I know now that I can never go back to my “untraumatized” self. I will never not have scars.
Perhaps that’s the key to trauma survival – not aiming so much at a cure as adaptation, bearing whatever remains of that trauma, carrying it forward with us, for as long as we live.
“I want to suggest that we can rethink our relation to scars, including emotional and physical scars," Sara Ahmed writes. She reminds us that we have normalized what a "good" scar is; it is one that is hard to see, preferably invisible; after all, isn't that the goal of a good surgeon? Yet this kind of "good" scar "does not remind us of the wounding."
Ahmed says that as if being reminded of the wounding were a good thing. As if it were a kind of writing, a teaching, that we must pay attention to. All this time, I've thought that if I could erase my scars, make them invisible to myself and everyone else, that would be "healing." That would be the end of shame, fear and despair.
Ahmed continues, "A good scar is one that sticks out, a lumpy sign on the skin. It’s not that the wound is exposed or that the skin is bleeding. But the scar is a sign of the injury: a good scar allows healing, it even covers over, but the covering always exposes the injury, reminding us of how it shapes the body ….”
By body, I think she also means identity, spirit, soul, being. How multi-faceted scars are! To simultaneously heal, cover, expose, remind; aren’t these the actions of a teacher?
“This kind of good scar reminds us that recovering from injustice cannot be about covering over injuries, which are effects of that injustice, signs of an unjust contact between our bodies and others," Ahmed insists. I am drawn to that phrase, “unjust contact” – contact we did not want or ask for; contact that is invasive, appropriative, criminal. Yes, scars do so much work: they remind us that even as we recover from those wounds of unjust contact, we must not forget what caused them, we must remember in order to protect ourselves and others against future wounding. We are holey beings, stitched together by our scars, by which I mean our experiences, our knowledges, a kind of testimony that is literally written on our bodies.
Carry your scars like witnesses on your skin. Your skin is your witness.
Did I mention how impatient I am with this excruciating process of reading my scars? Did I mention how many times I have limped into therapy swearing that I cannot keep going, do not have the endurance for reawakening pain I have heaped a lifetime of shit on to hide from myself? Did I mention how I go to work utterly ransacked by grief, face a classroom of students with body and soul ragged as an empty sack of promises?
My therapist reminds me that "we make the scars. Wounds are inflicted on us, originally, from outside ourselves - by experiences that traumatize our bodies, brains, spirits. But wounds in and of themselves do not make scars; we construct the scars in order to close up the wounds so we don't keep bleeding."
I sit there, seeing myself covered in a skin made of scars, thin tender skin that shrinks from touch, yet craves the comfort of touch.
"Sometimes," he continues, "those scars that saved our lives ages ago cease being useful. Sometimes, those scars begin to cause more damage, growing excess scar tissue where none is needed, causing problems. Eventually, we may feel safe enough to go back and start removing that excess scar tissue because it's impeding our progress or our ability to move freely, be flexible. We go back and start pulling a thread ..."
Sometimes, we have to save ourselves from our scars, I whisper.
" ... this can cause memories or even real sensations of the original wounding. Removing the scar, real or metaphorical, is painful, time-consuming, makes you put aside other goals, requires dedication and attention and tenderness towards yourself,” he says softly, “it’s not an easy process. You have to constantly gauge how far you are willing to go vs. how much you might gain from the work. I think you are doing an excellent job making those decisions for yourself. I think you are very brave.”
He tells me a story about massaging a scar with oil, softening it, encouraging it to stretch … I translate this as paying attention to the scar’s edges, its need for touch, acknowledging what it has endured … while at the same time, asking more of it. The scar cannot actually disappear, but it can be coaxed into flexibility so that it won’t tear, or limit movement.
“Maybe …” I say, reaching for the image I can see in my mind’s eye, “… the scar has to be there – We need that scar – it holds us together … but if it becomes too knotty, too complex, too tight, then it holds us back.”
Maybe the danger of letting our scars grow too large is that, instead of bearing our testimony, all we bear is our grief.
Trauma sits there in our bodies, our memories, like a monster, stalking us, jumping out to attack us in unexpected moments. Trauma doesn’t wait for you to go down to the basement in your nightgown on a dark night; trauma is an intruder. We do not invite it in to wound us.
Trauma derails us, makes us more complex beings, perhaps more sensitive to contact; sometimes we cannot bear the tenderest of touches. Other times we cannot get enough touch; nothing and no one can wash away the awful scrawl of violation. Trauma is brutal, unpredictable, unjust, unfair, and completely out of our control. There is nothing, nothing, about Trauma that we can control.
But we can make scars to protect ourselves when that is the only defense we have. We can be unashamed of the scars that become a part of who we are, claim them as our unique fingerprint, our own DNA.
We wear our scars as testimony that we have survived, learned, and are not ashamed of telling.
And we can stretch and release those overgrown scars that have knit us into cramped, restricted lives.
I am going to be 58 years old this October. I am a map of scars, a manuscript of scars, a constellation of scars. I am a testimony of scars. Listen: this is how my body speaks.