, “How did you get your scar?”…They might as well walk up and say, “May I be amazing at you?” To these folks let me be clear, I’m not interested in acting out a TV movie with you where you befriend a girl with a scar.”
I stopped reading for a bit after this passage, amazed at how en pointe this description was, and made a mental note to include it in a blog post (you’re welcome). When I take stock of the closest people in my life who did not know me pre-self-injury, I can’t think of a single one who asked me about the scars. They all know the story now to varying extents because it came up naturally in discussions after we’d known each other for a period of time. Not because they asked me directly.
I never, and wouldn’t ever, ask people about scars. Every scar, whether from self-injury or not, has a story behind it. When you ask someone directly about a scar you’re asking them to revisit that story and putting them on the spot. If the scar’s from that one drunken, stupid, yet hilarious night at the cottage, it’s probably not going to be a problem. But if it’s from a traumatic event, or anything the person doesn’t want to revisit with you right then, that’s just not fair. If you have to ask the question, you obviously don’t know which category it falls under, and it’s really none of your business, so just don’t ask.
Now I’m going to shift the audience and direct my attention to my fellow self-injurers with visible scars out there. Show them or don’t show them. There’s no right answer other than the one you’re most comfortable with. If you do choose to show them, the question isn’t if someone will ask, but when and who. When it happens, remember this: you don’t owe that person anything in regard to how much you reveal. If you’re comfortable enough to tell them, that’s great. If you want to make something up, that’s great, too (my original go to was car accident: no seatbelt and through the windshield. “So always wear your seatbelt.”). I went from telling a story, to saying “stuff” (this was actually really effective to get the message across that I didn’t want to talk about it, and very rarely did anyone push me for more information) to “stupid teenage stuff” (I’m not particularly proud of that one, but it was a way of indicating that it was in the past and not worth delving into, and most people picked up on what I was getting at without me having to actually say it). Now I take some time to explain that it is self-injury and use it as a teachable moment, but it took a long time for me to become comfortable enough to do that.
I was really put to the test over Christmas when an 8-year-old asked me about my arms. I’ve known her since birth, and her father has known me since birth, so for all intensive purposes we are family. After debating with myself for a second (“She’s 8! She shouldn’t have to know about this yet!” “But she’s 8. You started at 11. It’s never too early for prevention and awareness.”) I went for it. I told her that I had done it to myself when I was younger because I was really sad and was scared and didn’t know how to talk about it with an adult, so this is what I did to try to make myself feel better. She asked why I couldn’t talk to my mom or dad. I told her I didn’t know what to say, but that it was really important that when things are hard, or you’re feeling sad, to go talk to an adult. It was the most challenging discussion about self-injury I’ve ever had, but I think it was also one of the more important ones.
But to go back to showing scars, you showing your scars does not mean that you also need to talk about your self-injury and/or mental health history and struggle. If you do choose to say, or hint at, that this is from self-injury, there’s a good chance you will encounter follow-up questions. Know your limits. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t want to get into it.” Say as much or as little as you want, and always remember, when it comes to scars: you do not owe anyone an explanation.
About Tracy Deyell
Tracy Deyell is a Ph.D. student living with major depression and bulimia. Follow her story on HMC’s Supportive Minds’d blog, or follow her on Twitter.