What do you see when you look at an arm covered by pretty bracelets? A beautiful fashion statement, or something more sinister?
For many of those of us with mental health issues, there is something we hide. Something painful, frightening, and ugly. We hide the scars of our self hate, because we do not want to show the world the darkness that hides beneath our skin, and leaves marks on it.
I have hidden my self harm for years. In my teens I would dress my wounds myself then bind my wrist in a bandage. I would tell anyone who asked that I had sprained my wrist climbing a tree. My cuts and bruises were easily explained, a tree branch that scratched me, the cat, the dog, I fell down, the occasional burn was common as we had a wood heater and combustion stove.
But now, after more than 20 years of this hidden pain, my scars are showing. I am no longer a kid who can explain them away with a flippant remark, and in past years my need to punish myself by self harming became a very demanding desire that I have not cared to try and curb. The scars are precise and deep, dark and glaring, there is no mistaking that these were deliberately inflicted.
There is a lot of shame attached to needing to show them to anyone. They are mine, they are mine alone. Private, shameful, something to be hidden, to show them fills me with guilt, and a fear that those I show them too will look at me with disgust, and see me how I see myself. It is intensely personal, to roll up my sleeves, or remove my bracelets is equal to letting someone see inside, it is where my heart shows its wounds.
Over the past months I braved the fear of being judged and was able to open up to my husband, my Psychiatrist, my GP, and my Pharmacist about this issue that I had kept hidden for the majority of my life. They didn’t hate me or judge me as I had feared but instead they spoke to me soothingly, telling me that I need to be kind to myself, that they cared, and they asked if I was safe.
Yet as they spoke every kind and empathetic word and looked at me with a gentle reassuring smile it made me feel more and more ashamed of myself, of doing this, of needing to show these beautiful people this ugliness and darkness. I felt vulnerable and frightened, and as they patted my shoulder and told me it was okay, all I could do was clench down on my bottom lip and nod so I didn’t cry. When you have self harmed, it is so hard to believe you deserve kindness, even when you fear the judgement so very much.
I’ve heard it said that self harm is about “manipulation and attention seeking”. That is so untrue, it is about control, about self punishment, and even self soothing, most of those affected go to extreme lengths to hide their scars, to hide their shame, to keep it from even those who are closest to them, their husbands, wives, partners, friends, and family, even their doctors. That is a statement that made me determined to never show anyone, the crippling thought that I may be judged and called an attention seeker, when all I wanted was to draw as little attention to my illness and weaknesses as possible.
But I would like to just say to everyone… what if the statement about it being to get attention was true? Then SHAME on us as a society! If the statement is true, then how sad is the situation that someone must attack themselves so violently to have someone notice them, to ask them if they are okay? Instead of judging, please offer support instead. Above all else, we need to be kind.
My arms still bear the scars of my struggle. But it has now been several weeks since I last harmed, my doctors have worked tirelessly to help me to find new ways to manage my emotions, my husband has held my hand and listened to me cry when the urge was almost impossible to deny. But the most important thing I have found is that it is OK to not hide from those who want to help you. Let them in and let them help you heal.
And when you see someone with their arms covered, just give them a sincere smile. Maybe it is a beautiful fashion statement, maybe there is something to hide, but either way, smile, be kind. It is free!