By Mary K.
TW: This article may trigger those who have been in or have been affected by road traffic accidents.
The December ‘08/January ‘09 summer holiday was eventful as always: weddings, Christmas and New Years’ functions, and lots of catching up with family and friends. As was tradition, the holiday culminated in a final night out before I and my fellow diaspora students would part ways, returning home 11 months later to do it all again.
It was a Friday night. In a few days I would fly back to Australia to begin my third and final year of undergrad. I bounced between groups of friends at different venues, trying to make the most of the night. When we’d had enough, three friends and I set off. Although I lived close by, I didn’t want to be dropped off first, so we went to the furthest house and worked our way back.
Life Has a Way of Humbling Us, Slowing Us Down
The Enterprise Road/Glenara Avenue intersection is one of many high-accident zones in Harare. And that’s where it happened.
A head-on collision.
I remember lying motionless on the ground, in shock, bright lights shining around. Passers-by had stopped – some to look, some to help and some to loot whatever they could from the wreckage.
I was whisked away to Avenues Clinic, the hospital of my birth.
My injuries: numerous superficial cuts all over, severe grazing on my left forearm and hand, a perforated bowel and three hairline fractures to my spine – these were discovered after about a week of hospitalization and plenty of movement that could have caused permanent neurological damage.
I had surgery later that morning. I woke up in the intensive care unit (ICU) with drips, a nasogastric (feeding) tube, a catheter, an oxygen mask and bandages, one covering my grazed forearm and another the staples down the middle of my belly. Yes, staples. Parts of my hair had been shaved off.
Healing is not Linear
During my stay I went between ICU, high dependency unit (HDU) and back, and finally a private room. I was improving slowly after the operation until one day, I stopped breathing. I was improving after that until I felt pressure mounting in my lower right side, where my seatbelt had dug into me. The pain signaled an abdominal hematoma. I needed a second operation to insert a drain.
My Physical Scars
As a child I kept close to my mother’s side and often shadowed my sister, as little sisters do. I maintained close groups of friends throughout school, where I flourished academically, sang in the choir and competed in the chess and swimming teams. Introverted by nature, I generally played it safe. Studying abroad forced me out of my comfort zone.
Until the accident, I had just a handful of scars. One above my left brow, another on my inner thigh and two on my right arm from childhood vaccinations.
Suddenly that handful of scars multiplied dramatically.
One on my head. Two small ones on my nose. One on my chest where the central line had been placed. Three on my left forearm. Various small ones on my left hand. Several on my abdomen, most notably a 17 cm (6.7 inches) long scar down the middle (nearly the length of a tail comb) and another 5cm (2 inches) on my side.
As I once wrote in a poem about what happened:
“The glass dome of the sky is filled with stars/Shattered glass from that night marks my body with scars”
It Didn’t Feel Like Me
I think I was always self-conscious about my body, less so as I grew older, but self-conscious nonetheless. I was influenced by the beauty standards that many, especially girls and women, grapple with.
I had a new body to get used to now. I was weaker, less mobile, with a crooked (but intact) spine and newly-formed scars – many of them. I contended with all but those on my belly and forearm. I was told they were healing “nicely.” To me, all they did was stare at me, ugly-like.
One of the few times I hadn’t played it safe and this happens?
The scars were many but easy to cover up. I’d wear caps or headscarves and high-necked, long-sleeved shirts whenever I left home for a check-up or physio, so no one would see my scars enroute. And don’t we all try to conceal our pain, our shame at times?
It Takes a Village
I was blessed to have had a village, not only in childhood, but at a point in adulthood when I greatly needed it.
I had excellent healthcare, from the physicians, surgeons (one also a family friend), physiotherapists and nurses. This experience gave me a deep appreciation of nurses; I know I was a handful at times!
My parents were a constant presence when I was in hospital. I had countless visitors there – my brother, aunts, uncles, my friends, family friends – including some who I don’t remember seeing because I was heavily medicated initially.
On days when I couldn’t bear to see anyone, my mother would gently dismiss those who had gathered. They would leave their gifts and greetings with her and return another time. The visits continued at home. This family village brought tea, soup, meals, prayers, love and laughter.
I was anxious about going home – the real world – where I would no longer have the round-the clock support I’d become used to. As I was wheeled out on the day of my discharge, my hospital village celebrated with me and escorted me to the family car. I was helped into the back seat.
