Scars: A Portrait of Life

The first question on the intake questionnaire was, “Why have you decided to have boudoir portraits taken now?” My first thought was, Why has it taken me so long? After everything my body has been through, it is long overdue. I’m not getting any younger, after all. I’ve already begun to list the organs I have left that I am able to live without.

During my senior year in high school, I performed in a play of one-act monologues: Talking With, by Jane Martin. My monologue was called “Marks”. A woman, unmarked by life, is cut by a suitor in a parking lot. Surprisingly, her scar would bring confidence. So she began to wear her life upon her skin, tattoos for those who touched her. Little did I comprehend the prophetic nature of those words as I spoke them.

I want to celebrate the body I have today, battered and bruised, scarred by misadventures and medical procedures, and more beautiful than it’s ever been. The girl I once was, now woman incarnate. Stories engraved upon my skin telling a tale to all those who will listen. As Jane Martin wrote, “This unraveling of hieroglyphs, personally I call it love.”¹

 

I.

Nudity has always held a sense of freedom for me. I can still feel the elation of streaking through my cousin’s horse field to plunge into the lake for our morning baths, and the rush of skinny dipping at night with friends.

It wouldn’t be until I grew older that I realized what it felt to have this vessel sexualized, its freedom commandeered. And it would be many years more before I understood the power of that very sexuality, able to embrace every corner of my womanhood as mine and mine alone. And no one can convince me a corset can’t be feminist.

During college I modelled as a way to earn extra cash. It afforded me the opportunity to live briefly abroad. But I remained uneasy. Then, in my twenties, at the height of my body-as-commodity training, I began to respect and meld with my own sensuality. My portfolio filled with swimsuit and lingerie shots. I felt athletic, strong, and sexy as hell. I was beginning to understand this power and all that it dragged along with it.

I remember my ex-husband remarking that when he looked at my old modeling photos he felt as though he was cheating on me. His current view and these past pictures obviously did not mesh for him. But never did he say I was more beautiful in the now. I think that’s a shame, that he couldn’t see me.

I also think it is a shame I cared, that the opinion of another had any bearing on my self-worth. I don’t believe we should allow others to shape how we see, feel about, or value our own bodies. It saddens me that we live in a world so bent to judgement.

We all have scars. We all have stories. Here are mine.

 

II.

There are scars no one sees. Sure, the metaphorical, emotional, mental, but also some literal ones. I have ridges running inside my cheeks from years of chewing them in my sleep, burn scars from throat cauterization of my tonsils at age 28, and genetic mutations in my DNA. Clamps inside my body that only appear under radiography. But I’m jumping ahead. Right now I want to talk about the easy scar stories, the ones made through the art of living, when my body and heart were still young, supple, and quick to heal. They only live on the surface.

It’s hard to recall which scar I acquired first. Was it the triangle shape left from when I whittled my father’s Japanese carving tool around a bend into my wrist? Or perhaps it was the one cut by the flirtatious, ice-down-your-back, boy chase scene at church camp which culminated in a slamming door and a shattered window pane slicing my forearm. Or maybe it was the bee stinger that hardened and popped from my calf – a perfect cork.

Eventually life began to play harder, my body bending under the weight of it all. I began to earn my marks; Silver Linings as I call them. First, I was marked by the speckled dots of the orthopedic scope, making a connect-the-dot smile on my right knee. There would be two more scopes on that same knee and eventually a larger scar on the other, following a snapped ACL. A result of that “just-one-last-run” down the ski slope when I was far past fatigue. But these were still scars of a life played well, a body pushed to its outer limits.

The gravel-pitted knees, chickenpox, acne, and bad-boy motorcycle burns would heal over the years. But the smiley-face carved on my ass cheek by a computer table screw remains. It sounds as embarrassing and uncomfortable as it was, but it tells one hell of a story. All scars do.

As does the mark left on my foot by pier barnacles. I battled my way across a restaurant deck on the last day of my summer job, cocktailing at the Jersey Shore, determined not to submit to a ceremonial goodbye toss into the bay. I managed to fell a few tables of drinks, which Management comped, but I didn’t win the battle. Admittedly, it still remains a point of pride that it took four grown-ass men to get me in that water. I wasn’t going down without a fight. This skill has come in handy more than once.

 
III.

