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.

15 Responses

  1. As someone who saw and commented on them fairly early on, I saw them as proof you had survived. They were on living arms, on the prettiest face I had seen in years. Since then, you have survived even more and even better. I see them as a (kind of) perverse badge of bravery because it took courage to live through that and it took courage to live through the next bit too. You have survived and healed from more than most people could. Others will question you but (and I know this is easy to say and not easy to do) shame and embarrassment is the last thing you should feel xxx

  2. “My skin is like a map of where my heart has been, and I can’t hide the marks but it’s not a negative thing.” ~ Natasha Bedingfield.

  3. Hello Seaneen!
    I think there are a few ways to compartmentalise this – 1; It’s a visual recognition of past troubles..we all have them but perhaps we can try to hide it..some can, some can’t, be it alcoholism. drugs – they’re always the obvious ones but others are more prominent to the aware, such as discrimination, prejudice..tattoos even! People can be forgiven for being quick to judge on scars but at the end of the day, you just have to be strong in what you only know.
    You are going into this to help others, so you must focus on the present and all that you can offer. Secondly, imagine being one of your patients and seeing a nurse with scars..there isn’t better proof that she’s walked down your road, and I’m sure they’ll find an affinity within that. And last but not least, from what I’ve read, I couldn’t imagine a further injustice for someone with such compassion, kindness and empathy, to even doubt herself.
    I have been bullied on placements and I have no scars..I don’t know why some of them do it..only they know. I consider you lucky to have been bought flowers etc, you really have a good start, so it’s only you doubting yourself. Think about it..you’re being supported at work, given compliments and coming home to a man who adores you..you can swap with me and go on placement, be criticised, ridiculed and undermined by staff (never patients) and come home to no-one..just trying to sleep with thoughts of stringing yourself up because you get treated so differently..therefore you must be bad right? I came into this to help people..I’m right near the end, I’m not giving up but I’ve never come across or did anticipate such hostiltiy..but such is life.

  4. Your gradual plan sounds a great and I really hope it works for you. You deserve to not have to suffer because of the heat.
    My brain isn’t really working today but I could relate to a lot of your post about scarring – it is very difficult.
    Wishing you well,
    Lucy x

  5. Hey seaneen,
    I hate to put it this way but the biggest problem with your scars is you and the shame you feel towards them. They are there and that’s something you cannot change, but it is also a sign of your recovery and times past that you have moved on from. Firstly well done you on stopping my own personal experience was stopping was the hardest thing followed by the acceptance that I’m stuck with these scars for life.

    I made the decision years ago not to do nursing because of my scarring, but in 2009 that changed I realised that it is what I wanted to do nursing more than anything else and that meant the sleeves had to come off. I made the decision in the summer 09 that long sleeves were banned, bought a load of new short sleeved tops and just had to go with it. At first it was awkward I was very aware and there were loads of questions particularly from people I knew who didn’t know my history but that quickly died down. Since then there have been very few questions asked. I’ve found the more comfortable and therefore ignoring of the fact that I have scars the less people ask me about them. In the last three years I think there have been three occasions where my scars have been discussed. Once by someone who hadn’t seen me in years and was concerned I was still self harming, the second was with my mental health practice tutor at uni as I was nervous about going into practice and people asking about them. and the third was actually a patient but as I had had the conversation with my tutor I had some appropriate responses available.

    Because your so aware of your scarring them you probably think that
    everyone else is as well. My experience tells me that’s not true my scars are particularly bad but because I’ve done the whole wearing of short sleeves thing I barely notice them any more. sometimes I look at them and feel sad that I once did that to myself, but I don’t let them affect my life now. I guess what Im saying is that there is life after scarring, don’t let the shame of the scars stop you from living the life that you want to lead.

  6. I’m with Titflasher. Your scars tell of formidable bravery. To go through such absolute hell and come out alive and kicking is testament to how utterly fantastic you are.😀 Perhaps you don’t have to be proud of your past, but you can certainly be proud of your present, and your scars attest to that. I’ll cheer you on.

  7. I really feel for you, as a mental health professional with the same issue. I can only speak from my own experience, but here goes.

    The three quarter sleeve is your friend! When getting used to being on show, going straight for a short sleeve can be overwhelming. I found I transitioned through the three quarter length, and still use them for interviews and events where I am more conscious of my own arms.

