Accepting Life In the Scar Suit

The scar suit is how I refer to my body.  My body! Isn’t that odd?  It is how it feels, sometimes. As though I have been zipped in and trapped there and all I have to do is wriggle out one day.

I finished my first placement. I got really good reports (and flowers!) and feedback. I was blessed with an incredibly understanding mentor who I felt I could open up to about my mental health. It was something she saw as a positive. She saw my arms when I was practicising injection techniques then saw that as soon as someone walked in I hastily pulled my sleeves down.

I confided in her about my fears about my next placement, which is a medical placement. This means a uniform, bare above the elbow- my greatest of horrors, short sleeves.

She was amongst the few people who told me that this was something I needed to talk to university about. My scars aren’t the kind that you have to look hard to see. They are very noticeable.  Even though they are 3 years old.

I have an odd relationship with them. I can talk forever about mental illness, I can discuss deep and shameful and embarrassing things I’ve said and done, but self harm and my scars are a total no-go. I very rarely discuss it online (although I have posted photos here before, when I last tried to come to terms), I almost never talk about it in person. Occasionally Robert has caught me staring down at my arms, looking puzzled, looking sad. He kisses my head and tells me I’m beautiful. Occasionally I feel like Polly in Girl, Interrupted, stricken with panic and horror at what I did to myself. That’s the kicker, really. I did this to myself. Even though the person that did it seems so far, so distant and unfamiliar now, I still did it. It was me. How could I hate myself so much I mutilated myself? And it is mutilation, there is no other word for it. “Self-harm”, “self-injury” doesn’t convey the aftermath, it doesn’t remember that the cuts leave the scars and the scars leave their scars on you and everything and everyone you touch. And so very hilariously, I went through most of my life believing I was deformed, that my nose was huge and I was an alien-looking hideum, and then when the delusion dissipates, the reality remains. Maybe in some way, to anchor myself in hatred, forever and forever, no matter how happy my life is or became, to mar every happy moment with a big, red welt. To hold my husband in my scarred arms and my child against my scarred chest and to never, ever be allowed to forget.

Or maybe not.

I spoke to my tutor about it, and she was great. She was incredibly understanding (as I would expect her to be, as she’s a mental health nurse), even though there is realistically nothing she can do. I have to go on a ward, at some point or another, the arms have to come out. I knew I needed to talk about it and I found it very hard to keep my voice even, found myself rambling and at points wanting to cry.  Partly because she was so gentle and lovely about it.  It’s the gentleness that makes me cry.

She asked to see them, which was difficult in itself. I absolutely hate anyone looking at my arms. I almost always keep on long sleeves, I spend my summers sweating and burning in coats and cardigans and this has been my life for the past 10 years, longer, in fact. I see women in light dresses drifting down the street and want to drift after them, in their aura, their freeness, to feel like that.

I hate what people think about me when they see them. That I must be violent (I’m not), that I must be fucked up (I’m not), that I must have been abused (I wasn’t), that I must be unstable (I’m not). It’s not a tan or vitiligo, it’s scarring and it is obvious what they are from.  Once, two years ago, I was feeling particularly brave and went to Tesco in a t-shirt.  On the way back, some twatty little shit slapped my arm as he ran past and laughed.

She mentioned my two long term options. One is surgery, which would have to be skin grafts. That in itself will leave a scar, but maybe a better one.  It is an option I’m not discounting. The second is the Red Cross camoflage make up service which I referred myself to three months ago and who haven’t gotten back to me today (I emailed them today to chase them up).

Without these, what are my options? To accept them. To accept that my body is a little bit different, to accept that I once felt like that but I don’t anymore, to accept I have scars and that’s that, they are part of me, not some foreign, shameful thing. To reconcile who I am now with who I was then, to celebrate it. (Pride? I can’t imagine ever feeling pride). How sad, she said, to feel the need to cover up on your wedding day (many people have said this). This is the rational, well-meaning advice I have gotten time and time again which has always gotten the same response from me: It is easier said than done.

