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“Excuse me, but what are those?”
“What the hell did you do, blow up a grenade on yourself?”
“You should cover that up.”
“Those are insane!”
“What’s wrong with your skin?”
“Everyone’s going to judge you, you know.”
“I personally think scars are sexy.”

All of these comments were uttered to me by total strangers in reference to the innumerable scars lining my arms, legs, chest, and stomach. Three times, people have even reached out and touched me by stroking the raised stripes on my shoulder or yanking my forearm toward them for a closer look. I was only fifteen the first time such an incident took place, and for the rest of that unbearably humid summer, I sweated through long sleeves.

At twenty, I no longer suffer through the discomfort of long sleeves year-round, and I no longer feel the sting of shame when a stranger comments. I injured myself for many years because I was sick in the same way a person with lupus or leukemia is sick. My brain was scarred by childhood abuse and self-injury was a symptom of that damage; a symptom that has improved with treatment despite its history remaining mapped across my limbs. I am not asking for attention by wearing a tank top; I just don’t want to steam-roast in a cardigan throughout July (or maybe I just like that tank top because it’s cute as heck). I do not want to answer intrusive questions about my life or tolerate touch from strangers any more than the next person.

As a result, I have to make a choice in every situation about what balance of coverage versus exposure I find most manageable. Am I going to take the chance that my boss sees these scars and fires me, be that fair or unfair? No. Am I going to strip down to shorts and a sports bra to wade across this freshwater stream with my friend Jenny? Absolutely! Am I calm enough to handle stares and whispers from passerby on my way to the grocery store? Sometimes. There is no morally right or wrong decision, only levels of comfort versus discomfort.

If you know someone with scars, and you are wondering what to say, check yourself first. Are you uncomfortable? Curious? Horrified? If so, why? These are your own thoughts and emotions to manage, not the other person’s. There’s no need to announce your reaction to a person’s self-harm scars any more than you should announce disliking a coworker’s haircut or wondering why the guy sitting next to you doesn’t have eyebrows. Even telling people that they are “beautiful” or “inspiring” on account of their scars is not necessarily appropriate. Think about how you might treat someone in a wheelchair: some people with visible differences on their bodies may find such words to be positive, but myself and many others both dislike having our difference dragged to the forefront and dislike the romanticization of our condition.

That being said, there are two exceptions to the don’t-say-anything rule:

  1. Someone you know has fresh cuts, scabs, or scars. In this situation, it’s understandable to be concerned, especially when the person is someone you feel responsible for (the kid you babysit, a student, a niece or nephew). Arrange to speak with them privately. Let them know you saw their injuries and you are worried about their safety, and give them the chance to confide what is going on. If the person is a minor, let them know that you will need to inform a responsible adult in their life such as their parent or school guidance counselor. Give them the chance to tell an adult on their own, and follow up to make sure they are receiving help. If the person with fresh injuries is an adult, gently ask if they’re receiving the support they need. Offer to help them get in touch with a university counseling department or local mental health practice, if you are in a position to do so. Be clear that you just want to make sure they’re alright and that you won’t judge, punish, or pry.
  2. The person with scars is someone you know well and you are genuinely curious about their life experience. Before asking any questions, make sure you are actually open to hearing about their journey, which could be saddening, shocking, or confusing to you. Keep in mind that self-harm can be a very sensitive subject and even someone who is open about other aspects of their life may not want to talk about it. Ask the person about their scars one-on-one, not in a group of friends, and pick a less sensitive topic beforehand that you can switch to if the person doesn’t want to discuss their scars. Phrase your question in such a way that makes it clear you want to respect the person’s boundaries: “I’ve noticed that you have some scars, and I’m curious about your story. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay, but if you do, I’d like to listen.”

And now this is the part where I end with a cutesy aphorism about how scars tell stories, right? Wrong! There are many quotes about how scars tell stories, but I dislike such quotes. People tell stories. Scars exist on people, for thousands of different reasons, and it is up to people to tell the stories of their own scars, when and how and to whom they choose.


Comments

21
  • Sarah

    Sarah Sarah

    Reply Author

    Thank you for your post.

    I sometimes read about self-harm scars and how to cope with them, and most of the time it does not convince me – because it does not feel like it.
    You describing it as a “choice in every situation about what balance of coverage versus exposure I find most manageable”. An that`s it: Every situation changes, and the mood (or the courage) to expose them to a public changes, too.

    Also you not liking such quotes as “scars tell stories” is a relieve for me to hear. Thank you, for altering that quote to “People tell story, scars exist on people”. It kind of makes me free of exposing “a story” to other people, and now I can TELL my story IF I WANT to.

    I am somehow relieved by your point of view. Thank you.

