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The Stigma of Self-Injury: Revealing My Scars to the World

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Editor’s note: This post contains language that may be triggering if you have dealt with or are dealing with self-harm. If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

I like to think of it as a “mark of Cain.”

I’m covered in scars. When my self-injury was at its worst, I wore makeshift arm warmers. I made them out of socks with holes cut out for my fingers. Even though the material was thin, it made work difficult. I worked as a lifeguard at an indoor pool, and the humidity was hell. But I was too self-conscious, too ashamed, to go without.

The hardest time was when I cut myself so deep that I had to have my skin glued back together in the ER. The doctor instructed me to keep the bandage on for about a week. There was no covering up. My cuts were still fresh and red.

As the years passed, my cuts turned into massive keloids. I’ve given up on hiding them. People stare. Some comment. Some directly ask what happened. Depending on my mood, I’ll either lie or tell the truth. Usually, I tell them, “It’s a long story.” They tend to get the hint.

It is a long story, after all.

It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with my scars. They’re a physical embodiment of the stigma I fight every day. My mother has commented more than once that I should research a way to make them less obvious. Believe me, I’ve looked into it. At this stage, though, it’s hopeless. I’ll have these scars until the day I die.

Though I’m comfortable enough with them, I would give anything for smooth skin and erasing the memories that goes with each scar.

When I started cutting in middle school, everyone thought it was a phase. The cuts were extremely superficial and hardly drew blood. Amid the throes of puberty, I struggled with perfectionism in school, fought often with my mother, juggled too many extracurriculars and listened to the arguments that preceded my parents’ divorce.

In high school, the cutting was more irregular, but it was still enough to alarm the people who knew me. I was fortunate enough to go to a boarding school, where I could escape the rages of my mother’s then-boyfriend. I was never physically abused, but I did have to cope with emotional and verbal abuse. I dreaded going home. This was the year I was diagnosed with depression and started antidepressants.

When I went to college, it felt like the floor had dropped out from underneath me. I was being torn apart by my mental illnesses, and it reflected on me physically. At 20, I found myself in tears on the floor of a public restroom, scrubbing desperately at the stains that wouldn’t come off. I thought to myself, I shouldn’t be spending my college years wiping blood off the bathroom floor.

Nobody should have memories like that, and nobody should have scars like mine.

All I can do now, though, is damage control.

At job interviews, I wear long sleeves to avoid not the questions, but the stigma. I know if my potential bosses see my scars, I’ll have to face a gauntlet of questions. No, I’m not suicidal. No, it won’t affect my job. And no, I will not face the indignity of adhering to the dress code of shame: long sleeves. Just because others are uncomfortable with my scars doesn’t mean I’m going to submit to it. I’m not ashamed.

And, reader, if you have these same scars, neither should you.

I understand it takes courage to wear short sleeves and bear your mark of Cain to the world. I’m certainly not asking you to pretend you’re proud of them. God knows I’m not. If you’re not ready to wear short sleeves, by all means, don’t. Everyone is in different stages of healing (both physically and mentally). I’m not ashamed to say I’m at a point where short sleeves are, for the most part, comfortable to wear.

For scars, unlike fresh cuts, mean you’re on the path to recovery.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Originally published: May 12, 2016
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