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How Tattoos Are Helping Me Recover From Self-Harm

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

I’ve wanted tattoos since I was 12 years old. I was also 12 when I started self-harming. I’ve spent over a third of my life caught in cycles of relapse and recovery.

I got my first tattoo at age 18, in the summer before my freshman year of college. It was simple and small, just a delicate anklet that curves into the word breathe at the front. When people ask me why I chose that word, I say something vague about it being a good reminder to appreciate life, but really it’s a reminder to stay strong while battling my anxiety.

I got my second tattoo a month later. It was much bigger and doesn’t seem to have a deeper meaning. It’s made of flowers and brilliant watercolor effects, etched into my skin for aesthetic purposes only, and while I do have meaningful ones, I adore tattoos people get simply because they’re beautiful. I love my second one for that reason especially, because it is something beautiful, something that makes me happy, that people see and compliment; something that I chose to make a permanent part of my body. Because I’ve made other permanent choices that have altered my skin and those make me feel very different. Almost no one, my family included, has seen certain parts of my body since I started self-harming because of the scars. People say that young adults my age are too young to make decisions about tattoos, they have certainly said it enough times to me, but they don’t know that I was making permanent alterations to my body since middle school. I’m used to it. I’m very aware of the permanence of actions.

There have been many things that have helped me with my recovery. I have written my sibling’s names on my skin, thrown and bought and thrown and bought and thrown away blades, gone to countless therapy sessions and went on runs in the middle of the night to keep myself moving away from the temptation. My tattoos have been important — incredibly important. Being able to look at myself and see the beautiful designs that are a part of me is quite the motivator to continue adding only beauty to myself and not be reminded of the pain. When I am shopping for clothes that will cover my scars or wondering what future partners might think of them, I am also able to look at the ink that makes my skin beautiful.

I have been clean for 46 days at the time I’m writing this. My last relapse was just a few days before I got my most recent tattoo. I have looked at it during the moments when I was tempted to hurt myself and was reminded that it — the word excelsior—means to rise above pain instead of doing something to drag myself even deeper, and I have not cut. My strength might not last forever; there could be more relapses in my future, although I plan to do everything I can to avoid them. My tattoos, however, will always be here. People say that as if it should be a deterrent to getting one. But me, I need them with me forever. That’s part of the motivation, along with the simple fact that they make me happy. I need things that remind me to be strong, to be calm and that my skin can be beautiful, because I want my life filled with light instead of the darkness that comes with cutting.

There are parts of my skin that I don’t like to look at because of what they remind me of. Now, however, there are parts of my skin that I want to see because they remind me of what I am going to be in the future.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via Rinky Dink Images

Originally published: August 17, 2017
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