Tuesday, 3 July 2012

In which getting a tattoo is the opposite of self-harm

[Trigger warning: this post discusses self-harm through self-injury and food control.]

Mental illness is a broad spectrum and no two people will experience it exactly alike. This blog post refers exclusively to my own experiences. They may resonate with some, but I do not claim to represent everyone with a mental illness and should not be held representative of mental illness as a whole.

I'd like to say I vividly remember the last time I self-harmed, but that would be a lie. I was drunk. I had been told something I could happily have lived many years without knowing, something that fed back to a particularly horrible time of my life that had only recently passed.

People experience the urge to self-harm in a dizzying variety of ways. I experience it as noise in my head. Static. A feedback loop. An overload of information causing sounds and images to blur together, so that it took a distinct break in my mental circuitry - pain and, often as not, the sight of blood - for me to be able to function again.

I was at a friend's house. I went to the bathroom, found the first sharp object I could lay my hands on, and attacked my shins with it. Being a conscientious sort, I then disinfected the blades and staunched the wounds so I wouldn't leave bloodstains on their bedsheets.

The next day, I got tattoos.

I found the process of getting a tattoo quite painful. I've heard people claim that theirs didn't hurt, from which I conclude that they are either lying or have no nerve endings. But it was an enjoyable process, and when I left the tattoo parlour I felt an endorphin rush and a lightness that lasted several days afterwards. And as the procedure went on, I made a pact with myself: I can get another tattoo once I have gone a year without self-harming. It will celebrate a new chapter of my life - one where I hopefully learn to process emotional pain in a healthier way. It's a gift to myself, a small piece of art on the walls of my most permanent home.

That was January 22nd, 2012, and I have not self-harmed since that day.

My legs and hips tell the story of 11 years of repressed and inexpressible sorrow and self-hatred. Some of these scars may be permanent. I hate them. For all that the body positive movement tries to reach out and tell people like me that our scars are beautiful, I can't believe that of mine. Whenever I see them I feel sick and ashamed, and afraid that someone might see them and ask me why they're there. My tattoos are beautiful. They represent my personality, with a touch of the artistic flair of the wonderful woman who put them there. They represent the start of a journey - one where, hopefully, I'll have left bad old habits behind. They are the only marks I can truly say I've chosen.

So when dickbags like Professor Ellis Cashmore try to tell me that my tattoos are a form of self-harm, well, I kind of want to set them on fire.