Tattoos and Pushpins: A Tale of Pain

It always starts with the buzzing sound, getting closer and closer. Then you feel the pressure and then little pain shoots up all around your body. Like little lighting strikes, sometimes soft, sometimes very sharp. This is the price paid for getting tattooed. I’ve been collecting tattoos, memories on my skin, some with happiness and some with a bit of sadness behind it. Even after five, I want more. I like looking down and seeing the words and designs permanently etched on my skin, reflecting on the memory and story behind ink and flesh.

Then, recently, I was getting tattooed, feeling the lightning and buzzing when I felt it; the strange, beautiful feeling of brief, sharp pain and then feeling completely nothing. I’m not a masochist, but this pain was familiar to me. I hadn’t felt anything like this since I was a cutter in high school. Using physical pain to control my stress and anxiety was the only way I could cope with my emotions and unresolved anger.

I can’t exactly remember when it started. My middle school years were full of bullying and suffering, but it was in my high school years, facing my future, that I started to take sharp objects to my skin. In my memories it started virtually overnight; I would feel completely overwhelmed with emotions or I was stressed out about some school work/friend trouble/parents. I would get panicky, and couldn’t stop crying or start to hyperventilate. I would then get a pushpin or even a dull packing knife and glided it across the skin of my wrist or my ankle over and over in the same spot until I could feel that pain; lightning striking. As soon as I felt it, I stopped and could breathe again. I never went deep enough to draw real blood, but I would have tiny white lines of raised skin lining my ankles and hidden in my sleeves. Sometimes I would have to do more than one line to calm down but it always seemed to work.

I would watch them disappear over a few days then do it all over again. The pain meant I was present, that I was real and that my problems weren’t really that bad. I was a good kid, behaved, good grades, but the pressure to be good would drown me. When my music or books wouldn’t help, I would turn to the tiny pushpins I’d steal from my mother’s office. I think one time; I may have even taken one from a bulletin board at school, and snuck off to the bathroom.

Strangely, I think I got the idea from a book my mother had gotten or I had picked up in a garage sale, it was about a girl who had an eating disorder but spiraled out of control and had started banging her wrists against sharp edges to control her emotions. I remember reading it and thinking that is so weird, why would she do that? Then I started creating lines in my skin and I understood.

This went on for a while when I was 16-17, I was very careful in hiding my wounds under my pants and sleeves. Once a teacher sort of noticed but I brushed it off as a cat scratch, they were so uniformly lined up on my ankle, what else could it have been? My parents have no clue to this day what went on, and I don’t plan on telling them ever. It was actually the shame of my secret and a friend blackmailing me that made me stop cutting.

I’ve almost completely put it out of my head, the passing of time and being in a different city will do that. But when I was 17, my high school life became a soap opera of over dramatics and craziness. Looking back, it was worthy of a Degrassi script: love gone very wrong, betrayal, lies and fake friends. I lost my partner in crime too that year, I’ve only seen her once since then, and I’m not sorry that the friendship ended so badly.

Strangely though, after that, even with the big emotional fallout, I stopped cutting. I guess part of me realized that if I could handle that insane year, then I could handle anything, my scary not-yet-unknown future and my crazy emotions. Also, another bigger part of me was really scared of my secret being spilt to my family and what the fallout would be. Would I be branded as a crazy person? Go in to therapy, be punished? I haven’t done it since, push pins just hold up things on my walls and the only things on my wrists and ankles are my ink.

It is weird to think of my life back then; I was a completely different girl. I hardly recognize her as part of myself. I’m not ashamed of my past; it made me stronger and able to face things that would impact my life and future. It does take me longer to trust, and I’m still not so great with sharing feelings and emotions, but I’m getting better. I’m not scared of being a crazy person, and I know have the most supportive friends and family to help me. I even got a matching tattoo with my bestie; a girl I wish I had known back then, but am eternally grateful she’s in my life now.

More tattoos are being planned: from birthday/milestones to homages to my favourite things, all of them reflect who I am, or who I am evolving into. Collecting tattoos tells my life story and gives me strength. One of my wrist tattoos reads “In pain there is healing,” which I think sums up my tattoos and my past perfectly. Lightning may only strike once, but my ink will last forever.

Written by Andie Baker.

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