Anywhere in the world, ambulances command the road. When the siren sounds, the road is almost immediately cleared for the ambulance’s swift passage. Aside from the ambulance rides I’d taken, this was my first car ride in about two weeks. Of course the road would not be cleared for us. I didn’t think much about this then.
I was going home.
The sun was smile-shining on me like she missed me and couldn’t contain the feeling. I couldn’t either that day. My father drove as I soaked in the sun, all the colours and people around me… all that life. It was truly sublime.
This was Just the Beginning
To ease my transition to home care, my parents set up a bed in the lounge and got a helper for me. She and my mother took great care of me. They oiled my scars diligently, leaving none out, and dressed those which needed dressing. Every morning and evening was a labour of love.
While thankful to these primary carers, I became increasingly frustrated at my pace of recovery. In hospital taking a few steps down the corridor was an incredible feat, but at home everything was much harder and I had weaned off the strong pain killers.
I was afraid of being in a car and if I had to, I simply had to be driven by my parents. I had to sit in the seat behind the front passenger; I thought it was the safest. Although they made every effort do drive carefully for my sake, every speed was too fast and every turn too sharp. Other motorists steered too close to us. The trauma turned me into a backseat driver. It would be years until I got behind the wheel myself; years before my emotional scars would heal.
My friends in Australia wanted to know what had happened and when I would be reunited with them. I couldn’t quite say. In addition, I had to defer a semester, sort things out with uni and with immigration – complications upon complications.
Being at Peace with Imperfection
I can’t pinpoint when the penny dropped. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a penny as a feather that gently floated down, landing softly and quietly, to the realization that my scars were not going anywhere and I just had to accept that. I got rid of the head coverings, long sleeves and the burden of hiding parts of myself.
When I was able to do so without assistance, I continued the duty of oiling my scars, noticing – with some objectivity – how they were changing.
Later that year, some friends and I bought tickets to an annual reggae festival. We were all kitted out in Rasta regalia, myself in a vest (singlet), cargo pants and a crochet bikini underneath. A bikini! I’d never worn one until that day. The vibes were irie for the star-studded event.
As the day eased, I removed my vest and danced and walked around the venue, with my “worst” scars in full view. I was aware of this, but I didn’t care – it was so liberating. A sister-friend called me the next day to say how proud she was of me for doing so. Another joked that I should get a belly chain piercing down the length of my scar; I’m still not there yet!
“What Did You Learn About Yourself?”
My sister-friend asked this question one night. Without much thought I said, “Life is short”. Albeit true, she, knowing me too well, probed for my truth. “I didn’t know my own strength,” I said.
It was as true then as it is now and I remind myself of this fact from time to time.
I went from being barely able to walk to running a 16 km race a few years ago. I resumed my studies mid-2009, graduated a year later and went on to do a master’s degree in 2011.
I went from being afraid of being in a car to driving nearly 300 km (186 miles) inter-city; I still have moments of panic on the road, however. I have been past the site of my accident many times now. I no longer cover up my scars. I still have patches of discoloured skin.
I am at peace with it all.
All this was made possible with support from my village and my intent upon healing physically and emotionally.
To Those Struggling to Love Their Bodies After a Traumatic Change…
Allow me to share some words of advice and encouragement as one who has been where you are (take only what resonates with you):
• I know it’s hard.
• Your feelings about your scars are valid. Know that people will probably ask about or otherwise react to them, but you are not obliged to respond. Try not to internalize the “they’re not so bad” or “that’s nothing; my [sister’s/friend’s/etc.] are worse” comments.
• Oil your scars; monitor them as they heal.
• Healing is not linear; give yourself grace and try to be patient with yourself.
• Find your village. It doesn’t matter if it’s two people or 20.
• You will find peace (again). You will learn to love yourself (again).
• Take care of your emotional scars as well. Replace “why is this happening to me?” to “what is this teaching me?”
• Pray, meditate, journal, write, leave yourself motivational hand-written notes and voice notes, curate your social media to include uplifting content.
• Commemorate the anniversary of your accident in ways that are meaningful to you.
All this is to say: practice self-care.
When you’re back in your power, start living your best life. Or continue.
Finally, I urge you to listen to Alessia Cara’s song, Scars to Your Beautiful. In it she sings:
“But there’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark
You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are
And you don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart
No scars to your beautiful, we’re stars and we’re beautiful.”
Mary K is an intersectional feminist, humanitarian at heart and writer. Connect with her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReynasIn2lude