Scars, Stigma and Sadness

Today was sad. I had a beautician appointment with a new clinician. I hate those sorts of appointments, they bring up their own triggers and vulnerabilities every time. But this beautician in particular made things even trickier to manage.

I have scars over various areas of my body, and they were exposed. She made a handful of inappropriate (and highly unprofessional) comments. I will give a few examples of the things she said:

“Why do you do this to yourself? You are so beautiful and young”

“Aren’t you upset with yourself? Look at what you’ve done”

“You should really consider getting them covered with tattoos, then people won’t ask questions”

“But what will your boyfriends/ future husband think!?”  [This assumption is honestly the worst, I can’t stand such heteronormativity – UGH!]

“If you do it again, I’ll tell your Mum and she can sort you out”

“Oh babe, you’re crazy”

She kept on making comments, and we kept on going around in circles. I envisioned having a conversation with my therapist and her coaching me through the interaction. But even though I knew the interpersonal skills I needed to use, I was far from being able to implement them.

I left the appointment feeling a ton of mixed messy feelings. Her comments and attitude made me feel even more uncomfortable (quite literally) in my own skin than I already was. Everything she said highlighted and reiterated to me all the fears and self-judgments I have about myself. There I was, being told in so many words, just how unacceptable I am. It hurt.

The worst thing is, the woman was trying to be nice. She genuinely thought that she was being considerate and helping me with her oh so fucking fabulous words of wisdom. She had no idea about the impact of what she was saying. She had no idea how unaware and insensitive she was being. And I remained stuck, frozen, unable to stand up for myself. As always.

Nevertheless, ironically, all those feelings turned in on myself. Self-disgust. Self-hatred. “YOU ARE SO WEAK – why didn’t you DO something?”. Self-blame. Familiar feelings of inaction and paralysis. A spiral of shame. A desire to hide, to hurt myself, to destroy the unacceptable.

I am trying to remind myself that this is just the opinion of one woman. One woman who doesn’t know the first thing about mental illness, who lives in a world very different to my own, who is irrelevant to my life except for one hour every 6 weeks.

But I guess the truth in all of this is that I am sad. I am sad because my scars are a result of the things I have been through. It doesn’t matter what schtick I get for them, they do not exist for no reason. I am also sad because as much as they are a part of me, and as much as they interfere with my life, the only reason they do interfere is because of people like her. Inherently, I don’t hate my scars. I don’t see them as bad. They are mine and they are a part of my experience as a human being. I have come to accept them as a part of me – just one of many parts. But when others fail to see beyond that – when they judge my past, my present and my future on the physical marks etched onto my skin and fail to see beyond that – it is hard to not slip into judging myself in much the same way.

Medical Tattooing for Self Harm Scars

I had a consultation over the weekend at a medical make-up clinic. I now have the opportunity to invest in a scar camouflage treatment that will allegedly minimise the appearance of the scars I have from cutting myself. The treatment is a mix of micro-needling to try and improve the skin texture itself, with the addition of a pigmentation to match the colour of the scars to my natural skin. 

I thought I wanted to get rid of the scars I have on my arms, but being faced with the decision now that it is a potential reality, I am no longer so sure that I do. 

The treatment is expensive, although not outrageously so and it is safe and reliable. The results do look remarkable from what I have been shown. The make up artist is top of her field so I will be in trusted hands. If it helps the appearance of the scars, I may be more able to do things my scars stop me from doing, such as wearing no sleeves whilst nannying.

However, it could amount to a lot of money depending on if I require top-ups (apparently “permanent” does not actually mean permanent, you see). It is slightly invasive and will irritate the skin for a while after. I will not be able to continue with laser hair removal on the area if I get it done! Also, I feel a sense of guilt to my self, for wanting to get rid of a part of who I am. I wonder if I am doing it for other people, more than for myself. Now that my scars are mostly healed, they don’t impact my life as much as they did when they were purple. If I get the treatment, will I be sending myself the message that my scars are something to be ashamed of, and something I need to hide?

I am thinking of getting the treatment on one arm to start with – the one I find uglier and less “attached” to the scars of. I can then see how it goes, playing things by ear, and I will still have my other arm full of scars (and other body parts) untouched if that is how I want them to stay.

I thought this would be a simple decision, but for some reason it is not. My mum is encouraging me to go ahead and book the appointment ASAP, and I’m not entirely sure why, but I keep on putting it off…

He Saw My Scars and Asked if I Owned a Cat

On my way back from Florida, after battling with myself all week about whether I needed to cover my scars or not, this is what happened –

My family and I were in the airport going through security. I was wearing short-sleeves, as I had done (albeit with difficulty) all week, and my scars were visible enough (despite my attempts to cover them up with medical make-up.) I was at the back of our family, lagging 2 suitcases, so the officer at the desk had to wait a little while longer for me to catch up and move forward in the line.

I thanked him and shot him my best smile, as a gesture of appreciation, expecting a “No problem!” or something of similar meaning. However, his response was so unexpected that I had to ask him to repeat himself:

“So do you have pet cats then?”

He asked, nodding towards my arms.

“Pardon?” 

I said. I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly…

“I asked if you have pet cats or something?”

He said, rolling his eyes, gesturing again towards my arms. 

I stood there, somewhat in shock. My heart started racing, my cheeks flushed a rosy red, and I felt my body go numb. 

If anyone has seen the film about Walter Mitty, you will remember his vivid imagination and impressive fantasising skills. This is exactly what happened to me right then:

An imaginary scene played out in my head in which I attacked this man, shouting abuse at him for his ignorance, lashing out at him physically, crying and losing all self-control, turning into the hulk, causing a scene in the airport….. and being dragged away by airport security personnel – to a room with white walls and booty-juice – to top it all off.

