Updates & Blogs Self-injury Insights Cardigans in Summer – living with self-injury scars by Jennifer Reese For twenty years I have not dressed according to the weather or the occasion. I don’t choose an outfit based on if it’s going to rain. My clothing is dictated by how much I want other people to know about me. I own a lot of cardigans. A t-shirt without a jumper is a luxury, a swimsuit an impossibility. Job interviews and summer weddings are a nightmare. For many years I wore long sleeves all the time. Sweaty and red faced, I would never complain about the temperature just in case someone said, ‘Why don’t you take your cardigan off?’ in a dismissive tone. As if that hadn’t occurred to me. As if removing a layer of clothing were a casual way of making yourself more comfortable, not a public declaration of emotional instability. There is a weight to the layers of clothes I’ve worn over the years and that is the weight of shame. But the shame isn’t mine, it comes from existing in a world that doesn’t know how to talk about self-injury and self-injury scars. * I can hear music from the tombola stall, a tannoy in the distance announcing that contestants for the dog show should gather at the main field. We walk past people chatting underneath colourful bunting, sat on bales of hay, children grasp dripping ice creams. My new partner stops to introduce me to someone he knew at school. I nod and smile as they enthusiastically update each other on the intervening years. ‘And what do you do?’ the ex-school friend turns to me. As he asks this, I see his eyes flicker to the tops of my arms, pausing. A series of expressions crosses his face, ones that I’m familiar with -confusion, then shock, and then realisation. He looks up and meets my gaze and holds it too deliberately. I can see him trying to focus on what I’m saying. I’m grateful he had the sensitively to not just stand staring as other people have done. The conversation is short and as we walk away, I untie my cardigan from around my waste and slide my arms into it, a safety net, a protective armour, providing so much more than just another layer against the summer sun. * I reach my hand to the till and the lady says, ‘Oh, that’s strange, the freckles on your arms just stop’ I feel my stomach clench and I stop still. ‘Yes, they do’ I say after a pause, hoping she will take that as an answer, trying to respond in a casual tone. ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ I take a breath, consciously relax the muscles in my face and turn to her ‘It’s a scald.’ I meant to say more but nothing comes out. I’m too tired today to repeat an old, invented story of trying to make a hot drink after too much alcohol. It’s a story I’ve told many times, but it isn’t true. She looks horrified. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise.’ She thinks this burn was an accident, something I’m self-conscious of. I am self-conscious of it, but not for the reasons she thinks. She’s so apologetic, it makes it worse. ‘It’s fine don’t worry, it’s very old.’ I say awkwardly concentrating on the till. I can’t remember which button to press. A silence stretches out and I try to think of something to change the subject. ‘I really didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,’ she says. This is far from the worst encounter I’ve had. Out of the blue people point at the marks and tell me, ‘Stop it’, or ask, ‘Why would you do that?’ horrified, incredulous. I wish I’d told this woman the coffee accident story. She doesn’t deserve to feel badly, she’s trying to be kind. I feel ashamed accepting her sympathy. We stand silently for a moment as I focus on pressing the buttons on the till in the right order. The drawer opens with a click. I take a deep breath and squash down the feelings of shame. Gathering up my best appeasing customer service smile I turn back to her and repeat. ‘It’s fine, please don’t feel badly about it, it’s not something I think about’ The woman is anxious to leave now, she doesn’t want a receipt, shoves her pile of library books quickly into her canvas tote bag. For the weeks after I wear long sleeves at the reception desk, whatever the weather. * We lay on the living room floor, his arm tucked underneath me, his hand brushes my shoulder in the low light. His fingers move down my arm, and I tense as he brushes over a scar, and then another, hoping he doesn’t notice. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ he says, ‘I’m rubbish with pain’ ‘It’s not really about pain’ I say, feeling exposed. That’s the trade off with intimacy, to be touched, to be desired, I have to reveal the way I’ve valued my own body. Just because I want to be with someone doesn’t mean I want them to know about my scars. * I can map the marks on my skin. There are lines and circles on my stomach, patches of purply red raised on both hands, a small single line across my wrist. This one is different to the others. On the right-hand side, just above the waistband of my jeans is a thick keloid scar that sometimes I run my finger across when I’m nervous. One is a wide oval that looks like a continent. It’s joined up with some others so from a certain angle it becomes a cartoon sunrise. There’s a patch on my forearm that has become cross hatched with white lines, a ghostly sketching. Wide stripes run from my thigh to mid-calf. They are patterns of distress. For a while I would only cut above the line of where a t-shirt sits, conscious of being able to hide them. Then once when I was drunk, I impulsively cut my forearms. After that the territory expanded until it got to a point where there were so many marks, it just didn’t seem to matter anymore. When people ask casually ‘do you have any scars?’ I tell them I have two. These were ones that happened to me, that were not done by me, and they have acceptable stories attached. A childhood surgery and a bike accident. I enjoy telling friends about the moment I lost control of my bike at 10 years old, how scary it was. Pushing my bike unsteadily to the petrol station near the school bus stop with a bleeding knee. How important I felt being allowed to use the staff bathroom to clean up in, how shocking the amount of blood there was that I had to ask the attendant for more toilet paper to make the bleeding stop. These are different from the many trips to A&E and bulky tins of first aid supplies I have stashed at home. These are socially acceptable. They do not need to be covered up. Jennifer Reese can be found on twitter on @MiserySquid. She blogs for a range of places including @MadCovid.