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  • Matt

The Scars We Choose

I was born with a scar - A white spot over my heart devoid of any skin pigmentation. After overcoming chicken pox at age 5, my supposed birthmark evolved. Wherever I had chicken pox, I now had more white patches of skin, redefining what my first discolored area actually was - a skin condition called vitiligo. I had vitiligo on my feet, knees, waistline and right eye lid. My mom and I playfully called them my “spots”.

My grandmother, who passed away from breast cancer when I was four, also had vitiligo. Genetically, the skin condition skips generations, and I am the only one from the five Thomas siblings and cousins who got it. Michael Jackson made vitiligo popular because he was so self-conscious about slowly and spottily turning white that he completely bleached himself to get ahead of it. He chose to white out his spots.

Being Caucasian, vitiligo is far less noticeable on me than on those of African, Hispanic or Asian descent. However, I was still severely self-conscious about my spots throughout my childhood. Why did I have them? Why didn’t anyone else? How could I fix them?

We saw a specialist who gave us skin cream to try. It didn’t work. We saw another who prescribed going to tanning beds to fry the skin cells, kill them, and give them a chance to regrow with pigment. We opted out of that barbaric approach. After making the dermatology rounds and learning that there really isn’t any medical disadvantage or maleffect to vitiligo, only cosmetic, I resolved to not do anything about my spots. I tried to just ignore that I had them.

But ignoring them didn’t work either. Even though I wanted to forget about them, other kids wouldn’t let me. I was teased about my spots, especially in locker room situations when team showers or changing rooms uncovered the spots around my waistline, where my vitiligo is most prevalent. Since the sun doesn’t shine there, the pure white spots were unadulterated, unlike the ones that started to fill in due to sun exposure on my knees and feet. These private area spots earned me nicknames and led to hurtful jokes behind my back that eventually found their way back to my ears and made their way into my psyche and self-talk.

I loved playing sports, but I considered quitting some because of the interactions I had in locker rooms. In high school, I thought no girls would ever find me attractive once my pants came off because my spots would scare them away or repulse them. I would fantasize about what I’d look and be like without spots, and in those fantasies I felt far happier than in reality.

Then, a big shift happened that lead to a change in my perspective.

With help, I questioned whether being different was such a bad thing. I wondered whether something outside of my control, like the color of my skin, should be a source of pain and insecurity. I looked in the mirror and allowed myself to try looking at my spots through a different lens.

Instead of my vitiligo being a vulnerability, they became armor. Instead of a source of insecurity, a super power. Instead of shame, pride. I owned the scars assigned to me, alchemized my condition into confidence, and moved forward with my life.

When I think about my spots, I remember my grandmother who I miss, and I think of what makes me unique. No one else has spots like mine, just like every scar has a unique shape and story.

The freckles on my arms and back are reminders of long summer days having fun under the sun. The gashed skin on the back of my right leg where my beloved childhood dog got over eager for bacon. The three inch surgical incision that enabled my right shoulder to fight without dislocating again. The divot in my nose where my best friend punched me in the face. The discolored skin on my left arm from when I wrecked my bike on the day I was announcing my campaign for the ChessBoxing World Championship. All of these scars and others have stories and deep meaning to me.

I had no choice or say in most of those scars. Rather, I chose how to respond to them; what meaning I’d like to assign them. Am I a victim or a victor? Am I a complainer or an alchemist? I chose the latter.

But what about scars we can choose? What about moments we want to remember beyond a picture or the page of a journal?

For most of my life, my parents and mentors were vehemently against tattoos. They’d say I’d never get a job or that they are for lower class people. They’d remind me that my body is a temple and that I’d probably regret putting graffiti on it someday. They’d say it is excruciating or dangerous and I could die from infection. They’d say removal is expensive and even more painful.

All valid points in their own right, and I respect their perspective from their life experience and their authentic intention to help and advise me. However...

I don’t want a job that prejudges me based off the cover of my story. I don’t want to be a part of a social class that excludes self expression. The churches and temples I respect the most are the ones with masterful artwork and deep stories. Even my most painful memories are not regrets because they helped me get here, and I love the present, myself and my life. Millions get tattoos and take good care of them, live healthy lives and are still proud of them when they’re wrinkly. Why not?

Like my spots, freckles or scars, tattoos tell a story. Some stories are worth a little pain and the ongoing daily reminder of alchemy, achievement or identity.

My parents, potential bosses or future in-laws may disapprove, but living a life through the lens of what others may or may not think is not a life at all. It’s a suppressed existence born from fear. The shy little boy crying in a locker room bathroom stall lived that storyline already. The man who sits in the same skin differently chooses a better path today.

I will own my spots, tell my stories, and wear my skin with pride. Both the scars I’m given and the ones I choose are authentic decorations of self expression. I hope to tell the stories in my scars to my children, grandchildren and anyone else who will listen to something beyond skin-deep.

What are your thoughts about tattoos?

What is one of your scar’s stories?

- Matt

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