How my tattoos helped me cope with anxiety

I was eighteen and recently single when I asked my parents if they could take me to a tattoo parlor. While supportive, they were certainly surprised that their shy, anxious daughter was interested in injecting ink into her skin. And honestly, I wasn’t much less surprised than they were.

As a hypochondriac with high anxiety, I have trouble doing normal, everyday tasks. Going outside at night has me convinced rabid bats will attack me. When my shoelace or a piece of grass brushes against my ankle on runs, I stop and examine the area to make sure it isn’t actually a poisonous insect. I check every packaged food I come across to see if it’s been tampered with. And every ache or pain I feel I’m sure is a sign of imminent death. I knew I would panic for weeks after getting a tattoo, seeing signs of infections that weren’t there. I shouldn’t have wanted to put myself through that.

And yet, I spent my freshman year of college mulling over tattoo designs. I went through a few pretty terrible ideas before deciding on a bird/wasp hybrid on my shoulder blade as a tribute to my favorite Sufjan Stevens song of the time, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”

The night that I piled into my family’s minivan with my parents and three friends, I had a few pretty simple meanings attributed to the tattoo. I love birds. I love Sufjan. I love the song.

As I paced the tattoo parlor, however, nervously chattering to my mom and wondering if I should back out, I began to find more and more reasons to get the tattoo. This would be my “screw you” to my anxiety. I knew that a tattoo could potentially cause health issues and I knew that my tattoo would definitely cause hypochondriac issues, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. This was a way to prove I was stronger than my anxiety.

Two years later, however, and I haven’t had a moment of regret. Sitting through the pain helped me realize that I can handle a lot more than I give myself credit for. And while I absolutely did panic about infection and texted an already-tattooed friend daily updates to make sure what I was experiencing was normal, it’s amazing to know that I could overcome the anxiety. Glimpsing the tattoo in the mirror serves as a constant reminder that I am capable of doing the things I want to do, even when it feels like my anxiety will always get in the way.

The tattoo was also unexpectedly helpful in dealing with my recent breakup. Over the course of my year-and-a-half relationship, I had become unhealthily dependent on my partner-especially in dealing with the anxiety. Getting the tattoo was the first big thing I did without him, and it was empowering to do it all on my own, without relying on him to help me through the fears. My bird became a tangible aspect of my mission to evolve post-breakup into an independent, stronger, and better person.

I’ve always had trouble reconciling the outgoing, free-spirited person I want to be with the socially awkward, shy, anxious person that I am. Getting the tattoo helped me begin to leave my comfort zone and better aligned my external image with my internal image.

So, while planning my second tattoo, I thought it would be nothing more than a continuation of this process. I was aching for a more visible tattoo, one I could see without requiring a mirror. While I couldn’t come up with anything I loved as much as the bird, that was fine by me. I was more interested in having another tattoo than having the perfect one, and meaning mattered to me less the second time around. I just wanted something I thought I’d always appreciate.

I eventually settled on a ballpoint pen on my left arm. I was concerned that if writing didn’t end up being part of my future, I’d regret the tattoo or see it as a constant reminder of my failures. But friends and family urged me to go for it, saying the tattoo should be about my love for writing and not about what may come of it later in life. I still had my reservations, but I wasn’t having any better ideas, so I went for it.

For a while after getting the tattoo, I was pretty neutral. I hadn’t noticed until the ink was on my skin, but the design kind of looked like an old-fashioned street lamp. At first this was vaguely irritating, but soon I just found it amusing. Seeing the tattoo would make me smile, but that was more about being able to see it without a mirror. Tat #2 was definitely more about my overall image than the tattoo itself. So it surprised me when, during an emotional low in my life, I was able to use the pen/street lamp to fuel some positive energy.

Earlier this year, I started to send my writing to various contests and publications, and was rejected each time. Each rejection seemed to send me deeper into depression. I constantly compared myself to my other writing friends, who all seemed to be getting published or landing dream internships, and I felt like I had nothing going for me. During these moments, I wanted to rip the pen tattoo off of me. I felt like an idiot for getting it in the first place.

But, then, there were moments where I’d think, “I’m going to give myself a reason to be happy with this tattoo.” I found a fierce desire to try harder after each rejection, and the tattoo became stellar motivation. I started using the street lamp resemblance to my advantage, turning it into a symbol of hope as I pushed myself to stay positive and continue submitting, despite my fear of failing.

The pen tattoo is now much more than a way of creating the image I want for myself. It’s a reminder of the determination I had no idea I was capable of.  Getting tattooed reminds me of things that I need to do even when it’s hard: take risks and go after what I want. I’m currently planning my third tattoo (probably something related to my cat, because cats), and I can’t wait to see how this next one plays out.

[Images via author and here]

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