In 2007, an undeniably huge crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall interrupted people’s movement through the space. Although the rift appeared naturally-hewn (catastrophic, tragic), it was in fact Doris Salcedo’s installation work Shibboleth. Its existence was defined by all the space it didn’t take up. The installation stayed in place for seven months.
‘Rift’ sounds gentle (evoking the tender pull and sway of ‘drift’), but rifts are jagged and violent, and Salcedo’s Shibboleth was no exception. The dismantling of the installation in 2008 involved filling the crack with concrete. During my recent visit to the Tate Modern in 2017, I didn’t see Shibboleth, but I did1. The new concrete sits flush with the existing floor, but the delineation of old concrete and new is visible. That installation now exists as a shadow in the Tate Modern floor - a scar.—
Scars mark where the body has been hurt or broken and has regained its composure, knitting pieces back together or creating new space to make up for what’s been lost. Scars detail the things that have happened to a body, providing a kind of record of the life lived and the pains survived. Scars are documentary.
Scars are healing and have healed; they’re done being cuts or wounds. Scars are past.
My body: an exception.
Too often an act of repair aims to disguise the fault altogether, smoothing over damage, blending the original and the repair so that it looks ‘as good as new’. A repair is deemed successful if it cannot be seen.
The Japanese practice of kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) repairs broken pottery, ceramic and china using lacquer or epoxy dusted with gold. The result turns a damaged dish or vase into an artwork, and rescues it from the heartbreak of brokenness. Golden rivulets net the item’s body. What was broken becomes precious.
Similarly, the boro method of textile repair uses eye-catching patches of material stitched intricately with labour-intensive hand-made running stitches or decorative patterns made with thick and durable thread (known as sashiko). In the new, patch-worked textile, the life of the repaired item is recognised and honoured. The damage becomes an essential part of its existence.
My body: Scars litter my left arm, and both my thighs. I self-harmed during my teens and early twenties. I struggled - and often still struggle - to recognise and cope with big feelings. When these feelings arrive, they are the height of a tsunami. They threaten to sweep in and flatten everything, destroying the people and things that I love, leaving me standing alone, ankle-deep in seawater despite being so far inland that I should feel safe. Against this threat, self-harm became my coping mechanism.
This isn’t an explanation - it’s more of a symptom that begs the question. I know that this answer satisfies nothing.
I rarely acknowledge my scars any more unless I’m forced to. In response to the questions, I adopt a light-hearted tone, or become flustered. I fumble, struggle to explain, and buckle under the responsibility of having done this to myself. I mumble ‘Oh, just teenage stuff…’, begging them to know what I mean, and can feel my cheeks burning and my heartbeat kick-kicking.
I’m unsure whether people have a right to know, or if they’re ‘just’ being inquisitive, or if they feel that they’re fulfilling some kind of duty of care by keeping me accountable, always and forever. Whatever it is, I still feel the need to explain. I want to explain2, but sometimes it can be difficult to own and speak about these scars. Somehow, that responsibility endures.
For a while, my responses were designed to baffle (and to silence) - ‘I got into a fight with an octopus’, ‘I used to own cats’, ‘A wild adventure’ - or the almost-plausible (were it not for the sheer amount), ‘bain-marie burns’. People so rarely push back against these stories. If I were to speak the truth and say that difficult sentence, people would probably accept this explanation in the same way.
But my body: shame.
And my body: silence.
The data on self-harm rates in Australia is patchy for a number of reasons. A 2016 report on self-harm among young people in Australia suggests that this is due to a lack of national data collection mechanisms. The Australian Bureau of Statistics only records data on self-harm as a cause of death - in these cases, self-harm is conflated with suicide. Currently, national health bodies only collect data regarding self-harm when it results in hospitalisation, but this doesn’t include self-harm-related visits to emergency departments.