My father has a condition called Vitiligo, which causes a loss of pigmentation resulting in patches of lighter skin. The effects are unpredictable. The changes not only occur in the skin, but can turn patches of hair white, or steal color from your eyes. It has been a deep shame for him, as it has for others. He was taunted with “Palomino” as a kid. But I remember how beautiful his arms and legs were to me. As a little girl, I wanted to know when my glorious giraffe spots would come. I’d search and search, waiting. It would be years before I’d realize in dismay that I would never have any, and I have never stopped wanted to be Dax for Halloween.

I, like my father before me, did inherit the calcium overgrowth, lumps under my tongue, as well as a propensity for skin cancers. I have numerous scars from punch biopsies and an MOHS incision scar along my left shoulder. These have become par for the course.

I also have a three-inch incision on my lower back because of a ruptured disk. It was no doubt inflamed the day I was nearly crushed in our garage underneath eight slabs of concrete board which toppled on to me, pinning me against the table saw. The scoliosis I carry from puberty surely exacerbated the injury. On the luck scale that day, I ranked on the high end of the spectrum; it is surprising that my husband heard my cries at all.

Not a year later, a scalpel line was drawn hip to hip. My uterus removed, and with it my chance for children. Grapefruit-sized fibroid tumors, that I lovingly nicknamed The Twins, wreaked their havoc. It would be years before the weight of this loss would surface, and finally be healed. The sting of my mother-in-law calling me sterile eventually faded to the background.

 
IV.

A little over three years ago, a seven-year surgical reprieve ended. It’s not that those seven years weren’t full of challenges. I went through a second divorce, and experienced my first real anxiety. I felt an intense desire to peel myself from my own skin. I’d dove deeper into my spiritual practice and training, and ended up moving into my mentor’s home.

In the last of those years I fought illness. Chasing specialists, I endured procedures, tests, and numerous medications in order to combat elevated stress hormones and high blood pressure. My gut no longer worked, and I was losing my voice regularly. These were seven years filled with life lessons, refinements, and a lot of growth, and not solely of the spiritual kind.

Though I’d have thought it impossible, after all that the universe upped the ante. I underwent two surgeries, back-to-back, both with the possibility of cancers. First I received a scar along the outer edge of my right breast. Where there should have been terror I felt an unexpected resignation. My paternal grandmother had been diagnosed in her early forties with breast cancer. She died of metastases ten years after treatment, before I was born.

My lump was extracted, thankfully benign. Yet, I don’t recall feeling relief, only pain and fearful anticipation. I knew the main event still lay ahead. My surgical urologist did say if he were to lay odds in Vegas, he’d bet benign. Yet I remained unconvinced.

I was going under the knife truly alone for the first time. The stakes felt high. No parents, no husbands were around; there was no one but me to carry the weight of my care, the stuff of life: paying bills, laundry, cooking; the what-if it goes wrong and subsequent fall-out.

This surgery was different. I was far more vulnerable than I’d ever been. I wrote my DNR and a will. Under my bed I placed a box with deeds to the house, passwords to my identity, and letters to my estranged loved-ones. I set money aside in an envelope for my cremation, knowing it would be weeks before access would be gained.

Five days later, I obtained my most impressive scar. It runs diagonally from diaphragm to hip. The doc and I had agreed to slice through the “hard way” in an attempt to remove the tumor and save my kidney, because the location of my tumor was tricky: it sat topside right over the hilus – where the artery, vein and ureter convene. He wanted to get his hands on it; knowing it was the best chance I had of keeping my kidney.

During surgery, risk had become an actuality, and kidney dissection was mandatory to save my life. I awoke to find the kidney gone. Bleeding out during surgery, I’d lost nearly two fifths of my blood volume. I knew preserving my kidney had been the long shot, but I’d dared to hope.

Four days later, the C-Word was delivered: cancer. My three-to-four day hospital stay extended to ten. I went through trials that even now I find difficult to retell. I don’t relay this lightly. I was fighting for my life. My doctor held off the mandatory blood transfusions and feeding tubes. For which I am grateful.

These are the scars that change you immeasurably. I am still dealing with the fallout of my diagnoses and the propulsion they created in my life. I wouldn’t change the trajectory for anything. Now I truly know just how tough I am. I’m a fighter, a survivor, a god-damn warrior, all those monikers. One badass Mamba Jamba.

 
V.

