Why I got a backwards tattoo

When I was 21, I started to feel more and more like my life was slipping from my control. I was dealing with a mental illness, and many of my friends were too. I found myself getting more and more wrapped up in taking care of them and spending basically no time taking care of myself. I’d also just gotten out of a relationship that left me feeling like a half of a person. I felt like I wasn’t even myself anymore.

Things shifted when I went to visit a friend of mine a few states away. We spent the week lazing around and eating donuts and talking about everything we’d missed during our time apart. I decided to be honest with her and tell her that I was worried about the person I was becoming. I felt stuck, as if my life wasn’t my own. I was in and out of a new relationship that my penchant for self-destruction was ruining, and I wanted to believe that love— platonic love, romantic love, and self love—could mean more than what it had during the past few years. I wanted to believe in something beyond the mess I was somehow always, not necessarily anything religious or spiritual, or even linked to anyone else. I wanted to believe in myself.

When my friend told me there was a tattoo shop nearby, I thought of a poem by Warsan Shire. It had long been a favorite of mine, and at that moment it encompassed so much of what I’d been feeling, a mixture of self loathing and loathing for other people and their many cruelties, a deep loneliness that seemed unabaiting, a hopelessness toward all forms of love. I needed love to sustain me, but I felt nearly nothing; love felt like a distant memory, a thing I could barely recall feeling toward myself or other people. I’d never felt so alone and so detached.

We went to the shop early on in my visit. I sat down and the tattoo artist chatted with me. We went through the sizing process, and I confirmed the placement. The gun fired up. I gritted my teeth as needle hit skin and I tried to keep talking to my friend as if every burning scrape didn’t have me biting back curses. And then, it was over.

Nearly every week someone laughs as they try to read my tattoo. I tell them it’s backwards so I can read it in the mirror, and then I tell them what it says. Some people shrug and move on with their lives, but others nod and shrug, as if they get it, my need to have messages deep in my skin so I never forget their truth. It’s the equivalent of a quote written on a mirror, or a lover or loved one whispering kind words each morning and night, but it’s mine, totally and completely, and it’ll never cease its whisper.

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