Reclaiming Myself: Thoughts on Tattoos and Depression

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.

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Tat #1, back a couple of years when it was new

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.

Why You Should Listen to The Hilarious World of Depression (or at least the first episode)

I’ll tell you two things about my recent chronic obsession with podcasts: first of all, I am without fail at least three months behind on listening to new shows because there are too many of them downloaded on my phone and I don’t have the heart to delete them, because what if that one is an interesting one and then I miss it?

Secondly, over the past year, no voice has become more of a comfort to me than Peter Sagal.  If you don’t know who that is, he’s the host of one of NPR’s most popular shows, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a weekly hilarious news quiz (a popular NPR host is probably a contradiction in terms, I understand the irony).  He’s unfailingly warm and witty, and to my mind, just a generally excellent human person.

In plowing through some of my oldest podcasts during a recent flight, I put on the first episode of The Hilarious World of Depression.  I’d subscribed to it because, well, a) as established, I have a deep love of podcasts and not enough of them already, b) *cough, cough*… I deal with depression, and c) my beloved Peter Sagal was the first interviewee.

There’s this fairly common trope that often comedians are the people dealing with some of the darkest emotions.  Robin Williams, Maria Bamford (who’s in episode #2!), etc.  We often forget, as host John Moe points out, that these people suffer because outwardly, they make us laugh.  They display boundless energy.  I had never considered that Peter Sagal suffered from depression.  I was really taken with this first episode in particular, because I resonated with so much of what Peter had to say.

For example, I too am an acclaimed NPR host – no, actually that’s a lie.

But in reality, like Peter, I’m a high-functioning sufferer of depression, which means I’m good at hiding it and going about my shit on a daily basis fairly well.  I’ve never, until just recently, been open about it – and in fact, this blog is the first time I’ve ever written about it – because it felt (feels) like this shameful thing, this ugly weakness.  Both Sagal and Moe discuss how this is the cunning of the disease: it wants you to feel alone.  It thrives when you feel cut off.  And though unlike Peter Sagal, I have never been through a traumatic divorce, I too have used Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation as therapy.  (Also, Friends, 30 Rock, and the first eight seasons and last episode of The Office (season 9 was stressful.  Let’s not get into it)).

Alongside Peter, John Moe is a wonderful and compassionate host.  He begins the episode relating (so to speak) his ‘depression credentials’, his personal story, the paralyzing fear that I know pretty well that you’re just plain going crazy.  He discusses the power of comedy that has drawn so many people (knowingly depressed or not).  And how it wasn’t until adulthood that anyone bothered to explain to him that no, he wasn’t a weirdo, he was depressed.  He also mentions how frightened he was to go public with his depression… and the in-pouring of support and comradery he received in return.

When I say that these two men, chatting openly about their mental illnesses, both seriously and in jest, made me feel less alone, don’t take it lightly.

I’ve heard all of the counseling stockpile statements about how many people secretly deal with depression, regardless of how unique and isolated and misunderstood I felt.  I know the gist, I’m not the only one and I’m not alone.  But how many of us really believe that when our brains our telling us the other 23 hours in a day that we are complete outsiders to real, neuro-typical society?  I’ve worked hard to make it so other people don’t see me struggling.  But I never assume that other people I encounter are fudging it just as much.

The day I listened to this was a week or two after one of my worst breakdowns in real recent history, a day where multiple weeks of pain had built up and I couldn’t figure out a single concrete reason that I was alive (other than to feed my cat, I kid you not), and had my first panic attack in months at my therapist’s office.

But then John Moe and Peter Sagal came on, and they told me everything was mostly going to be okay, and that they knew what I was struggling with, and suddenly I wasn’t alone and I was going to be okay, and I knew that with a clarity that I haven’t had in months.  They made me feel seen.  Understood.

So, if you’re struggling with mental health right now, I see you.  I can count there’s at least four of us now.  Go listen to John Moe say calming things.  We can still be real, good people even with depression.  Like Peter Sagal.

If you aren’t, you probably know people who are, and it’s a beautiful and moving and funny listen anyhow, so put it on and do whatever chore you’ve been putting off.

You can find The Hilarious World of Depression here: https://www.apmpodcasts.org/thwod/2016/12/peter-sagal-opens-up/ 

And then, once you feel all fuzzy inside, put on a Wait, Wait for good measure. Peter Sagal will appreciate it.