(Possible trigger warning for self-harm)
I like summer. I suffer in cloying heat, but I like skirts without tights and short sleeved tops. When there’s a breeze I love the way it feels on my skin, because on my good days it reminds me why it’s worth staying alive: the physical sensations I would miss out on if I didn’t have this living body, the feelings I get to have no matter where my mind races off to.
I’m less keen on the way other people react to my appearance. Both my arms and one ankle are scarred. Some of the scars are hypertrophic (they stick out) and a lot of them are red as they’re still healing, so have yet to turn the less conspicuous white they will eventually go. I don’t expect people not to notice or not to look – I notice other people’s physical features – but some reactions are more difficult or frankly ruder than others. Here is a list of things people do that are really, really unhelpful:
If you ask me about my scars, I can always tell you I don’t want to talk about it. Stare at me and I don’t even have that option to reply, especially if you don’t ever look as far as my face. Special shout out to the guy at a pedestrian crossing who stopped his phone conversation to stare at my arms (seriously dude, learn to multitask) and turned back to keep staring from all the way across the road as he walked on.
Offering “helpful solutions.”
If I ask you for help and you’ve got a solution, I’d love to hear it. If I’m in the supermarket, please don’t recommend me your stress clinic down the road. I know you’re trying to help, but I’m busy trying to decide what kind of tomatoes to buy and unexpected conversations with strangers make me panicky.
Asking if I’m ok when I’m clearly fine.
Again, I know this is supposed to be helpful, but in practice all it does is remind me how conspicuous I am. Anxiety stops me leaving the house some days because I’m frightened of conversations I’m not prepared for. If someone is out in public and clearly not coping – having a panic attack/ crying hysterically/ mid-psychotic episode – and you feel able to help or to call for help, then go for it and well done to you. But if someone is just sitting in the park relaxing or out for a walk, they probably don’t need you to remind them how obviously different they are.
I also think that people’s reactions to my body tie in with attitudes to women’s bodies more generally: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve noticed a woman staring openly at my arms and forgetting I have a face, but I’ve lost count of the number of men who’ve done it. “I’m sorry,” I want to say, “did your eyes get stuck on my scars on their way from my breasts to my legs?” I don’t, of course, because picking fights with strange men is not a recipe for survival. I stare back until they notice and look away, then quietly fume the rest of the way home and complain about it on the internet later. But on the off-chance that you’re one of the starers or intrusive help-offerers – if you notice physical signs of mental illness in a stranger, here is what you should do: if they’re not in acute distress, ignore them and get on with your life.