Helen in her lab (photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

Scars: stories of human resilience

Scars affect how we are seen and are often imbued with negative connotations – but instead of seeing a scar, can we see a story?

Artillery Row

“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” – Leonard Cohen

A scar is the end point of a physical wound healing. The story that every scar tells is of survival – you have a scar, ergo you have survived. Scars are a powerful metaphor but also the literal place where survived experience meets story. As Leonard Cohen says so poetically, they are where “the word is made flesh”.

I filmed, photographed and interviewed five completely different people about how their scars have made them who they are today. War, self-harm, visible difference, cancer and domestic violence scars direct us through a collection of experiences which are both extraordinary and banal.

Scars can change forever how we see the world, and how the world sees us in return

Leonard Cohen’s quote describes how I would like the Scars photography project and film to provoke thought. Scars affect how we are seen and are often imbued with negative connotations – but instead of seeing a scar, can we see a story? Instead of feeling difference can we feel empathy? Simon, a veteran who is partially blind, can tell when people do a double take. He says, “I don’t mind if people ask why I have scars. If people don’t want to ask, that’s fine too, but don’t judge me. How would you feel if you were the person being stared at?”

Telling the stories of our scars is an age-old custom. If you know a child, then at some point he or she has probably presented you with scarred knees and elbows, and their chicken pox marks, as they recount their epic tales of misadventure and triumph.

Those scars are followed by the more painful, yet mundane minor operations and inevitable accidents. Sometimes these scars are private, hidden beneath clothes, personal tributes to our shame and strength. Some are on show to the world at all times. Scars and the experiences which created them, can change forever how we see the world, and how the world sees us in return. Simon welcomes people asking about his scars because it gives him the opportunity to explain. Pete’s visible difference is one of the first things people see when they meet him and shake his hand. Helen feels ashamed of her self-harm scars and worries that people judge her. Christina circumnavigated judgement by tattooing a butterfly over her scar.

When we bare our body, we reveal scars which bear witness to our most intimate experiences. Who hasn’t gently picked over a new lover’s body during that tender period of discovery and asked, “And what about this one? Tell me what happened here.” In the poem 18 Rugby St, Ted Hughes recalls Sylvia Plath’s scar from a suicide attempt:

In the roar of your soul your scar told me –

Like its secret name or its password –

How you had tried to kill yourself. And I heard

Without ceasing for a moment to kiss you.

Scars can provoke tenderness, but also fear because violence might be implicated. “Baddies” are often scarred in popular culture. The malevolent character in “The Lion King” is actually called Scar. In the James Bond franchise, Blofeld, Renard, Emilio Largo, Le Chiffre and Raoul Silva all wear the villain’s scarred mask, offering you a lazy, mental shortcut to “evil”. But this on-screen representation does a terrible disservice to people with facial scarring, like Simon, who says “no one looks at me and wonders if I was shot while serving my country”.

Conversely, the scar can be a more nuanced symbol of triumph. The lightening flash on Harry Potter’s forehead is the physical reminder that he survived Voldemort’s attempts to kill him. Cordelia, who lost a quarter of her brain to a tumour, is proud of her scar: “It looks like I’ve been in a battle and won.” Her scar tells a dramatic story, the pivotal moment of “before” and “after” the tumour is writ on the canvas of her head.

Scars signify physical healing and they foretell emotional healing

One of the qualities which struck me most about the people in “Scars” was their resilience. And I can’t think of a better time to appreciate resilience. In 2020 the world has felt a whiplash of existential fear about infectious illness and death. En masse, we realised we would die. Some were ill and some died, although the vast majority survived. Resilience in dealing with the epidemic and the terrible aftermath of lockdowns will be needed for years to come.

The “Scars” film screening and the photography exhibition were cancelled in the spring lockdown – a disappointment for my co-director and I, as well as the contributors. But who would have welcomed these stories of survival when we were in the teeth of the Covid crisis? If it wasn’t about The Virus, it wasn’t relevant. By now, we are ready to be inspired by the courage and insight of the people in “Scars”. They remind us that we not only endure, but we can also even be altered for the better in some ways.

As Helen says, her scars tell a story of pain, but they were also the making of her. Scars signify physical healing and they foretell emotional healing. And we do heal. We are resilient.

Cordelia

My first thought when I saw the scar was “Wow, that is amazing!” It’s epic. It looks like I’ve been in a battle and won. And I will fight and do everything I can to survive.

It covers most of the side of my head, where they essentially lifted everything up to get to the tumour. I could cover it up, but I’ve never wanted to. The scar says, “I’m not afraid of you, bring it on.” It represents strength and being a warrior.

