I got a tattoo to cover up my past—instead l learned to face it
The tattoo on my left arm started small, in my mind. I had just moved to a new city, fresh out of college, and I was in a rush to grow into myself. I lived alone and was dying to spend my first salaried paycheck on something my college peers had been doing for years, but I had never been able to afford: tattoos.
Like many people new to the world of visible, permanent body art, I wanted, needed my tattoo to mean something, and it did. But not in a conventional way: I used to be a cutter.
One tattoo, a bundle of Gerbera daisies, my favorite flower, was delicately inked on the inside of my left arm, just above the wrist — and it was more necessary than I ever let on. I never actually affixed myself with the label of “cutter,” but I’m far enough removed from it now that I can say with clarity those little marks I carved into my skin from middle school through college were cuts, intentionally inflicted.
It first began when I would be sent to my room as a child, angry or upset with hot, wet tears streaming down my face, unable to express the hurt I felt, or how misunderstood I thought I was at the time. I found a tiny pair of manicure scissors and began to make little nicks at my wrists or along my upper thighs, barely drawing blood, the scratches of which lasted no longer than a day.
By my mid-twenties, the frequency of these episodes had largely subsided, maybe because I had more freedom, more things to occupy my mind, more ways of expressing myself. But after falling into a bout of depression during my senior year of college, aided and abetted by the multifaceted allures of binge drinking, I found myself resorting to sharper objects to find release.
Once, after a night of drinking gone wrong, I made my way home and found a large kitchen knife, cradling it as I made my way upstairs to my closet of a bedroom. My roommates were gone and I felt quite alone, and once again misunderstood, with no outlet for my frustrations and anxieties. In a boozey haze, face dripping with childlike tears, I made a thick slice in my left forearm — not enough to cut anything major, except my skin. The scar didn’t fade easily this time. It stuck around for the remainder of my last year in college and well into my new, adult job post-graduation.
After running out of plausible excuses (a cat did it! my arm was snagged on a door?), I made the decision to pop into a local tattoo shop for a consultation. I was tired of wearing long-sleeved button-ups or worrying about the edges of a misguided slice poking out from the ends of a blazer. (After all, what kind of responsible employee would do such a thing.) I was embarrassed of my past, of my hasty choices, and I needed to make a change. It wasn’t until years later that I would begin to accept myself, past and present, and begin the messy process of forgiveness.
The tattoo artist took my photo of a red Gerber daisy and ran with it, drawing up a stylized, art nouveau-inspired bouquet, with pointy, swirling leaves and bright, cheerful blooms. I said yes, wanting to show how chill I was with the forearm-sized stencil he’d presented.
Naturally, I was hesitant to show him my scarred arm, but how else was he going to cover it up? But to my surprise, he immediately understood. He made me feel part of a club, even. “I’ve seen a lot of girls who’ve come here for the same reason,” he said, sympathetically. We completed the colorful tattoo in one sitting.
I finally felt confident enough to show off my arms again. I could roll up my sleeves, or (gasp!) go sleeveless, and instead of ugly reminders of my past, a happy set of daisies stared back at me.
Then, over a period of a few years, those daisies slowly grew to become a beautiful sleeve — one that incorporated my love of nature, animals, and technology. But it wasn’t just for art. It was a necessity.
Any time I was feeling low, and considered making a cut to my arm, the pink and red petals would talk me out of it, their warm green leaves shining in their pristine, untainted outlines. I didn’t want to ruin them. (Note to anyone who may be going through anything similar: Though getting tattoos were a part of my self-harm recovery, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Counseling or therapy can also be beneficial. For more information on treatments, visit SAFE Alternatives.)
Eventually, my tattoos (plus a wise therapist) helped me stop the bad habit, and we began to save each other, the tattoos and I. If you look closely, you can still see the faded marks of my past, slightly raised above my skin but hidden deftly behind masterful lines and shading. And that’s where I want them to stay.
[Image via author]