I have had, until recently, a complicated relationship with my scars – especially when the inevitability of summer loomed ever closer. Unlike in winter, long sleeves in the heat are not comfortable, despite my best efforts. Summer meant I couldn’t hide in long sleeves and jumpers; I didn’t have my safety blanket.
I haven’t self-harmed for years. I’m proud of myself. It’s been difficult, and I so wish that the scars left behind could be a physical representation of recovering, of healing. Instead, having scars is bittersweet. It’s been years – my scars are not going to fade; they will permanently be on my body. It sounds like a metaphor for illness and recovery, yet the reality is uncomfortable and sad.
I’ve probably tried every single method to cover my scars. Foundation was cakey and too dark (and by that I mean orange). Oils and creams were good moisturisers, but otherwise useless. If I wore short sleeves or shorts, I would consciously keep my arms pinned to my side or cross my legs in an uncomfortable way. I would avoid gesturing when speaking, or speaking at all; avoid walking if too many people were looking. I would leave my arms, hands down, on a table, hidden. Anything to avoid drawing attention to my scars. Summers were miserable and exhausting. Now, I’ve given that up as another harmful coping mechanism.
Once my scars faded from purple to white silver, and the scar tissue was soft, I didn’t think they were ugly. Generally, I don’t think any scars are ‘ugly’. In private, I see my scars all the time. My summer anxiety is created from strangers or new people seeing them. People look, sometimes stare, or worse – ask questions. I don’t think my scars are ugly or embarrassing, but other people’s reactions make me feel like they are. I’m not ashamed of having been ill, but I don’t want or need the intrusion (especially from a stranger on the train needing to know why). My scars are already the reminder, the questions or pointed looks are just upsetting.
Recently, I made the decision to tattoo over my most visible scars. I’ve covered one arm – I’m still waiting for something beautiful to catch my eye for the other. The decision to get the tattoo took a year. I didn’t want to get a tattoo because I was embarrassed by self-harm. I didn’t want the tattoo to be another way to hide the scars. I didn’t want to regret the tattoo. I already had a few, but a cover-up felt like a much bigger decision. How would I feel about covering up the scars after so long? What would it be like if I couldn’t see them?
I decided to stop hiding my scars. Over the summer of last year and this one, I had been happily wearing short sleeves around strangers, around my family, around everyone. I had answered questions, noticed people looking, but I felt less sad, more ready to speak about it. Getting the tattoo was an autonomous choice I made about how my body would look permanently, free from depressed and anxious thoughts. Getting the tattoo was cathartic. Now, when people ask me about the tattoo, I have a choice about how much I share about the scars underneath. In fact, I find that I want to talk about the meaning of my tattoo and why I chose it.
The design I chose does not cover my scars completely. I have keloid scars, so they are raised. I chose a hummingbird. Hummingbirds visit hundreds of flowers a day to gather nectar to survive. I liked the symbolism of this, an idea of surviving on sweetness, on beauty (I’m sure hummingbirds do not feel like this). The hummingbird covers some of the scars, but many of the scars are incorporated into the wings. I was told they look like rays of sunlight (an unintentionally poetic compliment). It’s a comfort that my scars are not completely hidden, but are sharing space with something pretty and beautiful and more meaningful than an illness that tries to, but does not define me. Now, when people look or ask questions, it’s more likely to be about the tattoo than my medical history.
My illness and scars don’t define me any more than my freckles or stretchmarks do. They are permanent fixtures: but I think I like that.