Two Years Clean: What It Means Moving Forward

As of writing this sentence, it’s Thursday, April 20th, and by the time I get around to finishing and posting this ((because I write at a snail’s pace, every word a slow drip of consciousness, every thought a specimen to be meticulously considered and picked apart before publication (though the quality of my writing nevertheless fails to reflect that same degree of contemplation)), it will be Tuesday — April 25th, 2017.  The two year anniversary of the last time I self-harmed.

I tried writing about this last time, when I was only a year clean.  Then, I got caught up in recovery politics; specifically how to go about discussing the absence of a compulsion that is inherently competitive in a way that articulates its significance without objectifying it in the process, and cultivating harm all around.  (Understandably, that post never saw the light of day.)  Today, in the wake of all the positive change of the past year, the answer seems clear: That it’s easier, perhaps, to write not of what was but of what is.  That the personal strides I’ve taken in recent months speak louder than any amount of self-reflection ever could.  That it’s time to turn my focus from the past to the present, and to turn my eyes towards the future.

I’ve been doing a lot of clothes shopping lately.  I haven’t done much of that in recent years, except for the occasional lightweight cardigan or pair of tights to make the hotter months more bearable.  It’s a different picture this time around:  My shopping cart has housed everything from shorts to tank tops, lace-up t-shirts to strappy bralettes.  And that’s not even the most outlandish of the lot — I bought a romper last week!  The sort of clothes that I ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead in.  (The sort of clothes that — shame biting, fingertips catching on jagged skin — weren’t meant for girls like me.)  I’ve even thought about maybe watching some simple makeup tutorials, perhaps the strangest development in this chapter of self-discovery.  I can’t be bothered most of the time, and the most daring I ever get is some light mascara and cheap eyeliner.  But lately I’ve possessed a curiosity that I haven’t harbored since I was thirteen.  Who knows?  Maybe learning how to apply winged eyeliner will be my next adventure.

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The goal is to wear this dress without a sweater or tights.  Someday soon, maybe

You forget, after years of hiding under layers, what it’s like to go outside and feel the sun on your skin just because you can.  You forget, after years of convincing yourself that you’re uglyworthlessunlovable, what it’s like to put on a shirt based not on how much of your body it covers, but on how good it makes you feel.  You forget that you’re even allowed to feel those things at all.

Admittedly, I haven’t done much of either yet because I’ve been waiting for my tattoo to heal.  It’s taken a little longer than expected: At two and a half weeks, it’s still peeling a little and some minor scabs still stubbornly stick to my skin.  But I’ve never been so happy to have it there.  I’ve already started planning my next projects, and am starting to give thought as to how to build on what I currently have.  (It seems, in spite of all my indecision, that an arm of flowers may still be in my future after all.)

It’s strange, to look at my body and see possibilities where before all I saw were dead-ends.  To witness restoration where there was once only ruin.

It occurred to me recently that I got tattooed not long after the four-year anniversary of my hospital stay.  The poetic ramifications of that are not lost on me: I’ve never felt more broken, more acutely aware of my own suffering and degradation, than in that psych ward.  And I’ve never felt more healed and more awestruck at how far I’ve come since those horrible, agonizing days than in that tattoo parlor.  The contrast is night and day, and the notion that beauty can come from pain finally makes sense to me.  (Literally: The beauty of ink from the pain of a needle.)  It’s taken me this long to come out on the other side, but seeing the road that lies ahead of me — a road of self-discovery and self-love — makes it all almost seem worth it somehow.

Still, if things had been different it might not have been necessary.  Sometimes I catch myself staring at the marks that mar my body, and while some days I react with indifference, other times it leaves me feeling sad and remorseful — or I become overwhelmed with the sort of abject horror that other people expressed at the time, but I myself could never quite muster.  Because I did this to myself.  I hated myself so much, and I hurt so fucking much, and I truly believed that I deserved the pain, that I deserved to live forever in a body as ugly and as broken and as torn up as I felt on the inside…provided that I didn’t kill myself before then, of course.

I feel more compassion for that girl now, now that the dust has settled.  Today when I touch my skin, when I run my fingers over the ridges and valleys, sometimes I can almost imagine that I’m reaching across time to comfort her.  When I practice self-care, I like to think that I’m doing what she ultimately couldn’t: To love myself.  To value my bodily integrity.  To treat myself as a human being — an imperfect, flawed human being who fucks up and who makes mistakes, but is no less worthy of life and empathy because of them.

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Art by rubyetc

Acknowledging my own inherent worthiness is one thing.  Believing it is another, even on the best of days.  More often than not, self-care and self-love are synonymous with simply not treating myself with cruelty, especially when I’m convinced that I deserve otherwise.  This journey is long and arduous, and it’s one that I suspect I’ll be undergoing for my entire life, but it’s also arguably the most rewarding, and the one I’ll be most grateful for in the long-run.

