Last week I was participating in a craft class, dunking felt into warm water, when I heard, “Quick, pull down your sleeve!” I looked up inquisitively and the woman beside me said, “You’re going to get your new tattoo wet!”
I explained that I’ve actually had my tattoo for a few years and pulled up my sleeve to reveal the floral design. The conversation quickly turned to the story behind the image and away from my scars that make it look like I still have Saran-type wrapping covering a fresh tattoo.
It’s only going to get worse now that spring and summer are on their way, but the good news is that I’m mostly used to such comments now. After spending six years sweltering under long sleeves, I’ll take the odd remark if it means being comfortable in the hot weather. Most people don’t know much about self-injury and for the most part, I don’t mind telling them about the source of my scars when they ask.
Thankfully, the large tattoo on my left forearm draws more attention than the scars that it partially hides.
Misconceptions About Self-Injury
What really bothers me is when people who do or should know a lot about self-injury make rude comments or openly stare at my scars. Ironically enough, it has been on psych wards that I’ve received the worst treatment surrounding my self-injury.
Nursing staff chatting in the hallways have stopped their conversation to blatantly stare at my arms. One nurse used to corner me whenever he could, asking me to show him my arms even if I wasn’t his patient that day, not to check up on me but to just . . . look. It creeped me out.
The first time my prime nurse called my self-injury “slicing and dicing,” I was horrified but kept quiet. The second time she called it that I told her that I wasn’t a vegetable and she laughed it off. What I couldn’t enunciate at the time was that I cut myself because I already felt like an object and she was only making it worse.
I prefer the terms “self-injury” or “self-harm” because they indicate the hurt involved. You can cut a piece of bread but you can’t injure or harm a piece of bread. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm but people also can burn themselves or bruise themselves, or do anything else to damage their bodies. That’s why it’s appropriate to use broad terminology. “Self-mutilation” is a term that has always disturbed me. It sounds like something zombies or rabid animals would do. We need for self-injurers to feel understood, not repulsed by their attempts to cope.
Why I Hurt Myself
I started self-injuring by cutting myself at 15, but I’ve really been hurting myself in different ways my whole life. It brought me back to the present and stopped my emotions from feeling out of control.
Cutting started slowly, just with scratches, but eventually I would require stitches for each wound I learned to call “self-inflicted” in the ER. People would tell me, “Think of your wedding day! You don’t want to walk down the aisle and have people see scars on your arms.” In reality, that was exactly what I wanted. I was so tired of hiding behind my smile and pretending I was fine when I was so far from it. I wanted my outside to reflect my insides, and unfortunately I found a very dangerous way to do so.
On the psychiatric ward, I had been taught to snap an elastic band on my wrist when I wanted to cut, or hold ice cubes until they melted in my hands. Those things helped a little but they still encouraged me to solve my emotional pain with physical pain. Eventually I just wanted to cut still because those things weren’t hurting me enough. I had to learn to deal with my emotions without physical pain.
One thing that really helped me slow down my self-harm was to have the goal of getting the scars on my arms to fade in time for summer. I had sweltered for so many summers and finally I realized that I had nothing to lose by showing my scars. I already hated myself and had no friends, so I figured I might as well be more comfortable in the hot weather. I did want my scars to be less noticeable than they were, however, so having that goal of my scars fading for summer kept me going.
A Reminder to ‘Stay Safe and Be Well’
A few years later, I got my tattoo after having inpatient treatment for two months. During that time I had learned more about how emotionally damaging it is to self-injure and how when you do that, you’re actually repeating abuse that you’ve received from other people. I didn’t want to be like those abusers. I had been hurt enough. My tattoo is a constant reminder of why I want to stay safe and be well.
And I won’t lie, the impulse never really goes away. I feel it every single day but I now choose healthier things to do instead, not because I know I “should” but because I actually want to do those things. I know that it can be so much faster to hurt yourself than to get your emotions out in a healthy way, but one cut is never enough, and soon the scars pile up and you realize that it isn’t fixing anything, it’s only prolonging the pain.
I plan on getting more tattoos to cover up the rest of my scars on my arms. I think the cutting started partially because I wanted to mark my history, I wanted my story to be visible. Getting tattoos is a more positive way of doing so. There is so much beauty out there and I must keep going to experience it all. That means nurturing myself instead of beating myself down. It’s a difficult learning experience but I’m discovering that it is very worthwhile.
Erin (from Mind Your Mind)
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