What actually happened was that my stepmum gestured to me to go over to her for comfort, 19 Year Old Sis gave me her jacket to cover my arms with, and 12 Year Old Sis gave me a cuddle and continued to check up on me for a while. (I am so glad that she knows the truth now, and that she is as accepting and compassionate as she is.)

I looked away from them all, desperately blinking back tears, feeling as though it was the end of the world. I felt like the most shameful piece of shit in existence. I was sure all the hard work I had put into showing my (albeit medical make-up concealed) scars over the holiday was for nothing. I was convinced I was being punished for allowing myself to expose this part of myself. I just wanted to disappear into the face of the Earth. 

Now that it’s in the past, I am calmer and able to mentalise: maybe he genuinely had no clue being from an older generation; maybe he was trying to be nice; maybe he thought I would find it funny; maybe he is socially impaired himself, etc. 

Although, having said that, my anger, sadness and shame at the time was totally legitimate; it was not a pleasant situation to be in at all.

At least I have a plan of revenge generated: One day I’m going to be proud to show the world who I am – imperfections, scars, and all. 

Fear And Loathing In 36°C (97°F) London 

I am actually shi**ing myself in preparation for this afternoon. All I’ve done so far today is hide away from the heat in my bedroom with a fan to accompany me. But in just a few hours I have to brave the outdoors and go pick up the girls I nanny from school. It will be 35°C (95°F) and I will be wearing a cardigan. 

Here’s to me trying not to die of hyperthermia… Pray for me people!

(Seriously though, I am struggling so much to accept the consequences of my self-harm scars and what it means for me today and in my future. I’m really sad and bloody anxious. That is all.)

Living With Self-Harm Scars

This week in London has marked the beginning of true summer, with temperatures increasing up to around 24°C (75°F). Next week the weather warnings indicate a mini heatwave with temperatures soaring as high as 32°C (90°F) and lasting up to a week. Now, whilst for most people in London, this is news of celebration and excitement as the bikinis, sunscreen and paddling pools come out, for someone with self-harm scars all over their body, it is a totally different story.

An extensive portion of my arms and part of my legs are covered in self-harm scars. They vary in colour, size, shape and severity, with some being a lot more noticeable than others. In the past, I have gotten away with wearing sports bandages and using the excuse of a sprain or injury (with most of the damage being on my left arm). However, during the more recent and severe stages of my BPD and self-harming history, more and more areas of my body became subjected to this self-destruction.

I can no longer hide under bandages unless I am prepared to look like an Egyptian mummy. Whilst part of me would love to feel confident and able enough to expose my scars for what they are, right now I am at a stage where I do not believe this to be the most effective choice. Working as a receptionist means constantly interacting with people, and  due to the extent of my injuries and the slow healing process, I don’t feel it would be appropriate to have them on show in this role at this time. Also working as a nanny with two young children, the same applies to an even greater extent: it simply would not be appropriate for the girls or their parents to see my scars if I want to continue with my *role* in their family over the next few months. Sadly, public opinion on mental health is limited, and I am unsure as to what my employers’ attitudes towards my history and such physical evidence of it would be. Especially when young children are involved, there are many more cons than there are pros for exposing my scars (and hence a huge part of my life story) within the context. With the risk of honesty and exposure leading me to being misunderstood, judged as a bad influence or dangerous, and potentially even “fired”, I would rather not take the chance!

One day, ultimately, I would like to be able to show my scars for what they are without feeling suffocated by feelings of shame and self-judgement, worrying what those around me are thinking. For the time being however, I have been researching alternative and short-term options.

After considering surgery and ruling it out as an option at least for now, my GP referred me to a charity which specialises in medical make-up. The results of the cover-up can be seen below in these before-and-after photos of one arm:
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In certain situations, the medical make-up has felt life-saving. I used it in Copenhagen and felt confident and able to expose my skin – it was the most liberated I had felt in months. I use it when I am with friends so that I feel less socially anxious and self-conscious in public places (my friends themselves don’t mind at all and are 100% supportive). I use it so that I feel able to go on the stuffy London underground without worrying that people are staring at me as much when I take off my cardigan. When I go back to university in October I plan to show my arms/ legs in this made-up state too.

However, whilst the difference is substantial and I am very grateful to the service, I still feel unable to be bare-skinned around the children. Sadly this decision extends to my own younger half-sisters aged 9 and 12 who are unaware of the struggles I have faced over the years (due their age, vulnerability and environmental factors.) This means I do not wear short sleeves with this side of the family, and I cannot go on holiday with them either over the summer months.

Due to the behavioural manifestations of my mental ill health, the truth is that I face a number of consequences and probably will continue to for years to come. It saddens me to have to miss out on so much because of what I have done to myself. I am in a continual state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety in recovery around my scars because of the impulsive acts which occurred during periods of being so unwell. Although part of me loves my scars because they are a part of me and my journey, representative of so much, I cannot avoid the impact they have on me every single day in trying to build a life for myself.

The truth is I am fucking terrified of the next few weeks to come. I don’t do too well with heat anyway as I find it perpetuates my anxiety through the body sensations it induces. And so having to deal with this without being able to take off my sleeves and cool down poses another challenge in itself. I have genuinely been thinking about calling in sick next week because I am so scared I won’t be able to get through the stifling heat whilst nannying, especially if we are outdoors. I have a selection of very light long-sleeved/legged clothing and am trying incredibly hard to practice Radical Acceptance around the situation…

At the same time, I can’t help feel a deep sense of loss and sadness around the potential future ‘normality’ I have been stripped of through the consequences of my illness. Whilst trying to be self-compassionate and kind towards myself, there is no denying the truckload of regret and anger I am experiencing too.

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