Nearly anyone you ask who has tattoos will tell you it’s kind of addictive. I can confirm this, because in two weeks, I have an appointment scheduled to start on my third. I’m not sure what it is about getting one that is so magnetic, but I remember I’d barely left the shop after finishing my first before I decided that I would be back. It was only a matter of time. I loved the process, the hum of the needle drumming against skin and muscle until you’re achy and numb, the smell of the ink and the antibiotic ointment, the plasma, the plain soap and unscented lotion I use for months afterward. I just frickin’ love the smell of new tattoos. And (although maybe that’s kind of weird), I know I’m not alone in this drive to fill my body with art and drop hundreds of dollars while I’m at it – I’ve had this conversation many a time.
What is it about tattoos that’s so special?
Obviously, there’s no single answer. But personally, my newest ink coincides with another major life change, meaning that as I’m counting down the days til that new tattoo smell, I’m also just a few weeks away from graduating college.
Let me explain why these are related: I’ve gotten a tattoo ever year since my sophomore year. That was also the year of a deeply traumatic breakup that coincided with the manifestation of my depression and general anxiety (but just so we’re clear, the tattoo did come first in that sequence of events). It’s not surprising, because statistics show that most mental illness seriously presents between the ages of 18 and 22. But contrast this fact with the image we circulate in American society that your college years are supposed to be some of the best years of your life – see an issue? Not only was I depressed and only just beginning to realize that anxiety was eating away both at myself and my interactions with others, but I have also felt deeply and grievously guilty that I was not having the proper college experience. In fact, I’m willing to say that I hated it about as equally as I enjoyed it. And that’s normal.
I got two tattoos, I got (and am still getting) help. And now college, this symbol of my first struggle with major depression, is coming to an end.
A while back, I read this article by John Donovan, where he discusses the results of a study by Jerry Koch, a Texas Tech sociologist who studies body art. Koch argues that women who have 3-4+ tattoos often have higher self-esteem, but also have struggled with mental health issues, namely suicide attempts. And even though Koch acknowledges that by no means is this a fully comprehensive survey (obviously not every tattoo aficionado is horribly depressed), he says, “We’re speculating that there’s a connection there, that the acquisition of body art up to that point might be an effort at a sort of emotional restoration…”
To steal a little more from Donovan’s article, Koch goes on to speculate, “I would suspect that part of why people seek to attempt suicide is they get the idea that who they are isn’t worthy of life… and once they survive that, maybe they’re saying, ‘Hey, screw you, I’m worthy, and here’s the proof. I’ll adorn myself and present myself, maybe in a pretty dramatic way, just so you know for sure that I’m who I am.’”
(A side note: if you are now opening a new tab to Google something like “women + depression + tattoos”, stop what you’re doing and… no, just stop. There are some fantastically misogynistic posts on this subject. Be careful out there, friends.)
Personally, I’ve never attempted suicide. I know and have known people who have, and I’m so thankful that most of them are still with us. If you are looking for a sign to stay alive, right here, right now, I’m telling you: please, your pain means something, we care about you, and as much as it feels like forever, nothing truly is.
Personally, on the other hand, I have spent my fair share of time in passive suicidal thoughts, the sort of thing where I think, “I really would rather be dead right now,” or “If I could just not exist for a little while that would be great,” or “I feel so screwed up I might as well be dead.” (As I write this, I feel like I’m exaggerating – that I don’t want the folks at home to think things are this bad. And they’re not – most of the time. But given that these are all thoughts I have literally had, they don’t really qualify for the exaggeration realm.)
My main point is that when you spend all that time suffering, isolated by an invisible illness, besieged by the weight of your twisted perceptions of reality, battered by your brain into the belief of your own worthlessness, you don’t even feel like a real person anymore. You get confused about who you are, why you’re even on this planet (or any other, not judging), what the value of your individuality is – what is the worth of my soul?
And so, Koch’s conclusion make sense to me, because they are the conclusions that I too have come to. I have felt for so long that this body is not my home, angry that I didn’t choose it, didn’t choose to be alive in it, didn’t choose to fill it with strange and crushing sadness. I have felt as if my life has been inhabited by a stranger who goes through the motions of day-to-day living, this gray, vague fog that has made this skin dull and un-enthused.
When I choose to put something on my body, I have chosen a little bit more of myself to voluntarily stay in the world. It’s as if 90% of my body was taken hostage by this illness, and each tattoo, each quantity of skin I cover, I take back for myself. I bump it down. 80%. 75%. It’s like saying to my depression, “You don’t own me.” These tattoos are the parts of myself choosing life, on my terms. I would like to think of them as my movement towards a more authentic life, becoming braver and bolder and learning to stand up for myself and my enough-ness. They are pictographs of the person inside of me, working her way to the surface. Or I guess, from the surface, into my skin. (Ha, it’s a tattoo joke, get it? Because the ink has to settle… Never mind.)
Tattoos have been permanence when I am faced with upheaval, markers of strength when I don’t feel so strong. It feels fitting to add another to my collection as I reach the denouement of my college career and turn toward the future.
Plus, they’re just cool.