But I really can’t go the rest of my life like this.  I can’t. It is time to accept them.  This is my body.  It’s not a scar suit.

To accept them means I will have to have responses ready for people who ask (and they will, and they do). To be quite strong in the face of that and to be calm. I hate that thought, though. I just want to be normal.

But to accept them means not living in heat and burning in the summer and not clutching onto my sleeves with my fingers when I talk to people. To feel sun on my skin. To see what goosebumps look like again.

First I will (weather permitting) stop wearing my coat. Then roll up my sleeves. Then try above the elbow. Then nothing.

Please wish me luck, because this to me is the equivalent of walking around with my bare arse that has, “NUTCASE” written on it in shite.

Hopefully, the sun may even help.

Why the world needs introverts

This is a lovely article on the Guardian.   It makes a distinction between shyness and introversion, a distinction I don’t think many (including myself) people really think of.

Why The World Needs Introverts

Would you want a mental mental health nurse?

Whoops! I seem to be disclosing all over the place.

Which is odd, even the word, “disclosure”, as though you’ve committed a crime. A lot of other illnesses are just, well, discussed. In a camaraderie sense, or even (if you’re Northern Irish like me, as it is our national pasttime) in conversation over the fence with a fag. Fibroids, thrush, pus-squishing ingrown toenails. Nothing is too personal for the Northern Irish.

Except, maybe, mental illness.

In placement I have only admitted that I have my own mental health problems to people I feel I can trust. I wonder why I tell them, and the reason is (partly) that it’s very difficult not to. I don’t habitually wear my, “I AM A MENTAL” t-shirt (that’s for special occasions). But I do have more knowledge than the average first year student mental health nurse, I know THE SHIT out of the benefits system, and it’s because of my experiences as a patient and activist, and of my interest in mental health.

So this is why it has only been broached with the people who I feel comfortable with. They are generally the ones who ask, “So, how do you know/why are you/what got you interested in mental health?” I don’t want to lie, and I’m not sure what the lie would be. I know because I was a patient and because I am interested, my knowledge has been extended by being a writer and an activist on mental health issues. From the latter, it is guesswork that I became so passionately interested and involved because of my own experiences. It is the nature of activism.

It’s also because it’s everywhere, and making me more aware that this issue of the mentals will probably rear its head again. For example, I spent the day with a perinatal psychiatry team. I want to have children one day, very much. I have generally been advised against it for health reasons, and there is the reality of it. People are automatically referred to the service (good) if a) their mother had post natal psychosis (in that case my mum gets me an automatic referral as she suffered from it twice) and b) if they have a history of severe depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It makes me afraid for myself. I feel I will cope with it, but it taints the whole rosey image of pregnancy somewhat.  You’re meant to be in a rocking chair, smiling serenely, with glowing cheeks and long hair, not having people monitor you in case you go mad.  I’m glad they do, of course.  But it was never how I imagined these life events. Nor to being advised to, “take care” planning my own wedding in case the stress and excitement makes me go a bit doolally.

I wouldn’t disclose (tell?) anyone I got even the faintest bad vibe from and it has all been in relevant, fairly passionate conversation.

I don’t feel particularly ashamed.  Not as much as I used to, anyway. Indeed, I guess a bit of me still whispers, “Stigma is bullshit! Disobey! It’s their problem if they treat you differently!”, even though I have long since said that nobody should feel the need to OMG FIGHT STIGMA!!!!1 on their own, putting themselves in situations that might make them feel uncomfortable.  It is not, one by one, our fight, not alone.

There’s also the fact that I’ve been largely fine for quite a long time. I have my little lapses due to stress but so far I have managed them. More than my illness these days, it’s my medication that affects me. It’s the medication that means I sometimes utterly just blank out and have no idea what someone said to me and renders me a DUUUUH in the mornings.  Often I mix up my words (I have done so a few times in this post, the edit button is lovely).  But I’m quite high functioning. I don’t think people can guess without any foreknowledge.

