Geraldine Walsh talked to women for whom tattoos are not simply an affectation, but rather an important part of their recovery from trauma.
There is a significant pain when getting a tattoo. It’s somewhere between a cat scratching on sensitive skin to a fierce burning that radiates out from whatever image, words, or memories are being inscribed on your body forever.
There is also something cleansing when the pain eases, the tattoo heals, and your skin tells a story.
Tattoos were never something I imagined I’d be covered in come my 30s, but my artwork says more about my life than my wrinkles do.
I suffered postnatal depression and anxiety. Having come through some of the hardest years of my life, my desire to rebuild my life and confidence saw me fight back. It was a hard fight — one I thought, on many occasions, I was losing. In the end, or somewhere near the middle, I wanted to commemorate the strength I thought I had lost and a person I feared was buried. So, I sat for hours under ink and needle. My tattoos have helped me appreciate the hardship I left behind and love the person I have become. It is now my story to tell, rather than my burden to carry.
Cognitive behaviour therapist and counselling psychotherapist, Susi Lodola, recognises how this disconnect I felt from my previous self was important for me to overcome in order to continue with my recovery.
“Trauma is often described as a loss of connection to ourselves, our bodies, people, and the world around us,” she says. “Unresolved and unhealed trauma has the potential to be externalised in relationships and may generally give rise to destructive forces.”
The anxiety I suffered was breaking up my life, and not just my mind. Finding my way out of this ordeal was a long process, with forward steps and backward stumbles.
There are many ways to signify a rise out of the ashes from a torment or trauma. Getting a tattoo is not everyone’s idea of forgiving, remembering, or coming to terms with a life event that was more than a tedious trial. There are those of us who have found permanent ink to be a significant marker in our recovery. From boosting our image, regaining control, and understanding our journey, to the release of endorphins from the pain of tattooing, they all play a part in our therapy.
“The choice and the reasons for getting tattoos often reflect many of the aspects associated with recovery after trauma,” says Lodola. “The choice of the tattoo and the meaning associated with it can help the individual discover new meaning and identity. The experience may be transformative and acts as a reminder of resilience helping a person move from a place of being a ‘victim’ to a place of being a ‘survivor’. My tattoos are large and imposing, with elements only I understand the meaning of. I am, of course, always happy to share my story and their significance. Getting a tattoo as a form of healing and moving on does not need to be as grand in scale as mine are.”
Charlie Lister suffered from depression and anxiety on and off for years, undergoing medication, cognitive behaviour therapy, and counselling. She says that at the time she was suffering, mental health was not widely talked about. She saw a project called Semicolon which felt like a perfect fit for her.
The Semicolon Project was started by Amy Bleul who fought through poor mental health. After losing her father to suicide, she paid tribute to him with a tattoo of a semi-colon which has become a universal symbol of hope and strength. A simple yet poignant image it shows their story is not over.
“I loved the idea,” says Lister, “and it’s definitely been a talking point. People always ask what it is or what it means, and I tell them honestly. Talking about it and knowing you’re not the only one through it has really helped.”
Tattooing is considered a form of art therapy and a vehicle for change, explains Lodola. “Research suggests expressing suffering and pain through art can help an individual to begin to structure, organise, and process emotionally distressing experiences,” she says. “The act of creativity has powerful healing and can help to objectify uncomfortable feelings into images and can help to translate anguish into meaning and resilience.”
Kirsten Rees, a book editor and author coach, has come through the toughest five years of her life. Suffering fibromyalgia and adjusting her life to limitations and uncertainty, losing her father, a cancer scare and being in a car accident resulting in physical scars, she has contended with many personal challenges, all the while running her own business.
“In 2018, I got two small tattoos to signify what I had come through and that I am in a positive place now. On my left hand, on my middle figure, I have three small dots in a row which remind me whenever I feel anxious to take three deep breaths in and out. It’s a tiny reminder that I’ve survived every tough day and I’ll get through this too and to be present in the moment on the good days too. I smile whenever I see it.
“The other is a quill drawing a heartbeat on my right forearm. The beat was taken from my own heart when I had an ECG in the hospital and the quill represents myself as an author and book editor but also that I am the creator of my own happiness. Someone once reminded me that butterflies don’t just emerge from their cocoons, they have to go through quite a difficult and incredible transformation. As people, we change and grow, and some days are tough, but I’ve learned so much during those times. I love my tattoos and what they represent for me.”
Writer Vicky Charles had a nervous breakdown in 2010. She was signed off work and eventually found her way back to working part-time, but the transition was not easy.
“I just couldn’t cope,” she says. “I ended up taking voluntary redundancy with garden leave for my notice period. I couldn’t really deal with everyday life and was very unwell mentally. A friend of mine worked in a piercing and tattoo studio, so I went to visit him and added a piercing to the other two I had on the back of my neck. I also got a tattoo on my wrist that says ‘This too shall pass’.
“In terms of helping with my recovery, by the time I got to having the tattoo, I realised I either had to get on and kill myself or pick myself up and get on with my life. I read every book about depression I could get my hands on. In one of them, I saw this quote and I liked the idea of it. Whatever you’re facing right now will pass, just like the good times you’ve had before which have also passed. Even now, I look to my tattoo to remind myself of this when I’m having a bad day.”
Commemorative ink is not for everyone, but for those who take on the tattoo gun as a medium of personal expression, they find it can help to overcome certain traumas and conflicts of their life.