It was 9am in New Jersey and I stared down at my backpack in dismay.
I had arrived on my flight over from the UK the previous night, and much to my disgruntlement but attempted good humour, my luggage had been lost at my connection and hadn’t made it to the USA with me. Doubtless my poor, abandoned bag, carefully and conscientiously packed full of my holiday clothes, toiletries and belongings, was languishing on an Icelandic runway in the rain and sleet.
And here I was, in my hotel for the night before completing my journey to the camp I was working at, reliant on the scant toiletries I had brought in the tiny airport-approved plastic bags for my flight and a spare t-shirt I had absentmindedly thrown in on top. I had already sink washed my underwear and put them back on, and a quick trip to Walmart the previous night had my basics covered. But that wasn’t the problem. I could survive on miniature tubes of toothpaste, using hand cream as body lotion, and being without my books and photographs, at least for a few days. The issue that faced me now, was my legs.
When I was 15 years old I learned a very clever trick. I learned if I took an apple, a small plate and a sharp knife to my bedroom, no one would question me, and if I was swift and sneaky enough, I could eat my apple and use the knife to make small, blunt lacerations to my arms, without any furore or attention drawn. Sometimes, I used the knife for the apple first, then my arms, and the cuts would go green from the apple juice.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, then. A half-hearted attempt at a coping mechanism, learned from the pages of a popular adolescent website, Tumblr. A copycat of what I saw my best friend doing. A feeble attempt at attention-seeking as I struggled my way through teenage life combined with some of the issues that already loomed. It was a weak effort, but it became a learned behaviour, and it stuck.
I gave up cutting between the ages of 17 and 19. My then boyfriend hated it, which kept my hands from reaching for the knives, and then I did a gap year that kept me on a better path, so the need wasn’t there. When I was 19, I suffered a trauma that changed me forever, and when I was freshly 20 years old, another, and before I knew it, I had spiralled into self destructive habits.
And this time was different. The cuts were bigger, more deliberate. I stayed at a friends’ house for the weekend in a different city and fought with my boyfriend; overnight whilst my friends slept I wept for hours and went to the bathroom and slashed, over and over, my thighs with a used razor.
It went on. I spent the summer in America and when grief and anger and sorrow loomed their heads, I knelt on my bathroom floor and clenched my fists, squeezing and releasing and squeezing and releasing, willing myself not to pick up the razor, begging myself to not hurt myself, to stay calm, to not cause injury to an already hurting human being.
It doesn’t make sense, does it? It wouldn’t, unless you had suffered this particular grief yourself. Unless you had used it once, tasted the pain, smelt the rust and salt scent of the blood, and felt the rush of adrenalin that comes with self injury. Unless you have done it too, self harm is something you will never comprehend.
The story of self harm continued to weave itself in and out of my life. June 2016, approaching my 22nd birthday, and I hurt someone close to me in the most evil of ways, and I can’t forgive myself. Cutting becomes a regular release, a self-punishment or penance, some way to release the guilt and sorrow and shame that bursts from my every pore. I am depressed, lethargic, lacking the will to live, and cutting brings me back to myself. it shocks me awake, startles my system from its dozy existence, like a bucket of ice water over your head on a hot summers day.
Over the next year I don’t, or can’t, stop. Cutting becomes a part of my life, my way of atoning for my sins, making myself feel something when I am spent and broken. Approaching the end of my degree, my 23rd birthday, I hurt someone again, and my bed sheets are stained with spots and spurts of blood from my night time inflictions on myself. One morning, I told someone, and they raced to my flat to try and stop me. They were too late, and my sheets were drenched in blood. He sat down on the floor next to me, and cried.
Always the same. Never in a visible place – usually my thighs, the tops of my legs, my lower stomach. Never dangerous – not near arteries and no risk of accidental suicide. I know anatomy, I know how to avoid and how to cause pain without ending my life.
I got extremely drunk at a friends’ barbecue and while going to the bathroom with a friend, she notices – questions me. They all do. My oldest best friends, aghast at the extent of my self injury. One sits down with my mum at 1am and tells her she is afraid for me. I don’t know what to say.
Flash forward a few months and I am in that New Jersey hotel room about to meet a room full of new people and I am petrified and stony because all I have are shorts. My travel clothes aren’t suitable and this is all I have. I put them on. Gaze in the mirror, all angles, chew my lip anxiously.
These people don’t know me. They have never met me or heard of me, they don’t know my life, don’t know what I’ve done. What they will see is a young woman with messy hair, bright blue eyes, and countless scars up her thighs.
The fear of that moment, of the unknown, of the unspoken request for acceptance and compassion, almost stalled me in that hotel room forever. The anxiety of it pulled the breath from my lungs. How should I play this? Acknowledge it, or ignore it? Let the unspoken messages do their bidding and simply float through?
In the end, my concerns were unfounded. No one brought them up. My boyfriend – then a stranger – was sat in that very first room I walked into, and he noticed – he told me later he knew exactly what they were, and without knowing me, was immediately afraid for my wellbeing. Just the sight of scars.
I understand. Scars bring a certain fear with them. They mark the person forever with a reminder of a great pain, a trauma, or an injury. They are the body’s memory, the physical marks inflicted by the past. Some scars are humorous. The little mark where the family dog bit them, the knife skidded off the tomato, the bike accident. Dinner party stories, anecdotes, memories.
What we forget about scars is they show something else. Healing. Scars show that you have healed. The skin has formed over the injury, it has itched and scabbed, then it has passed. The body has gone through its miraculous healing process from start to finish. The time of great pain has gone, now all that is left is the memory.
Today, I have not cut myself since July. It is nearing the end of October. I feel no inclination to mark my skin with my errors and mistakes. I feel no need to make a physical representation of an emotion I feel, I know differently. I know that I could cover my entire body in razor blade cuts and it wouldn’t help. I know that cutting myself and harming myself does not ease the ache of sorrow or guilt or depression or shame.
I know that there is no fear in my scars, just a memory. And while mine will never be dinner party anecdotes, I am not afraid to show them. Look, I will say. I have healed.