Tattoos tell a story. Ask anyone about their tattoos and you will likely hear the story of their life, or at the very least a very personal piece of their “story.” I got my first tattoo when I was 21. The tattoo that will forever be known as the tramp stamp. Which is total bullshit, but whatever. The low back tattoo that every girl my age got in the 90’s. I wanted to get tattooed as soon as I turned 18, but I spent a few years getting pierced instead and waited for the desire to pass. It didn’t pass. I had that one tattoo for years and years without ever needing or wanting another one. But then I fell in a hole. A hole I couldn’t climb out of. I have lots of mantras tattooed on my skin. Those mantras helped me climb out of the hole and truly represent what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now. It goes like this. Once upon a time, I was a raging, hot mess. I was hopeless. Hopeless is the worst feeling in the world and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I had been exposed to the words hope and faith quite a bit in AA meetings. I wasn’t sober and I had neither hope nor faith in my life. I was also attending group therapy. Dialectical Behavior Therapy. To treat my Borderline Personality Disorder that I don’t actually have. Being Borderline was better to me than claiming alcoholism and having to give up drinking. I rocked that Borderline Personality Disorder too. I owned the shirts and I wore the awareness bracelet. I gave a face to Borderline, “normalizing” it, much like I do today with addiction and recovery. And, I got to keep drinking. The best part of the whole deal. But, I was dying inside. Failing at life in every possible way. Even my liver was struggling. Every day I would tell myself that today I won’t drink and then every day, usually before 8 am, I would be drinking. I HAD to. It was the only way to keep my body from shaking. Every day was the same and every day was awful. I was reading a self help article about Borderline Personality Disorder when I came across the acronym for Hope. Hold On Pain Ends. I fell in love with that idea and knew I needed to carry that with me. My first mantra tattoo. I really don’t remember getting it. Most of those first tattoos blend together in a gray kind of memory. But there it was. On my hand where I couldn’t miss it and was reminded constantly that I could get through this. I was able to get clean from methamphetamine addiction. Nothing could possibly be harder than that. That’s what I told myself. I have since learned that addiction is addiction and it’s ALL hard. I was going to AA meetings regularly, although I still wasn’t sober. I was starting to like the idea of being sober. I kept thinking one day I would be ready and I would just stop drinking. At this stage of the game I was having little spurts of “sobriety.” Or, rather, I was managing a few days in between being drunk. Or, maybe I was just waiting until 5:00. Again, it’s such a blur. AA people use the term One Day at a Time. I always hated that term because I knew it was bullshit. I knew if I committed to a sober life it meant every day for the rest of my life. I was seeing a therapist who was teaching me about mindfulness. She kind of, sort of convinced me that it simply meant living in the moment. I could live with that. My second mantra tattoo is on my foot. One Step at a TIme. That’s how I was going to dig myself out of the hole. I am fairly certain I wasn’t drinking the day I got that tattoo and I probably thought I was done with alcohol. I assure you, I wasn’t done. On another day I was in my therapists office freaking out about something. That was a common occurrence. I had been drinking before therapy. Another common occurence. She always knew when I had been drinking. Most people didn’t notice strictly because it was my norm. I am sure she yelled at me a bit because that’s who she is. Then she taught me about a practice called “calm abiding.” Calm abiding is a Buddhist practice of stilling the mind of any thought that might arise. I promise you I wasn’t able to reach the place of calm abiding, but I fell in love with the concept and knew that’s what I needed in my life. I left her office and went straight to the tattoo shop and got the word Calm tattooed on the topside of my wrist. Not sure why I didn’t throw in abiding, but there must have been a reason. It’s on my right wrist near my hope tattoo to remind me to be calm and have hope. Not long after that tattoo healed, I was leaving my house to go somewhere, who knows where, and my husband told me to try not to come home with any tattoos. I am sure it wasn’t my intention to get tattooed that day, but those words lit me up. It sounded a lot like he was telling me not to do a thing. In my mind, on that day, it meant I had to get two tattoos. What I recall about that incident is that it started at a local gas station. The gas station was right beside the tattoo shop. I went inside and bought a cup of ice and a can of ginger ale. I came out to my car, where my 1/2 gallon bottle of bourbon was, and mixed myself a drink. As I was mixing the drink there was a knock on my window. I looked up to see a woman I knew from AA. In my mind she was a sober woman. In reality, she was anything but. She was struggling like I was struggling. I had no idea. She got in the car with me and offered up Valium and Xanax. I hadn’t taken pills or any other drugs in years, but I didn’t hesitate for a second. I don’t know