Classics, Disability and Chronic Illness, Personal

Odysseus’ Scar: A Lesson About Trauma, Disability, and Identity

It was that scar which the old woman knew by touch
When she handled the limb in the palm of her hand

Oh, it is truly you, Odysseus, dear child, and I did not recognize you
Until I had touched the body of my lord

(Od. XIX, 467-8, 474-5) Translated by Emily Dana

The above passage from the Odyssey seems to keep coming up no matter how many times I tried to get away from it. I walked into my first day of Bible in Jerusalem, and lo and behold, one of the handouts that was passed out was this scene. In this scene, Odysseus has just returned to Ithaca and his old nurse-maid is washing his feet. She recognizes him by a scar that he got when he was a child.

At my last blood draw, when the nurse was feeling my left arm trying to find a vein to draw blood, she came across the scar tissue from the hundreds of blood draws before. The scar is barely visible; I didn’t even know it was there until she pointed it out to me. But that scar, and all of my other scars, visible or invisible, tell my story.

Trauma leaves scars whether we like it or not. Sometimes those scars are visible, but other times we hardly know that they exist until the exact moment that they decide to present themselves to us–the word that reminds us of our scariest memory or a dispute with a friend that jerks us back into childhood, or even a certain smell that is connected to a memory.

Scars, while they may look unpleasant, are a sign of healing. When the cut is raw, when the experience is close, it may be difficult to talk about, hard to even think about. For example, after my horrific experience in the hospital last year, I was barely able to open my mouth and talk about it. But then, over time, we heal. And eventually (my therapist says six years later), we are able to use that experience to help others who are going through it in the present. There’s something beautiful about seeing people who have scars that match ours (it reminds me of the I Should Tell You scene in RENT).

Scars in some way also allow us to reclaim our bodies. I got my first tattoo two days before my 19th birthday and my second on Rosh Hashanah two years later. While some may argue that those tattoos are scarring the skin (and that is technically true), creating these scars, these designs was liberating. My tattoos allowed the positive things in my life to present themselves on my body. And I would say that a classical reference and a Harry Potter tattoo also do a pretty good job at representing my identity.

As I read through this passage from the Odyssey over and over for the last two to three months as this blog post has percolated, I couldn’t help but connect it to my experience as a disabled woman and my experience in the disability/chronic illness communities. Many of us struggle with our bodies. Many of our bodies have gone through trauma whether that be to cause our disability or because of it. We are often poked, prodded, and biopsied. Some of us have disorders that have been passed down through our DNA. Whether we like it or not, our bodies tell our stories.

From head to toe, our bodies tell our stories, and for a long time I hated that but now it’s comforting to feel the back pain from the hiking backpack in 2011 or the knee pain that was exacerbated by swimming breaststroke. I am still learning what scars my past experiences have given me, but I know that as I continue to learn, I will deepen my understanding of myself as well as that of others.

Our bodies tell our stories, but sometimes those scars, those stories, are what remind us (and others) of who we are.

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2 thoughts on “Odysseus’ Scar: A Lesson About Trauma, Disability, and Identity”

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