I Used To Cut Myself. Here’s What It’s Like To Live With The Scars.

Warning: This essay includes descriptions of self-harm.

Post-vaccination, I met up with a friend in a park. True to Austin weather, it was hot and humid. Sweat dripped down my back. 

As we chatted, I noticed my friend staring at my left arm at the scars that begin at my wrist and continue up to two inches below my inner elbow crease. During the summer, my skin tans, while the scars on my wrists remain light-colored, appearing even more glossy and raised, like speed bumps.

The worst scar is nested in my elbow crease; it looks a bit like an oblong pill surrounded by faint dots where the stitches used to be. The two large cigarette burns that I made on the back of my left hand have long disappeared. 

Shifting in discomfort, I thought about how every time tank top season arrives, I not only get a bit self-conscious, but also depressed.

I’m used to my scars, but other people aren’t. I wear long sleeves to cover them; it’s possible to know me for years and not know that I used to cut myself. Long sleeves protect me and, in a way, they protect other people from seeing the sort of violent action I took against my flesh starting at the age of 14. 

For many years, I didn’t know the term “cutting” even existed, despite routinely harming myself. I learned about this variety of self-harm in the ’90s while I was skipping school and watching a daytime talk show. I believe it was “The Maury Povich Show.”

The theme for the episode was teens who listen to “devil-worshiping music.” Pasty white teenagers, wearing black hoodies over their heads, sat next to their concerned parents. They were my age and looked like they could be my friends.

This was around the time when Tipper Gore and other conservatives were waging a war against rock, rap, metal — any genre they thought was polluting the minds of youth and needed to be censored.

To prove how “evil” this music was, the producers flashed a Slayer album cover on the screen. It totally shocked me — it depicted the band’s name cut into someone’s forearm. The image was gross, but I wondered: Could I do that to myself?

It’s no surprise that I turned my pent-up fury toward myself. I was deeply afraid, alone, and unable to articulate the trauma that was happening at home.

I took out a safety pin and scratched my skin until a small red bead formed. I was proud for being able to endure pain, to push aside fear, to express myself in a way that wasn’t possible through language. For the first time in a long time, I felt I had power.

Using scissors, a kitchen knife, a razor blade, I regularly began to cut. While I would deny at the time that this was a cry for help, it most certainly was. I wanted the adults in my life to see that I was hurting. 

My father had died a few years previously, and my mother remarried shortly after. My stepfather was an asshole, the sort of guy who told my mother she was stupid. He also had a violent temper and was addicted to drugs, alcohol and hustling money in pool halls. 

My school counselor sensed that something was up. I stopped going to school, and when I showed up, it was with bandages wrapped around my wrists. I started counseling and my first counselor told me to sign a paper promising that I would talk to someone when I felt like harming myself. She was not the best match for me, and I made cuts that were even deeper. 

My next therapist probably saved my life. She was soft-spoken and smarter than me. During our sessions together, we played Mancala, a two-player board game. Slowly, I started opening up. 

I’ve heard that some people cut because they feel completely numb, and seeing that they are capable of bleeding is a reminder that they are alive. I did not feel numb, I felt enraged.

In a society where girls aren’t allowed to express anger, it’s no surprise that I turned my pent-up fury toward myself. I was deeply afraid, alone, and unable to articulate the trauma that was happening at home. 

When my stepfather broke a restraining order once again, I made a cut in my elbow crease that required stitches. My sisters saw the gory results. My mother shouted, “Get in the car.” We left my sister crying in the driveway.

My mother drove down the highway like a bat out of hell with her emergency lights blinking. The towel wrapped around my arm was soaked through. I could tell she was both angry and scared. For the first time, I realized that in hurting myself, I was also hurting others. 

The doctor who stitched up my arm is someone I’ll never forget.

“You must be right-handed,” he said. It took me a second to realize that he was making a subtle joke. I looked at my left arm and saw how few scars there were. I told myself I’d have to add to my collection. 

“What do you like to do?” he asked. I shrugged. 

“I like to write,” I said. 

“Well, in theory you can write with just one arm, but it might be faster with two.” He mimicked working at a typewriter. 

“Look,” he said. “You keep doing this and you could cause real harm. These fingers of yours might not work as well if you cut too deep.” 

He had the qualities of a good dad, and before I left, he said, “I don’t want to see you back here again.” I nodded to show I understood.  

I wish I could say that I never cut again, but that wouldn’t be true. The day I stopped cutting was the day my stepfather died. I was 17. It sounds dark, but I was deeply relieved. My mother, my sister, my brother, myself — we were safe now. His threats couldn’t hang over us anymore. 

Most decent individuals don’t ask for details about my scars. But for longer than I care to reveal, I worked as a barista and it sometimes shocked me what people (always men) felt they had the right to say. 

“Did a cat scratch you? Must be one mean cat.” Another man once asked if I’d been burned by the steam wand. Not waiting for my reply, he answered his own question, “That’s probably it. I imagine those suckers get real hot.” 

“Yep,” I said, nodding. “Barista battle scars.” 

It was sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between rudeness and naiveté. Even amid a busy morning rush, an occasional customer would insist on knowing how I got my scars. 

“What happened to your arm?”

I had a choice. I could make something up or tell the truth. I usually opted for the former. I’d say that I used to work as a baker and got burned on the oven racks. (Some of the fatter scars do look like burns.) 

I know what people see when they look at the full length of my bare arms, and I know it’s not pretty.

One time, though, I told the truth. “I was an unhappy teenager who sucked at suicide.” Things got rather quiet after that. 

Some comments I was totally unprepared for, such as the guy who told me he thought my scars were “cool.” He wore black leather pants laced up the side and had a large bull ring through his nose. He was a piercer who’d recently started branding well before I knew that such a thing existed. 

I was mildly disgusted that he thought the razor marks were some sort of fetish. It made sense he might think that; I lived in Seattle at the time, and knew at least three people with genital piercings. 

Another time, on a crowded New York subway, a man from Africa pointed to my scars and asked what country I was from. He was friendly and remarked that scars were common in the village from where he was from, but he’d never seen anything like mine. He was so open and kind; it was the first time I thought about scarification as a rite of passage. 

My most awkward encounter was with a baby. I was at the grocery store when a toddler in a stroller pointed at me and my arm and said, “Owie.” Trying to get her mother’s attention, she repeated it: “Owie, owie, owie.” 

Her mother knelt down, checking her kid’s finger. Frustrated that her mother didn’t get that she was referring to me and my owie, she started to cry. I felt like a walking human wound. 

My favorite comment came from (no surprise) a teenage boy that I passed on the street in Seattle one day. He turned to his friend and said, “Did you see that girl’s scars? Man, they looked like tiger bites.” I laughed to myself. “Tiger bites,” I kind of liked that. 

Tank top season is a time when all of these memories come flooding back; it’s the time when I feel the most vulnerable and exposed. Especially now, when social distancing is coming to an end. 

I know what people see when they look at the full length of my bare arms, and I know it’s not pretty. 

This essay could never be titled “How I Learned to Love My Scars,” because I don’t. I’ve often thought about a tattoo that would cover them but worry that it might also make them more noticeable.

What I do love is the fact that I survived. Like most teenagers, what I wanted most was to feel safe and loved. 

In the last year, I’ve become much more accepting of myself and others. If someone were to ask me tomorrow about my scars, instead of telling them to F-off, I think I would tell them the truth: I used to cut myself as a teenager. And if they know of someone who’s in pain there are resources out there to provide help. I do believe that COVID has made people more aware of the mental health crisis we are facing nationwide. I am hopeful that we can heal by being honest about what hurts. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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