I was four when my family started attending a church housed in an old YMCA building. The sanctuary stood at the end of a long hallway, while the gym and the kitchen area occupied opposite sides of the other end. Each week, the little kids conducted a wild game of hallway sliding. The peach-and-cream tile floors offered little resistance to those lucky enough to wear pants to church; an attempt to slide down the hall in any other attire was the surest way to get a skinned knee. Hearts pounding, we would pump our arms and legs as fast as we could, weaving between the groups of adults standing around talking until we could see the rest of the hallway open ahead of us. We then sprinted for ten feet before surrendering to our momentum, hip to ground, feet tucked tight against our buttocks. The risk of being caught and chastised was exhilarating and whipped us into a frenzy, scampering from one end of the hall to the other.
Once, I made a last-second correction to avoid a rogue adult and was so pleased by my nimbleness I didn’t notice I was traveling on a 45-degree angle until it was too late. I saw my destination – the cement doorframe of the kitchen – seconds before I arrived. I caught the cool cement with my hands but could not halt the momentum of my cranium; my head smacked against the white paint of the doorframe. I sat on my knees, stunned. I let go of the wall and looked to my right and realized the Women’s Ministry group was having one of their meetings in the kitchen. I felt something cool run down my forehead and hang heavy on my lashes, darkening the view out of my right eye. I made eye contact with the only woman seated in view of the door, who first gasped then screamed; she pointed at me frantically as the other women jumped up from their seats and rushed toward me. Motionless, I cried, waiting patiently in my pain for my mother to come take care of me. The smooth oval of scar tissue an inch or so above my right eyebrow is a reminder of my former adventures in recklessness. Like the other marks on my body – the discolored skin, the tough scar tissue, and smooth permanent ink arriving by both chance and choice – it came to serve as a souvenir of a place I’d been.
Let me show you my collection.
Middle school marked the end of the relative bliss of my childhood. My older brother, previously my best friend and favorite playmate, was now too cool to be seen with me, and my dad, who had been the focus of all my affection, moved out. The walls that had previously echoed some of my favorite sounds – the booming laughter of my father in response to one of our many inside jokes and the enthusiastic kung fu noises my brother and I shouted during commercial breaks of our favorite TV show – now held in the silence. I didn’t have words for the sneaking, groping hands of my fellow football players; I couldn’t give up my newly-earned spot in the pseudo-family that is a sports team by ratting them out. I didn’t have words for the older boy at church who would corner me and hungrily explore my body.
I found escape from my emotional pain in the sanctuary of my church. I was sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon, when an accidental prick of my leg shifted my relationship to physical pain. My heart skipped a beat, and I felt a rush; my emotional pain was lost in the flood of adrenaline coursing through my body. My life after that became centered on my relationship with sharp objects; I could, and did, use anything to self-injure. I didn’t have words for my hurt, and I couldn’t talk about how the lust for this release had taken over my life. Once, I went deeper than I meant to but was too ashamed of my loss of control to tell anyone; I kept quiet and didn’t get stitches when I needed them. Now, the puckered skin forming a raised ellipse of sorts sits near the bend of my elbow and is a constant reminder of the danger of silence.
Silence remained my constant and suffocating companion. In high school, my emotions cycled through extremes: Every few months I would feel sorrow that penetrated my bones, and I would sleep as much as possible to avoid the vise of anxiety that came with being awake; at other times, the warmth of undiluted happiness seemed to stretch my insides to the point of rupture. The highs I kept to myself; they balanced out the frightening lows and the blandness of the times of normalcy. When I tried to tell my high school counselor about the lows – the way the heaviness of depression made every waking moment feel as if I was being scraped raw by the world around me – I was told it was just teenage angst, that I had so much going for me and shouldn’t be ungrateful. I went away to college and attempted to battle my depression on my own, but I was ill-equipped. The marks from that time, nearly all of them healed and invisible, were superficial; yet it was precisely their superficial nature, a repeated act of resistance to the desire to go much deeper, that made me grow weary. Near the start of final exams I offered up a monotone confession of my exhaustion to a therapist at the student health center that led to my hospitalization and a coerced withdrawal from school.
I arrived home feeling branded and ashamed of my time in the hospital. The various marks on my brown skin were an ever-present, insistent reminder of my failure. I was confronted by all of them each time I stepped out of the shower and caught a glimpse of my naked body in the mirror; I was grateful when the cold of winter came, giving me an excuse to cover up the mocking companions to my attempts at recovery.
I got my first tattoo when I stopped wanting to die. My acceptance of life surprised me, and I didn’t know how long it would last. I wanted a permanent reminder of a moment I felt love for my life; the dove stretching from my armpit to the bottom of my ribcage is the product of that moment.
My second tattoo came after I realized my grades, trophies, awards, and desire to be liked were not prerequisites to my worth; these things could neither secure me love nor deem me undeserving. My presence – that is my continued existence in spite of the valleys and mountaintops of life – was enough. My self-love was fragile, and I couldn’t afford to forget, so I preserved my precious fact. Some people, thinking I acted on the whims of an intoxicating romance, ask if I am stuck with a permanent reminder of an ex-lover on my wrist. I turn my palm up and allow them to read for themselves.
You are loved.