I’m not speaking for all people with disability here, there are my own opinions. Trigger warning for description of self harm
I identify as a person with disabilities. The thing is, that I live in an interesting position where some of the time I have the privilege of “passing” as a non-disabled person and some of the time, it’s obviously visible that I’m different, strange, mad, crazy, mentally ill, or whatever label people might want to put on my experience.
I experience my PTSD as a chronic disability rather than an illness. It’s something I live with and cope with and I don’t expect it to suddenly be cured or disappear. I don’t consider myself “sick” but I’m not really well either.
One of the ways in which I coped with having undiagnosed and improperly treated PTSD was to cut myself. I cut myself for many years of my life. Because I had severe adverse effects from psychiatric medications I cut myself deeply, chaotically and severely. As a result I have visible scars over the majority of my body. These scars are covered by long sleeves and long pants, but can be seen wearing any other type of clothing.
I have a number of close friends who also identify as having disabilities, and I work in a field where I have read, heard about and studied oppression related to disability. What I want to talk about is the situation I encountered last night. The one in which able-bodied, sane, or well people feel the need to STARE at, or comment on, disabled bodies. The staring makes me feel instantly like a circus freak, instantly judged, instantly “less than” and instantly oppressed.
I was out at the dance last night and I’d invited along a woman I’ve met up with a few times. It’s been winter weather so this was the first time she’d seen me in a short sleeved shirt. I hadn’t mentioned the self harm to her. I had mentioned my past abusive relationship. When I arrived, I noticed her staring at my arms. I noticed her staring at them on and off over the course of the evening. She never said anything about them, just looked at them awkwardly.
I was already struggling yesterday. I was having a lot of body dysphoria and feeling self conscious and negative about my body. I’d been at a party earlier and I was hot in my sweater but I didn’t want people looking at my arms, so I left it on. Often I forget about my scars now, but some days I’m hyper sensitive because I don’t want to risk being under the “judgemental gaze” of able-bodied or sane folks.
Here’s what I wish folks would do when they notice my scars:
- You’ve noticed my scars. You are curious. I get it. But this isn’t about you. Please don’t stare. I’m not a circus freak.
- If you must ask questions about it, if possible wait until a quite private moment and then politely ask me what you want to know.
- If you absolutely have to know. Please don’t stare. I’d rather you ask me a question about what you want to know, even in a public place than continue to stare or sneak glances at me. Believe me I SEE YOU LOOKING AT THEM. You aren’t getting away with looking at them subtly. In general, people with visible disabilities are vigilant to noticing people staring at them.
- Remember, I’m still the same person I was before you noticed the scars. Nothing has really changed. Your reaction to my scars is more about you, than it is about me. If you are seeing the scars, it means I am comfortable showing them. You are the one who is making the situation uncomfortable by awkwardly staring at me!
And here is a list of answers to some commonly asked questions about my scars. Maybe this will help you to not ask these questions to other people who self injure, maybe it will help others understand a bit better. To be fully honest, people rarely ask me questions about my scars. I sometimes wish they did ask me. I’d rather be asked questions than be stared at and be left wondering what the person was thinking. But there are some common questions and questions I imagine folks have.
- Do they hurt? No, most of them don’t hurt. There are a few that didn’t heal properly or weren’t stitched properly that do hurt. Some of them itch or the skin pulls at times which can be uncomfortable. For the most part they just feel the same as the rest of my skin.
- Can I touch them? No! That’s fucking creepy. This is a trigger for me, because one of my abusers asked that question. I don’t think it’s cool, cute, fun or sexy to have them touched specifically during intimacy. Please just treat them as part of the rest of my skin.
- What happened to you? They are scars from self inflicted injuries, mainly cutting. I hurt myself as a way of coping with ongoing sexual and emotional abuse over a period of time in my life. I also had serious adverse reactions to psychiatric medication, especially SSRI anti-depressants which gave me obsessive self destructive thoughts and impulses over a 4 year period of time. I was told repeatedly that “doctors don’t give you medication to make you sick”
- Did you have to get stitches? Yes. Lots of them.
- Did it hurt? Sometimes. But a lot of the time when I was harming myself I was disassociating and I didn’t feel the pain. A lot of the time I was doing it I was numb and detached and felt very little. It hurt a lot AFTER and when it was healing, when the disassociation wore off.
- Do you regret it? Sometimes. It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t have the scars. To be honest the scars trigger me sometimes which is why I often used to hide them. They bring back bad memories of times I’d rather forget. But they are a part of me as well, a part of my story and a part of what I’ve survived.
- What is the worst part about having self harm scars? The worst part is the judgement I get when seeking non-psychiatric medical care. So many times doctors have seen the scars and treated me differently. They often make assumptions about me that are incorrect. They assume I’m drug seeking, an addict, or that I’m unstable, lying, attention seeking, borderline etc. I notice that doctors have the worst misconceptions about self harm. Doctors often assume I’m LESS able than I actually am, and at times I struggle to receive appropriate medical care. There is a great deal of stigma attached to having a mental health disability, especially related to self injury.
The take home message is simple:
Don’t stare at people whose bodies may be different than yours.
If you must ask questions, do so politely and privately if possible. Ideally, don’t ask a lot of questions of complete strangers. Questions as part of a friendship come across completely differently and can be more acceptable as a part of getting to know someone over time.
I notice you staring at me, and I don’t interpret it as polite concern. I interpret it as intense othering.
I was just there for the dance.