Cordelia (Photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

I was sitting on the bed with my daughter watching Sesame Street videos. Nothing had been unusual about that day. I started to feel sick, and I ran to the bathroom where I collapsed. I was taken to hospital in an ambulance, but all I remember of that is glimpses of looking up at the roof and the paramedics and being very confused.

I remember waking up on a ward, doctors shining lights in my eyes and being terrified I’d had a stroke. My vision had completely changed, everything looked different. My husband looked different, like I was in a different ‘matrix’. When I came home, the street looked different. My daughter looked familiar but different – I was astounded, because she looked 6 months older, and yet I hadn’t missed six months.

My life has completely changed. It will now always be ‘before’ and ‘after’ the tumour. I’ve lost over a quarter of my brain. I haven’t lost any cognitive function, but the other parts of my brain overcompensate for the bit that’s missing, and that’s why everything looks different. Colours are more vibrant, everything is sharper, more focussed. My senses are amplified. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how beautiful the world is.

If anything happens to me, my daughter will have such strong women to look up to and look after her

I didn’t find out for six weeks that it was cancer. I might have had the tumour for five to ten years! The medical team said to go and live my life as much as I possibly could while I was waiting for surgery. The risks in brain surgery are quite high. So, my husband and I went to France, and I spent every day doing really wonderful things, but with a tinge of thinking this could be the last few weeks where I’m able bodied, or can see or… you know, the list was endless. I also did practical things, like write a will, organise power of attorney. And we also organised a wedding in three weeks. It was one of the most magical days of my life, and very emotional because none of us knew what would happen after.

One day I filmed videos for my daughter and my closest family and friends. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I needed my daughter to know I love her and will always be there for her, whatever happens. It was hard, but so important. I genuinely think it’s something every parent should do, because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

My friends and family were with me before I went into surgery. My mother did a Paso Doble, a dance to show how strong you are. She did it for the medical team, and me, to say, “This is going to kick ass!” I was wheeled down to theatre and my friends, my mother, my husband and I had a little procession, we were all singing and we played music from the wedding. Even as I had the anaesthetic and they were counting down, I knew it was going to be okay.

I’m still undergoing chemotherapy and I’m having private treatment too. I have to shave my head every two weeks to put a device on my head.

My friends have organised a roster to look after my daughter and they’ve gone above what anyone could expect from their friends. They pull me out of the darkest moments and make me laugh, they send me hilarious photos or songs or tell me about something we’ve done together. They remind me that, whatever happens, I’ve lived a great life and I’ve got the most amazing support. If anything happens to me, my daughter will have such strong women to look up to and look after her.

Simon

I’m 6’3”, a bit overweight and I’ve got a scarred face – no one looks at me and wonders if I was shot while serving my country.

I joined the army when I was 18. I was proud. I didn’t really have many options, I was doing dead end jobs, and I saw it as an opportunity to learn a trade and see the world. You take your oath of allegiance and the army effectively owns you for the next two years of your life.

You know you’ve signed up for something that could have a fatal outcome, but we forget about the bit in the middle. I was shot in Iraq. Both cheekbones shattered, the jaw broke in four places and the palate collapsed. The biggest danger at the time was suffocation. Something clicked into place in my mind and I held my palate up. Being conscious through the experience is what saved me. Someone was talking to me for 25 minutes while we waited for help. I had no comprehension how badly I’d been damaged, and it’s good I didn’t know. I was put into a medical coma to be flown home.

Simon (photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

When you go through something like this, all you can think about is everything you’ve lost. I was devastated. While I was in hospital I heard about a couple of friends who committed suicide. That was a big kick up the backside; I realised I wasn’t a victim; I was a survivor. It dawned on me that not everything was lost.

I isolated myself, I hid in the house. I knew the environment and it was safe. My old rugby mates were not OK with that, so they used to come and kidnap me basically, take me downtown and get me liquored up and then leave me on my dad’s doorstep for him to deal with me. It was actually a positive experience, it showed me my friends didn’t think I changed, so it removed my excuse for thinking things were different. I hadn’t become a different person, I just had different challenges, and I had to move on.

People could be a little bit more understanding that everyone has a story

When I was physically fit and strong and I had the beer and banter that went on in the block, I was able to keep my demons tucked away. When I was medically weak, and I had too much time to think, that’s when the emotional stuff hit me. Not just being shot, but other experiences from previous tours. I’ve emptied mass graves in Kosovo when I was 20 years old. It’s not just a horrific scene, it’s all encompassing, the sounds of flies, the smells… Nothing can prepare you. I’ve seen both sides of humanity. I’ve seen people do incredible things to save others, and I’ve seen the worst the world can offer.

