When I Decided to Stop Hiding the Physical Scars of My Mental Illness
Without looking closely, this picture doesn’t seem particularly exciting or interesting. Sure, the leaves are beautifully green and I’m smiling in a truly honest way, but if you didn’t know better you’d think it was just a nice picture.
But look carefully at my legs. Do you see the constellation of angry redness there? Those are scars. I gave myself those scars, building them up night after night for years. I have the word “fat” forever imprinted in scar tissue on my left thigh. This picture was taken a little over a year ago. I had been self-harming for nearly five years at that point. This is the first photographic evidence I have of my scars. This photo marks the day I chose to wear my own skin proudly.
Most mental illness is invisible.
That fact is both positive and negative for people with mental illnesses. It means I can choose who knows about my struggles; it also means it’s easy for people to discount what I’ve been through.
Self-harm is different. It’s obvious. It leaves your most vulnerable and raw moments on your skin for the rest of the world to wonder about. It puts you in an incredibly vulnerable position, because it’s not like you can just take off your skin and set it aside for a day. It’s carrying around memories of your worst feelings so people can ask you about them, or judge. Self-harm is hardly considered a positive choice, and for a long time I would spend my time outside the house wondering if someone thought I was suicidal, if they were triggered by my body, if they thought I was dangerous or if they were afraid of me. I don’t like giving other people the power to interpret some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments in my life.
For years I carefully arranged my clothing so people couldn’t see my scars. I would go to the gym and have small anxiety attacks every time my shorts rode up. I invested in pairs of leggings so no matter what I wore I could be sure I was covered. I was so afraid someone would see and I would be “found out.”
But this picture marks the day I chose not to be afraid.
I hate the way that sounds. You cannot choose your emotions. I am more aware than most what it’s like to have a feeling wash over you completely, without your consent and without a moment of space to fight it. I know my emotions exist whether I want them to or not. But in this case I was fully active in my decision. I thought carefully about what I had done and whether I wanted to continue covering my body out of fear. I chose not to. I decided I was completely done with hiding myself and what I had done.
I expected the decision would make me uncomfortable or lead to some awkward interactions. But I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by myself and the reactions of others. Since I took this picture, I’ve gone out into the world wearing shorts, skirts, bathing suits and all kinds of clothing that showed off my legs. Multiple people have told me thank you. It’s amazing to be told thank you for having the audacity to exist without shame.
What is most meaningful to me about this picture is the way I smile. Since I stopped trying to hide, I feel like my body belongs to me. I don’t feel ashamed anymore. I don’t feel broken, and I don’t even spend much time thinking about the fact I have scars. I will never deny there are external stigmas against those with mental illness and those who self-harm. But what surprised me was how much of my own struggle came from self-imposed stigma. I had spent so much time judging myself for the way my body looked, I was convinced everyone else would, too. And some people do. But some people look at my marred body and see me. Some people look at my body and see beauty. What you don’t see about this picture is that it’s the moment I started seeing that too. At least a little bit.
It’s been over a year since I hurt myself on purpose. I say that not with pride (because I’m bad at being proud), but with happiness. Self-harm is not an effective way to cope with internal pain. It stops helping very quickly and starts making things worse and worse. But not yet having effective coping strategies is not morally wrong. It’s a normal, human problem, and one we could all use some help with. And although I don’t condone self-harm, I don’t condone feeling ashamed of it either. It was part of my life. And I’m OK.
Follow this journey on We Got So Far to Go.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.