Tattoos, Love, and Recovery

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Tattoos, Love, and Recovery

By Jacklyn Janeksela 05/11/18

The pain of the tattoo made me cry. But not only from pain. I cried because I could finally feel again for the first time in years. I cried because I was happy to face myself and not be afraid.

Image: 
A woman getting a tattoo on her lower arm
And in the process of watching my body heal from each tattoo, I learned I could heal myself, too, piece by piece, part by part into a new self.

Long before my friend said, You’re always holding, I knew I was the problem. The fact that my friend was so certain stunned me. I broke my heart. I broke my own heart.

I had ignored the signs and the fact that addiction had been a word smeared onto every piece of clothing I owned, every body part. It wasn’t just on my forehead, either, it was in my veins. I come from a long line.

I never went to a meeting, although I was close a few times. The tiny building, hand-painted in blue hues, had the auspicious double /a/ hanging on the front door. The location was more like a hut, off to the side of a bus stop that looked more like a ticket office than a place to seek help. I acted like I was looking for someone, something, the way people do when they have ulterior motives or are too afraid to ask for help.

*

I couldn’t save me from myself. Okay, that’s a lie. I could. But the answers didn’t seem visible or tangible, not when the problem felt like a wide open sea. I was aimlessly searching for a buoy, barely afloat after a decade swimming. The solution had dissolved somewhere, out there, yet I kept dipping my fingers below the water’s surface searching for result. And I was in disillusion.

*

And then it happened. I fell in love with the only guy who presented me with pain and said, This will hurt, but don’t worry, it’s only temporary and you’ll heal in no time at all. Who knew the ink in a tattoo gun would be the medicine I sought.

The whole experience was very Chironic. Someone else had to administer the antidote, I was useless in the face of healing. It was the tattoo artist who picked up the poison and tossed it in the bin. It was the tattoo artist who said, Look, you’ve got the remedy right here, let’s apply it. So, I let him. I let him inject me with antidote.

*

I married my tattoo artist. Our love affair was a process, much like getting a tattoo. The deliberation, the decision, the design, the outline, the stencil, the application, the permanent ink going past the epidermis and into the dermis. He was scratching away at my pericardium, itching for my entire heart.

For all the times I tried to look at my addiction in the same way, nothing ever took. Much like a tattoo that only goes as far as the epidermis, the ink bleeds out.

When we got married, my addictions didn’t fade away. If anything they were even more menacing at times. But he reminded me that anything worth having is worth giving it time to develop into what it should be. He didn’t just tattoo a rose, he changed me into one.

At first, I had no idea what those two roses meant on my forearm. One slightly bigger than the other, the smaller one that never healed quite right. The symbolism multi-layered and wrought with bleed. The roses were us—the larger one shielding the smaller one, as if ready for anything. The roses were my two identities and ways of managing life. The roses were the past and the present—the smaller one shrinking while the larger one heralded in a promising bloom.

There have always been two options for me, it just so happens I have been a glutton for suffering for as long as I can remember.

*

After the first tattoo he said, You are special, you shouldn’t hurt yourself like you do. Oh, how I wanted to fold into myself, roll down the street, wait at a sharp turn for a bus to come by and crush me under its weight. And the people whispering amongst each other, something like, What was she doing out there, she shouldn’t have been out there, she should have paid more attention, she should have been more aware.

How dare he see that part of me, I thought. But it was in his ability to see me, to see me, to really see me, that the rope I had been seeking all these years finally appeared. I could finally pull myself out of the water and dry out.

*

Not every tattoo he’s given me has symbolic meaning in the way that people ask, Does this have any significance? But each one allows me to recognize markers and register pain. And to identify moments when I’ve been totally sober. Each one is a glimpse of vulnerability. My ability to trust someone else; moment of pushing into fear because I knew healing was on the other side, waiting. Through my relationship with the tattoo and the tattoo artist, I reconciled what it was to bleed. I learned to bleed for catharsis and not tear myself apart.

My life partner is my tattoo artist. These roles are not so divergent, actually. They are one in the same, the same Chironic metaphor. They work in tandem to facilitate healing. They train me to handle the storm. They encourage me to be present with the pain. Without my life partner and my tattoos, I might not value the restorative properties of relationships. With ink and blood he offers me treatment and with tears, restoration.

*

Each time I got a tattoo from him, I wanted to be sober. In many ways, I wanted to impress him with my ability to not use. I wanted to impress myself, too. It was sobering. And a way to explore myself all over again after years of covering up and hiding. It was futile to try and fool him anyway; he was intuitive, at least with me.

The pain of the tattoo pushed me into to a sober place. I had to experience the pain. There was no looking or running away. It was not my first tattoo, but like so many things that started that day in Bogotá, it would be the first of many sober experiences.

The pain of the tattoo made me cry. But not only from pain. I cried because I could finally feel again for the first time in years. I cried because I was happy to face myself and not be afraid. I cried because it hurt and the tears were all I had to give.

There were phases to the healing process. I witnessed my body’s resilience, how quickly raw skin formed a scab to keep out bacteria. How the scab fell away in thin layers as if nothing had ever happened. I studied myself, the physical body, and applied theory to my heart.

And in the process of watching my body heal from each tattoo, I learned I could heal myself, too, piece by piece, part by part into a new self.

*

I knew I would want to use on my birthday, so I had planned to bury under blankets, let the day disappear into the Andes mountain range like so many evening clouds and aimless birds, and cry. But he wouldn’t let me. He said, How about a tattoo? You shouldn’t be alone, it’s your birthday. And with that, he pulled out the gun, held my arm firmly between his hands and pointed to the spot where I would watch myself be transformed.

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