This summer, we have some family camping trips planned.  I don’t intend to cover up my scars for any of them.  I’ve missed out on so much over the years, opting to stay home while the rest of my family enjoyed the sun because I couldn’t stand the thought of sweltering in 90 degree heat, but couldn’t bear exposing my skin to the world either.  It’s a tedious cacophony, and I’m done with allowing it to dictate my life.  I’m just done.  Life is too short, and too precious, and I’ve already wasted enough of mine boggled down by misery.  I’ve done so many things in the past year that I once thought impossible, and I’ve grown so much as a person, and it’s just ridiculous that this is still holding me back and causing me to be a bystander in my own life.  I’m so over it all, and right now from where I stand the pain of baring my skin to the world pales in comparison to the pain of living like this for the rest of my life.

That’s another thing that’s occurred to me recently: That sometimes we let things go simply because we’ve grown tired of carrying them.  I cannot carry this shame with me anymore.  I cannot carry it, so now I’m choosing to set it aside; to stare unflinchingly into the abyss from whence it came; to live honestly and to live wholeheartedly, and to face whatever blessings or consequences that might bring.

So here’s to a summer of new beginnings.  Here’s to all the late nights and early mornings, to the beach weeks and road trips.  Here’s to the promise of friendship, to laughter, to languid afternoons spent reveling in the sun and companionship, with no care for what tomorrow may bring.  Here’s to living in the moment, to facing my fears, to no longer apologizing for my body, to no longer apologizing for myself.  Here’s to a summer of change, and a lifetime of unabashed, unmitigated self-love.

And many, many more tattoos, of course.

Progress Shots: Finishing My First Tattoo

Well, it finally happened: I finished my first tattoo.

It’s funny, because all of this started two years ago when I decided I wanted to get a tattoo based off of one of my favorite bands.  Obviously that never happened (and I’m glad it didn’t — it wasn’t a very good idea), and in June of 2016, after another year of considering and ultimately trashing a number of ideas, I started taking the steps towards creating a half-sleeve of flowers instead.  The idea of having something beautiful adorning an area that I considered ugly and damaged was very appealing to me, so I contacted an artist in my area experienced in tattooing over scar tissue.  We bounced ideas back and forth over email for a number of months, and I scheduled a series of appointments for January through March, with the intention of beginning the process after the start of the new year.

Somewhere during the design process, I hit a wall.  I realized that I didn’t really know what I wanted, and I considered the possibility that I was trying to force myself into a decision — to get my arm covered to solve a problem rather than because it was something that I really wanted.  So I cancelled my appointments and went back to square one.

Sometime shortly after that, I stumbled across the tattoo artist who I’d ultimately consult for my tattoo.  Once that happened, it was like the details of my tattoo just fell into place.  His art style adheres closely to the sort of tattoos I like (I’m very fond of black and gray work, with a traditional/neo-traditional influence), and that made it so much easier to envision what I wanted.  I decided I wanted roses, because his are beautiful, and I wound up adding a lantern because it was around this time that I realized I wanted a lot of tattoos, and I thought it would help balance the piece out with whatever I chose to get on my body the future.

It was originally supposed to take only one session.  When I went in for a consultation in December, he was confident that he could do it in one go and that it would only take 3-4 hours.  Last month we wound up splitting it into two sessions — one for line work, the other for shading — because the lantern he designed ended up rather intricate and taking a little longer than expected.

People have asked me a lot since beginning this process what my tattoo means.  The truth is that there are no hard meanings attached to it.  (I could reference some well-known quotes by Frederick Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson, though these were not the inspiration for the piece, and I question whether or not this is too pretentious.)  At the end of the day, I wanted an original piece of art that I could grow with, not something anchored in a particular point in time, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

Some personal observations regarding the whole process:

  1. Line work is a hell lot more painful than shading
  2. Shading is a hell lot more exhausting than line work
  3. The Internet was right about tattooing over hypertrophic scar tissue — it’s definitely a more intense experience than regular skin.  It was never unbearable, but there were parts that were difficult to breathe through and hold still for
  4. Also, depending on the type of scar being tattooed over, they will swell during/after the process.  It’s the third day of healing (I was tattooed on Saturday) and the swelling is only just going down
  5. Before I began this journey, I could count on one hand the number of times in the past five years that other people have seen my bare arms.  That count has gone up in recent months, and I’ve never felt less judged for my scars than in that tattoo parlor

And now (finally!) for some pictures, placed under the cut out of respect for those sensitive to photos of self-harm scars as they are still visible through the ink.  I had been planning to dedicate a post solely to the line work and how that healed, but I realized midway through that I wasn’t comfortable posting the pictures — thus the wait.  I think this is better anyhow, as you can see the finished product rather than simply the skeleton.

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