Tattoos and Closure

In many parts of America I think tattoos are written off as the hallmark of degenerates. I think what our culture is slowly realizing (on the tails of American youth) that tattoos are no longer symbols limited to criminals, gang members, and salty dogs, but are swiftly being acknowledged as a disciplined art form that has been spreading (especially through the Pacific Northwest) like wildfire.

Today many different people have and are getting tattoos, and the reasons people get them are practically as widespread as the artwork itself. Some people consider their tattoos to be living works of art with no connection to any specific motive beyond a sense of their own enjoyment of a color, a shape, or an artist. Others collect tattoos to represent things that are important in their lives, like their children. It isn’t uncommon for people to get tattoos as a milestone representing a celebration like graduating, moving to a new place, or starting a business.

While I don’t want to detract from these (and other) reasons people have for getting tattoo work done, I want to specifically address another big reason people seek out the experience of getting a tattoo; closure.

While many people get tattoos as a symbol for a milestone event in their lives, it is very common for these events to have something to do with loss. A memorial piece for the loss of a loved one (like a parent or pet), a cover-up piece to detract from scars associated with physical loss (like a difficult surgery or self-harm), or a piece to symbolize the end of something difficult (like a relationship) are all ways people seek closure through the art of the tattooing.

I find that many, especially those seeking a tattoo to move toward closure, are infatuated with the ritualistic method of tattooing as well. I really believe that most people in the process of seeking closure experience some degree of anxiety about it, which is somewhat amplified when that person is about to be tattooed. As the artists works, there is physical pain that might (as some might suggest with self harm) be like a physical manifestation of the pain the grief of loss has been causing internally. When the piece is finished the pain subsides and is replaced with something beautiful, something permanent that can act as a visual reminder of our loss, replacing that constant need to obsess over it mentally.

***

After somewhat inadvertently escaping an abusive relationship in 2006 I didn’t realize how much I’d been effected by it until a couple years later. Though I’d moved on and lived in a different place and was in a new relationship, I was in a constant state of terror that my ex would reappear and set fire to everything I’d built.

This fear was not entirely far fetched. It had been common for him to track people down and show up without warning, and though I thought I had made it clear to him never to come near me again, I had the slow churning of the anxious bipolar mind working against me as well.

When I would have periods of psychosis, I was the most afraid. Afraid in general, but mostly afraid of him. My paranoia would take over my life and I would be afraid to open the curtains or unlock the door. After changing my phone number and moving again (for the 4th time since I’d seen him last) I still didn’t feel safe. I still didn’t feel free.

By last year (six years after the relationship ended) I still felt as anxious and terrified as ever. I was afraid I would bump into him in the street (despite a rumor that he lived in another state). I was afraid that I would come home one day and he would be in my apartment. I was afraid that he would do something irrational… and that’s when I took a look in the mirror.

If anyone was being irrational, it was me. I was in a constant state of being engulfed by fear, fear of something that wasn’t very likely going to happen at that point, if it had at all. I had obsessed and worried so much that I felt swamped, completely unable to tell what signs to consider threats and what was harmless.

In a manic epiphany (I tend to have one every few years) I concluded that I should get a tattoo. The tattoo would be a moth, because my ex was terribly afraid of moths. This permanent symbol would act as a talisman, and perhaps not directly repelling him, if I associated myself with something he considered repellant, I hoped I would feel empowered. A reminder that I am safe now.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the idea would work. Surely, getting a tattoo would work (I already had two at the time) but I didn’t know if I could ease my mind this way, particularly a very anxious, obsessing, bipolar mind.

When the mania wore off I still felt inspired, and within a few weeks I met up with a local artist (a great one, I might add) who tattooed me.

(I also wanted to note that you wont find any images of my tattoos on this post because I don’t post images of my tattoos on the internet. I prefer they remain singular works of art, not copied by anyone else.)

I don’t think the change was immediate, but I am sitting here almost a year later and haven’t had any problems with anxiety or paranoia about my ex-boyfriend in months. Of course, that isn’t to say that I haven’t had any anxiety or paranoia about other things, but the fear I had before (particularly about him breaking into my apartment) seems to be quelled.

Going through with getting something as simple as a tattoo has greatly improved the amount of closure I have felt about a traumatic time in my life and lessened my fear about my past, and scaling back that fear has meant specifically (for me);

  • Less frequent apartment lock checking (especially when I was getting up in the middle of the night several times to check locks)
  • Being able to keep the window open when I am at home
  • Being able to be home alone without leaving every light on
  • Feeling comfortable leaving the apartment more frequently
  • Less concern that he will jump out at me on the street, I am able to walk much more relaxed
  • I no longer feel the need to keep moving around or changing my phone number

I realize the idea of using tattooing as a way to help combat anxiety or fear is something that people may be skeptical about, and that is why I wanted to share my experience about it. There are many people out there who, like me, see tattooing as a form of therapy.

After all, there have been moments in my regular therapy sessions where my therapist has asked me to close my eyes and imagine wearing an outfit that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed. She said that any time I can close my eyes and imagine I’m wearing it.

All I’ve done is taken this idea one step further. I thought of something I can wear that makes me feel confident, strong, and relaxed… and I’ve permanently adhered it to my body.

Now I never have to close my eyes and imagine, I can just look down and remember who I am.

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9 responses to “Tattoos and Closure

  1. Reblogged this on My Bipolar Roller Coaser and commented:
    Love, love, LOVE this post! I really identified with some of the reasons people get tattooed, which may be why I’m itching for another one already.

  2. Yes. I have a Katrina tattoo – a fleur de lis on my right arm. I moved to NYC shortly after evacuating, but wanted a constant reminder of home. I’m back in Nola now, and get compliments on the tattoo all the time. 🙂

  3. One for a dead friend, and one for a new begining… Tattoos are most the most wonderful vehical for change. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I want to get Tatoos to remind me of various times in life. From attempted suicide, to my cutting to the child I never see, I’m getting specific ink for the specific times as lamp posts on the journey. I can relate.

  5. & I don’t also like showing them. They’re visual acts of my deepest memories and as such they’re just for me.

  6. puzzlingitout

    I got one of mine after leaving my controlling ex. It provided closure and reminded me that I’m strong. It’s still my favorite.

  7. Pingback: Stepping Stones; Stepping out of PTSD | bi[polar] curious

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