If you’re like me you’ve probably acquired a few scars that when you see them take you right back to the exact moment you were wounded. Maybe you are reminded of a traumatic event from your childhood. Perhaps you wear ones that have become bragging rights as a result of a risk you took on an epic adventure. A scar from childbirth reminds us of the miracle of life. Some are clearly visible. Others have faded from our skin but remain etched vividly in our minds seemingly forever.
Recently I caught a glimpse of my scars; not the ones on my knee from when I got stitches as a kid, but the ones on my arm which now are barely visible, resembling faded scratch marks. The sight brought me right back to the moments in my life when I impulsively gave in to intense emotional pain by engaging in self harm.
I was never a danger to myself in these moments as the purpose was never to kill myself. My goal was to relieve the struggle that had become too difficult to handle emotionally. It was nothing specific. I was a pretty normal teenager. However it was during these years my mood disorder decided to show up and that along with typical teenage hormones and rebellion were sometimes too much to handle. I’ll never forget the day when a friend of mine confided in me about cutting herself. I had never heard of anyone doing this. Immediately I judged her as crazy and became very upset with her. However, a few days later I experienced an intense mixed state in which the sensation of my skin crawling, the feeling of being trapped followed by a moment of self hatred for having these feelings, became overwhelming. Suddenly I remembered what my friend had done. I knew it was wrong and if I tried it I would be stepping into something very dark. It made absolutely no sense but it seemed like the perfect answer…
I won’t go into details…it’s not necessary and I don’t want to trigger anyone who currently struggles with cutting, but I want to look at the bigger picture. It was during my teens and early adulthood when I occasionally resorted to this behavior as a coping mechanism for feelings and emotions that took over my body that I didn’t yet understand. That was a long time ago and it was not very common. However, today there are kids as young as nine that I have personally encountered who if not yet acting upon these urges, are at the very least contemplating it.
As a teacher my relationships with young kids and teenagers dealing with self harm have time after time revealed a common theme — hopelessness, extremely low self esteem and the perception that they are not being heard. They believe with all their heart that no one cares for or understands them. Some kids hide it well (I did). Some kids lie about it (I did). Some are to the point where they don’t care who sees their marks. These kids have no sense of worth or purpose. They’ve lost hope at such an early age and on the surface actually believe there is nothing wrong with physically harming themselves. Try to imagine what it would feel like to be that young and confused, convinced you are utterly alone and the only way you know how to cope is to turn your emotional pain into physical, because at least in that moment you have something else to focus on. The urge is more powerful than any possible consequence because you simply stopped caring about what happens to you.
My whole point in sharing this is to let people know there really is hope even when we FEEL hopeless. The hope never goes away; we just can’t see past what we are experiencing. It took me a lifetime to figure that out. I believe it is now my responsibility to spread that message so we can help others who deal with this either personally or with a loved one. I went from a self harming teenager with an undiagnosed mood disorder to a person who has been able to accomplish things I never would have thought possible. This is my opportunity to use what I’ve experienced for good.
My personal struggles have given me strength and the necessary tools for when I find myself sitting across a table from students who have found themselves in seemingly hopeless situations and have bought into the lie that the only solution is to hurt themselves. I’ve been able to look them directly in the eyes, genuinely express my concern and show compassion because I’VE BEEN THERE. I can relate. I can be there for them in their time of need. For that I am grateful.
Today I have a tattoo of a runner on my wrist overshadowing those scars signifying the first marathon I ran with my husband that we finished hand in hand. I love when kids ask me what my tattoo means. That question opens the door for me to share how it took strength, courage and determination for me to achieve a lofty goal. We discuss the pain – physical and mental – and obstacles I encountered while training but also how I was able to work through it in order to fulfill a dream. We talk about hardships and how so often we desire to throw in the towel, but despite all of that it is possible to summon the strength and energy to carry on. It is a perfect metaphor for life and is applicable to so many situations.
Something else really powerful occurred to me when I caught that glimpse of my faded scars. I realized there is another person who bears scars that will forever be a reminder of how much we are truly and unconditionally loved. Jesus. Think about it (and I promise I won’t get preachy). Picture his hands. Think about how those wounds got there and why he endured torture and ultimately death. He did it all to prove that he loves us so deeply. He understands my pain. He gets it and wants me to know I am worth dying for. Just as I get those kids I’ve talked to, Jesus gets me because he’s been there too.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around the enormity of what he went through for me. I examine myself and it makes no sense. But my perspective changed the other day. When I saw my scars initially it triggered a sense of regret and shame, but then I closed my eyes and vividly saw Jesus with his arms open, scars visible to show me the unconditional love he has for me. Many of us don’t get that. Sometimes we hate ourselves so much we can’t see beyond the pain. Forgiveness seems impossible. His scars, however, prove us wrong.
So right now, this is now OUR chance. Even if we don’t yet get it, we can at least try to live our lives to be a reflection of Jesus. Every single one of us can do that by showing grace, love and compassion toward those who are hurting. We can love unconditionally without judging the choices someone is making. If you know — or even suspect — someone who self harms in any way, do not overlook it. You are called to let them know you care. Tell them you are there for them and that they are WORTHY of being loved. And don’t stop. A one time conversation won’t fix anything because the pain is deep and their beliefs are real to them even if WE don’t understand them.
We need to remember that God loves us all. He bears the scars to prove it. We must reflect his love by making a commitment to wake up each day and offer those around us forgiveness, grace and unconditional love. Whatever scars you have and whatever the cause of them, look at them and then close your eyes. Picture him standing in front of you with his arms open wide showing you his scars so you will understand that he gets it. He knows your pain and struggles and loves you anyway. Then open your eyes and vow to turn those scars into motivation to live how God intended and go find someone who needs your love.