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The Stories My Scars Will Tell

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Shortly after my father’s recovery from a bladder and prostate cancer duo in January of 2009, he began telling a joke to family and friends when they inquired about his surgery. He would say “I asked the surgeon before he put me under if he could give me a six pack when he closed me up.” Then, my dad would lift his shirt and point to the diagonal scar scanning across his abdomen. “But he left me with this, a train track!”

When shown to a family friend, months after the surgery, the scar stood out prominently against his pale white belly as a purple-pink color causing more alarm than laughter. Now, the scar has faded to blend in with the color of his flesh, only distinguished by a subtle raise in the skin. When questioned further about the cancer, my dad will recall the time he “peed tomato soup” that lead him to seek medical attention. Even if the friend was not laughing, my dad enjoyed his own joke oftentimes chuckling at himself.

What he will not tell you, but what I remember most, is how his body shrank and his skin hung tightly onto his skeleton appearing to lose 50 pounds within a month’s time. I remember hesitating to hug him too tightly, afraid he would snap under my pressure. He wouldn’t disclose the job loss that followed a twice extended medical leave, or the times he would pretend to take the dog out, only to stand alone in the backyard, sobbing so profusely his shoulders would shake, rattling his entire body, and his face distorted, exaggerating every wrinkle.

Bladder cancer, his doctors had told us, was a cancer seen in smokers over the age of 60. My dad never touched cigarettes, and was 46 the time of his diagnosis. Our family contemplated a cause, considering stress of a position held for 17 years at the same company. However, he will only tell you of the one-liners, and flash his scar as his most earned punch line.

In December of 2009, 10 months after my dad’s surgery, I required my own stay at the hospital. Only for me, my infection wasn’t detected with MRIs or PET scans. My parents brought me to the doors of South Oaks as a last resort after weeks gone without eating, continuous sleeping, marks that ran up and down my arms and realizing I had been stealing my dad’s Vicodin which he was prescribed during his recovery from the cancer. My memory from this time is fractured, however I remember taking enough to be induced to a sleep lasting a full day. I remember lying about where I was often, going to school only to come back home and sleep.

The marks on my arm remain cryptic for me to absolve or atone. I often time wish for the opportunity to speak to the younger version of myself, seeking a justification for the habit. Years of therapy concluded that it coincided with the “severe instinct to self-destruct.” Returning to these memories, I encounter a girl whose keen desire was to run. I recall multiple instances when I would run away from home. One time only lasted a few hours, another four nights. My destination might have been the next town over to someone’s house, or a train to the beach where I spent an entire evening on the boardwalk until the sun rose in the morning. None of these fickle attempts were meant to leave home permanently, I don’t think. Nor do I think I would ever stop coming back home.

This hospital visit lasted a month, until I was released in January of 2010. Instead of celebrating a year of being cancer-free, my dad along with my mom were researching alternative options for me to attend school. They heard of private programs, ones they wouldn’t be able to afford, and reached out parents in the community who have dealt with a similar scenario. After months of homeschooling, I returned to my high school the following year. I evaded therapy, and continued my use of Vicodin and Xanax as a previously diagnosed “borderline personality disorder” and “depression” heightened.

When I entered college the following fall, these illnesses manifested in a perpetual isolation. My first year and a half of college only returns to me in flashes, in the infrequent times of clarity and calm. The unclear moments are manic episodes of speeding my car on the Hutchinson River Parkway at 3 a.m., or climbing the campus’ castle in the same late hour allowing my feet to dangle off the ledge for hours. There’s a picture of me from my second year during Christmas time, but my memory of that Christmas is completely obliterated. Gaps of time in between impulsive action are filled with hazy blurs of weeks spent in bed. The only evidence of consciousness are journals I kept during this time. The passages in the books covering this time range from incoherent scribbles to rambles of anxious and paranoid thought. There are pages where the pen seeps so deep into the page, the writing appears embossed on the paper. Other entries are separated by months, leaving rifts of unrecorded time.

After months of remaining unchecked, I found myself back in the psychiatric unit after an attempted suicide at age 19. After the initial detox, I began writing in a journal given to me by the staff. I would observe everything around me. I created stories for the other patients, and I penned verses of poetry in an attempt to translate my own experience into words. This entire stay at the hospital was spent scrutinizing the place I found myself in, watching everyone but myself. Unable, yet, to address the aftermath of these past few years, I clung onto writing. I carried the marble notebook and pencil to every group therapy, individual council, family visit and meal in the dining hall. I would stay up at night using the light from the nursing station to continue writing well into the mornings.