Not everyone will ask for help. Self-harm in Australia, particularly where it affects young people, is largely unseen, hidden, and misunderstood. Significant barriers exist to people seeking support, including stigma, low mental health literacy, and insufficient care and follow-up. Not everyone who does seek help will be hospitalised - I was once sutured and cut loose without question in the space of a lunch break. The doctor asked if my tetanus was up-to-date before bulk billing me. Negative responses to self-harm (including from medical professionals) often contribute to those who need help most avoiding these kinds of interactions in future. Not everyone will have someone on their side, or the ability to access mental health support services3. Not everyone will recognise that self-harming behaviours can be a serious problem. For these reasons and many more, there are what Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, calls ‘considerable knowledge gaps’.
Again and again, the systems designed as a safety net - the systems designed to hold and nurture people who are suffering - fail to catch those in need of help. These systems fail in the most basic way: by not recognising or counting the existence of people who self-harm.
The data that does exist often comes from smaller studies in which teens and young people self-report. These have consistently shown (across a number of surveys) that young women in adolescence and early adulthood report the highest rates of self-harm, with percentages generally sitting between 20%-25%.
This is an experience that is common for up to a quarter of Australian girls.
My body: guilt.
Some days my scars feel as if they’re floating just above my skin, tacked carelessly to the outside of my body. They hang there like a charity ribbon on a lapel, only I can’t ever take them off. I see my scars, but don’t quite register them as indicating self-inflicted damage to my own limbs.
Other days I feel like I’ve absorbed the scars entirely, so that it’s a shock when they reappear, abject and horrible. With my arms submerged in dishwater, or reaching over a counter, or shaking a hand at a job interview, or peeling off my clothes at a beach in front of friends who have never seen my legs: there I am. Bodied. Not-my-bodied.
Sometimes, having absorbed these marks feels empowering, as though I am enacting erasure from the inside out. I feel like a mighty, self-made woman, no longer marked simply because I have decided not to be. Some days I entertain the fantasy that my will is that powerful.
Some days the itching from my scars cannot be scratched away, having done some kind of lasting damage, securing a permanence around stitches and anaesthetic - always the return of the same prickling nausea as when they were first put in place. Perhaps this unscratchable itch is similar to what’s described by amputees who experience phantom limbs. My body is haunted by its past.
The past tense of the word ‘cut’ is ‘cut’. If some days I see my scars, and other days I don’t, I wonder whether it’s possible to be both a cutter (always in present tense, in the same way that an Alcoholics Anonymous attendee is always presently an alcoholic) and not. All at once: damaged, and healing, and not.
My story sways and shifts. A gap exists between these two conceptions of myself: The space between me as ‘cutter’4 and me as ‘well’ is white space, full of possibility and meaning that I can’t control. Different stories, side by side.
Depictions of self-harm in popular culture trade heavily in cliché and veiled references. They’re often quite tidy. Sense is made, or peace is found. The self-harm stops (for reasons both good and bad), and then, that’s it. Always desperate, perhaps a bit pathetic, self-harm is presented as an experience that is episodic, even utilitarian - employed for a time as a coping strategy, and then overcome when the person “returns” to their senses. It’s meant to be an experience with clearly defined edges.
When I first started to self-harm I sought out these stories, and they weren’t hard to find. The internet was awash with examples of people who had done what I was doing. I found Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie, who have both publicly spoken about their experiences of using self-harm as a coping mechanism. I printed out their stories and kept them in a folder as proof that I was not alone. This folder also included a magazine article and materials from online forums where I found others like me, who wanted to talk openly about their experiences away from the tut-tutting of grown-ups. I printed out their poems, and downloaded .mp3s people suggested containing lyrics overtly or subtly about self-harm. I found The Used, Papa Roach, Garbage, the Dresden Dolls, Nine Inch Nails as well as Johnny Cash, and so many more.5 Films with self-harm themes were likewise not difficult to find. I found Tracy in Thirteen, Daisy in Girl, Interrupted. These were both young women whose relationship with self-harm seemed to make as little sense to them as mine did to me - both then and now. Most of what I gathered dealt with self-harm in gestures, creating a vague air of romantic torture.6
The early 2000s felt full of this pain, both in my own life and in the lives of those around me: the pain caused by self-harm, the emotional tumult of being an adolescent girl, the cataclysm of the world at that time pushed up against the new adult requirement to control one’s feelings.
