Tattoos and Mental Health: A Tool To Heal

Trigger Warning: Self Harm

It’s been five and a half years: five and a half years since the last time I took a tool of self hatred to my skin and carved paths for lava flows to twist, turn, navigate across my body, drip from my flesh to the floor. Five and a half years.

I am amazed by this number because I was never able to grasp the concept of living long enough to graduate high school but here I am, about to graduate university. Hurdle after hurdle, panic attack after panic attack, I have fought the rarely-ceasing urges and denied the old habits from taking over. I built my supports, I battled—and yes, I say battled—the mental health system at Western and in my hometown, and I found ways to ground myself when triggered. Yet there is only so much these tactics could do to help me; I looked down at my body and saw a graveyard.

At the ages of 14 and 15, I didn’t care about permanence. I didn’t care what I was doing to my body because, to be completely honest, what I was doing was keeping me alive—just as much as it was pulling me closer and closer to suicide. It didn’t matter that I would have scars because they, in some twisted way, justified a pain that I didn’t think was justified, that I had made up because nothing so horrible had happened to me for me to feel that way. It was proof of what I was going through; no one could tell me I wasn’t hurting when it was written across my body in fresh cuts and four-month old scars that still looked just as new. It was my proof, but it was evidence that I didn’t plan on having to live with.

As I recovered from my addiction with the help of my parents and began taking a medication that worked for a time, I realized what I had done. For the first few years, my relationship to my body and my scars was complicated. On the one hand, I saw a body that had been to war and survived. On the other hand, I saw something that disgusted me. I saw each line or pattern or design fighting its way from an angry red to a duller pink to a fearful purple and out to a light, silvery sheen and remembered why they were there. I saw them and I saw who I had been; I saw my illness in my skin, and so did other people.

Trying to explore adulthood and my sexuality with a mosaic of obvious-what-they-are scars made me feel repulsive and, in moments where the last thing you want to be discussing with a partner is just how much you hated yourself when you were younger, I was always asked why I would do that to myself. They always said it as if I—the person I am now—had done it, rather than a terrified teenager who didn’t know what was happening to her.

But it didn’t matter what other people thought. I would cry over probing questions and the shame some people put on me for a day or two, two weeks at worst, and then I wouldn’t care anymore. It was my body, my life, and what they thought about my past didn’t matter. Yet it wasn’t about them; it was about me. I cared. I was disgusted. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to see my past hatred lingering on my body for the rest of my life, taunting me, reminding me of what I had done and who I had been.

A few days after my 18th birthday I got my first tattoo. I had always wanted them even though I never said much about it, but when I turned 18 I knew it was time. I fairly quickly got two more. The first was small script saying “expecto patronum” on my left ankle and it covered a cluster of scars with a spell of light, strength and positive memory that are central to my childhood and my bond with my family. The second was a Catholic cross on my wrist: it covers a scar in the same shape, but a) reclaims the pain of my childhood struggles with religion and God, b) changes the memory associated with the symbol on my body, and c) reminds me that I can make new meaning out of the signs on my body. My third tattoo was a regal and peaceful looking lion on my ribs, reminding me of my inner power, courage and ability. Most importantly, this was a tattoo that I found beautiful.

That summer—the one between first and second year—I went through another rough patch, only when I looked at my body I thought, “This is mine. This is something to protect.”

It continued this way. Whenever the anxiety seized me or the depression strapped me to my bed, I could look at my body and be reminded why I loved myself. I saw things that gave me the will to fight: on my ankle I saw both the love of my family and a formula to fight the darkness, on my wrist I saw a dedication to and love for myself, and on my ribs I saw the strength I keep within. These fueled me. These were my love letter to myself. These stopped me from relapsing.

At the beginning of second year I got a large peacock on my thigh, covering the first batch of my worst scars. At the beginning of this year, 2017, I got a clock with flowers beside it, covering almost the rest of the scars on my right thigh. My artist and I decided to add to the peacock to cover the rest of my scars on that side and, though I—of course—can still see them lightly underneath these tattoos, I love the way I look. These tattoos make me feel sexy. They make me feel powerful. They make me feel like a person with agency, who can decide what goes on her body and how she uses it and how she feels about it. And, in a lot of ways, I now look at the rest of my scars and don’t see them as the roadblock they used to be. If I want to reclaim that space, I know I can. I know I’ll take the time to make the decision as to what goes on my body to replace them because, quite frankly, I know how it feels to live with a choice that didn’t register as permanent.

Though my tattoos were and are certainly an essential aspect of my personal recovery from my self harm addiction, I don’t want to credit them for my survival so far. There is a lot of work that goes into getting better; it may have been five and a half years of recovery, but that’s of constantly working on myself, of having a strong support system from my family, friends and boyfriend, of finding a medication that works for the biological/chemical aspects of my Major Depressive and Generalized Anxiety Disorders, and of a lot of different types of therapy. So, rather than my tattoos being a cure-all for my mental illnesses and my struggles with self harm—I definitely still struggle, I just know how to handle it better now—tattoos have been a tool to reclaim myself, a way to turn my body from a graveyard to a museum… a place I love and want to be.

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