Moving on from past self-harm
August 1, 2015 12:46 AM   Subscribe

I used to self harm a long time ago. The scars have faded to flat, silvery marks, though they're visible. In dark moments, my brain uses them as a stick to beat me with. How do I come to terms with them?

As a teenager (around 12-13), I was very depressed, though it went undiagnosed at the time. To cope with a range of emotions, I self harmed - mostly with cuts to my right forearm.

They're not particularly ugly - they're cut marks that have faded to flat, silvery scars. But they're definitely visible.

For a long time, I hid them by wearing long sleeves. But over the last few years, I've decided to stop caring and wear what I want. It's been interesting - people almost never notice them. When I do, I've usually just said "they're old scars" or, if it's someone I'm reasonably close to, I'll say "I used to self-harm when I was a teenager."

But recently I started a new job, and the change of circumstance caused a bout of panicky depression. My brain started using my past self-harm as a stick to beat me with – replete with feelings of regret over how I’ve damaged myself, how horrible my scars look, magnifying something I’ve lived with just fine for over a decade into some terrible pathology.

How do I come to terms with my past self-harm and make peace with it? Former self-harmers, what worked for you?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Though you specifically addressed your question to former self-harmers, which I am not, but maybe (?) these might help:
  • “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ---Kahlil Gibran
  • the famous book "The Road Less Travelled" by M. Scott Peck has helped me a great deal with other problems, though YMMV.
Please reach out for support from trusted friends and professionals. Congratulations on your progress and healing to date.
posted by forthright at 3:24 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have self-harm scars on my forearms too, and very rarely get asked about them any more (in fact, I think the last time was by an ex in about 2010 and I found it so upsetting to be asked to revisit the time they came from that I actually don't think I ever explained them to him).

I found generally reading stuff about body acceptance helped - I don't like my acne scars either and they're about as unchangeable as self-harm scars, so I spent some time working on loving the body I'm actually living in than spending all my time hoping for a better one. I also had therapy and although I never really discussed body image stuff or scars, part of the general process of understanding myself and feeling happier in myself was accepting the (physical and mental!) parts of myself that sometimes make me sad or uncomfortable.

I sometimes feel sad about the scars being there and being so visible, but more because I'm sad nobody was looking out for me at the time I was self-harming than because I feel like they're ugly. I try to reframe them as being part of fully living my life in my body, like my tattoos are. They're a visible sign of how brave I can be and how tough it was to overcome some really difficult turbulent times in my life for me, and those are the things I think when I see someone else with scars that look similar to mine. They've overcome so much and they're still standing! That's awesome.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 3:34 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

First, congratulations for stopping.

I don't know if this is something you'd consider, but I know someone who had similar feelings and she got a beautiful tattoo of tropical flowers over the scars. It was a conscious decision to turn that period of her life into something beautiful.
posted by kinetic at 3:47 AM on August 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

When I was about the same age I would pick open the fronts of my calves. I'm 30 and I still have some scars there. For many many years my legs did not see the light of day. The thing that really helps me deal with it on bad days is actually stuff I learned in college art classes when I had to start intensely looking at human bodies. Skin is covered in blemishes and character, no matter who you are, but it's really easy to get into the headspace you're describing of magnification and thinking everyone is horrified of your marks.

So what I'll do, when I can feel myself getting that way, or if I really want to dress in a certain outfit that will show parts of my skin with scars, is I'll either go looking for really HD photos of real people, or try to remember back to my many live model art classes. Because let me tell you, once you come to terms with the varied bodies of the people willing to be naked in front of a bunch of art students for a few hours starting at 8am, you're going to have your perception of what people, and skin specifically, should look like significantly expanded.

Your scars are just a small part of the texture of your skin and the shapes that make your body yours. You don't have to be all hoo-rah proud of it all the time, but putting my body into the context of other bodies helps me bring it back to passive acceptance and minimizes my shame and fear, so maybe it will help you form more realistic frameworks for what other people are seeing when they see you.

I've thought about getting big tattoos all over my legs, but ironically I'm a total scaredy cat about pain so that's a no-go. Things like scar creams never seemed to do anything, but I have had good temporary results with dermablend makeup. There are other less expensive brands of makeup that will likely cover your scars perfectly well. If you wanted to cover them up on bad days when you know someone noticing them is going to really upset you, there's no more shame in that than there is in a little concealer for a pimple or product for your hair.
posted by Mizu at 5:46 AM on August 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

But recently I started a new job, and the change of circumstance caused a bout of panicky depression.

Since your anxiety over your scars seems to have been triggered by the new job, I suggest that extra self-care while you are dealing with the new job might help. New jobs are sometimes scary and stressful. Check in with yourself a few times during the day to just take a few deep breaths and notice the feelings in your body. If you are getting anxious, do a quick relaxation or grounding exercise. Hopefully managing your job stress will alleviate the feelings you are experiencing with your scars.

