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When My 6-Month-Old Niece Discovered My Self-Harm Scars

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm, 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.

What do we tell our kids about cutting?

Or, more precisely, at what age do we sit them down and discuss mental health, specifically within the confines of self-harm? Is it ever appropriate? Should we watch them grow and intuitively allow them to figure it out for themselves? Because of the increasing awareness of mental health and the stigmas that surround it, is that even a viable option? Children (and adolescents) essentially have unlimited resources at their fingertips. So… at what age is it OK to talk to them about self-harm?

Last spring, my brother, his wife and their six month old baby moved into the apartment I used to share with my mother. Our nights were mostly spent with the three women on the couch (my sister-in-law on one side, me in the middle with my mother on the opposite side of the couch) watching television and keeping the baby as entertained as possible. It really does take a village.

One night, the four of us were perusing our usual routine: the television was spewing trashy, reality television that really shouldn’t have been interesting but was, and the baby would crawl over each of us until she found a suitable place to sit down, a nook that she could curl in as she studied the tactile books we’d bought for her. She eventually found a space in between me and her mother. We took turns reading to the baby of course, reviewing the assortment of textures for her to touch until hours had passed. Even my niece had grown tired of it.

So, she began to look around herself. She immediately gravitated towards the dark ink on my left forearm, just below my elbow. I had gotten a new tattoo the month prior, and the edges of the quote were still a little swollen. My niece was instantaneously captured. At last! She could identify a new texture — something to feel and experience — that didn’t belong to the pages of her usual books.

I smiled as she ran a single index finger up and down the length of the tattoo. I watched as her mouth opened with delight before crooning with undeniable satisfaction. I let her feel the tattoo for as long as she wanted and turned my attention to the television for a little while. But then, my niece spotted something else on my arm. As soon as I felt her finger move, I was filled with dread. I didn’t have to look down to know what was happening because I could feel it, but I was too repulsed to look.

My niece was trailing her fingers over rows of uniform, horizontal scars on the inside of my forearm, just underneath the tattoo.

It didn’t take long for her to discover the other scars — dotted all over my forearm and wrist. Somehow, the baby had stumbled upon a playground of new and foreign textures to explore. While she grew increasingly excited at all the different sizes and bumps, I only felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t know what to do at that point. Did I remove my arm? But if I did, I knew she’d still want to touch them, maybe going so far as to verbally complain about it if I manually removed myself from her. Did I let her feel the scars for as long as she wanted, just like the tattoo, or was that completely inappropriate? But, how could it be if she didn’t know what they were?

I remember being cold with sweat and anxiety as I tried to figure out what to do. On my right, Mom sat oblivious to the whole interaction, and I kept my elbows as tucked into my side as I could, if only in an attempt to hide what was happening. I dared not to look to my left, at my sister-in-law.

I was terrified at what I’d find there: disapproval, anger, disgust. I resolved to sit as still as I could and hope that my niece would tire of the dark playground that were my cutting scars as quickly as possible. Fortunately for me, she didn’t remain interested in them for much longer. Those moments felt like agony, though, because I felt ashamed of myself and at how I looked — but most of all, for exposing this innocent baby to such a heavy, raw reality, regardless of her lack of understanding.

I still don’t know if my sister-in-law ever saw this happen. If she had been aware, she’d made no move to disrupt the baby, so maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal after all. For weeks afterward however, I still felt waves of guilt wash over me whenever I remembered.

Later on, during that summer, I was babysitting a girl, who, even at 9 years old, was wise, intelligent and armed with a precocious vocabulary that would shame a high school student into actually doing their homework. Most of the time — we’ll call her “E” — E resembled an adult with her language and attitude. For example, she once informed me that she was hungry and that it was dinner time, so “perhaps [I] should take the food out of the oven.”

I was scheduled to look after her for most of an afternoon in August. Of course, I chauffeured her all over town, meaning we were on the road every 10 seconds, after she’d grown bored of whatever it was she’d wanted to do. We trekked from the local YMCA (which we left after 30 minutes because there was no one to play with), a park outside (that wasn’t good enough because it didn’t have swings, and this I couldn’t even dispute) and other various places I tried to please her with. Eventually, we settled on the small park at the YMCA again. Although it was a sweltering day in August, I chased her around for as long as she wanted. Or, more precisely, as long as I could without dropping from heat stroke.

“Hey,” she’d said as I’d leaned over to drink some water from the rusted fountain. Gulping down the first mouthful, I pulled back and grimaced at how ancient the metal looked. How did it still work?

“What are those things on your arms?”

I froze.

It was summer. I was wearing a tank-top. I should have expected this.

Swallowing my water with care, I reluctantly looked down and found her staring intently at the collection of new scars on both of my arms and wrists, which had only healed a few months before and had yet to fade into the rest of my skin. I panicked, racking my brain for any feasible excuse I could fabricate that would make the display of old wounds as uninteresting as possible.

“I skateboard a lot and honestly, I’m not very good at it,” I’d said, forcing myself to laugh.

It was a total lie. I still skate sometimes, but I’m actually not bad at it, and of course that’s not at all how I got those scars. I watched her reaction carefully, dreading the possibility that she in all of her uncanny wiseness would figure out I was lying. As if falling off a skateboard could produce such perfectly measured wounds.

She gave my arms one last look before flicking her gaze up to mine. I smiled, trying to encourage her to believe me.

“Huh. OK, then.”

