I have a team of health professionals I see on a fairly regular basis and they don’t need to ask “What happened there?” whilst pointing to the scars on my arms. They know my history and know that I do still struggle (although definitely not on a regular basis anymore) with self-harm. Even my neurologist knows the basic extent of the mental illnesses I’ve been diagnosed with.
However, there are other health professionals I see, often only a handful of times, who don’t know my history and can’t seem to help asking about the scarring. The latest was the physiotherapist I’ve been seeing about my wrist. I’d seen him once and given that the scars on my arms are visible, he must have noticed, but said nothing. The second appointment rolls around and, whilst massaging my wrist, he asks about the scars.
I paused. “Uhhh…” I didn’t know what to say. I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s self-harm – many, many scars, all in straight lines. Not likely to be accidental, or to have any other explanation. My physiotherapist added something along the lines of – “Oh, you don’t have to say.” Hah, no way was I backing down from discussing and removing stigma from self-harm, especially when it’s asked about in a polite and respectful way. I explained that it was self-harm.
His response “And that’s behind you now?” I replied that it wasn’t behind me, but that I was working on it. That’s the truth. I’ve gone many, many months now without self-harm, but slip-ups can (and do) happen. That made him uncomfortable, which is a natural response. Nobody, particularly strangers, want to hear that I still self-harm. It’s uncomfortable for them. I suppose it’s easier for them to think that it’s behind me and no longer an issue. I think it might be very confronting for them to consider someone purposely hurting themselves.
Aside from my physiotherapist asking questions I’ve had very few people actually ask anything about the scarring. There was an endocrinologist I saw twice who asked along with a couple of phlebotomists. Mostly my scars go unnoticed, unless someone is looking directly (and closely) at my arms. I don’t think I’ve ever had comments from complete strangers.
I was shopping with a friend once and she has quite visible scars on her arms. At a distance you can probably see some of the scarring which definitely makes it hard for her. The manager of the pet store we were in asked (loudly and rudely) what happened to her arms and made a comment about an animal of some kind doing it. The way I’m describing it does not come close to the level of rudeness this man spoke with. My jaw dropped, but my friend managed it well and with a respectful level of attitude.
It angers me that some people seem to think they have a right to comment on another person’s “disfigurement”. I say disfigurement because it could be anything – some kind of genetic physical abnormality, scarring from an accident and/or surgery, body shape as a result of eating disorder behaviours. Anything. If you don’t know why someone has unusual markings (scars) on their body, unless you know them, it’s not okay to ask. It’s rude and it’s none of your business.
In saying that – it does happen. Scars get stares, comments, questions. So given that you can’t stop people questioning and commenting, creative responses are needed. You just have to choose responses that are relatively easy to understand. I went to work one day with tubi-grip on my arm, covering recent self-harm and a workmate asked what happened. My response, which I thought was very clever, went straight over her head. “Life threw me lemons and I failed at making lemonade.” I got a blank look followed by a very confused stare.
It’s based on that saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I failed at making lemonade with the lemons life threw at me. People who know the saying and know that I have a history of self-harm would understand. It doesn’t say what I’ve done, but that something went wrong.
Another personal favourite is “Oh, my cat had a psychotic episode and tried to kill me, but he’s better now.” although I’ve never used that one. I don’t mean to joke about psychosis either because that is a serious issue. I’ve used “Those damn roses!” as an excuse and it’s worked well! Everyone knows how horrible rose thorns are, and can usually relate with their own story which distracts them from the reality – rose thorns won’t leave loads of scars is nice, straight lines.
If you have visible scars (self-harm or not) how do you explain them to random, nosey strangers? The truth, humorous one-liners or something else?