The basic stuff like exercising and getting plenty of sleep and making time with your friends can't hurt. If it helps to wear long sleeves again for a while, then why not.
posted by bunderful at 7:12 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you did make peace with them - over the last few years, I've decided to stop caring and wear what I want - and that what's changed is that you're now more depressed and anxious than usual.

The problem is the depression & anxiety, not the scars. Treat that, and it's likely your previous attitude to the scars will return.

Something I do all the damn time when I'm depressed is laser-focus in on a particular facet of my life that is worse when I'm depressed (e.g. ability to socialise, ability to do creative stuff) and fixate on how I'm not going to be able to feel better until I fix that. And then use the fact that I have no energy to fix that thing (because I'm depressed) as a cudgel to beat myself with - "if only I weren't such a shitty person and depressed all the time I'd be able to [write] [hang out with people] and since I can't do that OR fix it either I guess I'm going to feel like crap forever." It's a shitty cycle. And as soon as the depression clears up, whatever I decided was the big problem in my life doesn't feel intractable any more and stops being something I fixate on miserably.

Your feelings about your scars will likely abate when you start feeling better, so I'd suggest allocating your energy towards trying to feel better - either weathering what's going on until it passes or actively treating it, depending on what works for you and has worked for you in the past.

FWIW, I have similarly old scars from a similar time and I'm at peace with them, but I didn't do anything specific to get to that point, apart from being proactive about treating what caused them to happen in the first place. They're not something I fixate on when I'm depressed, but I can totally see how I could get to that point, because brains are dickbags sometimes.
posted by terretu at 7:22 AM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

You've gotten excellent answers above. I wanted to add that, over these last few years, friends with similar histories have seen dermatologists for scar-diminishing procedures (either after doing some of the self-acceptance work described above, or in conjunction with therapy/at their therapist's suggestion) and are pleased with their results.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:22 AM on August 1, 2015

I have multiple scars on both forearms, only one was intentionally self inflicted when I attempted suicide. I used to routinely wear a watch or bracelet to cover it. I haven't done that in a long time. No one ever seems to notice the scars.

Similar to Mizu's thought, I used to look at "Stars without make-up" articles to help me get over my ridiculous expectations about how perfect I needed to look every minute of every day in every way. I think the amount of time modern people's spend looking at movies and billboards and magazines and other slick commercial art presentations really causes a lot of us to just be completely out of touch with reality about how real people look.

The other thing I will suggest is that something about your new job is probably triggering. It might help to start a journal and try to pinpoint what, exactly, has you in a tailspin. There are two possibilities: 1) Something in your life is recreating the negative feelings that caused you to self harm or 2) something positive has happened and it is reminding you how unworthy and undeserving and whatever you were always made to feel.

In my case, having stuff come back up has proven to be an opportunity to really get past old pain. I suppressed a lot when I was younger. In fact, there were suppressed memories that did not surface until I was in a situation that made me feel safe enough to face them. So this isn't necessarily bad news. It is possible you are in a stronger position and that is making it possible to stand up to your own personal demons so you can really put them behind you. I no longer automatically assume that having big negative feelings come up is some sort of personal failure. Sometimes, it is more like my psyche vomiting up old poison to finally get it out.

(((Hugs))) (if you want them)
posted by Michele in California at 10:31 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's in the past but it hurts. I'd say it's a grieving process. Perhaps the core of the self harm was shame and seeing the scars triggers a sense of that. I would suggest you breathe into your body and give yourself some healing messages such as "It's not what you do (or did), it's you that I love, I forgive you, I love you the way you are and I will always be here for you"

There are more of these good parent messages, perhaps a google search will bring you more resources. I would like to add that it is good to see you love yourself enough to reach out for help.
posted by Jim_Jam at 6:51 PM on August 1, 2015

Kate Leth of Kate or Die made a comic about her history with self-harm, which may not be directly applicable but is a nice piece on self-care and how she channeled the need for control into something more positive.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:28 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

In a similar situation regarding a new job in the past, I had a huge struggle with anxiety and depression flaring up at what seemed like a bizarre time because it was The Best Job Evar (so I should be walking on air, not falling into the abyss). For me I think that was because having something meant I could lose something, and my lifelong coping mechanism was always 'don't want things'. Having something really amazing was agonizing because I was in a constant state of anxiety about losing it. Maybe something like that is triggering this.

Re the scars - I have an apparently idiosyncratic perspective on self harm and scars. For me, I think the self harm was therapeutic, in that it helped me cope and in some cases (and finally) flat-out acted as a catalyst for insight/perspective and healing and progress and becoming whole - a bunch of things I can't articulate and/or are too personal/boring to others to talk about here. And I think the scars are beautiful. I read about a tattoo studio somewhere on the west coast (USA) that did scarification and they described their ethos about it, and it really resonated with me.