In a way, the physical injuries have opened up the opportunities to help the mental scars. I was going through medical support and I could ask for more support. I’ve had to learn to be a better communicator.

When I’ve been isolated for a bit, I can have a really rough day. Loneliness can kick in. I’ll just watch a box set and give myself a day, and then have a fresh start the next day, go out and do something.

I now work with Blind Veterans UK, Help for Heroes and other charities. I’ve also started playing rugby again which, when you’re 40, fat and blind is probably not the best thing to do in life! I thought these opportunities had been taken away from me, but I’ve adapted and that’s made me stronger.

I don’t know exactly what I look like. I can’t hide my scars, I can’t hide my eye, they are there. With the type of vision loss I’ve got I have an inability to focus so I have filled in the blanks. I might have made them bigger than they are really are. You know, when something feels bigger than it looks.

I can tell when people double take. I don’t mind if people ask why I have scars. If people don’t want to ask, that’s fine too, but don’t judge me. How would you feel if you were the person being stared at? People could be a little bit more understanding that everyone has a story.

Helen

When people notice my scars, I see them look at me to see how much of a raving lunatic I am. I suffered from self-harm issues from quite an early age. I couldn’t tell you why I started self-harming, it wasn’t one event, it was a succession of things. It came to a peak when I was sexually assaulted by a friend of my dad and my vessel overflowed. From that point on I hated myself.

I tried to hang myself when I was 11 and after that I continued to harm myself in different ways. Self-harming was my life. I only stopped when I was about 36, because I could see how pointless it was.

I remember when I was a bit older and became aware of the difference in what my arms looked like compared to other people’s arms. Mixing with people more socially, or standing in a queue, I’d look at their arms and think they were wonderful, lovely, smooth.

When I had my daughter, it was like a switch flicked. I had self-harmed because I didn’t have other ways of handling things, I didn’t have the words, I didn’t have people to talk to. She was sure as hell not going to go through that. And that was that. Having someone I needed to protect turned me into a better person and made me stronger.

Having someone I needed to protect turned me into a better person and made me stronger

While I was at home with little children I saw an ad for a job at a company near where I live. I had always admired it; I thought the buildings were beautiful. They were advertising for a washer-upper, and I thought “I can do that!” I went for an interview and unanimously they chose me above quite a few other people. I was quite shocked. I started and I began to meet some of the most fantastically diverse, interesting, clever people. I couldn’t believe that these people accepted me and liked me. I built up friendships with doctors and professors and they respected me and it made me feel amazing.

Helen (photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

I was so grateful to have this job. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed washing their floors and their test tubes. I applied each time a promotion came up, so I worked from the lowest of the low doing the washing up to now running my own lab. It fascinated me that I worked my way up; I got a ‘U’ in my chemistry exam for drawing my friend’s ear because I couldn’t answer any of the questions. I remember standing in a lab one day and looking at all the amazing equipment and glassware and thinking, “Well, look at me working in a chemistry lab, of all people.”

I feel very proud. Even the washing up made me feel proud and worthwhile. I learned so many things from kind lovely people who didn’t judge me as a cutter, or a harmer, or a mental case. They accepted me as a willing, enthusiastic, keen, very eager person. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to learn more and more and I learned how to do all sorts of things in my own time mostly.

When I started here, I wore a lab coat with long sleeves, so people listened to my conversation, read my face, and didn’t judge me. But yes, I still fear that other people judge me, or that they’ll be afraid, or won’t know what to say.

I am ashamed of my scars, but they are part of who I am. If I hadn’t done it, who would I be? They are part of me and part of my making. Unfortunately I had to go through it in order to get where I am now.

Christina

I have scars on my legs, my knees, my shoulders, my arms. I have scars on the inside. He hit me. He’s hurt me so bad, emotionally and physically. He called me a bitch. He told me nobody would want me. And if anybody wanted me it would just be for my body. He always wanted to know who I was on the phone with. He threatened my friends and told them they weren’t allowed to talk to me.

I’m scarred in many ways, which I am trying to heal from. I do try my best to not let it affect me, but it does.

One night he came around drunk and he had like a bottle of Heineken in his hand and he tried to hit me in my head with it. It fell and broke into pieces and he stabbed me with it. It didn’t hurt at first because it was numb, but it was deep. My skin was actually peeled back. I just cleaned it and put a bandaid on it.

