4. Stamps of Survival

My scars are not the first thing people notice about me.  Apart from the ones on my knee most of the others are on parts of my body that are normally covered. But my scars not only tell the story of my physical and mental battles, but they are the evidence of my survival.

Throughout the time I was in hospital I never looked at my injuries. I knew seeing the extent of the damage to my body would haunt me forever and as I said in my previous post this was probably the single most important thing that aided my mental healing.

Whether you have scars or not looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling deformed or unhappy with the way you look can have a devastating effect on your mental health.  And often it’s a lonely feeling. People don’t understand what you see when you look at yourself.  They try to be supportive – “you look amazing” or “I didn’t even notice you had scars” but it doesn’t make a difference. You see something completely different staring back in the mirror.

A big part of my recovery was learning to see my scars as marks of survival. That I had lived to tell the tale of everything that had happened to me and that these physical scars were a testament to that. When I look at them now it gives me strength and self-belief that I can achieve anything. That my mind and body are stronger than I ever gave them credit for and that my weakness was not recognising that sooner.

During my therapy sessions my doctor let me sit in on some group sessions with young girls suffering from eating disorders. They had similar issues with the way their body looked and some bearing the physical scars of self-harm. What amazed me was how similar we all perceived ourselves no matter what our story was or how we got there.  Ultimately, we looked in the mirror and saw someone whose physical appearance we loathed. No one person’s pain or perception of themselves was above another as the traumatic impact on the mind was ever present.

Mental or physical scars might heal but they will always be there. It took me a long time to look at my scars as a sign of my survival instead of a deformity. But as a young woman of only 20 it was a long road to this place. I had fears that if I was ever intimate with someone they would take one look at me and run in the other direction. I sympathise with young people who face so much pressure to look a certain way by magazines and the fashion industry. I understand what it is to look in the mirror and feel disappointment, sadness and see a body that you wish wasn’t yours.  Those reasons may be different – but ultimately the energy and strength required to overcome these thought processes is still immense.  My scars are still the same now as they were 10 years ago but it’s my minds reaction to seeing them that has changed.

If you are reading this and look in the mirror and feel ashamed at what you see remember that you are not alone. So many of us, for different reasons struggle with body image and the daily struggle with accepting who we are and the way we look. I get it.  And nothing anyone told me could change how I perceived myself. But the thing that changed my perspective was not external, it was internal. It was allowing myself to accept the imperfections not as a negative but as positive sign that whatever life threw at me I am still here.  With the scars to prove it.

2. Ignorance is Bliss

When I reached the hospital I think I was in shock and denial.  As it turned out the liquid I felt seeping from under me wasn’t blood.  I was also conscious.  So how bad could it be?  Apparently the first words out of my mouth to my sister were asking if my hair looked ok! Clearly I was fine, my normal self.  They then started doing X-rays and tests and more tests and before I knew it I had 10mg of morphine injected into my leg and the rest is all a blur.

I woke up on the hospital ward some hours later, with my parents and sister by my bedside.  The look of fear and concern on their faces was palpable.  What a horrible journey up to Cambridge from London they had had.

Rena had only managed to get hold of my Dad.  My Mother didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, so it was difficult to get hold of her if she wasn’t at work or at home.  She was working a few days a week for a charity at the time and thankfully she had gone into the office that day.  She was confused.  What had happened?  My Dad didn’t have time to explain he said, just that she should meet him at home immediately so they could drive up to Cambridge.  It wasn’t until they were in the car together that my Dad explained what he knew and that’s when my Mother’s world went dark.  What state would they find me in?  Would I even be alive?  She told me later that the not knowing made that car journey one of the most horrific moments of her life.  She couldn’t have known then, that it was going to get so much worse.

There was good news.  From the tests and X-rays there were no broken bones and no serious damage to my internal organs as far as they could tell.  However, what had happened is something they termed “degloving”.  It’s basically like a massive Chinese burn to the side of my body. The liquid I felt seeping out was internal and the body’s protective mechanism sending fluid to the area to protect it.  Apparently, it was like this enormous balloon was attached to me.  I couldn’t bring myself to see it.  I knew if I saw my wounds I would never be able to remove those images from my mind.  This turned out to be pretty insightful on my part as when I started my PTSD treatment many years later, not having seen those horrifying images of my injured body, would have a massive impact on the speed of my recovery mentally.

The next step was surgery to remove some of the liquid.  The doctors assured me and my family it wasn’t that complicated and I would be in surgery for a couple of hours maximum.  Ok so this seemed manageable.  In my head they would remove the liquid, sew me up and I would be recovered in time to still go to the US with my theatre group.  Brilliant!  As you can imagine I was way off the mark of how my recovery would eventually turn out.

The following hours were torture for my family.  As they sat waiting for news, two hours became five.  Five became seven.  Eventually after 8 hours of surgery I emerged from the operating theatre.  The news was not good.  When they opened up the side of my body they discovered that all the muscle fibers, fat, skin, tissues, everything between my skin and bones was dead.  So they had to remove it all.  This left a gaping hole in the side of my body.  My mother likened it to an animal bite, like some huge monster had taken a chunk out of the side of my body.  It was now an open wound.  They had to do more surgery over the coming days to try to close the area.  I needed skin grafts.  On top of all of this my knee, which I had dislocated at the scene, was also in bad shape.  All the ligaments had torn.  But that was secondary.  The risk of cross infection from my now open wound into my knee was too great so they had to put it in a brace and leave it.  There was clearly no sign I was leaving the hospital any time soon.

The next three weeks are a blur.  I had a further 9 surgeries on the side of my body.  I was on a morphine pump for the pain and I was in a state of delirium most of the time.  There are moments I remember but they are harrowing and disturbing.  Morphine does funny things to the brain.  I had horrible hallucinations and nightmares and for these 3 weeks my Mother stayed by bedside 24 hours a day.  If someone wasn’t holding my hand I would go into a panic.  My sister and Dad would give her a break to get a cup of tea, but I was terrified without her.  I had some of my darkest moments during this time but looking back, the inability to remember a lot of it was a blessing.  Because later, when I would start my physical and mental recovery fully aware of what was going on, that awareness of the darkness, trauma and despair almost destroyed me.  In these three weeks I was just trying to stay alive.