How My Tattoo Helped Me Cope with My Mother’s Relapse

By Shelby Black 01/25/18

Did it matter more that I had tattooed this permanent ink onto my body than that my mother was consumed with addiction once again? I felt like an optimistic fool, and embarrassed for acting so reckless at the age of 20.

black and white image of woman getting upper arm tattoo

2013: Sitting in the leather chair in a San Francisco tattoo parlor was enough of a scary experience for me to realize that this moment was a reality. My arm raised over my head as a man I had met that day prodded me with an ink gun, I got arguably the most important date of my life permanently etched onto my body to commemorate my mother’s nearly ten years of sobriety from alcohol and heroin addiction. Being my first tattoo, these dark black roman numerals represented a sense of permanency on my body, much like how I thought of my mother’s sobriety. Just as the tattoo will wear and fade as life rolls on, my mother will battle with this addiction her entire life, even when challenges are thrown her way.

Fast forward to three years later when I listened to her slurred words over the phone, admitting she had relapsed. Standing on a street corner in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts neighborhood, on the way to an innocent brunch with a friend, my GPS repeated to me that my intended destination was only a few minutes away; but in that moment it seemed that all of my senses had blurred. While tears clouded my vision and my head started to pound, the ink clawed at my ribcage as if telling me that this was in fact real instead of the nightmare I used to wake up in cold sweat from. This apparently had been going on for a month, and I wondered why I hadn’t felt this throb in my body as soon as she had taken her first sip of alcohol.

For the next few days I refused to look at my body in the mirror, for fear even a glimpse of the tattoo would make my anger and humiliation grow stronger to the point of combustion. This date represented the end of years of scheduled visits, parental screaming matches, and hidden airplane bottles. This date was the fresh start to our already strained relationship. This date represented me forgiving her for the tumultuous childhood and instead looking to a future where that was all in the past. The idea of opening those past wounds up hurt more than that machine pricking my skin, or the possibility of getting the ink removed. Even more than the pain, the fear of how my peers would react, and what they would say after hearing about my mother’s current struggle, consumed me.

I began to doubt the purpose behind this tattoo, and thought of ways to cover it up. As I slowly started to reveal to my friends that my mother had relapsed, I envisioned their mournful expressions accompanied by wondering gazes down my body. The thought of whispered “I told her so’s” bouncing off walls as soon as I left a room overpowered my concern for my mother’s recovery, I’m ashamed to say. Was I a fool to my friends? Did it matter more that I had tattooed this permanent ink onto my body than that my mother was consumed with addiction once again? I felt like an optimistic fool, and embarrassed for acting so reckless at the age of 20.

From November 2016 to September 2017 my mother was in and out of rehab. At times I was too scared to call her, in panic that she would answer the call after a bottle of Chardonnay; other days I called her just to make sure she was still alive. My self-loathing only increased every time I got a call from her, telling me that once again she had been admitted, or admitted herself, to rehab. At times I thought about tattooing the clinic’s phone number underneath my current tattoo, just to punish myself and her even further.

A thousand miles away from my family I could drown in self-pity all I wanted, because their words of encouragement and optimism didn’t necessarily mean anything to me on a phone call. After the same thing is said time and time again each month, support loses its value, especially if things seem completely hopeless.

Now I was at the forefront of this battle, receiving doctor phone calls and check-ins from family members. Here I thought my tattoo signified my first step into womanhood, when in reality this was truly the beginning of my journey. Of course my mother and I are different people than we were ten years ago: she’s no longer than the stay-at-home housewife and I’m no longer the unaware little girl.

The constant dejection and discouragement eventually led to a desperation for any sliver of inspiration that my mother would eventually get better. Surprisingly, this hope came from the most unexpected source. Just like I’ve changed over the years, my tattoo eventually transformed itself from a regretful blemish into an evocative itch. Each time following another relapse, when I was at my lowest, the tattoo served as a nagging reminder that at one point my mother was going through the same struggle, and she overcame it. While I was away from my family, my tattoo remained my companion through it all.

A few months later I found myself sitting in yet another leather chair. This experience was different; rather than an ink gun buzzing in my ear, a simple silver needle poked the dark ink onto my upper arm. As the artist wiped away the last of the remaining ink, the tattoo of a spilling cup stared back at me. Standing up, I examined my second tattoo in the small, slightly cracked mirror of this tucked away studio in Bushwick Brooklyn. My tattooist smiled at her finished creation as she cleaned up the space.

“So what’s the significance of a cup spilling?” She asked me, packing up her equipment.

For the first time in what felt like an eternity, a lightness filled my body. This tattoo would be the playmate for the ink that had already helped me through one of the most difficult times of my life.

“Just to remind myself that sometimes messes happen,” I said.

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Shelby Black is a writer based in Memphis, TN. When she's not whipping up espresso drinks as a barista, she's freelancing for publications including PAPERMAG, I-D, and Broadly. Check out her website at You can also find Shelby on Instagram and Twitter.