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How My Self-Harm Scars Affect Me Now That I'm Recovered

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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.

Self-harm is a difficult topic because it is one of the most heavily stigmatized symptoms of mental illness. Explaining self-harm is difficult because it defies logic to the average person.

“If someone is hurting emotionally, how is hurting themselves physically going to help?” The simple answer is that it’s not that simple. Here are some quick facts:

  • Between 30 to 40% of college students report self-harming after high school.
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will self-injure in their lifetime.
  • 90% of self-injurers begin in adolescence.
  • About 50% of self-injurers start at 14 and continue into their 20s.
  • Approximately two million Americans self-injure annually.

When you’re in that place where you’re addicted to self-harm, you do not think about the scars you’re creating and the impact those scars will have on your life in the future.

As a person with self-harm scars who no longer self-harms, there is serious difficulty when it comes to explaining my scars to people. I, like many self-injurers, have scars all over my body.

During job interviews, all scars have to be covered, just like tattoos. Tattoos are actually so commonplace now that they are less damaging if noticed by a prospective employer than glaringly obvious scars that come with a “dark story” of some kind.

I got so many questions about the thick, raised white scars on my right arm from co-workers when my uniform was a t-shirt that I ultimately decided to cover them with a tattoo. You can’t even tell they are there anymore unless you’re running your fingers along my tattoo. This has reduced how much explaining I have to do when it comes to my scars.

I would consistently get asked about the thick, raised white scars on my thighs when I wore shorts, and I just stopped wearing shorts because in my experience, explaining self-harm tends to drive people away before they even have a chance to know you. All they hear is that those scars are self-inflicted and they are ready to head for the hills. In my experience, people are often well-meaning when they ask about your scars, but very few are prepared to hear about your history. It tends to make making new friends difficult unless you’re covered from head to toe when you meet — and even then, there’s a chance they could ghost you once they finally get a look at your scars. So, I have spent most of my teen years and my entire adult life covering my thighs, even when the temperatures were in the hundreds, just so I did not have to discuss my scars.

Sexy time? More like awkward time. The more of my body someone can see, the more scars are on display. Comfortable naked? Not a chance. Not even if I know my partner will not judge me; not even if I warned them about the scars in advance, even going as far as to describe them and their various locations to prepare my partner; not even if they know the whole history of my mental illness and my years of self-harm.

I am too ashamed to wear a bikini or even a regular one-piece. Instead, I opt for long swim shorts and swim shirts, possibly even board shorts with a tankini to cover all the parts of my body that have serious scars.

Not everyone can afford to tattoo over their scars or get treatments to have them minimized. It is not always practical to cover all of the scars on your body, especially not in sweltering temperatures. It takes a lot of self-confidence to rock obvious self-harm scars. It takes therapy. It takes work to love your body. It takes a lot of radical acceptance.

It is doable.

When I explain I used to self-harm, I like to be prepared to explain it the best way I know how. I just did it one day, and then it became an extremely dangerous addiction. My scars make me feel awkward at times, but my scars reflect that I survived a great battle – a great battle I won – against myself.

While my scars continue to affect my self-confidence from time to time, and while the conversations about my scars can be hard, I am proud of what my scars represent: personal growth after years of fighting against my own brain. Everyone who survived addiction to self-injury is a mighty warrior, and I encourage you to frame it that way when speaking to others about your scars.

I can say all of that from a place of recovery. I have not self-harmed in three and a half years after self-harming for more than a decade. Not everyone has made it to recovery yet. If you are still struggling with self-harm, know there is hope, and find the type of assistance that will work best for you. One-on-one therapy is great, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There are support groups. There is a self-harm hotline for when you are in crisis. There are intensive outpatient programs (IOP), partial hospitalization programs (PHP) and inpatient treatment if you feel your life is in danger. While self-harm is not a predictor of suicide, sometimes it is a symptom of a larger problem that is. Take care of yourself. Love yourself. It’ll be worth it in the end.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Originally published: July 27, 2019
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