The particular pain of the desire to self-harm seemed increasingly common at the time, and this plays into documented ‘contagion effects’, where ‘exposure to self-harm in others (friends or family) is known to increase the risk of self-harm in adolescents’. A close friend at the time self-harmed, too. When things were bad, we spent hours together - sometimes whole days - in the sick bay at school. I hate to think that he ‘caught it’ off me. However, there is significant evidence for contagion theory, and so all these inadequate representations and clandestine online discussions take on new meaning. They’re not a lifeline, but an anchor.
One of the things about growing up is the distance that’s meant to grow between you and your past experiences. Those experiences dull a bit, and with the benefit of hindsight, they begin to make some sense. But this experience, for me, doesn’t. Sharp edges remain sharp; scars soften but stay. I have learned to cope in new ways, but this old one is still the first I reach for. Explanations are still required for my body. I feel part of a generation of young women whose marked bodies carry the evidence of their self-harm stories, but lack sensible explanation. Up to a quarter of Australian girls is a lot.
Diana and Angelina said nothing about how to be a person with a history of self-harm - or maybe they did, and those insights just didn’t make for sensational headlines. Either way, this part of my life, of myself, is something I still cannot pin down. The wider ‘knowledge gaps’ suggest that it makes little sense to anyone else, either. And that it’s potentially so scary, so risky, so shaky a territory that it’s better off untouched both by experts and survivors.
If it’s so difficult to speak about self-harm when it’s happening (only as a hush, or in online forums, or trading in cliché), then there’s definitely no instruction on how to live in a body which testifies to this behaviour after the scars have healed. For those of us with a history or ongoing relationship with self-harm, and those who are left with scars8, what remains is the written-upon body, and even that is a daily negotiation.
It has been said that a defining feature of human beings is the ability to hold contradictory ideas in mind simultaneously.
‘I am large, I contain multitudes’, says Walt Whitman in his poem ‘Song of Myself’9, casually making space for his internal contradictions. That Walt Whitman quote is so well-known because we can all relate, to an extent.
We picture ourselves as decks of cards. Wardrobes full of costumes. Hat-stands. Dodecahedrons. A mountain of masks. Pick your metaphor. We hope to be people capable of many modes, many faces, many differing presentations of self. I’m not sure whether there are multitudes within myself, but I can vouch for at least two. Two part-selves, and neither is complete or stand-alone.
I hold them both in one hand, these ideas of myself. I don’t pull them out at different times. Rather, they coexist. They cohabit, side by side. They are the pieces without which I would be incomplete. And yet, these different pieces are difficult to reconcile, because they’re contradictions10: who I understand myself to be, and how I am seen from the outside. Or who I believe I am when I’m well, and when I’m unwell - only, ‘wellness’ is never a singular or stable state of being. These are puzzle pieces that don’t fit together, no matter how they are pushed.
I walk into the bar and my face falls when I see her. She’s usually not so hard to avoid, because we move in different circles. Her presence intrudes on an otherwise good night.
She looks through me at first, then softens with recognition.
‘Hi!’ Her face is too bright and her words are too loud. She hasn’t changed since we shared a house together. ‘I didn’t recognise you, you look so different!’ She’s looking me up and down, surveying my body for proof of the life I’ve lived since our last encounter (everything I owned fit in a single trailer; I left a bookshelf behind). I move past her mumbling something about it being a while, asking how she’s been, sidling toward the safety of a drink order.
She grabs my arm. ‘Oh, look at all your scars. There are so many.’
I wonder briefly why she goes straight for this pressure point - but she’s not the first. So many people have done the same thing, and I never know why. This is not the first time for her, either; she, the same housemate who backed me into a corner of my bedroom, demanding an explanation for my wounds. She had hissed that she didn’t know ‘what kind of game’ I was playing with my friends, but that it must stop. She had delivered this as an order, like she had any right to do that. Or like the authority of anyone could put an end to all of it, by virtue of their speaking sternly enough. As though I hadn’t been speaking sternly to myself for years by that point. We had been strangers when I moved into that house - thrown together by a mutual friend and cheap rent. We were worse than strangers when I moved out.
