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Content Warning: self-harm.
Dear person who might need this, 

I have spent much of my adult life in long sleeves, in thick tights in searing heat, in jeans, even on the beach. A particularly observant outsider would think I had something to hide, and until recently, I thought I did too. Because underneath the layers and the little white lies and the protestations that I’m still cold; my skin is etched with scars, and they are not the kind accompanied by a funny story. Perhaps you're here reading this because you can relate. These marks were not earned by running into a gate when I was three, or by scalding myself on a hot tray of homemade biscuits. They are not the aftermath of falling out of a tree, or catapulting head first from my obnoxiously pink bike. These scars are taboo, the ones that invite sympathetic whispers, the ones I created myself. 

I think I must have been about sixteen when I first turned to self-harm. I had (and still have) overwhelming emotions and anxieties that I, for a number of reasons, was unable to express outwardly. I remember a friend once stating that they simply couldn’t imagine seeing me cry - because I very rarely did. My world during my teens was one of control - a desire for absolute perfection. I projected a blank-faced, high-achieving front in order to conceal the distressing thoughts that had taken up tenancy underneath. As if, somehow, an A* in English Literature would have the power to halt the growing marks that laced across my thighs. It would be almost impossible to effectively pinpoint how or why it happened, but self-harm became the unfortunate outlet for my distress, and like any addiction, it spiralled. Once a month became once a week - sometimes even once a day. No one besides my closest friends knew how much I was struggling. Eight years later, I am still working towards changing my habits, attempting to understand why they first began. I am being taught to manage my emotions, to slow down my instinctual response and to be kinder to myself. I attend what feels like endless appointments, and I am improving. My scars, however, are the lasting reminders of my misery. 

As I'm sure you know, self-harm can be described as a destructive outlet for coping with difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations. This is something that less people know: it can take many different forms. While a mention of self-harm stereotypically conjures an image of a teenager hiding the cuts on their skin; it can also take the form of burning, biting or scratching the skin; over or under eating; exercising excessively; or simply putting yourself in situations which you know will cause you harm. It is something that transcends age, class, race and gender; and much of the behaviour leads to permanent damage or scarring. To some; however, self-harm is the only comfort, or the only outlet that they are able to provide for themselves. Like the very particular warmth that radiates from the polystyrene takeaway box you procure at the end of a heavy night, self-harm is the comfort you know you probably shouldn’t use. You know you’ll wake up to find cheese in your bed, and you’re almost certain the chips will upset your stomach, but for now, the only thing that will settle your unquiet mind is the feeling of being full and something warm to wrap your hands around in the taxi home. The Royal College of Psychiatrists states that self-harm is as prevalent as 1 in 10 among young people. At least two young people in every secondary school classroom have self-harmed. But it is also secretive. It is controversial. We sweep it under the carpet, turn our heads, and keep it hidden. It is one of many aspects of mental health that comes smothered in stigma, and if stigma is the gravy these chips are drenched in; it’s more than even a born-and-bred Northerner could handle at 3am.   

I once attempted to count my silver stripes. I’ve lived with them for years, and have largely kept them hidden, but it was a day when the world felt infinitely heavy, and I wanted to make my distress more logical. I ached to contain it in a neat, numerical box. The stigma surrounding self-harm extends to the marks it leaves behind, and whether minuscule or massive, discreet or glaringly obvious; they are swathed in emotions that are both painful and endlessly complex. My final tally - far from comforting me, left me feeling ashamed. I could have counted one scar, or one hundred; the number merely felt like a measure of distance between myself, and those who did not share the marks of my unwanted tribe. It saddened me. I have asked myself countless times how I could have caused such damage. How I could make my personal battles so obvious to the outside world? One flash of the forearm and the whole world would know; and the world isn’t known for being kind. It brought a whole new meaning to ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve.’ 

Scars, to many, are the lasting reminders of things we have been through. They signify operations, accidents and daft drunken decisions. They can be medals of bravery, marks of stupidity, or indicators of growth and change; and they can tell tales of everything from the birth of a child to an attempt at cooking pizza after ten gin and tonics. For the most part, we have reason to be proud of them. While we may not all feel comfortable enough to wear them like a child wears a smile after the loss of their first tooth, we usually accept them as the remnants of something that happened to us. Self-harm, however, feels different; because self-harm is something we did to ourselves that caused pain. Self-harm is the butt of jokes. Self-harm is written into comedy sketches. Self-harm is disgust. Misunderstanding. To those of us who represent the 1 in 10; it can feel as if there’s nothing more ugly, shameful or despicable as a scar created through self-harm, and it is this feeling that stares back, unwavering, every time we look in the mirror. We hide. We cover up. We wear unrevealing clothing, and become experts in intricate lies. Figures scream at us and we are shocked - because while they assure us that we are not alone - if you're like me, we have only seen a handful of arms that look like ours.  

My attitude towards my scars has always been difficult. I have hated them. I have regretted them and I have felt ashamed. I have considered spending extortionate amounts of money on a bespoke foundation that promised to help me hide them. I have typed ‘tattooing over scar tissue’ into Google, late at night with only the accused stripes as company. I have fretted endlessly about sleeves. I have told lies, and I have kept my secret hidden from even those closest to me, because the world taught me that they would be repulsed. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might not actually have anything to hide. Until recently. I could not be sure what exactly catalysed my shift in thoughts - the contributing factors are seemingly endless. But it was a shift all the same, and one of astronomical importance. I changed my place of work - joining a team where I feel fully accepted and comfortable with myself. I started therapy. I began to accept self-harm as a part of a mental health condition, and I began to desire full acceptance from the harshest of all critics: myself. On an Instagram whim, I followed Sophie Mayanne’s Behind The Scars campaign; and one day, for the very first time, I saw scars that looked exactly like mine. I was overwhelmed. The photo was beautiful, and the story matched my own. I began wearing short sleeves. 

So can you.

I was, of course, still terrified. It was a gradual process. I did not suddenly embrace myself in all my stripy glory and decide to become an underwear model; scars proudly on show. I did, however, loosen my control. I no longer panicked if I needed to take off my jumper, or if I had to roll up my sleeves. My work involves communicating with a large number of customers; so I anxiously prepared an array of responses for when they asked questions. They never did. My friends treated me in the same way they always have - with a lot of care and a plethora of insults. We still laughed about my somewhat disastrous life. People did not stare. When I turned up to New Year celebrations with my arm in a bandage, my friends hugged me, and proceeded to advise me on my outfit as normal. Sleeveless, of course. It was liberating. I am painfully aware that I am lucky, and that the experience of living with self-harm scars is different for everyone; but I am realising for the first time in my adult life that I desire a form of self-acceptance that is all encompassing. I deserve it. We deserve it. I’d like to appreciate my scars for what they are. I used to think that they were indescribably different to the rest; that they were the distant relatives of all the others; the eccentric second Uncle. I was wrong. Like those from operations, accidents, or drunken mishaps; my marks are merely the remnants of something I’ve been through. Something I am learning to overcome. Sometimes, I still cover up. So much of me hopes that someone will see my scars and feel comforted, represented, to know that it is okay, and that they are not the only one. And one day when I look at them myself, I might, vaguely, possibly, in the right lighting; feel proud.

Love, Steph

Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephHebdon