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Why Tattoos Helped Me Regain a Sense of Control Over My Body With Chronic Illness

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When living with chronic illness, it can be a juggling act to maintain what is considered a “normal” life and doing what your body will allow you to do. In my personal experience, being 24 and having several incurable conditions, it can be discouraging. Thanks to postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), I have to be mindful of how I’m feeling that day and plan my day accordingly so I know how long I can stand at any point without fainting. With Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), I have to think about how badly my joints hurt and that is what decides if I get my shopping or cleaning done that day. Those are only two examples of many, and it can often feel like I get little say in what my body does.

The concept of feeling like my body is a prison isn’t new to me. There are many times I have to take a nap when I don’t want to, have to pretend to examine something on the bottom shelf of the grocery store for an excuse to crouch down to prevent fainting, plan ahead and pack a special lunch if I’ll be out too long because my eosinophilic esophagitis makes it impossible to eat out anywhere. All these rules my body has set for me can make me feel like a prisoner, but when I was 22, I really thought about this and realized that is a harmful mentality to have. My body may be limited compared to most able-bodied people, but it is also the body I live in every single day — the body that gets me from place to place (even if it decides when), and the only body I will ever have. I should be glad to have it, illness and all.

So, what could I do on the days I feel like my body is calling the shots? Was there a way to, in a sense, join how I felt inside more to my body? Although I have illnesses, very rarely do I see myself as a “sick person.” I’m just a normal person trying to live my life, so when my body sends me clear reminders that I have these conditions to take into account, I feel almost disconnected with the body I should simply appreciate having.

After a lot of thought, I realized what would make me happy would be making my outside more of a reflection of who I am inside. Now, obviously this isn’t for everyone, and each person should find their own ways to heal emotionally and feel more at peace with themselves, but for me my answer was tattoos. Once I started getting tattooed, I realized what it meant for me. On my good days, I can look at my ribs and see the logo of my favorite band, and think, “Nice! I sure love Alkaline Trio!” and thoroughly enjoy having it. On my worst days, when I feel at odds with my body and like we will never get along, I look at my thigh and see my favorite superhero Wolverine, and feel like it is something that links my body to myself.

It can be a difficult concept to articulate to those without chronic illness, but for me it really helps to fill the gap and remind me my body is my own and not a prison, but my home. Seeing reminders on the outside of who I am on the inside is a huge comfort in many ways.

While some thought my tattoos to be a means to hide or cover my body, to me it is the exact opposite. Learning to love and appreciate your body is a tough journey for anyone, let alone those who have additional obstacles added on. Regaining a sense of control over my body with tattoos hasn’t helped me mask my body, but rather add to it. Will I regret any of my tattoos one day? Maybe; I can’t speak for 40-year-old me, but 24-year-old me has felt so many positive mental health benefits on a daily basis from them in just two years that it would be hard to trade my improved quality of life for the opinions I may or may not hold in the future.

Again, I want to reiterate that tattoos are not for everyone, and that is totally fine. For me, they are exactly what I needed to express my personality with a body that simply won’t do what I want most days, but chronic illness doesn’t come with a “one-size-fits-all” solution. I would encourage anyone reading this to go seek your own solutions that will work best for you. The last thing anyone should do is ignore their feelings, to disconnect from their bodies, because it can be so damaging on mental health. No one is alone in feeling this way; it’s not strange to feel like you and your body are separate entities, sharing a close space and occasionally compromising. You can, however, find ways to bridge the gap and remind yourself you own your body, not the other way around.

Your body is an amazingly unique and personal part of who you are — all the good and all the bad — and whether you appreciate it by decorating it with tattoos, trying out a new hair color, dressing it up in your favorite clothing style or even simply treating it well by drinking more water, it’s the only one you will ever have. So, be kind to it and to yourself as together you make a complete and beautiful person. Fully appreciating and loving yourself is a great feeling, no matter how you get there.

Getty Images photo via hobo_018

Originally published: March 4, 2019
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