One Small Stand Against Stigma

TRIGGER WARNING: this post contains general information of a self-harm event but has no graphic details. There are no images.

I said it was small, and it is. But it’s gigantic for me.

This week I swapped which wrist I wear my watch on.

Earth shattering, isn’t it? And surely not much to do with the stigma against mental illness. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye.

Fifteen years ago I was self-harming pretty regularly. It was probably a daily occurrence at the time of this event. Sometimes I knew what I was doing, but others I was  dissociated and really not aware of the harm I was doing to my body. I would realise afterwards when I was mopping up the damage.

On one occasion I cut my (right) wrist. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, but I know for certain that it was not some kind of suicide attempt. But don’t ever believe that this makes it better. I don’t believe this [although I acknowledge that some readers might find my thought concerning].

I realised pretty quickly that this large wound was going to need sutures and I didn’t seem able to control the bleeding, so took myself to the local hospital. At the Emergency Department, I encountered a doctor who had perhaps had his fill of self-harmers. I’m not going to make excuses for him, even this much time later but I do acknowledge that the job of an emergency doctor is a difficult one.

He told me what he thought of me in no uncertain terms and that I was completely wasting his time. There were, apparently, more important people than the likes of me. He said that as I had cut myself without anaesthetic, he was going to suture my wrist (15 sutures) without anaesthetic too. He proceeded to do so, although he left me waiting for what I’m guessing was as long as he possibly could.

That night I was vulnerable and scared. It was the first time I had gone to an Emergency Department after self-harming and had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that my self-harming was getting out of control, and I desperately needed help.

What I got was stigma. Against self-harmers and against mental illness. I concluded what I guess I already knew but was hoping that help might tell me otherwise. That I was a bad person, and I had wasted his time.

As soon as the wound healed I switched to wearing my watch on my right wrist for the sole purpose of hiding my scar. I knew some people would think I had attempted suicide. Others would think it was self-harm. There was little chance that anyone would think it was accidental. I was best to hide the evidence. From the world, and also from me. Hiding it from myself as much as possible would save me from the graphic reminder of the person that doctor had said I was.

Fifteen years later and most people in my life wouldn’t know that the scar even exists. I’ve hidden it that well, from everyone. But this past week I came to the conclusion that it’s time to stop hiding the scar from myself, and from anyone else who might see it. I’ve switched the watch back to my left wrist. It just seems right.

I don’t self-harm anymore. I’ve been about five years free. I know that if I got myself into a bad space then maybe I might again. I hope not, but I’m just honest with myself.

Because I have shifted cities and changed friends, most people aren’t aware of either this scar or the many others that litter my body. I’d have to virtually tattoo my whole body to be able to hide all of them and I don’t have that much money or that many ideas of what designs I’d choose.

But I’ve come to a conclusion. Those people who really matter will cope with the sight of my right wrist if and when it comes in front of them. For anyone who doesn’t cope with it, won’t matter anymore. And for those who don’t know me, they don’t matter anyway.

This is one small part of my voice against stigma. People who self-harm are important and do matter. Every time I see the scar on my wrist I am saying that doctor’s attitude doesn’t count because it was so wrong. I don’t have to let him keep telling me that I’m a bad person. And that’s what was happening every time I put my watch on.

Okay so that’s easy to say, but in reality this week I have felt exposed and vulnerable. Everytime I see the scar, I want to hide it again. It’s going to take a while to be comfortable with it. One day… it will come.

And that doctor? Well, he could have helped me that day, and probably avoided a few more scars. But he chose not to and I believe that was because he had stigmatized his patient. He didn’t see me as a person in need of help. God, I hope there aren’t too many doctors like that in Emergency Departments around the world. Sadly, I know better.

“Other times, I look at my scars and see something else: a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.”

