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I cried on the tattoo table last night.
I’m covered in tattoos.
I’ve sat for six hours, passed out, fallen asleep, moaned, ground my teeth, and bitten through my lip during tattoos.
But I have never, once, in my hours and hours, my full back piece and full leg piece and ribs and foot, cried.
At least, until yesterday.
Nothing was different. That day, I had the same tattoo artist who’s worked on a handful of my pieces. He’s relatively gentle. I like him—he’s funny, tatted up, has gauges he regrets, and a blonde mohawk-mullet thing he calls his “Mawllet” that he’s super down to tell anyone about.
His work is something I love: full of skulls, flowers, bones, and darkness; he’s got a light hand in a craft based in pain and can keep up a funny conversation or leave me to my Netflix and napping. He’s seen my boobs, my butt, and all the scars in between with no judgment. Overall, he’s a decent guy and a good tattoo artist.
My prep was the same: a few ibuprofen before I drive over, a sugary snack, and a protein shake for during.
The work being done wasn’t in too painful a spot—the back of my thigh, which was getting the color the sunset and moth deserved from the beginning.
And I cried on his table.
I keep asking myself: Why?
Why after all this time, and all the work I’ve gotten in more painful places, am I crying on my artist’s table?
I think it has something to do with growth.
The history: I used to self-harm via cutting.
It’s part of my past. I switched from cutting to tattoos as a way to get the same high without the long-term damage of bleeding out.
The impetus to the switch was me almost bleeding out in a bathtub by accident. In the middle of summer, in 100 degree heat, I passed out for somewhere around 12 hours from blood loss. I was rescued by a friend and taken care of.
But I will never forget the desperation in his blue-green eyes, his face sweaty, his glasses on the top of his head. That moment is when I truly realized: if I keep this up, it’s going to kill me.
And I didn’t want to die.
My recovery from self-harm was a combination of therapy, exercise, and tattoos.
Therapy helped me restructure the way I viewed the world, process and let go of my past, and understand why my childhood wasn’t ideal. I took two years to, at the core of it, reparent myself. I had to raze the past, understand why I had issues with self-harm, eating, and staying present, and then let it all go.
Now, I look to the future.
Exercise allowed me to find who I was. It brought me back into my body and helped me improve my relationship with it. By being in touch with my inner self, I started developing an ability to listen to myself and access my value system. I discovered how lifting heavy objects made me feel empowered, even if all I did that day was lift a barbell up and down.
Now, I look to getting stronger, not more scarred.
Finally, tattoos allowed me, when it got hard, to go sit for five hours, be in pain, and get the endorphin boost—without bleeding out on the floor. It was my crutch while I left behind a much scarier behavior.
Fast forward to me sitting on a tattoo artist’s table, years later, and I am crying.
I realized I moved on, and I’m happy and sad at the same time. I’m celebrating, but know I might have to leave behind habits I created to leave that place of self-harm, like tattoos.
I no longer need pain. When I needed it, pain made my life make sense. It turned the volume down enough that I could at least hear my footsteps under the music. Moving from self-harm to tattoos allowed me to take the pain and make something beautiful, while also keeping the volume turned down.
What I didn’t realize was that during the process, I also figured out other ways of keeping the volume down, until the music turned itself off and I didn’t notice.
I lift. I fight. I write. I make art. I’m living a life I am proud of. I know where I am going and I didn’t back then. I’m older and wiser; my brain has developed. I see myself as an adult and I’ve settled in.
And the noisemaker is turned off and gone, at least for now (life has a way of throwing curveballs, and I am not going to be taken off guard). I no longer need pain and am no longer accustomed to pain as a norm.
And so what used to only hurt a little, hurts a lot. What used to feel like arousal from pain, doesn’t.
And I cried. It hurt. I didn’t want to be there.
I think that’s beautiful.
I was able to change and move forward. It took a lot of things, but I quit self-harming, have no desire to again, and doubt I ever will.
We can change. Life can change. Old habits can die.
Anyone who’s dealt with problematic habits or addiction can attest: we have the capacity—at any moment—to choose something different. It took me time to find something different, and I did it.
I started asking, “What would I do?” And followed my intuition. I started trusting myself, and with a little help from my friends, built a life I’m amazed at.
Change is a constant, and my time under the needle has changed.