Sleeveless

Things I Have Learned About Mental Health

 

Things I Have Learned About Mental Health

That sometimes, the image of success
is a half-defeated man getting out of bed.
That sometimes it sounds like the water
running from a shower-head.

That resilience sounds like a woman
calling the father of her children, knowing
they might not want to hear her anymore,

or

the thousandth knock on the door
of a dismissive consultant,
who chalks your desperation up
to a behavioural flaw.

That the mark of honesty can be a tiny truth
wrapped up in the minimising lie:
“I’m ok, but I…”

That the hardest question to answer,
is “are you alright?”
when the desired answer is “yes”
but the truth is, we’re doing our best to survive
and we disguise our pain behind a smile.
That we should ask twice, but we don’t always think to.

That a battle can smell like a bottle
being tipped down the sink.

That bravery sounds like speaking out
but also like the silence of a secret
that’s painful to keep.

That sometimes strength looks like weeping.
That tears can be red, can be read
like a map on the skin.

That the hardest person to look after
is often yourself.

That all this is invisible,
unless you take the time to read the signs.

That we should take pride in the huge victories
that may appear small,
when it’s difficult to recognise they’re victories
at all.

That not every battle can be won.

But we are bold to fight at all.

We are brave, and strong.

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Sleeveless

A Note on Success

N.b. I can’t actually do the Rubiks…

Every time I show my scars, I am telling a part of my story. Other people have described a similar experience, of people looking at them differently, the way that you look at a character in a story differently each time something new about them is revealed.

One thing I am very aware of is how my story can be perceived. For some people, I can see my scars make them uneasy. Maybe this is because I struck them as “normal”, and showing my scars makes me seem less so.

For others, or sometimes for the very same people, I can see that I am perceived as a “success story.” I don’t hurt myself anymore; my behaviour is “normal”; I have, and can hold, a job. I am, for these people, a picture of someone who has come through on the other side, scathed but not ruined. I am more of an “us” than a “them.” I notice this because people make comments about “them” in front of me without blinking. They can see that I have scars, but they don’t think I am like the others. I’m different, they think. I’m OK.

While I am grateful and happy that I can now behave normally and hold down a job, I am also wary of this perception of success. At work recently I overheard someone say it was a pity that “most of these people can only be treated… it doesn’t go away.” For many people, myself included, it’s true that it doesn’t go away. I don’t believe ongoing treatment is a marker of non-success. I am also uncomfortable with the idea that if I am a success story, others actively self-harming may be considered to be failing.

Self-harm is not a failure. Every day that you survive, you have succeeded.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: A Note on Beauty

Colleague 1: you’re such a beautiful, beautiful girl. But what happened to your arms?

Me: I used to self-harm.

Colleague 2: you can’t just ask her what happened to her arms!

Colleague 1: (looking mortified) was that bad of me?

Me: no, don’t worry.

A Note on Beauty

Some people say they would like to be loved in spite of their flaws. Some people want to be loved because of them. Blemishes, scars, wobbly bits and all. But maybe we are making a fundamemtal mistake here. What defines a flaw?

Technically, a flaw is: a mark, blemish, or other imperfection which mars a substance or object.

Who’s to say that a blemish “mars” us? Who’s to say that a scar is an “imperfection”? My scars, rather than being aberrations, are now a part of me. That isn’t to say I never wish I could change them, but that they are worked into the fabric of who I am, both physically and emotionally. They aren’t flaws, because I don’t believe that they make me imperfect- in the same way that I don’t believe a birthmark or patch of cellulite makes someone else imperfect. I have, as they say, 99 imperfections… but my scars ain’t one.

Of course none of us is “perfect”: we might be selfish, or manipulative, or unkind or easily angered. But what I keep trying to remind myself (it’s really, really, really not easy… I struggle daily) is that we are not made “imperfect” by any aspect of our physical appearance. Maybe we do meet any given typical beauty standard and maybe we don’t. But not meeting that standard is neither a failure, nor a sign of being flawed. It’s just who we are.

I, like so many other people I know, have struggled deeply with self-image. I still do, sometimes badly. But, though it may be cliché to say so, we are beautiful people because of who we are.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: The story continues…

I stopped writing this blog in June, for several reasons. Firstly, I felt in some ways that I had said enough. I didn’t want to keep writing if I didn’t have something to say; people can always tell if you’re not really in something anymore. Secondly, the self-doubt crept in and I started to wonder: is this self-centred or moany? Am I putting too much of myself out there? Am I doing the right thing?

The thing is, it isn’t a subject that closes. Since I stopped writing I’ve had funny moments, annoying moments, awkward moments, self-conscious moments and moments of ovewhelming doubt, as well as minor triumphs. I’ve had interesting conversations and fruitless conversations. I’ve had situations in which I just didn’t have the confidence to wear short sleeves, and I’ve had to accept this and remind myself that it isn’t a failure.
Most importantly, I have received overwhelming and beautiful support from so many people. So many people have shared their stories with me. So many people have told me that my writing has inspired them, or made them feel like someone understands. That’s the whole reason I started this. For myself, sure, but also because I know what a lonely place scars can leave you in- not just physical scars, but the scars of loneliness, self-blame or anger. I wanted to have a part in people, even one person, feeling less alone- and it seems like I am doing that.
I’ve decided to pick up my pen again. Not to write every day like I did before, but just to update when something funny/ annoying/ interesting/ weird/ touching happens, and to add my little notes to the end.
I hope you’ll continue on this journey with me.
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.

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.