Palimpsest

[CN: self-injury.]


 

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.

~ ~ ~

 

leg3

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.

leg2

# # #

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.


17 thoughts on “Palimpsest

  1. Hey. I have not self-harmed as I am extraordinarily narcissist and love myself despite the realization that I am far from perfect but I do have experience. My best friend(or ex best friend as I should call her now) used to. Maybe she still does. I could never understand why she did it. I could never imagine it. Her locked in the bathroom, pressed against the cold tiles, bringing the razor down on her thighs, her stomach, her arms, every part that she hated. she said she grinned when the blood flowed down her body, into the drain. She always did say that scarlet was her favourite colour. I was still youg, too young to understand what was going on in her head. To me, her head was a dark unexplored place, a place where demons roared and whispered things to her at night. And now I feel I’m a little wiser and know that all she needed was love and to be constantly reminded that she was beautiful in every possible way. I regret letting go of her, but I know it was best for the both of us. I wish her happiness.
    I wish you all the courage in the world and hope that you learn to love yourself with all your imperfections.
    LoveX

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  2. “I felt equal parts brave and frightened, the first time I went out wearing shorts and carrying no stories.”

    Wow. Imagining that moment made me hold my breath.

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  3. Cripes, these posts are important. I thank you for them.
    It’s weird to me that I’m much more accepting of my body now that some of the compulsive bingeing has been quieted by medication. But, self-loathing was always part of the binge eating, so maybe not so weird.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you think so; they certainly feel important to me to write.

      I’m glad to hear both the bingeing and the feelings of body-loathing are less now. I’ve gone through periods of most forms of disordered eating, but because they were usually activities I thought of as “at least I’m not cutting!”, people (including me) tended to overlook the underlying misery.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I flirted with cutting when I was a teenager – LONG before it even had a name – but never did more than drag the razor ever so gently over my skin to watch the red beads pop up. I sometimes wonder if more teens cut now because it’s talked about … It has a name. I want to love my body … but oh, so fat! So, so, so HUGE! And getting wrinkly, with lumpy bits and flops and bulges. I wear kaftans and pretend I don’t care, and when I’ve been sitting on the floor and struggle to get up and someone wants to help me I growl, “I’m fat, not crippled – thank you!”

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    1. It had a name, even if you hadn’t heard it: “delicate self-mutilation.” So, to be clear, it had a grotesque, offensive, inaccurate, feminizing, and minimizing name — right in line with all of the offensive, feminizing, minimizing, and inaccurate theories as to why people engaged in it.

      Two sociologists (Peter and Patricia Adler) have done the only long-term longitudinal study to-date on self-injury and conclude that many people who began engaging in SI post-2000 did come to it via different routes, yes: first through celebrity self-disclosures and later through personal contact with someone else who cut (either in person or via the internet).

      One word of caution: self-injury is not now, nor has is ever been, behavior found only among teens. Not even *mostly* among teenagers. This is HUMAN behavior, engaged in by people of all ages, genders, classes, and ethnic groups. (I didn’t begin to cut until I was in my 20s, for example, and struggled the most in my early 30s.) Historically, the misperception that this is only something teenagers do has led to some spectacularly shitty and dismissive responses to people in pain by medical professionals and family members alike.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, love.
      I shouldn’t be surprised — I surely know the world enough to be over surprise altogether by now — but I do grieve for your younger self, and for every fierce and frightened kitty she had to rescue from within a well-barricaded briar patch…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love that you are sharing the movement forward in simple, clear and open words. I don’t love the realization that I have somehow missed posts as I discovered when I clicked back through your linked references. WTF…I have no idea how those posts didn’t make it into my notifications, but after just now reading the words I do have a much better understanding of many of the changes you have been dealing with over the past few months.
    As to the ‘making peace’ question my body now directly links me to the aging process and to a visible connection to my mother. I don’t want to try to reconcile that so often my brain says 22 and my mirror and scale say middle-age 56 with stress fat dumping around my abdomen and cellulite making my inner thighs rub together. I also cannot look down at my hands and not see my mother thanks to the gift of arthritis. Am I making peace, no. Can I accept it for what it is, not sure. Does the dislike of what I see in the mirror keep me up at night, no…so I take that as a positive and perhaps a small step in forward progress 🙂

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    1. “Scar,” you mean? about the leg? Yeah, well…that was a not-so-great night when it happened — but some very important learning (critical!) occurred as a result, so there’s that. I’m just glad it has healed/is healing on its own, since my decision not to get it treated medically was flat-out dangerous.

      Sometimes I wonder if aging would be easier (the visual changes of it, at least) if our media and pop culture were willing to show us more images of older women, or just let women age like, yknow, human beings. But then I remember a conversation I had with my grandmother when she was in her late 80s (and me in my early 30s). “Gram,” I said, “sometimes I forget how old I really am. I am so surprised each time I realize I am not 18 any more.”

      She gave me this bemused grimace. “Me too, honey. Me too…”

      🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have a number of older female relatives who have had “subtle” plastic surgery to stave off the reality of aging. My stomach turns when I think of the pain and risks of unnecessary surgery – so the pressure to erase that part of our reality is so intense, so pervasive.

        The healthiest attitude towards aging I have encountered recently was from my tattoo artist – when I asked her about how often one should have a tattoo touched up to avoid it visibly aging, she shrugged and said, “Most of us don’t worry about it after the initial touch-ups. You are aging, your tattoo will be aging with you, it is a part of it, of life, it is a badge of honor.” In contrast to my family, it was a breath of fresh air!

        I don’t know how to make peace with our bodies – that is so fraught. But I do know that blog posts like yours and the discussions that follow are a step in the right direction. Thank you for sharing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I love that anecdote about your tattoo artist, Marcy; thanks for sharing! And you’re right, there is such intense pressure on all of us — women especially, I think, but certainly not exclusively — to preserve some Barbie-level of artificiality about our bodies, to be blank, to exist as if without gravity or time…or personal history… The only way I know to resist that pressure is one body at a time, one story at a time. Thank you for being part of this conversation, and letting our journeys touch.

        Liked by 1 person

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