Scars tell us where we’ve been and all we’ve overcome. And I’ve been kicking ass and taking names. But day-to-day, this simply looks like keeping my head above water.

As it goes with cancer, chronic illness, or tragedy, I learned. Sometimes those we expect to support us simply can’t. When I needed it most, they just weren’t there. Nor was I capable of holding up others as I’d always done. Expectations went unmet. I’d lose intimate relationships, but I had to secure my own oxygen mask first. These are the cuts that go deep, that change the fiber of your being, the core of your person. That rearranges cells, blood and bone.

Recovery was slow, my mood melancholy. Finding myself alone, even more exposed, I joined a cancer support group and began meeting with a social worker. The one thing universal to all cancer survivors, she told me, is that “they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It becomes part of the fiber of their being.” After years in the healing services, she sees it. We wear it on our skin.

Cancer steals your sense of security. You live in intervals between scans. Not knowing what life may look like beyond these timeframes. You rely on statistics you know are anything but absolute. I could no longer see a future, grappling to dream of a someday. Cancer is an unpredictable foe.

My oncologist warned me he’d never seen a “clear” first scan. As was the case, my CT showed a cecum volvulus, twisted colon. This was not what he’d meant. However, surgery was again mandatory. They’d need to remove the floppy portion that was spinning like a tetherball before it twisted off permanently, leading to sepsis and possibly death.

My best friend, knowing my state of mind, offered me a brief, extraordinary opportunity to take sanctuary, to embolden myself in preparation for more cutting, more extractions. Because I knew to my core even if I lived through the next surgery, I wouldn’t heal. I’d likely lose my mind. My friend was taking her sons on holiday in Australia. She’d rented a house on the beach. All I had to do was get myself there.

I sat at the edge of the examination table, gown draped about my shoulders, cold air upon my back. “If you tell me I can’t travel, that I must have surgery immediately, I’ll respect your decision,” I told my surgeon. “But,” I implored, “if I don’t do something for my spirit first, to taste life; I won’t make it.” Thankfully he saw the truth of this in my eyes (I couldn’t survive another cut) and let me go.

I took off perched on a precipice: unguarded, vulnerable, flung wide to the world, all my walls down. I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, walked toes buried in the sand, breathed in every sunrise and sunset. I fell asleep to the sound of my own oceanic depths. I ate, drank and laughed till my belly ached. And I loved.

It had been ages since I’d felt that instant, genuine spark of chemistry. But in one moment, a man’s fingers laced between mine as he guided me down a crowded sidewalk betwixt clubs, I was in. All in. When he turned to ask, “Are we doing this?” I didn’t hesitate. “Hell yes we’re doing this,” I said.

Bared before him, he took one look at my scarred naked body and said, “Fuck me!” I did. I needed to remember how it felt to be held, lie vulnerable, my flesh warm against another’s. I wasn’t going to deny myself connection. I gave over to the sudden heat, to the tingling sensation climbing my body. I gave in, gave up, and let go.

This collision of death and sex fascinates me: life and grave drawn to one another. “We spend time interpreting signs. It lasts only so long as there are marks to read and then it is gone,” ² as were we. My luscious Aussie love-affair ended; we both departed for home.

At home, as planned, my abdomen was sliced. A scar now runs vertical from my belly button upward to my kidney scar. The right side of my colon was removed. Small scope marks like eyes and dimples were added to my hysterectomy smile. I passed yet another week in a hospital bed, but my trip over the rainbow to Oz sustained me.

This was when I learned that even at the bottom of all I thought I could endure; I could go one slice deeper. I also learned the importance of standing my ground, advocating for my health personally, allowing others–and life– to aid me in healing.

 
VI.

My latest scar arrived a year ago, across my throat just below my chin line. I’d pushed this one off for a little over a year and half. My CT showed and my doctor explained that the damage to my spinal cord was no longer ignorable. Fusion was mandatory, to ensure I didn’t become a quadriplegic by slipping on ice or being rear-ended. But even informed, for a little over a year, I chose to gamble. I’m logical enough to understand the frivolity of this plan, but was emotional enough to entertain it. Instead I endured two to three migraines a week. I was unable to maintain my grip, occasionally dropping things. The nerve flashes down my neck and arms grew increasingly intense. Ultimately, it was my older sister coming through the procedure safely that had me relent. It was time to quit fucking around.