Christina’s butterfly tattoo (photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

I’d lie about the scar because I was embarrassed. It felt like I’d put up with the things he’d done to me. It was done to me by someone I trusted in the beginning, someone I cared for. I protected him, even though I should have protected myself.

I got the butterfly tattoo to cover the scar, so no one would ask anymore. I love butterflies – the transformation, the freedom. Now every time I look at it I can remind myself that I’m free from the fight and something beautiful can come out of a hard time.

I’ve tried dating, then the first little thing that that person does that reminds me of him, and it won’t go any further between us. I wouldn’t even date a Scorpio just because that’s what he was. Sorry to offend all the other Scorpios, I’m sure they’re lovely, but I can’t date one!

My daughters’ skin is beautiful, like a new page. I never want them to go through the same abuse I did

My daughters literally saved me. They give me the love that, you know, I was searching for in the wrong places. They became the people I knew I had to protect. I can’t protect them from everything in the world, but I can prepare them. Their skin is beautiful, clean, like a new page. I never want them to go through the same abuse I did. I bring them up with so much love. They give me wings. They’re my little butterflies as well.

I’ve grown mentally and emotionally. I wouldn’t be who I am now, or as caring and compassionate towards other people. So that one’s good thing that came out of it. When I see people with scars, it runs through my mind, “What happened?” It can happen to anyone. I wish people had asked me. I wish I’d had the strength to be vulnerable and talk about it. I think talking about it now might help other people heal too.

I wish I’d talked about this sooner. This is the first time I’ve been honest about being stabbed and opening up about it does make me feel better. I’m not hiding anymore. I feel free.

Pete

I was born like this. The first doctor my mum took me to said, “He’ll never play the piano”. And my mum was like, “Oh shit, we’ll get a second opinion.” She’s a bit of a fighter and she channelled all her determination into getting the best for my hand.

From the age of two I started having operations on my hand to cut off the fingers that weren’t knuckled, separate the digits that were webbed together and they opened up the thumb so I could have an opposing thumb.

Each time, I knew my hand would be out of action, and it’s frustrating to be a hand down. The biggest challenge of these operations was the pain, having my hand cut open again and again and again. They cut in very deep for the final operation to separate my finger and thumb. I remember waking up and it felt like my hand was on fire, like it was in a pressure cooker, just radiating. There’s a photo of me in bed in hospital after the operation, my hand raised, and a present from my mum on the bed – a toy piano.

You can’t really lie about scars, they tell stories about what happened

At secondary school they would keep moving me away from woodwork. I would do textiles, then food, then textiles, then food… I was like, “What is going on with this system?” I didn’t realise at the time, but they thought I couldn’t do woodwork. But outside of school I was building skate ramps, nicking wood out of skips, building stuff. That drilled an oil well of energy into my being, I felt like I had to smash woodwork. There is something about this hand that’s made me really resilient, positive and determined. I’m a carpenter now.

The other side of this, is that if you are my partner, that resilience and determination can be an emotional wall. When I split up with my partner and she just said, “Yeah, it’s because of your hand”. One of my favourite things about that relationship was that we could joke about my hand, the banter we had. So it was the perfect joke, and we kind of had a laugh, and but then… The truth is, there is something about being this determined, this positive, that means I can miss the connection.

Pete (photographed by Laura Dodsworth)

Most of the time when you meet someone you shake their hand. Sometimes I get no reaction, but sometimes it’s awkward, people grab my wrist and shake that. It’s a bit weird, but it’s not their fault, they didn’t expect it. What I realised is that if every time I meet someone and I go to shake their hand, and they take away my peace, my wholeness, then where am I left?

If my existence is skin deep, if I wish I had two five-fingered hands then, for sure, life can be miserable. I practise meditation to centre myself and cut the stress in life. I can go deep within myself and be whole. I use my three-fingered hand to do a type of meditation where you do alternate nostril breathing. When I was taught, everyone in the class was figuring out whether to use their ring finger, or their forefinger and I was like, “I’ve got this, I’m ahead of the game.” I was in the zone. I remember feeling pretty smug about it. It’s a super powered hand!

Scars can lead to something a lot deeper within you. You can’t really lie about scars, they tell stories about what happened, as they are. They’re like the cover of a book.


“Scars” is a photographic series, stories and film. The film was co-directed by Rebecca Lloyd Evans and Laura Dodsworth. It is a Tigerlily Production for The Guardian and was supported by the Centre for Appearance Research. You can watch the film on The Guardian website.

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