If anyone had told me a few years ago that I would have not one, but several, tattoos, I would have laughed and called them crazy! Me? A tattoo?! Never!
I distinctly remember a conversation I had in July of 2009 with one of the young ladies in my church youth group. We were in a van, driving through south central Los Angeles on our way to serve a week-long mission. We had stopped at a light and she looked at the building on the right – a tattoo parlor.
J: I can’t wait until I’m 18 and can get a tattoo.
Me: Why would you ever want to do that?
J: (shrugging) They’re cool.
Of course I tsk tsked and tried to dissuade her, never imagining that just a few years later I would have several tattoos adorning my body.
Johnny Depp once said, “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” This is true for me in many ways. However, this post isn’t about the hows and whys of my first few tattoos. This is a post about my most recent, and to date, most personal, tattoo; because until recently, there was one part of my story that I had told very few (and even they received the edited version).
You see, I battle mental illness – as do millions of others – but for me, this was a part of my story that embarrassed me; a part of my story that shamed me. I grew up in a time when mental illness was acknowledged but sufferers were disparaged, and this attitude has colored my perceptions about the illness – and about myself – for far too long.
Even today there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s an invisible illness because it doesn’t come with markers that are easy to test for and identify. It’s also, in a very broad sense, anti-American. We live in a country that was forged by those with a can do attitude, by people who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps when the going got tough, by men who would man up and women who put on their big-girl panties before stepping out to conquer life’s challenges. The idea that mental illness is not a disease, but instead is an attitude problem or laziness or _____ (fill in the blank), is still pervasive.
My first encounter with my mental illness occurred in college. It was almost as if a switch flipped and I was no longer me. I shut down. I stopped participating in my own life and almost didn’t graduate. Although I didn’t know what to call it at the time, in retrospect it was clearly my mental illness knocking at the door and introducing itself.
Over the years this has been a repeating pattern – shut down, stop being present in my life, watch things begin to fall apart and not give a damn (or worse, watch things fall apart and know that I should care but I can’t muster the energy to give a shit). This is a pattern I now recognize and will attempt to disrupt. Sometimes I am successful; other times I am not. Sometimes the pattern plays itself out in a matter of hours or days; other times it can take weeks; rarely does it last for months. But never does it just go away.
Earlier I used the word battle. This was a deliberate word choice.
Each time my mental illness reasserts itself, when the familiar pattern begins, I go to war. I fight against the negative energy that floods my body, that wants to keep me in bed or on the sofa, that pushes me to eat my way into a food coma (my drug of choice). I combat my inner voice that calls me lazy, that tells me I should be ashamed, that tells me if I were a better person I wouldn’t be like this. I wrangle with my fears that I am weak, that I am unlovable, that I am damaged. I tussle with my expectations (realistic or not) and societal pressures. I enter this fray, this battle for self, with a prayer that I will come out of the exchange reasonably whole.
For the most part I am successful. I repeatedly come out the victor of these skirmishes. I don’t make it through unbloodied, but I do make it through. I am once again the me (almost) I was before this war began. My mental illness retreats, but never, NEVER does it wave a white flag of surrender. I may be winning battles, but I will always be at war.
This is my story, the back story for my most recent tattoo – ;grace.
The explanation for my tattoo begins with the Semicolon Tattoo Project – I was struck by the bravery and power of those who were stepping forward and speaking out. Later I heard of Project Semicolon (which I think actually came first) and again was in awe of the strength it took, and continues to take, to stand up for all those who do battle with mental illness.
It is my hope that the ink on my arm will accomplish two objectives. First, I anticipate that people will ask about its significance, opening a dialogue about the very real struggles millions face every day. I know it won’t always be easy for me to share my story, but it is something I will do. Because the second objective? That’s personal.
Whether I’m telling my story or just looking at the beautiful script on my skin, the semicolon reminds me that this is not the end. It may be a hellish pause, but it is Not. The. End. And it reminds me that always, always! on the other side of that pause is grace – the grace of God, the grace of family and friends, the grace of self, the grace that enables me to continue.
To learn more about mental illness visit: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
A shout out to Tyler at Black Lotus Tattoo for another fabulous piece of work!