When I see her in the bar some seven years later, there’s a scab that has formed and she seems desperate to pick at it.
My body: trigger warning. I squirm at the sight of others’ scars, but I manage somehow to forget my own for vast periods of time.
I had been feeling scar-free earlier in the day, but her careless comment plummets me back into my body. Noticing scars I have forgotten is sudden and rude. I need to vomit because I cannot feel a piece of my body even though I can see it; though I can sense that it’s part of me. How can this body be mine, if I don’t feel attached to it? I’ve always felt pulled towards that thought experiment about the brain in the bucket - if my brain was removed and placed it in a bucket, hooked up to some brilliant technology to keep it functioning - pumping in experiential data, simulating ‘the world’ - would I know any better? I suspect that my attraction to this idea is mostly about the prospect of liberation as existence in a bucket - to be body-less. Perhaps there I could remember and have knowledge of what I’d done to my body, without the indelible proof. Without having to ever forget, and then be reminded.
I get a similar feeling in this moment to the one I sometimes get in front of the mirror, or when it takes a second to recognise myself reflected in a shop window. A mixture of awe and horror - Oh. So that’s what I look like. It affords a strange moment of clarity. In this bar, on this night, this woman acts as a reflection of myself. I see my body momentarily from the outside.
Suddenly, my body: distance.
In her book Small Acts of Disappearance, poet and essayist Fiona Wright talks about the difficulty of mainstream narratives of ‘recovery’ - the absoluteness of that term.
‘There’s no room in any narrative of recovery I’ve ever seen for this terrible sadness, this unreasonable fear, and these unmeasurable movements, backwards and forwards and sideways, towards, away from and around whatever a return to health might mean.’
It’s not a place where a person arrives and then stops.
My body: collage.
In his collaged work Reality Hunger, David Shields pulls together quotes - both his and other people’s - on the nature of writing what is ‘real’. The collected quotes concerning collage (numbered and unattributed in the body text), include:
314: ‘Collage is a demonstration of the many becoming the one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many than continue to impinge upon it.’
317: ‘The law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes.’
I feel an affinity with the collage form. When I write, I cannot move straight forward - instead, the work diverges, pulling in strands of what others have said, fragmenting and fracturing the narrative. To cycle and layer, to cut up and spread out, is the best way I know to gesture toward something that’s real. The key to essays seems to me to be about arranging things correctly - and leaving the stitching and the joins visible.
I went to school with a guy who loved tattoos. At 19, he had almost run out of room on his body. We talked about whether he’d regret getting Elmo tattooed on his knee.
‘But I like Elmo.’
‘You like Elmo now.’
‘Yeah. And later, even if I don’t like Elmo, it will be the truth about who I’ve been. I’m recording the journey.’
It’s performative in a sense, and I can’t get away from that.
I don’t mean that it’s attention-seeking or ‘a cry for help’. These clichés have never rung true for me. And while the contagion theory is an interesting perspective on the alarming rate of this behaviour, it also spectacularly misses the point: by flattening distress to an act of mass hysteria. It belittles the experiences of those who self-harm by framing the behaviour as intentional but also flippant - no more serious than carrying a fidget spinner or starting a YouTube channel - something that’s done because ‘all the kids are doing it’. Taking this view, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that self-harm is a symptom. It doesn’t matter how or why someone starts hurting themselves - the act itself should be cause for concern, without any need for qualifiers around what kinds of people should be taken seriously, or whose pain is ‘real’.
Leslie Jamison, in her essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’11, says of self-harm by cutting that:
‘Gradations grow finer inside the taboo: some cut from pain, others for show. Hating on cutters — or at least those cutter-performers — tries to draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain, as if we weren’t all some complicated mix of wounds we can’t let go of and wounds we can’t help; as if choice itself weren’t always some blend of character and agency. How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying — we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice.’