    Patients and service users will almost never give you any grief, or even ask questions about your scars. It is useful to have a few stock phrases in your “toolkit” that you have practiced with your placement supervisor, because revealing too much about your own journey takes the focus away from the work you are doing with the person who needs you. I have used “yes, I’m living evidence that Recovery is possible!” or “we’e all got scars, either inside or outside.”

    Unfortunately, some mental health staff do work in a bullying culture. But if you are, they will find a reason to bully you: they are able to use any defining characteristic. The only way to deal with this is to work in a culture that will not enable bullies. It’s actually about them, not about you or your scars.

    As with my stretchmarks from bearing my children, I regard scars from self-harm to be badges of honour from surviving difficult life phases.

    The best of luck with this. Keep updating us about how it works out for you.

  8. I feel exactly the same as you do in every way you just described. I felt like that for almost 20 years but then I just realised that by covering up I’m only hurting myself no one else actually cares. Those that ask can simply be curious or nosey and yes you do get some nasty people. But they’re just nasty and that’s who they are and what they have to live with. And for the sake of two or three nasty comments for a summer of t shirts. its well worth it. Also worth considering how self mutilation is regarded in other cultures e.g. accepted and normal to some tribes. Just go for it and feel good and happy and special

  9. I am in agreement with some others; your scars show a form of survival and bravery. Earlier in therapy another patient (and friend I now consider her to be) was desperate to take her hooded top off because the room was stifling, immediately she was concerned about showing her scars, which are perhaps on a similar line to yours but more visible and more recent. I told her that no one in the therapy room was going to judge her and eventually she removed her top but you could see how uncomfortable it made her feel in the group.

    I can understand the apprehension about showing scars when wearing your uniform on placement, do you not have the option to wear a cardigan, or something long sleeved underneath, I am guessing your uniform is a tunic or t-shirt.

  10. hey Seaneen, saw your post and feel compelled to reply. I am a nurse here in australia and one of the students who came to our medical ward for her placement had self
    harm scars to her arms. Anyway, I never noticed them untill maybe the very end of placement when we were both plonked down together in the tea room drinking horrendous hospital coffee together from styrofoam cups and i gave it only a fleeting thought and that it was it. At the end of the day, we were on a medical ward, she was a student with heaps of enthusiasm and energy and I was tired and stressed and undercaffeinated and happy to have the extra help, as long as whoever turned up as a student was willing and able to help me get the job done and provide good care. And as far as I was concerned her scars were as much my buisness as my fat unpregnant(but pregnant looking) belly was to her: NONE!!!
    Seriously, just let your great peronality shine through, be helpfull and interested and use initiative and all that and we will love you for all those great qualities. I like to think the same of my fellow human beings also.
    And if you are worried then cardigans could become your best friend for a while till you feel comfortable.
    I imagine the whole thing is very daunting right now, just have a little faith in the human race to not leap to judgement. I always found medical nurses a friendly bunch- the odd scary matron/bitch but all in all a fairly relaxed crew.
    Good luck with it all and I hope my post can be of some help.

  11. I have a friend with Borderline Personality Disorder amongst other things who has self harmed quite drastically. Her arms look like she’s wearing bangles because there’s so many scars lined up. Anyway she got the worst arm tattooed with a kind of lacy black leafy swirly design and it works really well at distracting attention. So that’s something you could try.

  12. sending love and healing vibes that you will know and be confident about how to move forward. you are such a lovely woman!

  13. This has touched my heart so much and I can soooo relate. Thanks for having the courage to share your story. A summer has never gone by since I have been 15 (beginning of my cutting journey) that I haven’t been able to not wear sweaters, long pants, especially at work.

    As with you I stare at my body and look in shame and have been trying to get over it as it has been 13 years since I have put down the razors but the constant questions from people about my arms, legs and stomach really don’t help. I always try to justify it as the price I have to pay for what I did to myself for all those years but then again should mental illness really be punished? I’m so torn as I’m still not in the right state of mind half the time.

    Our arms look similar and when I saw those pics it really got to me. I haven’t seen anyone like that since I was an inpatient back in the mid-late 90’s, it choked me up.

    I think you are an inspiration for blogging about this and sometimes wish I would have some courage to speak my mind. Sometimes I wish I had some strength to tell all the rude people who comment about my arms in a not so nice way to bugger off but I find I just cower like a child and then break down when they leave.

    P.S. They will fade more as the years go on 🙂

  14. Battle scars.

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