I have never forgotten the first time I cut into my own flesh deliberately: the motes of dust in the air lit by a late afternoon sunbeam; the threadbare sofa in my dorm room where I sat; the blue-handled scissors that I held open for what seemed an eternity; the expanse of pale, clear skin on the inside of my forearm before I brought the scissors down against it.
My skin has never again bloomed so smooth.
Some mornings I don’t even notice the scars. I dry off in a hurry from the shower, too preoccupied about catching my train to pay attention to the wide lines that run pale and hairless across my thighs. I let my eyes slip glancingly off the mirror before noticing the ridges that tic-tac-toe both my shoulders.
I run my fingers along them when I’m nervous, or lying in my bed at night. Felt but unseen, they seem just another element of the strange cartography of the body: its folds and curves of fat, hair forever resprouting, the small hard lump of a premenstrual pimple. The most pronounced hypertrophic scars lie along my left forearm, where the record of those first fumblings with blue-handled scissors have been lost beneath more than a decade of razor-sharp reminders. When stroked along a certain path, my whole left arm feels like corduroy.
The most recent scar is still forming, even though nearly two years have passed since I made this final cut. I suspect it will sink as it finishes healing, leaving an inch-wide trough of puckered skin collapsed down the length of my calf.
People ask me if I was in a bicycling accident.
“No,” I say—and run my hand gently up and down the scar, as if soothing a frightened animal. After so many years of self-inflicted violence, it is still learning to trust me, this body. And I am still learning how to show I love it.
More Radical Reads: Perfection is Hazardous and Scars are Inevitable So I Might As Well Learn to Love Them
Collectively speaking, we understand the impulses behind self-injury far more today than anyone did when I began cutting twenty-five years ago. Some people self-injure when they feel emotionally or physically numb—and a cut provides sensation. Some self-injure when they feel emotionally or physically overloaded—and a cut provides relief. I used to keep all of the theories on the tip of my tongue, ready to rattle off to doctors or therapists or friends anytime I feared the distraction of my scarred body might cause them to discount the heft of my mind.
I deeply feared being seen as crazy, you understand.
Mostly because I thought I might be. Who but a crazy person, I wondered, would take comfort in such violence against her own body?
I didn’t know anyone but myself who did this, back in the early years.
I certainly didn’t know anything about trauma, or how its effects linger and mutate over time.
Understanding the sources now lessens the weight of my scars. I have an easier time not seeing them, their paler flesh that once glared out at me like brandings. But casual question from a coworker—“hey, how’d you get that scar?”—can still bring them all flaring back up to my eye, the anatomical map of an ugly past only I know how to read.
Cutting is not the only form of self-injury, nor is self-injury the only method by which the traumatized, the injured, the lonely, and the anguished manipulate their bodies for a sense of control. As with any relationship, control is a decimating basis for relating to your body, complete opposite to the flourishing that becomes possible when you lead with love.
Even during my active cutting years, I knew my body needed love. The knowledge frightened me.
Maybe if I reached just a little harder for the control I craved, I could at last achieve mastery: over my body, my emotions, over dreams too haunting for me to admit them as memories.
More Radical Reads: Why My Broken Body is Worthy of Delighting in
During the years that I was cutting, the stigma and visibility of my self-injury gave me a particularly contorted relationship to my body. Like many with body shame, I always wore long sleeves and pants, even in summer heat. If, in a moment of carelessness or distraction, I pulled my sleeves up to my elbows and exposed fresh scabs or half-healed cuts to an acquaintance, I had a ready-to-go list of excuses, most involving fictitious and ferocious pet cats.
But lying cut thin grooves into my soul as surely as a razor did into my arm. Separating body from self, the way a knife promises to do, is its own form of lie. We are both. We are all. To stop cutting one, I needed to stop cutting both.
I felt equal parts brave and frightened, the first time I went out in shorts and without stories.
“My god, were you attacked by a dog?!” an acquaintance exclaimed when she saw the angry red mark extending up my right shin.
“No,” I said—and stopped.
We both stood still a moment and stared at one another.
I had to remind myself to breathe.
I had to remember I was not falling.
As I have been writing these words today, I have also stopped periodically to look at the scars on my arms. I have run my hands along my chest, feeling for where the skin pulls suddenly tighter along familiar ridge lines. My own distinctive language of flesh, written like a palimpsest over and over on the same fragments of skin until only the most recent record is still legible. I used to be able to read a memory in each scar. Time has dulled those, even as it has softened the scars themselves.
Self-injury is only one of many traumas that become inscribed on our bodies. How do we make peace with these visible—and visibly public—records of our private pain? I wish I had a perfect answer.
Then I remember again how love does not demand perfection, but rather a willingness to live with imperfection. How it is nourished with patience, honesty, and gentle touch that seeks understanding rather than control.
I remember: sometimes love feels like falling.
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(Feature Image: A photograph of a person with brown curly hair. Their back is facing the camera and they are wearing a dark jacket. The background is sunlight and the woods. Source: https://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2014/05/21/15/26/peace-of-mind-349815_960_720.jpg )