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. My eyes slip glancingly off the mirror before catching sight of 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 trust it, too.
~ ~ ~
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 causes slightly lessens the weight of my scars today. 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?” — still brings 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.
~ ~ ~
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 the lying cut thin grooves into my soul as surely as the 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, always, both. To stop cutting one, I needed to stop cutting the other.
I felt equal parts brave and frightened, the first time I went out wearing shorts and carrying no 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 ridgelines. 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 the visible — and visibly public — records of our private pain? I wish I had a perfect answer.
I remind myself that love does not demand perfection, only a willingness to live with imperfection. That love is nourished with patience, honesty, and gentle touch that seeks understanding rather than control.
I remember: sometimes love still feels like falling.
# # #
If you’re willing to share, I’m deeply curious: how are you making peace with your body? In what ways is it easy, in what ways is it hard?
“Palimpsest” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.