Thursday, 11 July 2013

Did I Trade in Cutting for Tattoos?

I started writing this blog as a way to help get some thoughts out of my head and hopefully help someone else along the way. I knew I was going to tell my stories but I didn't realise how much I was going to learn about myself along the way. The latest thing that has piqued my interest is why I get tattoos.

I started getting tattoos as soon as I was old enough to legally do so much to my mothers dismay. I've gotten tattooed six times now. Truth be told, if I hadn't tried so hard to conform to society norms in early adulthood, I would have a lot more. Six may seem like a lot to some and not much to others. All of them are easily hidden, but if I had my way I would have sleeves. I love every one of them, even my first one which is not the best, but it's part of me now and I wouldn't change a thing. I'm forty now and still want more. People try to tell me I'm too old to still be getting tattoos. They say I will regret them when I'm old. I think they will be fun to talk about when I'm in the old folks home getting a sponge bath from some young whipper snapper. Or I will end up with dementia and won't care what anyone thinks. So I'm gonna keep 'em coming!

The question I am asking myself is why do I like getting tattoos? I don't just like the self expression of having art on my body, I also enjoy the actual act of being tattooed. It's hilarious to those close to me because I have a deep seeded fear of needles and blood. But I love getting tattooed! I pass out nearly every time I get my blood drawn. Go ahead and laugh. I do at this point. So why do I love those little needles tap tap tapping away at my flesh? I wonder...

I was in my early teens when the depression, anxiety, and severe emotional pain started to grow. I would have such extreme inner turmoil that I would feel like I was dying. I would then slump into a period of complete numbness. Sometimes the antidepressants I started to take helped, but sometimes they made things worse. At some point the cycling pain and numbness became too much. I don't remember exactly how it started but I remember sitting in the dark crying and shaking. For some reason I had gotten a hold of an old hunting knife of my fathers. I was just pressing it against my skin. I soon pressed so hard that I cut myself and started bleeding. I didn't notice this immediately, but when I finally saw the blood I just stared as it trickled down my leg. I was mesmerised. I dragged the blade across my skin again. Another little line beaded up and started to stream down parallel to the other. I found some relief.

If cutting or self harm in general is alien to you, be glad. It's not a pretty place to be. So why do people do it? I can only say why I did, but the story is fairly similar across the board. Two basic premises: first, you have so much emotional pain inside that the infliction of physical pain actually eases the emotional and second, if complete numbness sets in feeling anything at all is actually a relief, letting you know you are still alive. I fell into both categories. The girl who hates needles and blood found solace in cutting herself. And I didn't care what I used. Knives, broken glass, pins, etc., didn't matter as long as I got my relief. The deeper my pain, the deeper the cuts. If this is still unfamiliar to you let me point out that cutting is not about suicide. Cuts are superficial. They may or may not scar, but are not done in an attempt to end life. It's all about the relief and release of pain.

I cut on and off through the worst parts of my illness. I pray that the worst is behind me and I can maintain my semblance of normalcy (whatever that is). I do have scars on my arms and legs leftover from those days, but thankfully they are not too bad. Visible, but not grotesque.

Now my tattoos... That's a different story. I love them! Every last one. And wish I had gotten more throughout my life to memorialise moments and milestones. I love the symbolism they represent. And the pain. Is that wrong? Is that sick? Am I still beyond help? In a group discussion regarding tattoos it was mentioned that a model had written a memoir regarding her journey through self harm and depression. She traded in cutting for tattoos. This made me wonder if I had done the same thing. So I started thinking about the similarities and differences.

First of all, my cutting and tattooing overlapped. Okay fine. Whatever. I'm crazy. Enough said. But are tattoos a healthier alternative to cutting? I read several articles and other posts to see what other people said before I wrote this. It was clear that people who have dealt with mental illness think tattoos can be a better alternative to straight up self harm. That's not to say that all people that love tattoos are mentally ill. Or that mentally ill people with tattoos use to self harm. As with most mental illness scenarios, there is no hard fast rule. I'm no expert so I can't speak for the masses. I do my best to inform myself before forming opinions and always keep an open mind.

So what about me personally? I do think tattooing is a release for me similar to cutting. I got two of my tattoos after the last time I cut. Neither time made me want to cut, but I was in a much healthier place mentally. Could it create the urge in an unstable person? Possibly. Now having thought about the tattoo process and the pain involved, I definitely think there is a correlation. The girl who hates blood and pain loves tattooing. I have a psychological desire for controlled pain which I see in other areas of my life as well. Not completely sure if that's considered good or bad. Just is what it is.

I'm sure a lot of people find it strange that I love the pain involved in tattooing, but to each his own. Would I recommend tattooing as an alternative to self harm? No. Is it a good alternative? Yes. But if I went back in time and got a tattoo instead of cutting every time, I'm sure I would have the most ridiculous collection of doodles on my body. The root cause of cutting needs to be addressed and stabilised before any alternative therapy is suggested, including tattooing. I absolutely see now that I use the tattooing process as a release because the illness never really goes away. I've just learned to deal with it better and channel my energy in somewhat more productive arenas.

I'm feeling the itch...