Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Twenty-three

It was a chilly day, so I wore my sleeves down for most of it. It was refreshing, though, not to worry that if my sleeve were to slip someone might see my scars.

A Note on Love

I don’t believe that old saying that “you can’t love anyone else unless you love yourself first.” That diminishes the experiences of people who have loved fully and passionately, even when struggling to feel even the smallest inkling of that love for themselves.

What I do believe is that when you start to like yourself, you can give yourself more freely and boldly, because you believe you have something worth giving- to your friends, your partners, your family. The love you feel hasn’t changed, but others may see a change in the way you give it.

I know that the love, support and kindness that my family and friends have shown me over the years has changed my life. Where I could have gone down even darker paths, I’ve been guided towards something better by those who have cared about me.

People say love isn’t a miraculous cure-all. That you still have to work for the things in your life and nobody else can do it for you. That’s true. You have to work at life and you have to work at love. Love is not a miracle cure. For me, love is the miracle in itself.

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Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Twenty-two

Today I was chatting to one of the residents at work about my job. He said “I guess it’s like giving something back. I mean I can see you’ve been through something yourself,” he gestured to my arms. “It’s good, what you’re doing.” Then he talked for a bit about his own experiences while we continued with what we were doing (which was arts & crafts). It was nice, to have that moment of recognition without the need to discuss it any further.

Later on there was a family birthday. I struggled a bit because my very young cousins were there but eventually I took my jacket off. They didn’t notice, they were busy playing. I was glad, as thinking up something to say has been bothering me for a while now. Maybe when the time comes I’ll just know.

A Note on Giving

One thing that has really helped me through dark times is giving. People give in different ways- money, belongings, words. For me, the thing I’ve tended to give is time.

In my first year of uni I was incredibly lonely, unhappy and self-destructive. I started volunteering at my local Oxfam Books and Music as a shop assistant. I priced books, both dusty and new, alongside some people who at the time seemed quite old, but probably weren’t. I stood in the front of the shop chatting with customers. Despite myself, I was learning skills, coming out of my shell and starting to have afternoons I actually looked forward to. It wasn’t a cure-all, but it helped. I also had a paid job, but it didn’t give the same satisfaction as doing something just because.

I’ve done lots of voluntary stuff since then: poetry for people with dementia; serving at a vegan cafe; a telephone advice service. And all of it has helped me. I know some people have difficulty doing things like this because of anxiety, but there are other ways to give- check out online opportunities, post on websites, or give by being there for a friend. Start a blog. Give half an hour, a morning or a day. The important thing is that you give something of yourself, even when your resources feel low, because it may be hard but for me, it’s been worth the return.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Twenty-one

I spent the afternoon with family. I’m lucky to have a big family, each member of whom I love spending time with. Two family friends also came by and it was really great to see them. It was also the first time either of them had seen my scars. They both looked, but in the end there were other things to focus on, so that’s what we did. I was glad for the acceptance.

When I was younger I wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing short sleeves in front of family friends, because I didn’t want my arms to reflect badly on my parents. I felt like people would either think badly of me for self-harming or worse, badly of them for “allowing” it. I still have that little flicker of doubt but I’m older now, and the decision to hide or show my scars is mine.

Despite having done it several times now, and despite it seeming small in comparison to yesterday, I still feel quite nervous about work tomorrow. Wearing short sleeves is like going on a rollercoaster- every time I do it, I know I am pretty safe, and it gets less scary each time, but there’s still a few anxious seconds in the build-up.

A Note on Gratitude

Someone who supported me a lot through a very difficult period once told me I should keep a daily gratitude list. Every day I would write down at least one thing I was grateful for, whether it was a kind word or a beautiful morning. Let’s be clear: at that time I was struggling very hard against myself, desperate to feel better but equally tempted to go into self-destruct mode. Keeping those gratitude lists was like looking for rainbows after storms. They kept me focused on the positives, even when those positives seemed small.

I’m not a fan of saying things like “look on the bright side” or “but you have so much to be grateful for”. When you’re feeling low it’s hard to see positives. Even if you can see them, they don’t necessarily make you feel any better. In fact, you can feel selfish for being so down when there is so much to be grateful for. But even when the things you are grateful for don’t make you feel better (for example, a friend takes you out for coffee and it’s nice but doesn’t help), recognising that you are thankful can be a huge step in the right direction. Even if it’s the tiniest thing in the world, it might at least make you smile.

Today I am grateful for the fact that the sun shone, even though I said it was too hot. And for the many positives in my life, even though I woke up grumpy.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Twenty

Today I did the scariest thing I have done since starting Sleeveless: I wore short sleeves in front of my partner’s younger sister. It was a really hot day and I kept my jacket on through most of it, suddenly terrified of what she might think. Her family don’t (or didn’t) know about my history of self-harm and for a long time I didn’t want them to. But it’s important to me to be open with them. They will see my scars at some point and I don’t want it to be a surprise. So when the day’s heat reached its peak, I slipped off my jacket and let my arms fly free. My partner (M) said that her sister looked for a second, blinked, and then shrugged. This is exactly the kind of reaction I hoped for, non-judgemental and not making a big deal out of it.

M also said that when I asked her for help in deciding what to wear today, she chose according to what would look nice, but also chose something breathable, so that I could opt to keep my jacket on or not. And she was proud of me.