We went back to playing, and I was crushed with the familiar weight of guilt and self-loathing I first felt while playing with my baby niece.

I was 11 years old when I first was exposed to what “cutting” meant. During our social studies class, I remember being bored and scanning the room for anything interesting to watch. I noticed a girl examining the scratches her wrist, and when she’d saw me wide-eyed and staring, she quickly pulled down her sleeve and told me, “Don’t tell anyone.”

I didn’t. I didn’t tell mostly because I wasn’t really sure what they were or how they got there, but somehow I knew that it was bad and I didn’t want her to get in trouble. More troubling than that was the fact that I’d felt as if I had intruded on something intensely private — as private as reading her diary would have been.

This was 14 years ago. Much of the stigma of mental illness has lifted drastically, but still, the act of cutting is associated with words like “bad, shameful, wrong, evil, stupid, immature, irresponsible”… or my least favorite out of any that I’ve heard: ugly. She — this complete stranger in this one class, as I had just transferred from a different school — and I weren’t friends to begin with, but after seeing her wrist, I never made any attempt to become one to her.

So many people have seen my scars — children and adults alike. The surreal part of it all is when kids react far better than their adult counterparts do. Maybe somewhere deep in their gut they can sense that the wounds aren’t natural — that they’re self-inflicted — but I’ve never had a child verbally accost me for wearing mine in public. Kids are enormously curious creatures, and I think that is why they have such a “positive” reaction. There is no prior conception of what they’re seeing, so they ask: “What are those?” The tricky bit is how you explain the truth to them. Or, if you decide to tell the truth at all.

Adults are harder. I’ve been glared at, ignored and scolded for my scars. In one in-patient program, one of the counselors told me, “You don’t want your arms to look like that. No one does.”

A boyfriend once told me that they were “ugly.” The relationship didn’t last long after that.

In my first year of college, a girl in my acting class actually dared to put her hand on them — without first making sure it was OK with me — which you should always do — and asked me why I’d “done it.”

Someone very recently said to me that they “could never date someone who had been that unstable.” Meaning, if you had self-harm scars, you were forever and unequivocally as mentally ill as when you first made them. Ironically, we’d been on a date when he told me that. He followed up afterwards of course, and expressed his excitement at where we were heading, but I was definitely too stable to ever consider trying to make that one work.

Another boy — also fairly recent, and who I was also on a date with — told me to “cover them up with more tattoos.”

Is there a trend here or is it just me?

Almost every single thing an adult has ever said about my skin and the way it looks has been negative. I understand why. Hell, I don’t even blame them for it. But I also shouldn’t be dismissed because my skin looks rougher than someone else’s, or talked to as if I’m unaware that the scars are there in the first place. Because I am.

I was there when I made them.

To tell the truth, it’s a fine line. I can’t be mad at every person who reacts in a less than ideal way — and neither do I choose to be — but I do wonder how my physical appearance affects children’s perceptions of mental illness.

I have a 10-year-old sister (who has asked me on several occasions what the scars were, which was a question I instead deflected) and it is my greatest fear that, because she grew up seeing her big sister having them, one day, should she choose to hurt herself, it would be OK because I did it first and now I’m “fine.” That is what I am so terrified of — the idea of someone I know and love thinking that it’s natural — even healthy — to cut themselves to cope with big emotions, because someone they love and trust has done it too.

This is why education on mental illness is not only important, but absolutely imperative. The only thing I’m not personally sure of is when it’s intellectually safe to approach a child about this topic. Middle school? After all, that was when I first discovered the concept of cutting. By the end of high school, I was cutting twice a day (sometimes more), every day, and no one was the wiser. I was so ashamed of what I was doing because I knew people would be shocked and horrified at both me and my body. Instinctively, I hid it, and I hid it really well. Why would I have chosen to come forward for help if what I was admitting was something to be afraid or disgusted of?

So? Is it middle school, or is it later? Earlier? When are we allowed to talk to kids about it? No child is the same and not every kid will respond similarly — even if they are the same age. We all hail from different backgrounds and creeds, and I think it would be incredibly dangerous to assume that a blanket education about self-harm would be efficient. Maybe it’s not actually OK to assume that mental health education (or in this case, self-harm) should be taught at one, static single age. I honestly don’t know what the answer is here.

What I do know for certain is that children are not oblivious.

Children are literally anything but. They are curious, explorative and seek definitive answers to the real questions they know to ask as they discover them. I know that I can only lie to the children around me for so long, and also that it kills me every single time I do it.

In fact, I recently approached one of my older cousins who have two daughters below the age of 6. My cousin also has cutting scars on her arms and I once asked:

“When your daughters ask, what should I say?”

Fortunately, I come from a loving and understanding family, so I knew I’d receive compassionate guidance about this issue. My cousin simply told me to steer the girls in her direction if I were to panic or freeze before giving them a G-rated, digestible answer. I do know that my circumstances are not indicative of every other family who faces this problem. This, too, would be dangerous to act as if it was.

At the end of the day, all I want is to set a good example for the people around me. Of course I want to protect the children in my life from the gruesome reality that hurting your own body is unfortunately an entirely real and viable option, but I can’t lie forever.

I don’t know much about kids or how to raise them, and I would never pretend otherwise. I do know one thing for certain, however.

If you don’t talk to your kids about self-harm, they will learn about it from someone else.

Photo by Elijah M. Henderson on Unsplash

Originally published: September 30, 2019
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