Self harm: Behind the Scars
Although we as a society have made great strides regarding mental health awareness in general, there is still a long way to go when it comes to the topic of self-harm. Whereas awareness campaigns have led to a lot more openness and understanding of a lot of mental disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety), they have done little to break the stigmas surrounding this particular coping mechanism that can sometimes come attached with it.
Of course, talking about doing physical harm to oneself typically isn’t pretty, nor easy. This does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t. Staying silent around the topic of self-harm, especially when we openly acknowledge the disorders that can be behind it, isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, it makes it worse for those dealing with self-harming themselves, as they can feel misunderstood, ashamed, and pressured into hiding their problems - and their scars. This needs to change.
To help break some of the taboo and raise awareness about this issue, I have asked 6 people (international students between the ages of 20-24 living in the Netherlands) to pose in front of my camera and open up about their experiences. We painted their scars gold for the pictures in the spirit of Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) - the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold, silver or platinum paint. The philosophy behind this practice is to see breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to hide.
Look through the pictures below to “meet” these brave individuals and learn the stories behind their specific scars, and read on for more in-depth interview questions.
Why do (or did) you self-harm? Are there different reasons or triggers?
Piotr: ‘Imagine you’re burning on the inside, filled to the brim with self-hate, fear, anger, despair. The auto mutilation for me acts like a splash of water on the flames, extinguishing them for a brief moment. The physical cancels out the emotional hellfire. It’s a short but sweet high. I can truly crave this pain, wanting to strip my skin off, feeling I deserve to suffer.’
Jamie: ‘Most of the time it has been for relief from mental pain. Sometimes it has been a form of self-punishment. Other times it has been to feel something. As the reasons differ, so do the triggers. Often, it’s rooted in emotional overwhelm due to fear of abandonment, or feeling extremely alone in this world. Other reasons can be rejection from friends or lovers, or doing things I’m not proud of, and hating myself as a result. Sometimes I have long periods where I feel numb and disconnected from everyone – as if I don’t feel like other people do. It feels like I don’t want, love, or act as a human being should. All I want in a moment like that is to feel something, leading to self-harm.’
Ezra: ‘I think for many people self-harm is associated with some sort of self-punishment. For me this was not the reason at all. I was struggling with disassociating constantly, and for some reason the sharpness of the blade did not just cut through my skin, but also through the fog in my mind. When I forgot who or where I was, seeing my own blood flow was intensely grounding.’
Do you hide your scars from others? How do people generally respond to them when they see them?
Eliza: ‘I’ve had a lot of different reactions, from people trying to help me after it happened and not judge me for having cut myself, to people crying as soon as they found out that I inflicted the cuts on myself and begging me to stop or getting mad at me for having done it. I tend to hide them, because I just don't like being asked about it. A lot of times I find myself lying, saying that I walked into a fence and cut my leg, but it just feels weird. I don’t like the stigma around scars. It’s just a part of my past and I don’t think it’s something I should hide, but also not something that needs to be asked about when it’s visible.’
Will: ‘People generally don’t ask about my scars. I don’t hide them because I believe that they are a part of me and hiding them will only further perpetuate the taboo surrounding mental illnesses. Sometimes I ask others if they notice my scars and if they have any clue where they came from. People usually tell me they think that the scars are from a suicide attempt, but that they felt too uncomfortable to ask me about them. I am very open about my mental health, because I feel it is a defining part about my life, about who I am. I learned from my battle with depression; I grew stronger because of it.’
Leia: ‘I’ve been self-harming since the age of 14. I have always hidden my scars as much as I could- so up until university nobody knew about them. At university I met friends who were going through the same thing. I am not ashamed if they see my scars- although I do always tend to feel awkward or guilty about it, because I don’t want them to worry. However, I am currently luckily at the age where I wouldn’t want to be around people who judge too quickly- and so in that sense, my scars serve as a filter to filter out the close-minded. I do nevertheless still tend to hide them as much as I can, mostly because they show my vulnerability and I am not yet ready to let down the mask I portray to the superficial word. I do hope I will be someday.’
Jamie: ‘It depends. I used to cut on my wrist, but I got too many looks and questions, so I proceeded to cut on my shoulder and legs. Sometimes at work they ask me what happened, and I always say it was a cat. Although probably hard to believe, people let it go. Sometimes I just fall silent. So many times in the past I’ve told the truth and it has received judgement. My dad saw the scars once, once we talked about them and then never again. It was right before his work and my school, I was 14. He was cranky, as usual, not looking forward to the day, and I was tiptoeing around him. When I put his coffee down before him, he looked at my arm and saw them. He stood up and started screaming: “What is this?! What are you doing to yourself? Are you crazy?! Do we need to send you to the asylum? What nonsense. You don’t do this you hear me? Tell me you won’t do this anymore?!” I said I wouldn’t. And we never talked about it again. Because of that I felt I couldn’t tell people about this habit, because they would think I was crazy. So the cat story is my go to.’
Piotr: ‘In the past, I’ve had multiple people ask me how I got my cuts en plein publique, which infuriated me - anyone who sees a neat row of cuts on an arm most likely knows what they are and should know to either leave it alone in general or to ask about them in private. When my mom saw the cigarette burns once, she said: “Sweetie, you’re no ashtray - don’t use yourself as one.” I think she tried to not make a big deal out of it so that I wouldn’t feel misunderstood or ashamed, and I’m thankful for this approach. I don’t hide my scars anymore. I did when they were still fresh but now I genuinely don’t care anymore. I’m not afraid to have a conversation about self-harm. I completely get why people find it hard to understand and it feels good to be able to tell them the reasoning and help to slowly make it less of a taboo.’
