Scar acceptance (2)

How can I come to terms with a scar that I hate and that embarrasses me?

We’re all different.  I’ve just had a Facebook chat with a teenage woman who (like so many others) says she has had no gastric, shame or other issues resulting from her pyloric stenosis (PS) surgery and scar.

I wish I could have said that at her age!  Perhaps because as a male there were so many occasions I couldn’t cover up or handle the questions about the scar from my PS op?  No doubt the post traumatic stress dis-ease (ptsd) I was carrying from that surgery was affecting me.  I know my parents did not help me in coming to terms with my illness and surgery scar.  Perhaps my personality was too sensitive … In any case, it has taken me most of my life to become reasonably comfortable with the souvenir of my life-saver.

How did I beat my phobia?  What worked?

As I wrote in my previous post, I jogged on the beach and used photography, both to “objectify” my scar, and my friend Mark’s Comment on that post tells me I’m probably far from alone, at least in the latter.

In the not too distant past when we had to take or send our camera films away to be processed and welcomed the finished product back into a curious family, I couldn’t have lived with such frivolity!  But the digital age has changed all that, as well as the cost.

Photographing my scar “objectified” it

As Mark commented, scar photographs enable you to start seeing the scar in a different way.  Instead of being preoccupied, Narcissus-like, with something that completely filled the eyes’ focus or the mirror, photos showed my 10 cm scar was in fact a small part of my 187 cm.  Instead of being a gnarled, sunken and dimpled galaxy of cratered skin, I found it really looked quite tidy compared with the angry, violated look of a recent surgical wound, and what I imagine my baby belly would have looked like after the rough surgical technique of half a century ago.

At last I too could see myself as others see me – as a whole person, a kind man, and a survivor.  And if asked, I could now tell the curious that I had once been a fighter who got through admittedly rough surgery for a condition that killed almost every PS baby 35 years earlier.

Photographing my scar helped me to “manage” it

Svea Vikander, whose superb photographic work and essays I have reviewed before, has remarked on the fact that those of us who have had surgery were more often than not rendered unconscious of it and worked on like a complex mechanical object, with minimal contact with those who worked on us and mostly no input.

This is absolutely true (yes!) of infant surgery like I had at 10 days: my conscious mind remembers nothing of it – unlike the subconscious mind of my body, my “somatic memory”, which it has been shown can be severely traumatised by surgical procedures and other intense events.  Besides this, my parents refused to pass on the detailed memories of my surgery, and they and the hospital disposed of the records they once had.  Everything related to my surgery was done for and to me – but not a shred of a sense of ownership which I longed for so deeply (yes, I can be a control freak too!) was ever given to me.

Photographing my scar, researching PS and its possible treatments, reconstructing and writing up my story, and networking with fellow infant surgery survivors – all these have given me a perhaps small but also meaningful sense of ownership of my story.

Some of Svea Vikander’s Lifelines work has also prompted me to edit some of the photos I have been taken to make good use of light and shade, making the story these images tell more interesting and striking.

Photographing my scar has enabled me to replace fear and flight with freedom

By publishing some of my scar images and others of me savouring summery situations like the garden and the beach, I’ve been able to feel more relaxed about being seen “scar and all” in such situations.

This may sound a touch neurotic to those who have never had to “be there and do that”, but those who can identify with my story will certainly understand – and many of them will I hope be advancing along a similar path.

Publishing such images online has helped desensitize my deeply entrenched, distressing and embarrassing phobia of others seeing and asking about my scar.  The success of this project in reducing these ptsd symptoms has enabled me to actually enjoy summer days and especially the beach (which I’ve always loved) – and not only when I’m “covered up”.

If you’ve hated a scar, have you made progress feeling comfortable with it, and if so, how? 

5 thoughts on “Scar acceptance (2)

  1. Mark

    you know, i have never felt comfortable with my scar. The progress that I have made is going from NEVER exposing myself, to being able to do so after quite deliberate and intentional intellectual assessment of the situation, much mental debate, and then just clenching my jaw and doing it. I never have casually displayed my scar. This continues to this day, even with my wife of 10 years.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Mark, like you I have thought and worked long and hard about this. The very tentative conclusions I have come to are these:
    (1) as I wrote above, despite similar surgery and scars, we are all wired up quite differently;
    (2) there seems to be a link between our remembered experiences and the character and severity of our ptsd symptoms.
    I’ve worked through exactly the same intentional steps as those you mention, but seem to have been able to reach a kind of nirvana – only in recent years. I still like to prepare myself, notice it when I don’t, but no longer go into “flight mode” when I couldn’t.
    I’m inclined to put my present management level down to the fact that from what you’ve mentioned here and privately, your early childhood memories were more traumatic than mine. I was repeatedly shamed when bathed by visitors as a child and deeply frustrated by the continued stonewalling of my parents, but never held up for unthinking mirth-making.
    In her blogs, Wendy Williams has mentioned yet another form of parental abuse and I seem to see that reflected also in the shape of her ptsd and the healing she’s finding.
    What do you think of my assessment?

    1. Wendy

      I love the photo of you and Helen poolside. You both seem very relaxed and happy. I also love what you said about realizing that the scar covers such a small surface area of you as a whole; there is so much more not scarred than scarred! Yet how we do focus on it! From your post, I’m also realizing how different having a ps scar is for a male because men have so many more opportunities to be shirtless. So you’ve had to confront the fact of your scar, and all the emotions that surround it, more publicly and frequently than I have, in all likelihood. Is the scar photo that you posted one that Svea Vikander took of you? Using photography is such a cool way to work with scars and PTSD. I’m so glad you shared this part of your journey. Photography is another tool to use in finding our way to freedom.

  3. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Wendy.
    What you mention about male and female is true but cuts both ways: in my earlier years I wished I could cover up like the girls and women I knew. And as Mark points out in his comment above, not all men find that the times when we are expected to go shirtless are times we can actually come to enjoy a sense of freedom.
    I have not been able to benefit from Svea’s photographic skills but have been able to learn from them. The scar photo I posted above is younger than the one she posted on Life Lines and reflects what I have learnt from her!
    Some months ago as well as in my previous post I have written about the use of photography and art as a part of medical narrative.

  4. Pingback: Bathing Suits and Scars « My Incision Blog

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