Self-Harm Recovery: From Where Dirt Used To Be
***Trigger warning: recalls memory of self-harm with some detail***
I got my first tattoo nearly four years ago to the day, from a gentleman named Mike Peace who was then at Strange World Tattoo. I'd had a few ideas for a piece but nothing was sticking. The imagery wasn't all that important. I had one goal, with which my tattoo's size, placement, and prominence were determined: to cover my self-harm scars.
It was about six months after a monthlong attempt at day treatment, where a psychiatrist sat across from me in a chair and told me I had borderline personality disorder. I was getting this tattoo at the height of my grapple of what having a personality disorder - let alone the arguably most stigmatized and misunderstood one of them all - really meant and what I was imagining the rest of my life to look like. I carried a lot of shame in my scars. From when I first started cutting, I knew it was a behaviour that was looked down upon and that there was a misconception that anyone who did it was cutting for attention. I'd had friends growing up who told me about their self-harming behaviour. I didn't understand it, nor what anyone could gain emotionally from physically hurting their bodies. I also grew up catholic, where suicide is believed to be the ultimate sin that casts you away to hell forever. I couldn't imagine self-harm being far off from that belief. So when it became an impulse for me, then a habit, and before long a full-on obsession, I didn't know entirely what was happening to me. I couldn't articulate what I was gaining from it, only that in the moments I had something sharp to my skin was when the world would go quiet. My mind would go quiet, for a time. And when your whole world - outside of your body and inside of your mind - are spinning out of control 24/7, just one moment of peace is everything, and the cost of flawless forearm skin seems like an affordable price to pay.
By January of 2012, I didn't want to look at my arm anymore. It kind of looked like a highway map but with straighter lines. Even as the scars were fading I knew where they had been, and while the damage wasn't life-threatening physically, what I saw carried a permanence emotionally, a weight, a shame, and I didn't want to wear these scars for the rest of my life. I wanted to tell a different story. I tried to think of images that would mean something to me, that I could cover my scars up with. My original idea was a tiger because my father's Chinese zodiac animal was a tiger. But it didn't seem like the right fit, because I was never much of a cat person and my reasoning for getting this tattoo spawned of my own experience. I was lying on my bed one afternoon, drawing out ideas in my sketchbook, and while listening to Stars in the background, the sound of violins and this lyric caught my attention:
"Live through this and you won't look back."
"Live through this and you won't look back."
The song is called "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by a band called Stars, an indie-alternative band from Montreal. It's the first track on their 2004 album entitled Set Yourself on Fire, and the second track on my brother and sister-in-law's wedding soundtrack, because they have great taste in both music and wedding favours. It's commonly used in the credits of movies, or in romantic rainy kissing scenes. Or maybe I just have horrible taste in movies (more likely). I'll listen to the song every once in awhile and now, each line feels like it was charged and set free to find me. The second verse in the song goes like this,
I'm no longer religious in any stretch of the way I was raised to be. Sin to me is less about disobeying a god and more about dishonouring my own truth. I've also spent the last four years investigating all different kinds of therapies and educating myself about BPD, PTSD, and self-harm - and recording my experiences, my thoughts, my sensations, and making efforts to honour the truth down every one of those avenues, no matter how painful or ugly. I look in the mirror and see a different kind of beauty about myself. A graceful beauty. Oh, and I did get a tattoo.
Which brings me back to a cold afternoon in March 2012 when I walked into Strange World Tattoo and sat down with Mike for three hours. My memories of my first tattoo session were that it wasn't particularly painful except for the part near the wrist. And it was more awkward and uncomfortable than anything, but Mike did a good job of trying to lessen that by telling me about his wife and three kids, whom he loves dearly. In my head, I think I must have told myself that any pain this needle was giving me was far less than what I'd done to myself - which was a lie, a tattoo needle hurts way more - but instinctively, I might have been capitalizing on the emotional pain I carried instead. When it was over, I tried to follow the aftercare instructions but couldn't believe how itchy it became. I came back for a touchup about six weeks later, with a LOT of fading to fix, and I asked Mike to add four small stars on my righthand view. Stars is a band with four people in it. After the touchup, I took a photo of the new tattoo and tweeted it to the band, and I got a follow back. It was an impulse I'd come to regret, however, four years later when I began the coverup process. The first of three sessions happened yesterday afternoon, at my go-to Calgary shop, Immaculate Concept.
In the last four years, I've come a long way. I have my days of weakness and there's still a part of me that breaks from inside if you push hard enough. But for the most part, gone are the worst of my violent, angry outbursts. Gone are the fights I pick with friends in the image of projections I'm making off myself. And, gone is my BPD diagnosis. That's the weird one. I've medically been BPD-free for years now, because borderline personality disorder is a list of nine criteria that 'define' the disorder; if you have at least five of these issues and they are prevalent in your life enough to negatively effect it, you have BPD. If you have four or less, you don't. This is important to understand for the fact that with or without a diagnosis, having had it is still a game-changer no matter what. Just because an issue is no longer an active criterion doesn't mean it isn't sometimes a passing thought, a distant fear or insecurity in relationships, or a striking memory that makes you question your identity and what you're capable of. One of these nine criteria is frequent self-harm. I haven't taken a sharp object to my skin in many years, but that isn't to say I haven't thought about it, sometimes in the mere capacity of a memory and sometimes by testing the waters in times of deep distress, by doing things like taking a knife and sleeping with it under my pillow. It sounds crazy and twisted but I've done that before in order to tolerate the temptation and ride it out. (I wouldn't recommend that as a best practise by any means, and if you happen to struggle with self-harm and you're trying to stop, having sharp objects in your bedroom at night will do you NO favours.) It's worked for me when it needed to; cutting feels like it was a lifetime ago now, but I'll never forget what it felt like and, therefore, I'll never lose touch with what it's like for anyone going through it now. It remains a very important part of my story and my journey to being well. But it's a painful memory to dig up when that wellness dream becomes more and more of a reality. That tattoo, those words that I got out of desperation to shift the narrative of my story from victim to survivor, only tells part of the story I'm telling today. It only shows a small part of the person telling it, and in that way, what was once an honourable move for me has become dishonourable to me now. I can't move forward if I keep re-traumatizing myself with difficult conversations I'm not obligated to have - but forearms are "public real estate" in tattooing context, so people see it, and people will ask. I decided I wanted to take the focus off the text and get a partial coverup that both frames the old tattoo and provides something better to look at. I'll be posting progress shots with every new session. And if you're curious about my lovely artist, her name is Alix Au, and you can find a link to her portfolio here.
To end, I wrote a poem this afternoon that reflects upon my self-harming past, my recovery process, and what starting this coverup process means to me. As pictured in the photo above, the poem reads as so (edited slightly in the typed version for better structure):