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    • Adira Bennett

      I am so, so glad you read and liked my piece. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. Writing about something this personal was a little scary for me, but reading your response makes it all worth it!

      Posted on

      • Anonymous

        hi i am a boy in middle school who is hyper a lot and i get made fun of shut in lockers called names, i started harming myself just recently and i thought it would relieve stress and it did.
        I got judged a lot because i had scars on my arms but this has shown i am not alone.
        Thanks so much

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        • You Matter

          No matter what problems you are struggling with, hurting yourself isn’t the answer. Your life matters! In order to talk to a Crisis Counselor, please call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The call is free and confidential; we’re here for you 24/7/365.

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    • Anonymous

      Hey. I also have a few self harm scars but my parents caught me after a few months when my PE teacher saw them. Now all the teachers act like I am a Glass about to break. I cover my scars because my classmates are judgmental. Cutting was the only thing that took away some of the pain for me and now my parents check me for scars so over I feel like all my pain is bottled up and I cry every night because of it. But you gave me confidence to now I’m not alone with my embarrassment and worry over my scars.

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      • You Matter

        Thank you Sarah for participating in our open and caring community here at Youmatter. Feel free to call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you ever feel the need to talk to someone, we are here 24/7.

        Posted on

  • Shawn

    Shawn Shawn

    Reply Author

    Shawn.

    I’m a 44 yr dad. I have Chronic Depression,Chronic Anxiety and PTSD. I would burn myself on my legs it’s been about five years and I still won’t wear shorts. But every one is different as we know and my scars have a story behind them.

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    • You Matter

      Shawn, thank you for reaching out to our community here and sharing your story. If you need support, remember that the Lifeline is here for you at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

      Posted on

    • Adira Bennett

      Shawn, thank you for speaking up. I’m glad you read my piece. Take gentle care. -AB

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  • Charlotte

    Hello Adira, I recently found that block but hadn’t really read much of it. This morning I saw it in my timeline and your latest writing came up. So I read it and it was good to read. I still struggle every morning of what I think I can wear. Life isn’t easy, but we can make it easier when we’re there for each other. You’ve been there for me today and inspired and strengthens me with your words.
    I wish you a lot of strength in your life, and people who understand. And if they don’t i hope you’ll always remember that that is their problem and we’re not responsible for their thoughts or judgement, just like you said.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. All the best from Germany, Charlotte

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    • You Matter

      Charlotte, thank you for sharing your inspiring story and encouraging others.

      Posted on

    • Adira Bennett

      Charlotte, thank you very much for your kind words. I am so glad I was able to support a fellow bearer of scars! I hope that you are eventually able to have some spaces in your life where you feel comfortable wearing whatever you like. Wishing you freedom, wellness, and joy! -AB

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  • Trinity

    Trinity Trinity

    Reply Author

    Thank you for posting this. It made me feel wanted again. For a long time I didn’t feel like anyone in the world wanted me but now I know there are people out there who do.

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  • Leyre Silva

    I bought dermalmd scar serum to help minimize scarring after back surgery, and after 3 months, the scar is nearly invisible! Now…one could say that the skill of the surgeon is just as important as this serum to produce the results I have experienced, but I also used this on existing scars that were several years old. While it did not eliminate the scars, nearly all of them were visibly reduced. I was quite impressed.

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  • Mel

    Mel Mel

    Reply Author

    This really helps me. There have been times people would bring up my scars and I would get so angry. More people need to know this. One girl I understand she was concerned and she was struggling herself so I would have been okay with the conversation but she brought it up in a car when we were with people I hardly knew where we could not have any hope of escaping to privacy and it made it very difficult on me.
    I appreciate your honesty and I am very sorry what you have had to go through. I don’t know if you answer questions, but how do you feel about people who also are recovering from self harm commenting on others saying, we are in this together? Sometimes I find myself tempted to do that because I think I would like if someone told me they knew what it is like. But I do not know if this is true for many. What would you feel?

