The smell of ink, rubbing alcohol, Vaseline, and antiseptic soothes me. The lulling buzz of a tattoo gun puts me at ease. I see the ink newbies, the way their hackles rise when the gun plunges tiny needles into my skin. Then they ask the question, always the same question, and I answer it in the same way.
“Does that hurt?”
The question is fueled by expectation. You can almost hear them thinking the answer before I give mine. Yes, it hurts. This is going to hurt you. Re-think your life decisions.
Instead, I smile. “Not really. It’s fine.” And then I turn towards the tattoo gun and watch its progress across my skin, creating me different than the person I was when I entered.
My answer might seem like a lie, but it’s not. The people who receive this nonchalant reply always look skeptical. My tattoo artist smiles and shakes his head as if he disagrees with me. And he does disagree. He told me he disagrees, and is quite annoyed by my thick skin. But I’m not lying. I’m just telling my truth, which is a different truth than his or yours.
I don’t get a lot of time to myself. I’m a mother of two young children. I take care of most of the housework, pay the bills, and teach college courses part-time. I write books, stories, and poems whenever I’m not chasing after my dog, working in my garden, cleaning up after my chickens, or tending to my kid’s imaginations. I’m also mentally ill. I’m no longer ashamed of saying that, though people will and have judged me unfit for my lifestyle when they hear me admit to it.
I do a few things to keep my moods under control. I talk to myself when anxiety creeps in.
“Hannah, what you’re thinking isn’t logical. It’s a mood, a panic caused by your weird, broken brain. You are not going to have to save your children from a sinking car because you’ve already passed over that bridge and the rails are cement and you and they are not in danger of drowning because you can’t unbuckle their seatbelts. Breathe. Count. Breathe. You’re past the bridge. You’re driving safely. You are safe. They are safe. Breathe.”
I run. When rage courses through my brain for no reason, I try to out maneuver it.
My children act like children. They argue, fight and make messes. They want my attention and my love.
“These are normal motherhood things, Hannah. You’re not a victim. You are not being injured.”
My hands begin to shake. Run. Dance. Do jumping jacks. So I do. I run in short bursts, my dog speeding past me and nudging my ankles as he passes. He’s herding me, and it makes me laugh and the laughter makes me forget and the forgetting is amazing. Because the rage comes from a piece of me that’s broken and I’ve beat it. I’m not my rage. I am my choices. My choices win again.
My choices weren’t always positive. I used to hurt myself, make myself feel anything when depression numbed me from the inside out. Sometimes I’d punch myself in the face, arms, legs when the rage left me wanting to hurt others. Sometimes I’d run scissors over the fragile skin on my arm. I’d drown myself in alcohol or flirtations. The topple from these unsteady slopes always hurt, which felt like something. And something was better than nothing.
I don’t choose that slippery slope, anymore. The latter was a slow way of killing me. I choose to love life and to fight for it. I have to choose this anew, every day.
My children’s eyes follow every movement I make, they form the words they hear me say and they try them out in their innocent way. I cannot allow my illness to rule me when I am what they rule themselves by.
I can’t change my brain, the thoughts that flood me, keep me awake until 3 a.m., shaking and afraid of perceived or conjured somethings. I can’t always control the manic energy coursing through my veins, whispering ways in which it could be released in dangerous, exciting endeavors, which might hurt me or those I love.
But I can control whether my illness rules me. I can tell my brain, “No, I won’t do that now.” I can run, walk, paint, write, pray, sing and dance. I can talk to myself or a friend.
I can go get art etched into my skin. I can change my exterior, greatly and forever transform me, in only hours. And that feels like power. When you live your whole life with a pain that aches deep and hollow in your chest…When your stomach clenches and turns in stabbing pains from anxieties out of your control…When the pain is inside, incurable, persistent and strong, you either fall apart…
Or you build up your defenses, become a fortress, a place that can withstand any storm. So that when you sit down to relax in your favorite tattoo shop, when the needles dance across your skin, it is nothing compared to the pain you’ve mastered. And you come out having changed yourself, transformed in a tangible way.
Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law was killed. There is a lot of justified anger and hurt settled inside my soul. These, I realize, are normal responses to an abnormal and terrible event. Anxiety has been a daily companion to me. It’s plagued my waking moments, making me realize my mortality and the mortality of my children. My brain told me I should drown the pain, yell at my children, be consumed by rage. Instead, I took a seat in my favorite tattoo shop, talked, rested and evaluated my life. And came out a little different. It’s a temporary fix, one of many.
But when people asked me about the transitory pain of needle in skin, I could honestly say, “It’s nothing.”