The performativity of scars comes not from the motivation or cause, but from the fact that nobody has any control over the way that their body is read. Anything displayed in, on, and through a body is performative, even when it’s not intended to be. Thus, my body is a text. My scars are performed.
I wish I could close this book, but it’s too heavy; too old. The story stays.
Step on a crack, you break your back. Step on a line, you break your spine.
Skipping along a footpath as a child requires inching and double-steps, sudden halts and ambitious leaps to avoid the cracks and lines in the concrete. Those lines are called ‘contraction joints’ or ‘control joints’. When concrete dries, it shrinks. Contraction joints allow drying concrete to remain smooth and whole - rather than a massive slab of concrete fracturing as it dries, the joins absorb the movement, directing any possible cracks to the man-made joint, where the concrete is thinnest. This is the ‘control’ - cracks from contraction are unavoidable, but they are allowable. Here, and here, and here. ‘Expansion joints’ include the control joints found in footpaths, but also joints in bridges and buildings which allow for building materials to expand and contract with temperature changes, ground settlement, and vibrations caused by traffic. Structures breathe with the weather and shudder under pressure.
These joints create room for movement, cobbling together pieces that would otherwise fracture - wholes are by necessity made up of broken pieces, allowing immovable structures and solid materials new flexibility. A footpath and a bridge can be both broken and whole.
Psychologists call it ‘cognitive dissonance’ - the discomfort that arises from holding two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time. The discomfort is created by the space between the two ideas.
The dissonance lies in recognising my own body. The dissonance lies in daring to forget.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the population learns ‘doublethink’ - the act of accepting contradictory or jarring facts simultaneously as a means of internalising multiple, incompatible brainwashing messages. Doublethink has none of the space between facts or the discomfort implied in cognitive dissonance. The offending facts just sit side by side without hassle.
In his letters, poet John Keats wrote of ‘negative capability’12 - the capacity for ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Am I capable of letting it be? Must this thing be pinned down?
Some days the contradictions jar, and other days? They don’t.—
I see burns on the arm of an acquaintance and ask him, with concern, how he’s been. I gesture to his arm. We’re not close enough for me to grab him or yell or get overly animated - even if we were, I don’t know that I’d do that anyway. But I’ve had a few drinks and so has he. It’s a full moon. It’s enough for us both to say what we mean, or at least attempt to.
My body: I try to tell him what I know, that I can understand what’s happening to him at least some, because I’ve been there. Because some days I still am there. I turn my wrist out toward him, toward the light, but even with the full moon glare I can barely see the marks. I feel like a fraud. Did I leave scars at all?
Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts is a collaged text. Of its form, she has said: ‘Whatever argument that book has, has to do with an insistence that the topics in it stand under the same roof.’
Collage is an accretion of evidence that things belong together; all the evidence is perhaps what makes them belong. Reframing and insistence is all it takes.
I hold both conceptions of myself in the same hand. I insist.
For all the stories I try to tell, this one is irrevocably, solidly, mine. For better or worse, it is stuck to me (some days tacked, some days pushed in). It feels unshakeable. There are times when I forget, or wish for something else, and when some thing or other throws me back into my body.
On closer inspection, though, my story is one without a base. Its truth and meaning shift beneath me. I fail to think of it objectively, because the truth slips. My viewpoint splits and curdles, and uncertainty creeps in. What I thought changed then, and what I think changes now. Because of this, I wonder whether I own it at all. Perhaps it’s incommunicable, all cut up and fractured like this body I have made for myself. Fragmented and tacked badly together, like this collage.
Being looked at by another person has a similar effect to unexpectedly seeing a photograph or recording of yourself. Or looking at yourself in the mirror - what you see is coloured by your feelings. You see what you hope to see, or perception exaggerates flaws. Through someone else’s eyes, or through the objectivity of a lens, this changes.