Everyone is different and self harms differently and has a different relationship to self harm and it means different things to everyone, so I'm not trying to say that anyone but me should feel about their self harm and scars the way I feel about mine. But from what you've said, in the past you've had a more accepting perspective about your scars and yourself than you have right now. This makes me think that the issue is not that you need to make peace with the scars - you climbed that hill already, you spent over ten years in a good place in regard to this, and I would bet that that's still in there somewhere - but at this moment the scars/past self harm are maybe a focal point/lightning rod for anxiety about something else or some other thing that's making you feel bad, and your brain is dealing with the bad feelings in a not-helpful way. So maybe it might help to talk to a pro about the bad feelings generally, and the new job, and also your feelings about the scars and your past, and see if that helps.
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:32 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Scars, emotional and physical, are always present and although our emotions for them wax and wane, the scars stay.

Everyone who has commented about the depression and anxiety related to the new job is spot on in my experience dealing with my own emotional scars. In addition to that though, I found it extremely helpful to ask myself "how resilient am I feeling today?" and when I am not feeling resilient at all, do the things I don't normally let myself do - have frozen yogurt or other non healthy comfort foods (as long as they're not allergen triggers), talk to others in close to about my struggles, and in general acknowledge that today, I am not as strong as I can be. That gives me the emotional and mental space to brainstorm ways to make my situation more resilience building instead of resilience breaking.

Ditto on the e-hugs if you need them.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 8:48 PM on August 1, 2015

I have a lot of similar scars. For me I just mentally shrug when I notice them, I've gotten to the point where you are about not caring. Agreed with what was said above that this isn't really about the scars it's about the anxiety and depression you're feeling right now. How are you managing that? Are you engaging in appropriate self-care? Perhaps look at doing that.

Tattooing over them, in some way that represents your own strength and growth while acknowledging your past, may help if visible tattoos would not be a detriment to your career prospects.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:18 PM on August 1, 2015

I have a range of scars from 'hard to tell' to 'obvious suicide attempt'. I'd need a full sleeve to cover them, if I went for a tattoo. I don't though.

Apart from the obvious - they show I survived that attempt, I survived those shitty times, when I divorce them from the context I think they're pretty. I scar up kinda nice, the contrast with my skin tone is pleasant, it's nice. The context is dark and awful and fucked up, but the result? The result is something *I* can aesthetically live with. Not everyone can, but for me that's why all of my tattoos are elsewhere. I can live with the aesthetic of what I did to myself, because it's pretty enough and fuck, I survived that shit and I'm here.

What other people say is harder. I don't talk about it, ever, if someone brings up my scars - I just sidestep and agree that they are scars and change the subject.

That said I've talked about it with a few people - one of my most recent friends was curious so I talked to him about it in a way I haven't before since curiosity is...easier to deal with. Objections and fetishising are harder, aggressive anger/sadness is the worst. Curiosity gave me a chance to lay it all out a bit more, think about what it had meant and what it means now.

I think, one day, I'll get a set of half sleeves. But the ones up my forearm aren't something I'm looking to cover permanently (although I do wear long sleeves a lot).
posted by geek anachronism at 2:58 AM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can relate to this. I self-harmed regularly between the ages of 14-16. I'm 26 now and I have faint scars on my wrists that I don't bother to hide anymore (though I used to wear long-sleeves and bracelets all the time in high school). I have lots of deep scars on my upper thighs, where I really let loose with the cutting. I don't think I wore shorts or miniskirts for 5+ years after I stopped. But the scars have faded a lot now, and in the past couple of years I've become confident enough to show off my legs again.

I still feel self-conscious about them from time to time (my mother made me feel so ashamed when she found out - "look what you did to your beautiful skin" - and that took me a while to get over) but honestly, I've come to realise that people are too busy worrying about how they look to notice inconsistencies in your skin tone. The only people who have mentioned my scars have been boyfriends or close friends, but even if a stranger were to ask me about them, I'd just tell the truth.

As I've gotten older I've learned to love my body, to accept my mental health struggles, and most importantly to let go of any shame. This did take a while though. It might sound crazy and narcissistic but sometimes I tell myself I'm doing something positive on behalf of all people suffering from mental health issues by not hiding my scars and by talking openly about being on meds/seeing a therapist. It's like I'm overcoming my ego for a bigger cause: the cause of eliminating stigma surrounding mental illness. No one has ever responded negatively to any of this (except my mum, when I was a teenager). In fact, people have surprised me with their warmth and support, and they usually proceed to tell me about their own experiences. I've even had boyfriends say they think my scars are pretty, and that my legs would be 'boring' without them!

In times of angst I have used concealer/foundation/spray tan to try to cover them up. And I used to rub bio-oil and coconut oil into them to try to minimise their appearance (though I don't think any of that works; it just gives you smooth, soft skin). But I'm too lazy for all that now, ha!
posted by sweetshine at 9:11 AM on September 24, 2015

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