My skin is a differential field day for mental health practitioners, even those who are colleagues. My history and its rocky journey are mapped erratically on my body in white keloid streams raised from the way my tears burned through my own flesh. I have a memory for each one. I embark on an emotional journey every time my fingers accidentally slip over them. A scent, a scene, a sound transports me instantly back to the moments of their creation. They are etched into my internal being the things I have let other people make true about myself. I feel as though my scars are a conjoined system attached to me that I cannot shake, the tragic mask I wish to divert with my comedic flares. They give away sadness even when I am smiling. Or worse yet, opportunities for pity.
However, at the diagnostic roundtable, I am often seen as the cutter. Masterfully wailing for attention, as if attention is the greatest transgression one could muster, I become the mystery girl to save or heal, or at least to explain. Master’s level community mental health technicians fill out intake worksheets formulaically chalking me up as another over-purposed personality with underlying intentions. Although I wish I could scream my normality from the rooftops, it does me no good to tell my real story—the truth is more uncomfortable than the assumptions. No, I am not a cutter, but if I was, I would refuse to be ashamed of myself for it. These icebergs of scars are only skin deep. You are only seeing the cosmetic composition of what I have endured. The actual mutilations hibernate much deeper underneath the skin anyway. Instead, I raise my eyebrows to remind you that my eyes are up here, and we pretend my skin never happened.
For these very reasons, I charitably hide this map of my history under long sheaths and can almost never be found making a first impression in anything less than three-quarter length sleeves. Fearful that I could trigger an adolescent, hopeful to make an assailant cringe, I wonder often how long it takes people to no longer see my arms, and if by wishing this, I am subversively wishing that they no longer see that public aspect of myself. Most of us get to hide our shadow selves, I wear my broken hearts under my sleeves.
They are “owies” to my children, who offer me still Band-Aids and kisses. They are reminders to my parents that mere steps from the safety of the nest is a cruel world that feasts on kind souls for breakfast. They navigate the direction of blood flow to my heart in my most intimate relationships. To me they are tiger stripes, battle wounds that remind me how I am a survivor. Someone else used to own my arm with this cruelty, and then I took it back when I repurposed my body as the ring bearer of my marital vows. Such a necessary reframe allows me to leave my house in the summer. I pretend I do not even see myself. I bask in my invisibility. But they also present for me an embarrassment that announces my entry into every room until my overboard personality can inappropriately deflect.
I am wondering now as you read this whether you remember them, or if you cannot remember my face because of them. The irony is not lost on me that if and when we meet again, you will be very aware of them. And of me? Did you wonder what happened to me? Were you curious what I did to myself? Can you bear to look, or does my phantom’s mask lower the barriers of resistance to curiosity? Have you ever seen a companion, a colleague, or a client with the same questions? I welcome you to ask, but ask me with a willingness to hear and I will settle your curiosity quickly. Not in the middle of a crowd, but in the privacy of a real connection. Otherwise, if you ask a flippant question, you will get my most flippant response. I have perfected funny ways to tell the truth, and funnier ways to stretch it. But if you really want to know then sit me down and open your mind so that I may talk earnestly without feeling a need for pomp and circumstance. Listen to me with the promise that your ear will bend, but not your beliefs about me. I still consider myself strong, brave, and good. Promise you will not pity me, and I will give you every reason not to.
Forgive me the pompously assumptive role of spokesperson, but this, by the way, is how your client wants you to hear them. Of course, I am not your client, but in a day-by-day, experiential manner as I interact with colleagues, professors, classmates, supervisors, the gas station clerk, and my family, I have come to learn the dance. I have also learned that our shortcut schemas projectively insinuate whether we believe in figuratively benevolent or punitive figures, and that judgment must be seen from within its forecaster. This is why I believe in the practice of phenomenological humanism. I merely want to be seen without judgment. And I want to learn better how to see without judging. Even that which is in the mirror.
— Roxanne Christensen
Today’s guest contributor, Roxanne Christensen, is a third year clinical doctoral student with the Michigan School of Professional Psychology where she is focusing her growth, clinical training, and dissertation toward humanistic psychology applied via a multicultural lens.