Don’t ask people about their scars.

You don’t know how they got them or if its appropriate or traumatizing for you to ask.

What I learned from my journey as a burn victim

Almost two years ago I made a clumsy mistake mixing stovetop potions. I was melting down a mixture of baking soda and coconut oil and over-estimated how long it would take to become warm on the element. Before I knew it my kitchen was filled with smoke, and as I was running the smoking pot out the front door, I tripped.

I spilled about half a cup of searing hot coconut oil on my right hand. Having burned myself many times before working as a barista, I went instinctively for the cold tap. I then watched as all the skin from the back of my hand detached from my body and slid down the drain. Of all the burns I’d had, I’d never seen that much skin come off straight away. But I didn’t feel much pain so I didn’t think I had hurt myself too bad (I later learned this is a common symptom of second degree burns due to epidermal nerve damage).

I had plans to go to a party that night and I didn’t want to miss it. So I called my boyfriend Scott for help since I didn’t know what to do. We called Telehealth and asked for their advice and they of course told me to go to the hospital.

Scott took me to the ER. About an hour total after the incident, I was in the waiting room of Toronto General Hospital (TGH) and the pain began to set it. Without a cold compress the pain was so severe that I’d go into hysterics. The nurses did a good job of replenishing my ice packs as they’d melt. It was determined that I had suffered both first and second degree burns from my wrist to my second knuckles.

I was lucky to have a few people to comfort me and bring me snacks in the ER.

But eventually it came time to bandage me up. And so I got a shot of morphine, hydromorphone pills and a handful of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Not sure how well that cocktail of painkillers settled in my body but it definitely did the trick. They bandaged and braced me up, put me in contact with the CCAC, a doctor at Toronto Western Hospital, Sunnybrook’s burn ward and sent me on my merry way.

Over the next few weeks I spent most days in between appointments with nurses at the CCAC and taking morphine naps. When I eventually got to Western, they told me I should probably drop out of school, quit my job, and move home to my parent’s house in Newmarket. I went on a leave of absence at work and scheduled a month off school in the second half of my very last semester of my degree. It was a dark time. After a couple weeks I went to the burn ward at Sunnybrook and they gave me a much more optimistic approximation of my return to good health.

In the waiting room on my second visit to Sunnybrook I met a man who’d suffered third degree burns to the entirety of both his hands. Being the sole bread winner in his family, he was nervous about money and being able to return to his labour job. We talked about what painkillers we’d each been given and how well they worked. I still wonder how he’s doing.

The doctor at Sunnybrook determined that I had been incorrectly bandaged at TGH and my skin was beginning to heal wrong, too tightly. I was instructed to do a set of exercises multiple times a day to improve elasticity in the new skin, and was warned that I might not regain full mobility in my hand if I failed to do so. My right hand. My dominant hand. The possibility of losing function in my art-making hand was horrifying. The exercises were excruciatingly painful but I was terrified of the alternative.

After about a month, my skin was still in pretty rough shape. I still wasn’t able to bend my fingers or walk around without a bandage.

Eventually things started getting better. After a few days I was determined to make the bed all by myself. It took something like twenty minutes, but I was so proud that I was able to do it, I took a photo afterward. After a week I could brush my hair properly again. Another week later I was able to shower without a bag taped over my arm. A few more and I was getting really good at bandaging myself up so I stopped seeing the nurses at the CCAC. Eventually I was back at school and I just barely passed all my classes. I even went back to Starbucks to work, although I avoided hot liquids where possible for a long time.

Little things like making the bed become hard when you can only use one hand. 

Two years later and all that’s left is this tiny scar. It’s so much better than it used to be. I use BioOil on it to help remove the scar tissue which is sensitive to light and sometimes gets itchy. But I’m not embarrassed by it or insecure about it at all. I’m over it and I’ve accepted it as a part of me. I even kinda like it.

But what if I didn’t?

What if I was insecure about it? What if the injury was self inflicted? What if it was the product of abuse?

Well if that were the case, I’d be reliving the trauma on a nearly constant basis. You know why? People, not friends, family or acquaintances, but STRANGERS on the street, bus, and at work ask me about it all the time. I’ve been given a short reprieve during the winter months when I wear gloves, but as soon as that glove is off I have random people asking me, “What happened?” “How’d you do it?” And asking for details about why I was doing what I was doing when it happened. Some, offering unsolicited advice about what oils and creams to use on it to diminish the scar.

I never realized how often people look at an injury with curiosity and think it’s a talking point or a reason to give a stranger advice. Looking back, I can think of a few times I’ve done it myself.

I’m sure these people mean well but the thing is this: I’ll talk all day about my scars. I don’t care about how it looks or what people think about it. But some people don’t want to talk about their scars. Some people’s scars are very personal reminders of very bad, scary times. You asking them on the bus to recall the tale of how they came to get their scar is really rude. Don’t do it. It’s likely they don’t want to think about it let alone talk about it out loud with a random person.

When I friends offered their experiences with their scars getting unwanted attention, a lot of them had similar reactions. Most people didn’t want to talk about their scars:

“As a human with self-inflicted scars, I usually have them covered up. Those I can’t hide, I do my best to cover with makeup, but when people ask me about them, I answer honestly but feel shitty.”

– An anonymous friend

“I did some research years ago about scar removal. The biggest insight: people had different relationships with their scars – some were traumatic, some were happy (cancer removal, Caesarean scars), some were ‘meh, that was nothing.’ But what was common was the false permission scars seems to give people to ask about their provenance. People were tired, reluctant, and just annoyed at strangers asking them to explain how they got the scar. So, everyone, just stop it.”

– Nancy, a family friend

“After I shattered my femur I was left with a nasty five inch scar over my knee (and a few in other less visible places). Determined to feel like myself again I refused to cover it up during the summer and every time it was exposed people stared unabashedly. Many people asked about it and even more strangers felt the need to reassure me that it made me ‘cool’ and didn’t make me any less ‘attractive.’ In the end I felt like it was these unasked for interactions that made me feel less comfortable than if everyone just minded their own damn business.”

– Brittany, a friend from high school

If you find yourself wondering about someone’s scars, that’s natural. Just don’t ask.

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