Seeing scars: Every wound has a story

A holiday mishap left NATHALIE CRAIG with an indelible reminder of a particularly difficult time, not to mention a deep and enduring curiosity about scars.

What on earth happened to you?” the man serving me in the paper shop asked, wide-eyed and unabashed.

My mind began to skip through what could possibly be wrong, before I realised he was fixed on the three thick, pink, keloid scars on the inside of my left breast.

They have been with me for so long now. Well, almost four years. Long enough not to resent them any more.

“Did someone scratch you?” he said, still gawking.

I told him the plain truth. I was swimming off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Corsica when I was washed onto rocks. Waves plunged my chest onto merciless oysters and barnacles.

When I returned to shore my white towel was soaked in red, eliciting curses of ‘‘merde’’ from the French-speaking locals.

The paper shop man winced. I left.

The French call it l’esprit d’escalier (literally, staircase wit) when clever remarks come to mind soon after the conversation ends.

My imagination started conjuring dramatic stories of tigers, bears and shark attacks, but it was too late – I’d left the building.

While my story may seem relatively straightforward, underneath lies the context. About two weeks before the holiday I was rushed to the emergency room with my pulse pounding at 240 beats per minute. I received what is widely referred to in the medical sphere as ‘‘the doom drug’’. It literally stops your heart; making you feel like you are asphyxiating and being crushed by a slab of concrete before jolting the heart back into its regular beat.

The arrhythmia remained somewhat of a mystery but my cardiologist concluded from ECG graphs that my heart condition was ‘‘generally not fatal’’.

Relief was short-lived. I was paralysed with fear the whole flight to Europe. If the condition returned 40,000feet above ground, would I receive help in time?

Being rigid with fear was a general theme throughout the holiday, leading to the beginnings of a severe and debilitating anxiety disorder.

The markings on my chest will forever signify these years of struggle. As the thick keloid wounds began to form when I returned home I was seeking respite from my constant state of panic. The many avenues included: doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists, counsellors, yoga, meditation, self-help books, diets and even hypnotherapy.

Another major part of my recovery included a heart operation, which also left me with a scar. While much smaller and less visible than my other scars, the four tiny incision marks on my upper thigh where the catheter was inserted during surgery two years ago represent healing. Running my fingers along these four, risen dots gives me the reassurance I am cured.

My scars are tangible maps of these life-changing years.

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22-year-old Matthew Skelly. Picture by James Brickwood

When Matthew Skelly was just six months old a truck veered into his family’s car which was broken down on the side of the Sydney to Newcastle freeway.

He suffered full-depth burns to 20 per cent of his face and second- to third-degree burns to a further 40 per cent, leaving him with serious facial scarring.

Other family members were also injured in the crash. His mother suffered broken ribs, his brother a broken arm and head injury and his father received second-degree burns to his face.

Matthew, however, was the only one who would come to wear a permanent reminder of the accident.

Despite this he says those close to him have still had to deal with many of the same things as he has.

‘‘We rarely consider those third parties to an accident,’’ he says.

‘‘Yes, I live with the scars on my face but my family has to live with them, too.’’

Matthew says his aunt cries whenever she introduces him to someone and proceeds to tell the stranger why he has the scars and that he is ‘‘handsome and brilliant’’.

The 22-year-old law student from Avalon says he has come to terms with the markings on his face, scalp and right ear.

“I just see them as a part of me,” he offers.

“Through grafting my scars look like brown, stretched, sometimes patent, leather above my hairline.

“I’m missing part of my ear and it and holds similar colouration to my face. My facial burns are standard burns scars.”

A standard third-degree burn scar is deep brown to yellow in colour, with red borders, and the skin is risen and tough.

Matthew says as the hair follicles were either cauterised or removed through the heat no hair can grow on the scarred section of his scalp.

He had reconstructive surgery at the age of five and again when he was 10, and he keeps appointments with his plastic surgeon.

Matthew says during early childhood he didn’t notice he was any different to his peers, but primary school was difficult.

“I was led to believe I was different and hated them [his scars] for it. I would not look at myself in a mirror for a period of time,” he recalls.

“I no longer have negative feelings towards the scars,” he says.

Growing up with facial scarring, Matthew says there was a constant fear among family and friends transferred onto him that this “ailment hindering him throughout life” would cause people to judge him.

However, he says the most surprising reactions have been the “non-reactions” from the wider community.

Matthew’s closest friends seem to have completely forgotten that he is scarred. He recalls a story when this was comically emphasised by one of his best friends when she asked him one night if he had any scars.

The question caused an outburst of laughter.

Matthew believes that in general most people do not react to facial scarring or other “abnormalities”.

“Many children are curious but their curiosity quickly dissipates as they spend more time with me,” he says.

While his life has been largely unaffected by his scars, he is quick to reiterate that he is not the only one who has had to live with them.

‘‘Unfortunately my scars hold a history to them which has affected many people,’’ he says.

‘‘But with time comes a collective acceptance of what happened. And my scars just become another part of me.’’

The two, thick, red keloid scars on 22-year-old Ania Lunarzewski’s chin had become almost like a trademark.

Ania fell off her bike when she was seven and stitches were required.

To her, the subsequent scars represent “inconvenience and years of torment”.

Strangers have been quick to comment on her scars, causing her to feel even more self-conscious about them.

“I have been asked if someone tried to ‘slit my throat and missed’ before,” she says.

“People tend to be very out of line.”

Ania received the most comments when working in retail.

“I can’t believe strangers are so rude and thoughtless,” she says.

“I understand that it is human nature to be curious about something but there is a right and wrong way to ask someone about a scar or deformity.’’

She constantly tried to hide the scars, but more recently opted for “very expensive and painful” treatments to lessen their appearance.

All up she has had an operation, injections and laser treatments reducing the appearance to a “thin white line”.

The operation cost $3000, steroid treatments were about $100 and laser treatments $200 for each session.

“If there was more I could do I would,” she says.

I also opted for these painful and at times invasive treatments after realising the risen lines would be there for good. There is nothing pleasant about receiving a local anaesthetic in your breast before a thick needle full of cortisone is wriggled directly into the tough scar tissue.

I made the trip to a dermatologist in Sydney several times for this treatment designed to help flatten the raised, angry-looking markings on my delicate skin.

I was then going to opt for expensive laser surgery to reduce the redness, but slowly my view of them changed.

This was definitely brought about by some of the intriguing comments from people about my scars. Some people have said they find them quite attractive and interesting while others have said they almost look like an important tribal marking.

In fact, if I could design something I don’t think I could improve on them.

I have come to enjoy the element of surprise on people’s faces when I reveal my scars to them. I think they are somewhat enigmatic.

At the very least they are a good conversation starter.

I now have a fascination with scars, the tattoos that life gives some people without their consent.

No two people will view their scars the same, and for some people acceptance will never come. This is no surprise when you consider that upon searching ‘‘scars’’ online you are presented with a list of ways to remove or conceal them.

In our society it seems the search for flawlessness is constant and scars aren’t generally considered in the conventional notion of beauty.

Yet in some cultures scars are seen as desirable and inflicted deliberately.

Scarification, the practice of incising the skin with a sharp instrument to control the shape of the scar tissue, can be regarded as a boundary marker in terms of life stages.

These scars can be put in place to indicate a person’s lineage, can be used as a rite of passage in adolescence, or to represent an emotional state such as times of sorrow or well-being.

In our Western society your gender, age, people’s perception of your scar, its location and how you received it would all undoubtedly play a determining role in your level of acceptance.

Life has written on me and I’m OK with that now. Every scar tells a story.

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