I have since turned down doctors’ offers for more scars, twice this year alone. I have another herniated disk, lower in my neck, centrally compressing my spinal cord. The fusion plate from my previous surgery juts into and narrows my throat. In addition, cause unknown, the muscle motility of my esophagus misfires or malfunctions completely.

I have decided that when and if my spinal cord becomes impinged to the point of more lasting damage I’ll consider surgery, and with it the removal of my fusion plate. Only because that fact will push me kicking and screaming into the realm of mandatory surgery, rather than the land of “We could…it might bring relief…no guarantee.”

I will also learn to live with the painful lump, scar tissue built-up, on my knuckle from slicing through my tendon in a kitchen mishap. Because as the surgeon warned, the surgery itself “may only cause more scar tissue.” This, like my difficult swallowing, is just another pain I’ll learn to manage.

I know there’s more surgery in the future. Living bone-on-bone for eighteen years is no joke. However, as long as I can, I will refuse more surgeries: not today, not now, preferably not ever.

I learned the utter vulnerability of exposure to illness and survival. To allowing medical professionals access that would seem denigrating had it not been so necessary. Having to rely on another’s help for the most basic of human functions is humbling. Trusting in another’s healing hands as you lay naked and exposed.

 
VII.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gained and lost 75+ pounds numerous times due to illness and unavoidable life stressors. I’ve watched my muscles waste away. Hairs grow on my chin and thin on my head. Circles darken my eyes. My shape shifts with every part the scalpel carves out.

I’ve had to fight for every night out dancing and long hike I take. Things I’m passionate about are the very things I can’t take for granted. I know there is a cost to pay for walking all day across Paris or London, yet I’ve done it. I’m a foodie, yet eating is an obstacle course of paralysis, patience, and sheer will. Making love has become an exercise in vulnerability, trust, acrobatics, and comedic timing. And God help the one who comes between me and my whiskey.

We don’t know how fragile we are, until we do. Some of us are graced with this lesson and it shapes our character. These scars transformed my body and in many ways my spirit, illuminating what mattered most and propelling me to embrace the sanctity of this life I’m living. I am better off for each and every one.

My body has literally become my temple. I have prayed for and to it more times than I can count. We’ve walked through fire together. This body, battle- scarred, feels like a badge of honor. The mark of a fucking survivor I wear proudly. My pain is beautiful.

Throughout this process I have discovered more about my own inner workings, my fortitude, and what I can bear. It has made me stronger, and I’ve never felt sexier.

Nudes at their essence are all about you and you alone. Not the shoes or the lines of your clothes as in modeling; no distractions. But soft underbelly exposed, bared before another: “I’ve nothing to hide.” When channeled, my ability to embody vulnerability is my superpower.

So I’ve decided to document this journey through images, before the scars multiply and time takes further tolls. My sensuality exposed is freedom’s essence: pure creation, the act of being alive, of celebrating oneself.

I haven’t sat for a photographer in twenty-five years. Few people have seen my new skin. In fact, few have ever viewed the full specter of my flesh. I believe that to understand, to love and respect your body, is to love yourself.

So in the words of my prophetic monologue, “Let life mark you. The best among us have so many imprints left upon us it’s like embroidery.” Here I am stripped down, stripped away, me and my vulnerability. I’ve never felt more alive.

And in the end, I discovered…scars are difficult to capture.

Scar photo

Photo Credit : Lindsay Carlisle Photography

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7 thoughts on “Scars: A Portrait of Life

  1. I’ve gained three scars recently due to breast cancer. One from my port placement in March and two from my lumpectomy and sentinel node removal at the end of August. Scars do indeed multiply as we age. Mostly, they are what they are. I am still me.

    • And let me say, you are magnificent. I was introduced to the Abandoned Boob Chronicles through your gofundme campaign. A friend had posted it on Facebook. I donated what little I could at the time. I was related and was moved by your story. Resilient, hells yaaasss. I loved that you identified your superpower as Authenticity. I wanted to draw a series of superhero sketches based on Superpowers like yours and mine (vulnerability). Thank you for reading my words.

  2. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Here is a powerful essay by an extraordinary woman. For any woman who lives with a scarred body, this essay is a must-read.
    I’ve been revisiting my issues around my own scars, what they mean to me, what they say about me, how can I see them as beautiful since I have no choice but to live with them because they will never fade away. After reading Dana’s essay, I think I can now embrace them.

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