The Secret Power of Tattoos When Chronic Illness Controls My Body


I like getting tattoos.

Other things I enjoy include piercings, dying my hair colors not found in nature, and spending far too much of my disposable income on whatever makeup a Kardashian is currently peddling on Instagram.

So what, am I having a late-in-life rebellion against my parents? Do I just like my hair to look like sherbet because I’m really hungry?

I’ve thought long and hard about why I like to make my body physically fun-looking in unconventional ways, and the best answer I can come up with is control. Control is a really un-fun sounding word, but to me it’s an exciting concept.

Chronic illness means rarely having control over your own body. It means you can be trucking along in life, doing everything your doctors ask, and you may still encounter a storm of symptoms at a moment’s notice. It can make me feel pretty powerless —  everybody wants to talk about how “your body is your temple,” but what happens when your temple is tearing itself down for no good reason?! Screw this temple, honestly. I got a broken temple.

So how do you take back your own body? That’s where body modification comes in. There are a lot of different levels to body modification — everything from ear piercing to full body tattoos are included. For some people, it’s a whole lifestyle. I’m a pretty small-grade practitioner of it myself; I only have a couple of piercings and a few tattoos. But throughout history, whether you have a sleeve, or gages, or fuchsia eyebrows, I believe body mod has meant something kind of cool: self-empowerment.

young woman sitting in tattoo parlor getting a tattoo on her arm
Samantha getting a tattoo.

If I can’t control the chaos going on inside my temple, there’s something empowering about being able to decorate it as I please. It’s also nice on an infusion day or a trip to get blood work done to look down and see the tattoos I’ve chosen looking back at me. When I was a little kid and I was having a bad day, my mom would draw a smiley face on my index finger as a reminder at school that things would be OK. My tattoos feel like the big-time version of those little smiley faces drawn in pen.

And when I’ve been bedridden or housebound with a flare for a while, something like turquoise hair can make me feel like a glamorous unicorn in a way nothing else quite manages. It’s a great (and slightly less permanent) way to take charge of putting a smile on my own face. And while makeup doesn’t quite fall into the category of modifying your body in any permanent sense, I tend to include it in the category of aesthetic changes that lift my mood. Trying a new spidery eyelash trick or a bright purple lipstick can make me feel newly human on the outside even when my inside is like “Meh, ow, take a nap.”

So if you have a chronic illness of your very own, might I suggest treating yourself to a new foundation that makes you look more glowy than you feel? A box dye can turn you into a Rainbow Brite fairy princess. Try whatever trend makes you happy. Because in the grand scheme of control over your body, you’ve got to take it where you can get it. I may go to bed at 8 p.m. tonight, but at least I’ll do it with sparkly new nail polish on, and that was enough to make me feel like me today.

Follow this journey on Sicker Than Your Average.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one unexpected source of comfort when it comes to your (or a loved one’s) disability and/or disease? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

*Sign up for our Chronic Illness Newsletter*


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.


Related to Chronic Illness

When I Compare My Life With Invisible Illness to What I 'Should' Be Doing

Earlier this week was the Boston Marathon. I know more than one person who successfully ran the race. I am amazed because running this race means that not only have they run marathons before and survived them, but they’ve actually gotten good at it. When I clicked through their pictures, and in general when I click [...]

To 12-Year-Old Me With Chronic Illness Whose Teen Years Aren't Going as Planned

You think you have everything figured out and you think you know what your life is going to be. At this time you’re imagining that when you’re 15, going on 16, you will still be doing cartwheels down the halls and practicing on your homemade balance beam in the living room and blocking field hockey [...]

To Parents Whose Children Just Entered the World of Chronic Illness

You will be OK, your child will be OK. Life is going to be a bit complicated and definitely harder. It’s not going to be what you imagined, or what it previously was before your child became ill. But that is OK. Just because our lives are a bit different doesn’t mean they can’t be [...]

When I Feel Like Everyone Moved On While I'm Stuck in My Life With Chronic Illness

Have you ever felt like everyone has moved on after something huge has happened, but you haven’t yet? That feeling like you’re getting sucked down by this enormous event — as if you were stuck in quicksand — and everyone just keeps walking and they don’t look back? They just assume you’re keeping up the [...]