Trigger warning: self harm
I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. Recently I’ve had a lot of thoughts floating around about scars in particular. Summer is coming up, and I happen to have scarring on my legs and stomach that would be visible in shorts or swimsuits. I’ve had a few incidents surrounding scarring and people’s reactions. I can’t help but spend a lot of time wondering what to do with this body that is visibly damaged.
I think there are two main elements to this problem, that often come together to create a third problem. First, my body can trigger others and that is something I don’t want to do (I do in fact have some close friends who may be triggered by the sight of self harm scars). Second, self harm and the scars associated with it tend to inspire a viscerally negative and fearful reaction from those who have never experienced self harm, in such a way that it causes a great deal of distress for everyone involved. Out of these extremely fearful reactions comes the fact that because my body itself can be seen as a trigger, my mental state is often gauged by whether or not people can see physical marks of self harm.
The question of how to approach my body when it’s probably forever marked with the signs of my mental health isn’t an abstract one: this is something that I imagine many people have to face in a very serious, immediate, and daily fashion. Every day when I choose what clothes to put on my body I have to ask myself how much to cover up, how comfortable I am with my scars, whether I will be around people who might be triggered or hurt by seeing my body as it actually is, and how I can be honest with the people around me while not waving self harm in their faces.
It sucks. My body is not only a trigger for others but also for myself, because every time I look at it I get flooded with that mental calculus, wondering if there are people who would judge me differently if they saw it. I wonder if people would pity me or feel disgusted by me or be afraid of me? And at the same time I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to be brave enough to leave my house while wearing clothing that is comfortable to me and not give a second thought to whether or not someone might glimpse my ankles.
There is something incredibly painful about knowing that your very physical presence can trigger someone. This is where the two problems overlap and reflect back on the individual whose body it is. It’s possible that I could be walking through my life and simply by existing cause someone I care a lot about to panic, fall into anxiety, want to self harm, or have nasty flashbacks. There are a few things out there that are highly likely to trigger people: guns, rape and comments about rape, graphic descriptions of violence, serious calorie and weight loss talk, and definitely self harm scars. It’s terrifying to be one of those things and never be able to change it.
Self harm scars in particular go one further. I am a walking trigger for people who have struggled with self harm in the past, but scars and self harm cause a reaction of terror, disgust, and discomfort in just about everyone. None of my other symptoms have ever inspired panic in the same way that self harm does (I’m still trying to figure out what it is about self harm that gets at people so emotionally). When the people close to me hear that I have self harmed or see a scar, they cannot control their emotions: they turn into fear driven creatures.
Imagine having a part of your body that if it were seen by just about anyone causes their eyes to widen uncomfortably, they start shifting back and forth and searching for a way out of any conversation, or they simply demand that you explain it to them. You can see the fear in them. They look disgusted and hurt. They never quite look at you the same again.
And this is the piece that brings me to my biggest problem with being a walking trigger: in our culture, people read our lives off of our bodies. Your size tells people whether you’re healthy or lazy or kind or generous. Your clothing tells people whether you’re nerdy or preppy or fashionable or slutty or prudish. Whether or not you smile determines if you’re a bitch or a jerk or kind. And especially for those with mental illness, people look at our bodies to read our mental states. I think I could deal with triggering people, I could talk to them, I could ask who needs what, if only my body didn’t come with the assumption that I’m fucked up and suicidal.
Usually when I identify something that’s really difficult about a certain aspect of mental illness, I try to throw out a few suggestions for ways to make it better. Unfortunately I don’t have any today. This is new for me this year, and I have no idea how to navigate the fact that my own body is a minefield. I don’t understand how to make it ok that I hurt people. I don’t know how to move towards body acceptance when my body is doing things I really don’t want it to (like communicating to others that I’m not ok, or triggering others). I don’t know how to be brave and wear my body proudly.
Some day perhaps I’ll go to a dance event and compete wearing a short skirt, or I’ll be able to go to the beach and wear a bikini. Today isn’t that day.
*note: if you are a friend of mine and you do find scars triggering, please let me know so I can make sure to cover up when I see you 🙂