Ezra: ‘I don’t hide them for my friends because most of them have scars anyway, so I don’t feel ashamed. If anything, I would hide them to avoid triggering other people.’
How do you feel about your scars now?
Jamie: ‘They’re a part of me. I’m not proud of them. But every scar represents something I have been through, and that, despite everything, I’m still here fighting.’
Will: ‘I no longer feel that extreme sense of guilt whenever I notice my scars. They have become a part of my body and I learned to accept them. I am still planning on getting them covered up with tattoos in the future, not as a way to hide them but to signify recovery. I don’t want to erase or deny my past but learn from it; I want to take those dark moments and be able to stack it up against all that I cherish.'
Eliza: ‘I don’t really think too much about my scars anymore. I don’t have a lot of memory during the time that I inflicted them, but I just remember pain and feeling like I was going off the deep end and without the possibility of stopping myself. I just felt hopeless and they were there as a reminder. Now when I look at them, I remember what I went through and am happy about the journey I made to accept the person I am. I generally even forget that my scars are there until someone points them out to me.’
Ezra: ‘I hate them. Always have, always will.’
Leia: ‘I’m very afraid of coming off as an attention seeker. This is why I hide my scars as much as possible. Having a stranger judge me as a “phony” on one of my biggest vulnerabilities hurts. Aside from that, having scars often paints a picture of being “totally insane” when you first meet someone. This is a ridiculous stigma, but it still makes me insecure if a new person sees my scars. I am however growing towards accepting them as part of my identity in a way in which I see them to be part of me- and if that leads to people misjudging me, that’s their problem.’
Piotr: ‘I’ve made my peace with what I’ve done to myself but still I wish I didn’t do it. It pains me to see how cruel I can be to me, I deserve better, especially from myself. I’m not proud of my scars, I think it’s a very sad thing that I was in a position where harming my own body seemed like the only option and I hope next time I’ll just hold myself in my arms and whisper kind words.’
What would you like to tell people who don’t understand why someone would self-harm? What would you like others to understand better?
Leia: ‘In my years of inpatient treatment I’ve seen that scars can in fact sometimes serve the purpose of “a cry for help”. I don’t understand why society devalues this. If cutting is the only way you feel seen or can out your pain I find this deeply tragic and worthy of sympathy rather than shaming someone. Although I’ve never deliberately self-harmed to “communicate”, I can understand why someone would do this. Whereas some people cut themselves for this, I for example go into social isolation and sit there alone “hoping someone will notice I’m gone”. It’s ridiculous to continue the fallacy that nobody is ever desperate to be heard or seen, and resorts to indirect forms of communication out of fear of rejection. If you have such little faith that someone will hear you or see you that cutting yourself seems like the only way, then isn’t that deserving of listening, rather than rejecting? What is wrong with a cry for help? I get deeply angered by this stigma on self-harm not only because of the “attention-seeking” element, but the stigma itself on “attention-seeking”. Since when is hiding your pain and doing everything alone the new norm to live by? Since when is it wrong to depend on others or to want others to understand you? I find this psychopathic.’
Ezra: ‘I didn’t want this either. I'm not fishing for attention. Don’t treat me like some wacko mental patient as soon as you see them; don’t tiptoe around me in fear I might cut my throat if you say one wrong thing. I'm much more than my mental illness.’
Eliza: ‘It’s a coping method and it shouldn't be something for them to be ashamed of. I wouldn’t want someone to cut themselves, but I understand why someone would. If someone is cutting themselves, instead of asking them to stop, just be there for them, because that’s the best thing you can do. The person could just be looking for support and to not feel so alone in this world, so instead of just saying please stop which could make them feel guilty, stupid and in the wrong – just be there for them. Nobody should judge others for their way of coping through difficult times.’
Piotr: ‘I would tell people that it isn’t a choice, at least for me. It’s an obsessive drive that takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the damage has been done. Nobody wants this. Also I’d like to have the conversation as to why people do it, because I think it’s quite a modern problem and a symptom of the way we live and the way we’re taught to think about ourselves.’
Will: ‘I think a common misconception about self-harm is that people think that the act comes from a place of attention seeking. This is not necessarily true; self-harm can have various functions like self-punishment or a way to divert difficult emotions by inflicting pain. Cutting yourself can be a way to feel something real in a world of numbness or a way to have control over something when you feel you are losing your grip everywhere else. It is not a fun thing to do; those who do self-harm need a friendly voice and support because the act of self-harm often comes from a place of self-hate and desperation. Ridiculing them or saying they cut them self because they seek attention will only do more damage.’
Jamie: ‘If you don’t understand how someone could do this, I would say – good for you. You have learned to deal with your emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Whether that is the healthy way is questionable still. That depends on the person. Some think that working out intensely for 4 hours a day is healthy, but I’m sure it’s another form of running away from yourself, a coping mechanism. The difference is that that’s socially acceptable, commendable even. As it was when I started losing weight quickly; everyone complimented me, not knowing how much struggle and sadness was attached to it.
Scars always have a story. If you have someone in your life who self-harms – before you ask them about it, ask yourself why you want to talk about it first. There is always a story behind a scar. Do you care about the scar or the story?
Ask for the story.’
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those photographed and interviewed.
The 6 participants of this project are not to be considered as representative for anyone else struggling with self-harm or related issues;
Self-harm can come in many shapes and forms, and does not necessarily leave (lasting) marks or scars.