When the ex-housemate looks me up and down I wonder how much she can read in me - whether my body actually does exist as a kind of log book of my time. My life. My living.
My body: gives me away.
Broken and healed. Unwell and well. A risk and stable. Maybe I can vouch for more than two.
My body: Collage // My body: Multitudes. // My body: I insist.
I overhear two young girls talking on a tram.
‘This is my broken arm,’ says one girl.
‘It’s not broken any more,’ says the other.
‘Yeah,’ says the first, ‘But still.’
1 I never saw the original installation - I read about it first in a short story by Australian writer Jo Riccioni, which carried the artwork’s title. I was disappointed to have missed it. Since then, this work of Salcedo’s has fascinated me.
2 To the very young people in my life whose curiosity prompts impossible-to-answer questions; to the colleagues with a family member affected and at a loss for how to help; to the loved ones who have helped me, and continue to help me. To the professionals who now help me sandbag against the inevitable tsunamis. To all of those whom I owe more.
3 For reasons including finances, geography, and the fact that within Australia’s mental health care system, every person acts in competition with overwhelming demand.
4 A word which reduces this experience of mental ill-health to its outcome and its end-point, and feeds into stereotypes about people engaging in this behaviour. This term ignores the complexity of the distress that might lead a person to this behaviour.
5 Nine Inch Nails released their track ‘Hurt’ in 1994, the reach of which was amplified when Johnny Cash later did a heartbreaking cover of it, accompanied by a truly wonderful film clip featuring aging Cash surrounded by religious and mythological imagery, seemingly reflecting on his life’s sadness and regrets through archival footage. His wife June Carter watches on. It’s tragic and beautiful.
6 Media guidelines on reporting self-harm are rare - most guidelines include suicide only. Those guides that are available warn against glamourising, sensationalising or trivialising self-harming behaviours. They also caution against reporting that might be construed in any way as a how-to. This compounds the fact that the only talking that happens about acts of self-harm often comes from confused and suffering kids, and occurs among themselves. Many media outlets blatantly ignore these kinds of guidelines, and fictionalised accounts of self-harm don’t seem beholden to the same considerations. For more information about the possible effects of reporting about self-harm, see: http://himh.clients.squiz.net/mindframe/for-media/reporting-self-harm/quick-guide
7 While I no longer keep a folder of evidence that I am not alone, I am still keenly attuned to stories like mine, as is probably apparent in this essay. I am also keenly attuned to stories that I should avoid for their potential ability to put me back in that place, because it’s never far away. I did not watch 13 Reasons Why, and switch channels when the ABC’s annual week of mental health programming includes a documentary called My Self-Harm Nightmare – these are just more inadequate and irresponsible mainstream narratives. Fifteen years later, the media landscape with regards to self-harm hasn’t changed much.
8 (and this doesn’t apply to all who self-harm)
9 ‘Song of Myself’ is a long free verse poem broken into 52 parts. When Whitman first published the poem, its title was ‘Poem of Walt Whitman, an American’, and it appeared as one long piece. In later re-publications it was revised and fragmented, taking on the 52 sections and the title ‘Song of Myself’. This inhabiting of selfhood (both personal and abstract, transcendent) coincided with the fracturing and fragmenting of the work.
10 Whitman leads into his multitudes with, ‘Do I contradict myself / Very well then I contradict myself’.
11 The full text is in Empathy Exams, but you can also find a slightly different prior version of the essay at VQR.
12 This idea was later expanded in the fields of sociology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.
Lifeline operates a free, confidential 24-hour online or telephone crisis support service with trained counsellors: www.lifeline.org.au, 13 11 14. There’s also Kids Helpline, a telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25: kidshelpline.com.au, 1800 55 1800.
For more information about the possible effects of reporting about self-harm, see Mindframe (a national media initiative providing access to up-to-date, evidence-based information to support reporting about suicide, self-harm and mental illness.)
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Cordite, The Wheeler Centre and others. Her work has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers and The Lifted Brow and non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Writing Prize. She’s on Twitter @samvanzweden.