A Note on Fear

I was terrified of letting M’s family see my scars. Other things I am scared of include: dogs; earthworms; blu-tack and long orange balloons. At one point or another, I have had to face all of these and none of them has destroyed me. But unlike blu-tack, M’s family will be a huge part of my future and I don’t want anything to come between us and that future. So their opinions are important to me.

It’s incredibly easy to say, face your fear. It’s unlikely blu-tack will get up your nose. It’s unlikely you’ll be eaten alive by balloons. Even orange ones. So deal with it! But fear doesn’t work that way. It acts as a quiet whisper telling you what to avoid, even if the thing it tells you to avoid is good for you.

Being scared, being brave… these things aren’t about what you fear. Being brave is about trying to understand your fear. How you deal with it then is up to you, and often there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. But once you understand why you’re afraid, it becomes easier to make that decision. I was scared about M’s family seeing my scars because I was afraid that I would seem weird. But knowing them, knowing myself, I am able to see that that is not the way they think. And act accordingly. I am scared but I am trying to be brave.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Nineteen

So this isn’t 100% scar related but I have news. Today I was discharged from my mental health team. I have the option of being re-referred if things get bad again but they have deemed me fit and stable enough to manage without them, provided I keep taking my medication as prescribed.

Of course I’m nervous. To be casual about this would be foolhardy. No more counselling, no more psychiatrist… of course I’m nervous. But I’m not anxious. I believe this is all for the best.

A Note on Professional Help

I have been receiving professional “help” since I was thirteen. Sometimes it has been amazingly helpful, and sometimes the opposite. For the last year, since a particularly bad episode, I have been receiving helpful, considerate care from mental health professionals in my borough and I can’t fault them for the treatment they have provided.

Let’s put this in context. In 2001, at 14, I was told by a nurse that I couldn’t be a lesbian because I hadn’t slept with a woman. After an angry episode, I was pinned down and a different nurse asked loudly, repeatedly, if my dad beat me. In 2013, in hospital partly because I genuinely believed the world was ending, a nurse brought out a Bible and told me prayer would help. These are only highlights from a life in which I have been dismissed, ridiculed and misdiagnosed by professionals in charge of my care. I have been pigeonholed and treated badly as a consequence; I heard a “joke” by a professional that went “how do you treat a self-harmer? Refer her.” And at work, I see this happen regularly.

But if you are put off by the idea of receiving professional help, I, with these bad experiences (and worse) in mind would say, don’t be. Not every professional will be caring or helpful, but some could be amazing- even pivotal in supporting you. In the last year I have been offered support and guidance by someone on the Crisis line; been rushed immediately to a doctor by a nurse who could see how badly I was struggling; and now encouraged whole heartedly by a doctor to take charge of my own care.

When I first came to psych services as a child, I was treated with respect and kindness. These aren’t universal experiences but they’re some I hope will make you consider professional help as an option, if it’s something you need.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: Day Eighteen

I’m posting this a day late, sorry!

Today I went out with a great friend and her brother. She mentioned Sleeveless to him and it was the first time I’ve really spent time explaining it to someone who hasn’t read it. I said that it was a project about having scars from self-harm and how people react, plus a note. I didn’t really know how else to describe it. My friend was really encouraging and said that this project is worth it.

A Note on Doubt

It’s easy to doubt yourself. From “did I leave the window open?” to “am I a good person?”, doubt plagues most of us in one way or another. Some of us express those doubts often, and some of us don’t.

And in those moments a flicker of doubt appears, it is important to remember to have faith in yourself. You may doubt your ability in that moment, but ultimately what brought you there was the spark of belief that said you could do it.

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Sleeveless: Day Seventeen

Today, a resident said, “you know what? When I look at your arms, at the scars, it really upsets me. Because you’re a lovely person and you’ve shown me nothing but kindness. Life isn’t fair. I wish I could go back in time and fix it for you.” I was startled, and also moved. That someone in the middle of his own problems would think something like that was touching. It also worried me, because of the clear impact it has had on him. I had my sleeves rolled down at the time, which I was glad for. It would have been awkward to roll them down at that moment, but that would have been my instinct. I don’t like upsetting people.

A Note on Confidence

Except for a brief, rebellious phase as a teenager, I never really felt comfortable disagreeing with anybody. I was scared of upsetting people, or of hurting their feelings. I never wanted anyone to feel sad because of me. I was also, beneath the booze and bravado, painfully shy. However, this meant that inside I had a build-up of all the times I should have said no, all the times I should have stood up for myself. There was nowhere for those feelings to turn except inwards, and they only added to the ball of feelings behind my self-harm. It also meant that now and then I would blow up, normally over some trivial thing, because of the build-up of anger in my system. Then someone would definitely be hurt.

Learning to stand my ground was a long and difficult process. Even now, I hate the thought of hurting someone in any small way. But through work, through therapy and through building solid relationships, I have learned to be firmer. People are generally less easily hurt than I imagine.

Now I can be more confident with the people around me and the difference I feel in me is huge. It’s hard to come out of that shell of agreeableness, wanting to please everyone. I had to start small. Things like “no I don’t fancy a pizza”, or “I’d rather go out tonight.” Once you’ve mastered that a few times, it gets easier to cope with bigger disagreements.

I can also say no to other things I really struggled with before: the final drink that tips me over the edge, the proffered high. When I refuse those things, it’s also about having the confidence to say no to myself.

I can’t lie- at times I will still fret for hours over some perceived offence I may have caused- but it’s not as painful as that clenched feeling in my chest, always ready to spring. It’s not just booze and bravado anymore; it’s a fragile but definite confidence.