It all begs the question though- what should I do with this blog? When I was applying for jobs and university, I hid most of the archives (and most remain still hidden), leaving up the Stable Years. But I’m going to be Googled by patients, I’m fairly sure (I’d do it).  It is something I need to give some serious thought to.

It’s not just Dr. Google and people I might care for.  It’s the professionals, too. There is still undoubtedly stigma in the mental health system against professionals and wannabe-professionals with mental health problems. To see the devastating impact of that, read the Daksha Emson Enquiry. Dashka Emson was a psychiatrist with bipolar disorder who hid her illness for the most part, but more than that, her care team downplayed her illness due to the stigma of it. She killed herself and her baby daughter.

I do not want to be labelled as someone with mental health problems as it is only a tiny bit of me. I don’t want it used against me. But at the same time, I do need certain concessions and I don’t want to feel ashamed of it- in fact, I’m downright proud of a lot of the things that having mental health problems has led me to, gotten me involved in, opened my eyes to.  I also don’t so far don’t think it has affected me on placement or my practice.  I hope it doesn’t and I will make sure of that.  So far I also haven’t had any, “Oh my god, that’s ME!” moments, nor do I want them, because it <i>isn’t</i> me. I <i>don’t</i> know how someone <i>feels</I> just because we might have similar experiences and I haven’t fallen into that trap yet.

I need to be careful though, and I am realising this. I think because it’s my first placement I’m still in trial and error stage, and I have met people on it that I get on well enough with to relax around. It will not be like this in all places, and I think for my own piece of mind I will hold that information back. Also in subsequent placements, I will have the previous placements to explain my knowledge/experiences.  I don’t really want everyone knowing.

I would never disclose to a patient (client? Service user? I’m not sure what the word is) .  It is not appropriate, it’s not professional.  On a more human level, I also don’t think it’s right.  It might make them feel, “Oh great, so I have to deal with your stuff now!”  That’s not their job!  It’s a professional relationship, I worry about them, not the other way around!  And as much as you may care for, relate to and get on with somebody, you’re still in a position of authority.  It’s something I find it hard to get my head round, but it’s true.   I’ve been on equal footing for so long I’m still not sure how to navigate that. If I was giving a talk or something, or they Dr. Googled me, that’s different.  I don’t want to hide in the shadows for that reason.  Google and suchlike isn’t the same as having someone in a room and saying it.  Either way, I think I’d be quite uncomfortable and it’s something I have to begin thinking about.

It’s a double edged sword. Personally, I have found it quite inspiring when someone with mental health problems functions well after not-functioning. I know how impossible, ridiculous and surreal it is to believe that could ever happen when you are in the depths.

I also like the, “Aaah, you understand!” feeling of speaking to someone with mental health problems.  Even if they are totally different ones.  They understand the stuff not in papers or seminars; the loss of your identity, the loneliness, the slog, the feeling ashamed and apart on the bad days.

But as a nurse? Or as a therapist? (When I am finished my nurse training and get more experience, I want to train in psychotherapy. Which type, I’m not sure. I might try and get some therapy myself to see.  I know I will be getting my own therapy if I go onto train- I think that’s such a good idea that all health professionals should be offered this).  I’ve had a few different perspectives on this, ranging from, “It’s brilliant! You know the system from the inside and outside, you can be a wonderful advocate” to more cautionary ones.  But that’s having mental health problems- it’s not the same as people in your care knowing that you do.

Are they a good example or bad example? Do they have a right to tell you what to do if they didn’t do it themselves? Would you worry about having to look after them too or feeling they are assuming your own experiences, based on theirs?  Would you worry they can’t keep a proper distance, one you might need, and one they do, too?

If you are being really honest with yourself (and me), how would you feel knowing your nurse, doctor, therapist and etc had mental health problems?

(My own answer- I don’t know).

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