what you know about mixing pills and alcohol, but I can assure you, it’s not good. There is not one memory after that, but the two tattoos I got that day are the words “Forgive” and “Love.” Forgive faces away from me, in such a way that I can hold my wrist out and ask forgiveness. I found it easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission in those days. “Love” must have been for me. I am sure I wanted to feel love or feel loved or just feel lovable. I was quite unlovable that day. I was quite unlovable for a long time. That was the longest day that I don’t remember. It’s weird the few things we do remember in those black outs or brown outs. I remember calling my therapist and yelling at her. I was in the parking lot of the hospital wearing one of my shirts that identified me as borderline and realizing that this made me look crazy. I was yelling at her for giving me that label and more than anything for not calling me out on wearing the shirt. Then I woke up in the hospital room. There was a security guard outside of my room and the nurses told me they didn’t know what I had done, but I must have done something bad. They monitored me and they let me go because it’s frustrating trying to treat a drunk person who doesn’t want help. I remember leaving the hospital and walking through the parking lot. I remember the security guards but I can’t remember exactly what they said to me. I do remember that it enraged me and I screamed obscenities at them until they tasered me. I woke up in the hospital room again. This time I didn’t have a security guard. This time I had “a watcher.” The person they place outside of your room to watch and make sure you don’t kill yourself. I must have told them I was going to kill myself or someone else while I was blacked out. I was “a danger to myself and others.” I stayed there for three days, refusing food and anything else they offered me. I was eventually moved to a psychiatric hospital. Every morning in this hospital it was my job to wake up and talk to the Dr on staff and try to convince him that I wasn’t actually mentally unstable. Unfortunately, my actions proved that I was mentally unstable. Also, every other person in the hospital was trying to convince the Dr of the same thing. Some of them had serious mental health issues. A scary situation that lasted way longer than I wanted it to. Eventually I was released into a treatment center and almost got sober. But I didn’t. I was back with my therapist and back in my DBT group. My therapist was pushing yoga on me and teaching me weird things, like how to breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I hated the breathing part of yoga because I felt like the more I was instructed to focus on my breath, the more I couldn’t breathe. It was awful and I clearly needed a Breathe tattoo to help me. I could no longer go to the same place where I had previously been tattooed because my husband made it clear to the tattoo artist that it would NOT be ok to tattoo a drunk me again. I want to say I was sober when I went for the breathe tattoo, but I was not. Had I been sober, I might have thought to put it in a place where I could see it. Instead, it went on the back of my arm, just above my elbow. It happens to be great for people who are standing behind me. I am happy to report that the Breathe tattoo is the last drunk tattoo I have. A few more psychiatric hospitals and a couple more treatment centers where I finally decided I had had enough Hell and it was time to do something different. I’ve been living sober for 5 years now and when I get a tattoo, the whole process has more meaning. My first sober tattoo was “Let it be.” Obviously I would let it go if I could right? When I let it be, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me or still exist, it just means that I don’t have to let it control me. Whatever ‘it’ is. My next sober tattoo was ‘Learn.” The intention there is to remind me to look for the lesson. The short form or “what the fuck am I supposed to learn from this?” So interesting that after I got that tattoo, I started learning more than I ever imagined about my past. Repressed memories came back and I learned how to deal with that. I am still learning every day in every way. and I know that won’t ever stop. The memories have stopped. At least for now. Maybe I am done with that. Time will tell. My last two tattoos are my favorites. At least they are my current favorites. I have a little Tt “element” tattoo on my forearm that identifies me as a Tee-totalar. This one is not at all original. It’s a movement. A community of people choosing to not be anonymous and recover “out loud.” I love being a part of a community that identifies in this way. I find it’s much better than wearing a Borderline Personality Shirt and identifying in that way. On New Year’s Eve I got my most recent tattoo. It’s a representation of where I am at this moment in my life. “Free.” Along with the word, are little birds flying free. I love it so much. I have found freedom that I never knew was possible. Freedom to be me, whatever that is in each moment. Comfortable in my skin more often than not, and able to deal with being uncomfortable when that happens. There’s a special kind of freedom that comes from living through Hell and coming out the other side. That freedom shows up as gratitude and joy for my life. It shows up when I catch myself dancing to the music at the grocery store.
*photo by Ed Speas*