TW: description of self-injury, sexual assault, medical abuse, homophobia and abuse.
Everyone has scars. Hypertrophic, keloid, faint and faded or raised and loud. Every scar writes a tactile story of a specific yesterday.
I have spent over half my life creating my own tactile stories with sharp implements, and I read my life on my skin. I am in the life-long process of recovery from the addiction I have to self-inflicted injury. As a queer, cisgender member of the ‘community’, I cannot see my queerness and self-injury in isolated ways. Self-injury is highly addictive, and I have spent months of my life living in psychiatric wards in the midst of extremely bad periods of my life. The first time I was hospitalised, the intake psychiatrist asked me if I had a boyfriend, and didn’t raise an eyebrow when I told him I was dating a woman. I was 14 years old at the time, and didn’t know many queers who self-harmed.
Coming out is a ritual in itself that is so heavily enshrined in the American-ised ways we see ourselves reflected. ‘It. Gets. Better.’ ‘Be. Brave’. ‘Be. True. To. Who. You. Are’. It is a ritual that is so easily transposed in global south contexts, by those who have privilege to live it out. Coming out is a move to acknowledge an identity that you are constantly told is irrelevant and invisible. It is rarely easy, and it is never compulsory.
I came out as someone who self-harmed years after I’d started injuring myself. I was assaulted for doing so, and met with condescending dismissal. I came out because I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, and ended up educating many people about self-injury along the way. The doctor I was sent to had never heard of self-harm. I was violently confronted with the sick kind of power medical professionals can wield when I needed medical attention for a deep wound. The casualty doctor refused to stitch the cut. The wide gash of scar tissue is a permanent reminder of the cold helplessness and burning shame I felt.
Every self-harmer I have met tells a different tale of what takes them to the point of picking up an implement and harming themselves, but many of us are survivors of abuse. I have survived emotional abuse, physical and sexual assault, and inflicting pain has been something that has held me and helped me to survive agonising times where the agency of my story was ripped away from me. It has in turn become a serious addiction, which necessitates daily work to stay in recovery.
I have met lots of queer people along the way, online, in schools and in hospitals. The refrain remains that we experience a very specific kind of cis/heterosexism in the care we receive. Two different doctors have offered me cures for my sexual orientation, and another asked me to pray. Perhaps the hardest part of recovery is being in spaces that are firmly stuck in ways of dismissing and punishing sex, gender, sexual orientation and the millions of intersections in between. Ten years ago, I was sexually assaulted in a psychiatric hospital by another patient, who took it upon himself to violate my sexual orientation out of me. Places of ‘healing’ are sometimes our greatest threat to wellbeing, and psychiatric healing spaces are too often notorious playgrounds for terrifying abuse.
My experience is not unique, and queer self-harmers are not alone in this. I believe that we need mental health-specific queer-led recovery-oriented support spaces that comfort and validate, not blame. Perhaps the most important part of the revolution; so often forgotten, is the power of gentle and genuine solidarity – a life-saving gift, which anyone can give.