After being discharged, I was transferred to outpatient care. I took a semester off of school, found a part-time job shortly after, and created new rhythms such as schedules and routines. For the first time in my life, I turned to calendars, to-do lists and post-it notes. I continued to write, both poetry and short passages of fiction. My journals piled up, as writing became the vice to replace all previous addictions.

The following year, I enrolled in a new college closer to my hometown. Returning to this community didn’t involve me lifting up my shirt to tell a joke and point to a scar, but instead it consisted of hiding scars. Few people were told of my recovery, however I remained reluctant to share my story to the majority of my friends and family. I concealed my own scars on my arm with longer sleeves, and deferred the reason for transferring schools to a desire for change in scenery. I only confided in the pages of my journal, where the prose and verse allowed for the audacity to face myself. I showed these filled books to no one, but allowed every inch of thought to be spilled inside.

A poem began forming over the course of a year. I gathered corners of papers and backs of receipts releasing a repeating theme of hands, or of building something. I fused together the fragments finding myself creating a mosaic. It contained my experience with addiction, suicide, depression and of recovery. The words I wouldn’t use, the definitions that got stuck in my throat when confiding in a loved one, every dark corner of the story was illustrated in this poem. There was an urge, for the first time, to share this story revealed in the poem. My friend, and poet, was emailed the finished product with the subject line “I’m not sure what this is, but I think you should read it.” Unknowingly, the poem was then submitted to a poetry organization, “True Voices.” The following email to me asked for a meeting the next week about participating in the organization’s next show.

My initial reaction was to return into hiding and ignore the request. It took immense persuasion, yet I found myself at rehearsals preparing for an event called “Blinded” in March of 2015. The day of the show, I was surrounded by poets who seamlessly fell into a cadence of mannerisms and routines that appeared effortless for the rest of the group. You were supposed to shout “Bars!” when a line in a poem sounded good, and you had to snap at the end of each piece. There was also a way you used your hand movements to emphasize your words, where the poets appeared to dance around the microphone in fluid motions. A yellow scarf hung from the microphone, and 300 audience members starred back at me as I told my story for the first time. In an attempt to mimic the movements of other poets, I got my hand stuck in that scarf having the stand wobble in front of me as I begun. Deciding the aesthetics would have to wait, I became bare and naked on stage sharing my story for the first time.

The liberation that followed the nervousness triggered a necessity to share. This distinct and brand new ache felt the need for community, after only knowing detachment for years. I sought out more opportunities to perform, to hear others perform and to be present in spaces that allowed my words to cultivate and my story to be shared.

After this time, I became frustrated with the scars on my arms. It was summer, and although the lines were fading they grew in my mind, becoming obscenely large and obvious in my perception. I had difficulty comprehending what I saw, unable to redeem the girl who expressed her pain in this way. The old skin that was raised like braille became cryptic when I traced over their shapes with my fingers. I remembered seeing pictures of breast cancer survivors getting tattoos which covered their scars across their chest. One afternoon, I spent hours on the computer searching picture after picture of elaborate and vivid tattoos cloaking the double mastectomies; some of enormous butterflies, others of dragons, birds, flowers or an entire garden.

This initiated my own desire for a tattoo, an option I previously had no interest in. My first tattoo was two weeks later, on my right arm where the Hebrew writing of the Torah’s Exodus 14:14 is written. The story I wanted engraved on my skin was that of Moses parting the Red Sea. Before taking the Israelites through, Pharaoh’s armies approached to attack the Jews. Panic escalated in the crowd, and before performing the miracle Moses, turned to his people to say “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” These words are now worn on my arm, a new scar painted over the scars that felt foreign and enigmatic.

On my left arm, my scars are covered with a pine tree. Hermann Hesse wrote an essay in his book, “Bäume” in 1984 of how we should live like trees. He spoke of how the source of strength for a tree is within them, holding within them the secret of their seed which they follow to the end. He writes “Out of this trust, I live.” To trust my own body, my own soul, my own proved to be the most discouraging at times, and also the most empowering during recover. If anything would be covering my scars, it needed to be branches and leaves growing from a tall trunk  — a trust manifested. To lay this image over my scars was owning this trust as my own. That I, too, could grow.

When I first came to my father to my father to tell him of my tattoos, he scoffed and told me to reconsider. I did not tell him of the extended reason why I made this decision, only that I wouldn’t budge and I already made the appointment with the artist. Shaking his head, he told me “As long as you can tell your grandchildren a decent story about it, do as you please.”

I contemplated how my children, and children’s children would perceive this story. I also think about how much of it is still incomplete, what’s left to add to it. I hope to find the voice to tell it all, and the courage to share it often. But, it will be told.

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 30, 2016
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