Trigger Warning: Non graphic mentions of self harm.
Statistics have shown that 1 in 12 teenagers have self harmed. It’s an issue that has been on the rise for years, over the last decade hospitalisations for self-inflicted injuries have increased by the tenfold, particularly within teenagers.
As most people who know me will be aware of, I would be the 1 within a group of 12. It’s something I have struggled with on and off over the last four years of my life in various forms and varying degrees of severity. And it’s also something that has left me with a not-so-lovely collection of physical scars which I expect I will always have to live with.
Within myself, I’m okay with my scars. I’ve found myself studying or inspecting them on various occasions but never in an anxious way, more like an analysis of the marks on my skin, in the same way you might poke and prod at an emerging spot on your nose or a new freckle you never noticed before. In a sense they remind me of how hard it has been at times and that I’ve still made my way through, I’m still here and breathing. I am not afraid of them and see them as a reflection of the strength I have to pull through.
However with the people around me it can be more complex. Revealing my scars to others suddenly turns them from a symbol of strength to a sign of how many times I’ve failed myself, how many times I’ve given in the impulsive thoughts that are not my own, how many times I have been too weak to fight. There are many people that I am comfortable exposing them to, my closest friends who are as used to them as I am, my family who have always been aware of the situation, people who I know have also been through what I have and have no sense of judgement towards it.
Within reason I have large groups of friends I can speak to about my scars in a casual context, and also even joke about them, which I often do to try and diminish any concern that they might have. All the same I still see the worried glances that get thrown at my arm, even from those I would class as my best friends. I know it’s a subconscious thing and I imagine I would do the same if I was in their place, especially if I suspected an increase in the scars over time, so it’s not something I can blame anyone for.
During secondary school I often kept my scars covered because whether they were old or not, it still brought on awkward questions and staring that I would do anything to avoid. The last two years of that school I wore long sleeves pretty much every day, it sucked in the summer, and sometimes I did just brave getting my arms out if it got uncomfortably warm, but not often. Just one negative reaction was enough to diminish any confidence I felt, I still remember a science class about a year ago in which one of my classmates (not someone I was particularly friends with) exclaimed:
“What happened to your arm?!” with a look of horror on his face on a hot day.
I had coolly told him:
“Well, what does it look like?”, because surely it was obvious what it was? The conversation ended pretty much there, but as much as I hate to admit it, in that moment I just wanted to burst into tears.
Since, I have had questioning like this from adults as well, their tone more respectful but still concerned. And I still never know what to say. As soon as it’s brought up I just wish they had never seen, I wish I hadn’t felt so carefree as to wear short sleeves that day. I had a mother once ask me what happened whilst I had my arms stretched out painting her child’s face, she evidently really didn’t realise that it was self-harm and this made it even harder because I couldn’t and didn’t want to tell her the truth, especially whilst turning her son into Iron Man. In a panic I explained it was nothing, rolled down my sleeves and continued with my work.
The worst situation is definitely when children start asking questions, it’s very difficult to know what to say. They’re usually too young to understand mental illness to its full extent, let alone self-inflicted injuries. Particularly young kids will believe anything you tell them (“I got into a fight with a tiger!”), but I learnt the hard way that they realise pretty early in life that that’s not a plausible excuse. Every situation is different because sometimes their parents or another adult is with them to steer them away from the topic, and if not I blag my way out with the first idea that comes to my head.
I’m excited to turn 18 this year because I’d definitely like to cover my scars with some tattoos. It’s become very important to me to get them covered, not particularly because I’m ashamed of my scars and want them hidden but because I can’t wait to finally have people looking at my skin for the right reasons, admiring beautiful designs rather than ogling at scar tissue.
I’d like to remind you that if you do ever find yourself around someone with any amount of scars, then it is rude to stare. It is rude to try and touch their scars. It is rude to ask unnecessary questions about their injuries. Some people aren’t bothered by it, and are completely comfortable with wearing what the hell they want no matter where their scars are. Sometimes I have days or even longer periods of time like this, however for me it is a fine line and my comfort is shattered by a stranger who looks too long or an odd comment. It is wrong to assume that just because someone’s scars are uncovered that you can be nosy or insensitive about them.
Everybody is at different stages in their recovery, and it is safest to assume that if they want to talk to you about their self harm (whether it is in their past or still something they are struggling with) then they will bring it up. And if you really, desperately must say something, then here’s a few suggestions of the best way to go about it:
“I just want to let you know that if you ever need support with anything you are always welcome to come to me.”
“I care about you.”
“I think that I/my family member/my friend have struggled with some of the same things that you have and I’d like you to know that I understand how hard it can be and offer my support.”
“If you ever need someone to talk to or distract you I am happy to help.”
And if you yourself have self harm scars that you are self-conscious about I want you to know that it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something that others should ever make you feel bad about and you are always free to wear whatever you want. My only advice is to cover them when they are fresh or still healing, again this is not because you should be ashamed of them but I know myself and many others can feel triggered to relapse upon seeing fresh injuries and having dressings on will prevent it getting worse or infected.
You are still valid and important if you have self harm scars. You are still valid and important if you still struggle with self harm. You are still valid and important if you have a past of self harm and no scars. You are still valid and important if you have scars not from self harm. And you should never make anyone feel like they are not.