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What Happens When My Self-Harm Scars Are Visible at the Gym

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

It’s freezing outside. Bitterly brisk winds and icy rain. Perfect. Winter is my favorite time of the year because winter means warmth, which means layer upon layer of clothes. Sleeves, long trousers — beautiful.

I have scars everywhere; all over my body. Some are from childhood scrapes, others from surgery, but most are from years of self-harm. I won’t go into the gory details but, for me, self-harm has been my most consistent way of “dealing with” my mental illness. It’s not safe, it’s not pretty, and it’s not advisable, but let’s save that for another post. The fact remains that my body is littered with scars, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

I walk down the street, feet trudging through freezing puddles of frozen snow. Approaching the warm lights of the gym, I take a deep breath because I know what awaits me. Funnily enough, I’m not anxious about my impending exhaustion, nor about the tiny-but-ever-expanding hole I’ve just noticed in my sports leggings. No, I’m anxious about my tank top.

Well, not the top itself. The exposure of my arms — something I have only recently started feeling comfortable with around my family and friends — gives me goosebumps. But even the gym’s state-of-the-art air conditioning isn’t up to the job of keeping sweat at bay (sorry, TMI), so a tank top it is.

I enter the gym. Buzzing bodies everywhere, working on themselves, totally unaware of me. Brilliant — I’m safe, nobody will notice. I get on the treadmill. A few minutes in and I notice the lady next to me giving me weird looks. I know immediately why — her eyes keep darting from arm to arm, and out comes the classic “head tilt” with a soft, but sad smile.

A few days later, I’m in a yoga class. They always tell you yoga is a great remedy for mental illness, but what they forget to add is that yoga is only a great remedy if you’re not surrounded by a group of ladies who ask you to move across the room from them because your arms are making them feel uncomfortable.

Tutting, eye-rolling, “can you see her arms?”-ing; I’ve had it all at the gym.

It’s not all been bad, though; sometimes, people will be genuinely inquisitive and want to be educated. Others will share stories of their friends and family who have scars, and who have done amazing things. And, honestly? Well, honestly, for me, it often still makes me feel bad. The gym is my safe space, and exercise is my release. It’s the one place where I can be truly mindful and unaware of my mental health conditions… until the comments and questions come, and I am thrown back down into the world of my illness, a place where I am anything but safe. The more people comment on, or ostensibly react to, my scars, the less likely I am to return to the gym and to continue exercising — one of the things that should, in theory, help me to never create any more scars in my lifetime. I’m tired of being sick, and I’m sick of being thrust in the spotlight against my will. It’s truly, excruciatingly awkward to have your body commented on when all you want to do is hide it.

My scars are not your topic of conversation, but they are mine. My battle scars. My war wounds. My tiger stripes. They’re the story of my struggle, the map of my misery, and the cause of so much pain — emotional and physical — and guilt. I am not proud of my scars, but I’m not ashamed of them either; at least, I’m trying not to be. So, please, focus on your exercise and I’ll focus on mine.

I grab my jumper and coat and head out into the cold, dark night. Tears roll down my face and I wonder whether I can deal with tomorrow’s spinning class in a long-sleeved t-shirt.

Photo by Norman Toth on Unsplash

Originally published: April 18, 2019
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