— Cheryl Rainfield (Scars)

Thanks for reading





11 thoughts on “One Small Stand Against Stigma

  1. Brave Cate. You are so brave, and I am so proud of you.

    I’m sorry to say that while there are wonderful ED doctors, I basically go into any situation expecting the stigma. I recently had my mom drive me to the ED because my sciatica was going insane (because of the lumber puncture at said hospital the day before). I’ve often had her take me for various conditions that either leave me incapable of transporting myself or that I know require meds they will not let me drive home on. I never have her come back with me, though, because at my age not only can I usually handle it, but I would like to keep a little privacy, however illusionary it may be.

    On this visit, though, I specifically asked that she accompany me while we were on the way there. Stealing a line from Cary Grant in “North By Northwest,” I told her she leant me a “certain air of respectability,” which absolutely cracking her up. But the point was made — I knew I needed opiates, and generally addicts do not come in to the ED with their mother at their side.

    She tipped the scales in my favor, I know. The doctor was wavering hard (“A lumbar puncture will not set of sciatica, we did not go near that nerve.” No, genius, but you stuck a needle in my spine, the nerves are all connected, and just maybe my back seized up from all the tension and my inability to stretch and exercise it. Sorry for that digression.) In the end, I truly believe that seeing my mom, who is the most honest woman on this earth and has the face to prove it, made him decide on my favor.

    And unlike your asshole doctor, in the end, after he saw my obvious relief and my blood pressure dropping as the pain eased, he was quite nice.

    I have a whole other rant about the opioid epidemic here and doctors scared of their own asses, but I’ll save it.

    I’d like to say that was long enough ago that doctors have improved, at least with regards to self harm. I don’t know, as I have blessedly never gotten there. But as far as the rest of mental illness, they have not.

    And I’m serious, you are my brave warrior taking a stance, and while I have always looked up to and admired you, I am awed right now.

    Love you.

    (Also, am writing this on my phone so no proofing. We’ll see. 😉 )

      1. I know. I thought about that when writing. Obviously I couldn’t leave that piece out, and I didn’t think you’d want me to. But I think about her a lot, and for whatever small comfort I hope it may bring, I cherish every moment with both my parents more because of you. ♡♡♡

      2. I’m glad you didn’t leave that bit out, and I should add I didn’t say what I did out of wanting sympathy or whatever. My mother was never one who would be there to help me fight my battles. She wasn’t that type of person and our relationship wasn’t that type either. Que sera sera.

    1. Ruby, I’d like to say I’m commenting simply to remark – as a bit of continuation of my comment to Cate’s post – about the stupid system that made your mother a necessary accomplice to you getting what you needed. But North By Northwest and Cary Grant are two of my favorites, and so am admitting to the smile and chuckle you gave me mentioning them.

  2. I have steam coming out of my ears at the thought of how that emergency room “doctor” treated you. He should not be practicing medicine, but I do know, unfortunately, that he is not the only bad doctor out there.
    You are brave, in so many ways, despite that experience. You have prevailed! Thanks for sharing – great post.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Cate. If I know you at all, I imagine you don’t set out to be an inspiration, but you very much are. Actually, hang on – in a way, that’s what your writing (and Ruby’s, and others’…) is all about: inspiring the rest of us to feel more confident and brave in our dealings with these insidious illnesses and more comfortable with them. And you do it so well.

    Ironically enough, I have in the past month twice been faced with the decision to keep my depression et al safely hidden or shine a light on them. In one instance – at work – I selfishly chose the former. In the other, I chose the latter – and paid for it, watching an acquaintance make a hasty retreat away. Stupid world. Stupid system. And stupid ER doctor of yours.

    1. I’m so sorry your acquaintance chose to react that way. I know that to say “their loss” isn’t much of consolation because even if s/he wasn’t a close acquaintance it still hurts. On the other hand you probably chose the right option re work. That’s such a hard environment to be open and not lose your job (sadly).

      But no, I had no intention to be an inspiration. I don’t see that at all, but if it works then fair enough.

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