Wearing short sleeves an act of resilience and recovery

WARNING: This personal essay is about self-harm. It contains details and photos of self-harm scars.

This First Person article is the experience of Carmen Acuna, a filmmaking student in Winnipeg who is in recovery for self-harm. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

For the longest time, I never wore T-shirts. I hid the scars criss-crossing my arms. I was ashamed and I didn’t want to talk about it. 

I’m not afraid to talk about it now.

For nearly a decade, I lived alongside sharp points and edges, but that is not who I am or who I want to be anymore.

I was 11 when I began cutting myself. That same year, I also realized I was queer. Like many other young people, I struggled to make sense of my sexuality. I was really lonely but tried so hard to reach out and be seen.

I am 18 now and in recovery. I still struggle, but my teen years were really rough. 

Back then I slipped into isolation because of all the things I could not control. I convinced myself that physical pain was the only control I could ever have. Cutting was my punishment for not being seen. When I got upset or angry or when my parents got mad, I would lock myself in my room or the bathroom and cut myself. 

Woman in profile
‘My wounds represented my happiness,’ writes Carmen Acuna. ‘I know that doesn’t make sense to most people, but that is how I felt.’ (Carmen Acuna)

Being young and upset with myself over things that fell out of my own hands, joy ceased to exist for me. My parents made it worse. Neither one of them handled my cutting well. I was yelled at, ridiculed or faced complete silence. 

I felt stranded and alone at school and at home. At school, I could not speak to anyone about anything without becoming uncomfortable. I was constantly stressed out dealing with my emotions and balancing school and a social life. This stress followed me all throughout middle school until the very end of high school. It still haunts me.

Hurting myself brought a weird sense of joy, a controlled joy at the tips of my fingers. I cut myself with anything I could find to cut through my skin: razors, broken glass and shattered plates. Sometimes I would put cigarettes out on my scars too. That never hurt much.

It’s hard to explain, but when I was hurting myself, I was happy. I connected joy with pain and when I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t happy. My wounds represented my happiness. I know that doesn’t make sense to most people, but that is how I felt. 

My triggers varied constantly. Sudden yelling, feeling ugly, eating too much, nerves and stress would trigger cutting. Relapsing made me despair, pushing me deeper into isolation.

In high school, it didn’t get better. I felt alone and disconnected from people. As my self-imposed isolation, my anger skyrocketed, I cut deeper. I punched my bedroom walls. I was a mess of emotions. At school, I was confrontational, aggressive and threatening. I pushed people in the hallways for no reason. 

I remember countless days when I was home alone, isolated in my room, and I stayed there even when our house filled with family and friends. I spent a lot of time at my desk, writing out my pain in a journal that was smeared with dried blood and smudged pen ink. I wrote endlessly, until my hands hurt. I had no friends in real life for a long time. In Grade 11, it got really bad. My life was staying home, experimenting with drugs, writing in my journal and hurting myself. 

I felt like I deserved all the physical and emotional pain. I was addicted to the pain.

And I have accepted my truth: I am addicted to self-harm.

Real, sustained recovery has not been a straight or easy path. 

Accepting I was a self-harm addict was the hardest part, but it has been so freeing and fulfilling. Understanding my struggle has made me feel whole. I have been able to put words to the biggest issue in my life, and that made me feel as though I had the ability to reduce it down to something more manageable. I also realized self-harm is more common than I thought. It made me feel less alone.

I also began to realize how badly the cutting was hurting me. These were steps in the right direction. 

I also realized that I am strong. I am my own caretaker. For a very long time, I had to be self-sufficient with my therapy and health. I would find my own resources for mental health and pursue them the best I could alone. I took care of my own wounds, wrapping them up daily and making sure they were clean. I had to support myself emotionally the best I could and soothe myself, because I could not fall onto anybody else. 

I have had some setbacks but I have gotten a lot better at managing my ways of coping. I have learned to manage my triggers and live with my addiction.

I want others to learn from my missteps and mistakes.

Baring my arms and the angry, red scars that criss-cross my upper left arm has been an act of healing and recovery.  Every day before I take off any outer layers and reveal my arms, I still take a deep breath. 

I see them as a mark of resilience rather than a mark of pain.– Carmen Acuna

On good days, I wear sleeveless tops or short-sleeved T-shirts. Black is my go-to colour. I am not purposely drawing attention to my scars but I also no longer want to hide them. I see them as a mark of resilience rather than a mark of pain.

The days I bare my skin to the world are the most rewarding. I let myself feel the warmth of sunlight. It’s my act of courage.

portrait of woman
‘Accepting I was a self-harm addict was the hardest part, but it has been so freeing and fulfilling,’ writes Acuna. ‘Understanding my struggle has made me feel whole.’ (Carmen Acuna)

Despite what I sense from those gazes, I love wearing clothes that let my skin show. 

I am vulnerable and that’s OK. I have learned to love this vulnerability. It is part of my healing and has led me on a new path of self-acceptance and expression.

When I was 14, I started taking pictures of myself. These were my early days in high school, and some of my deepest days stuck in addiction. Self-portraiture was an escape from the anger and pain that riddled me. Taking pictures helped me.

woman's arm with self-harm scars
‘My scars flow across my skin, painting a picture of what it means to lack shame. My scars are undeniably bare and beautiful,’ Acuna says, describing the emotion behind her portrait. (Carmen Acuna)

Photography has held me in moments of utter despair. It has given me comfort, and in it, I have created something other than my own self-destruction. It is my passion. And I am proud to expose it to the world.

It has evolved into an expression of the self-love that I am trying to embrace and nurture. The days I can truly tap into this physical love for myself are the days I am convinced I can do anything. 

Compassion and joy have trickled into my life. 

Photography has guided me onto the path of understanding that there is more to life than self-harm. The days I spend in my little studio give me hope. Bringing my visuals to life through photos inspires me to change — to want a life without a desire for pain. 

Slowly through the view of camera lenses and personal self work, I feel joy. 

I know recovery will never be over. I will find myself struggling down the line but I am grateful to have such a wonderful outlet. I am grateful to have found the release, the joy, the power without the pain in my photography. 

Photography will be there for me more than a blade ever has been. 

All I can hope for is a future with a healed heart. A healed body. A healed mind. 

If you or a loved one is struggling, a list of crisis support resources is available on Klinic’s website. Klinic’s 24-7 crisis line is 204-786-8686, or toll free at 1-888-322-3019. The Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line’s around-the-clock supports are available at 1-877-435-7170 or at reasontolive.ca.

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