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  • Morgan

    Morgan Morgan

    Reply Author

    I was able to relate to this a lot. I also have self harm scars and have faced many upsetting interactions due to them and recently it has escalated due to location and severity of the injuries I have sustained in the fight with my disorder. (Disclaimer: this personal account becomes graphic but may help the rare person so I will share here what I would not in most cases) I had no coping skills to deal with my attacks as a teenager and would comfort myself taking my nails down the exterior lengths of my arm until they subsided and they are commonly recognized as a product of panic; the ones I get the most understanding from. At 19 I took a hunting blade to my inner arm as a 1st attempt with multiple lacerations, and though many of them healed I had to have 11 stitches for the deepest one and it ended up healing badly and scarring quite thickly, so it’s commonly noticed and is met with varying levels of concern. That leads me to my worst scar and one I’m still recovering from and very sensitive about. It’s almost been a year now (I was 21, and I’m turning 22 this month) since I took a 7 1/2 inch electric circular saw to my neck in front of a mirror and watched myself hack until I severed a muscle and my arm went numb and dropped it. This had emergency surgery with 60+ internal stitches and 13 exterior ones, right under my ear and jawline spanning about 6 1/2″ long in length with very raised and thick scar tissue that clusters into a ball about 1/2 an inch at its thickest point. This came with nerve damage and chronic pain that even strangers have the gall to TOUCH the scar or the side of my face not knowing that this action causes a shooting pain behind my ear and discomfort hearing the brush of skin against a cheek that cannot feel the interaction. Work has me interacting with many people in close proximity, with my hair up, so it is an unavoidable topic I have to confront daily. I literally get treated like I have a deformity sometimes and it makes me relive the incident. Due to the nerve damage, scar cream hurts because it aides in the circulation in an attempt to repair the nerve damage and causes a horrible itching on the neck and arm and displaced pain/ache in my ear so I’ve made the decision to not try to minimize the scars I have. The best method in my case is to refuse to answer the probing questions I get at work hiding behind saying “that’s not a polite question and something that I will not discuss with you.” This may ‘sound’ rude, but using the tone of being firm and the inflection that I have been asked this many times- no one has tried to ask further questions and often I earn their respect right away and the likelihood of having a complaint about my directness or them attempting to touch it after I’ve said this is close to zero and sets the boundaries I need in order to work with them at my own comfort level. With unprofessional relationships I leave it to discretion and the more I get to know someone, I may or may not decide to tell them, but often have to set boundaries not to touch my scars with the minimum detail given that it causes me discomfort and pain. The thing about an attempt like mine, because it’s not nearly as common, is that you will find it so much harder to find someone who isn’t mortified at the idea that you have harmed yourself to the point of marked mutilation. It’s sometimes horrifying to others to think about, sometimes even to others who have attempted because in their mind THEY could never do THAT. Just know that not everyone will judge you, and often the horror you see from people who learn of the reason behind your scars are only because you are either precious to them and they can’t imagine how you must have felt in that moment, or they can but could never push through into the action of it, OR they haven’t faced anyone with that personal experience and it is foreign but something they may ask further questions about to attempt to understand. Just be patient is my advice. I’m going through treatment and fighting my disorders harder than ever. Not many can say that against the odds you managed to fight your own mind and walk away with scars from your battle, wounds that show despite your affliction, you yourself are resilient. I hope this offered insight. Please don’t be ashamed, please keep seeking out help and acceptance. Please have that hope that, like the rest of us, you will experience a sleeveless shirt, shorts, hair put up in a bouncy ponytail kind of day. Even if it’s just one, but as you personally heal, you just may find that day, some day, can become plural. <3

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    • You Matter

      Morgan, thank you for participating in our community and sharing your story to support others. Don’t hesitate to call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you ever need extra support. The call is free and confidential and counselors are available 24/7.

      Posted on

  • Scarred

    Scarred Scarred

    Reply Author

    To all of you younger people reading this, I encourage you to stop self harming if you can before you get too scarred up… I’m now a middle aged woman who hasn’t cut or burned myself for about two years, but before that I did it from age 14 onwards. My entire arms, thighs, hips, ribcage and chest are covered in scars and I’ve found it actually has become much harder to expose them as I’ve got older, even though they’re well faded by now. As a younger person I felt others were more sympathetic but at the age when I’m old enough to know better and it clearly wasn’t “just a phase”… not so much. Also it has been a sad surprise to me to find that people I thought I knew well enough to not cover up so much (eg. just 3/4 sleeves instead of being covered to wrists) have been the most shocked and judgemental about my scars. They can’t believe how someone so “normal” did that and they don’t trust me the same any more. I know this isn’t something you think about when you have those strong urges to hurt yourself; I myself didn’t care when people told me I’d regret it, because I couldn’t see a future. However, it can be really hard to feel any pride at stopping self harm when I’m sweating through a heatwave in my coverup clothes. I can’t take any comfort in those quotes that say your scars are bravery stripes or whatever because there’s nothing that feels special or strong about being 37 and having no idea what to wear when it’s a choice of embarrassing either myself or others around me.

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    • Vibrant Communications

      Rebecca, thank you for coming here to share you story and encourage youth not to self harm. If and whenever you need someone to talk to, remember that the Lifeline is here for you any time day or night, every day of the year at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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  • Adira Bennett

    I just wanted to give a big thank-you once again for all the feedback this post has received. I apologize for not individually responding to each person; I promise I read all your words and I care. Sending healing wishes to all. xox

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    • Vibrant Communications

      Adira Bennett,
      Thank you for participating in our community and supporting others.

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