Deciphering My Code

By Sara PintilieDecember 11, 2014

I adore tattoos. I’ve wanted a tattoo for so long that I don’t even know who first inspired the budding tattoo fanatic in me. I read about them; I study them. They fascinate me. I love that they tell me something personal about a stranger without words being exchanged. It’s almost like a code. I constantly think about getting tattoos, just like a kid might dream about being a superhero. When I was younger, I dreamed of having a reason to get a tattoo, almost like it was a rite of passage.

Most people guess I have more, and I can see why. But as much as I love talking about tattoos, I only have three. There is an eight-spoke wheel on my right shoulder, a tree stump with deep roots on my left side, and a three-word reference from a favorite book on my left wrist. I wonder what people think when they see them, if they can correctly decipher my code. Do they see the roots peeking out of my shirt and think I love trees? Do they see the wheel and think I love the sea? Or do they see the true meaning of each tattoo? People who have tattoos get them for different reasons. For me, they become a solution to a puzzle that keeps me distracted from thoughts of self-harm.

I’ve struggled with self-harm since I was a preteen. Almost every scar on my body has been by my hand, and I am still figuring out why with my therapist. But I’m lucky; I’ve learned how to divert my thoughts to something constructive when I start to slip down that dark, dangerous road. I write. I read. I draw. I play video games. I play a lot of video games. I do something to make sure those thoughts don’t appear. Sometimes those thoughts do show up, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and gone just as fast. Other times, however, they linger. If they linger, I think about getting a tattoo.

I spend countless hours researching, sketching, and planning my tattoos. I put the design on my inspiration wall and stare at it for hours, while a crude rendering has already been drawn on my body with an eyeliner pen. This planning stage lasts for months, just so I can make sure I’m not making an impulse decision on the design. After I am certain the tattoo is something I am willing to see every day for the rest of my life, I spend another set of countless hours researching tattoo artists. Through the process, I ask my friends for their opinions to get a different perspective. I am afraid of making a mistake; I don’t want to have to live with an ugly reminder of bad planning. I’ve done this three times, and I’m currently going through it again for my fourth tattoo. 

I chose the placement months before this process even started. I chose that the minute I didn’t act on a dark, dangerous thought on my right shoulder, my left side, my left inner wrist, or my right outer wrist. I don’t know if you have any tattoos, and if you do, I don’t know what your code reveals. All I know is that I’ve chosen to solve my problem with a pretty interesting solution, and it’s a good feeling. 

I used to think that getting a tattoo would be a rite of passage for me. And it has been, in a way. But I think it’s the motivation behind the tattoo that’s more important. It’s me knowing that I can love myself or I can hurt myself – and choosing love. 

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Comments (34)

  1. Anonymous

    Beautiful!! I wish that all people who self-harm could see your solutions, and could see your last sentence. Knowing you can love yourself, and choosing that over hurt, is beautiful. Thank you for this. I will share this with my daughter.

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  2. VioletLilacPlum

    Love this! I’m currently planning my third tattoo and I want to make sure I get it just right, because it’s very meaningful to me. I love seeing the tattoos of others and getting a glimpse into who they are.

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  3. Stacy

    IF you looked at me, you would think if that woman has a tattoo it would be a flower or something small and feminine. But instead, during my deepest moment at age 32, 3 kids, a husband and asuffering from depression, I struggled with the voices in my head. I had struggled with them for 15 years and they continued to convince me to take my life. But on a certain day, out of the blue, I went and got a tribel desire from my wrist to my shoulder just so I could feel pain for 3 1/2 hours on myself. It somehow passified suicide and provided me with a sense of relief. I know exactly what you speak of. Thanks for sharing your story!!

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  4. Jessica

    My third tattoo was the word love on my wrist over the scars i have from cutting. every time i fall back into that dark place i can look at that and remember everyone out there whos been through the same thing or is feeling the same way and i feel connected. I’ve got love on my arms forever and it has saved me more times than i can count!

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    1. Carla

      Love was my fourth tattoo 🙂 I have it in my arm too. It reminds me the only that matters, and the only thing that is stronger than all the pain I feel

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    2. Kristin


      I have “One love” written on the inside of my left wrist for the exact same reason! Sending love and hope to you.

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  5. Sassystills

    i have tattoos all over my body and they all signify either the struggle or the win. Sometimes I crave them to feel pain that I refuse to inflict on myself. Sometimes they are a reminder that better days will come. Sometimes they are words to remind me that in the darkest of days there is hope. All of them speak to me and when others see them they may think of me all sorts of things but only I know the truth behind the messages. Good luck in your struggle and may your tattoos, like mine, help you reclaim your skin.

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  6. Bekah

    I have two tattoos and one is on my thigh where I wanted to cut. I guess it’s like my code

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  7. Desiree

    I have four tattoos all of which have come mostly from dealing with being bipolar or depression. The first one I got was Xena’s Super Chakram which for me means strength, and fighting, and the design of it if you haven’t ever seen one is of a yin-yang symbolizing the balance of light and dark.
    My second was done on my right inner wrist, it says Be Safe, I know that anytime I start thinking about cutting there I will see my mothers words and remember not to do it and I def wouldn’t want to mess up the nice design.
    The third I have is on my left inner wrist it says Good Enough, this is partially from the song by Evanesence because I love the song and secondly because that is where I would cut if I had the urge or if I were to try committing suicide there. I can look at it and try to remember that I am good enough to live, and I remember the wonderful tattoo artist who was so sweet to me and even though we had never met before he told me I was worth the world and that if he were a younger man he would definitely ask me out. My fourth and most recent tattoo is of a butterfly from the Lords of the Underworld series by Gena Showalter. Each of the main characters in the series have this tattoo that looks like a butterfly with razor sharp wings. It symbolizes for me and them that there is a demon inside that they fight. My mother also has this tattoo so it is also a mother daughter experience. So all of my tattoos try to remind me of strength and to keep fighting against my own mind and emotions. I have to say though that almost all of my tattoos being placed on my body for these reasons come from this very organization. I kind of got the idea from TWLOHA because I thought you know what if I not only wrote love on my own arms and allowed others to put it there, but that I tattooed in permanent ink, love onto my body never to wash away and always a reminder.

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  8. Anonymous

    I can totally understand. I never went as far as physical self-harm, but I did flirt with th idea for a while in high school, and do quite a bit of emotional harm to myself. I’d wanted a tattoo for a long time, and I had some ideas, but then I found a song that just touched me in a deeper way than anything ever had, and helped me pull myself out of that dark place. Now I have the lyrics along with a maple leaf tattooed on my shoulder, and I’m in the planning stages for the next one. Thank you for sharing, and God bless!

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  9. Accredo

    Very thought and well-worded. I have two tattoos. My second is on the inside of my left wrist- a dove with the Latin word “accredo”. It has significance to me on multiple levels. But the one most people don’t know about is that it covers my scars. And when I’m tempted now, I end up drawing blood from the wings. That helps me think some more before taking rash actions. I also had to make sure it was all healed before I could even get the tattoo, which stopped me many times. Your words spoke right to me, as they did many others. Thanks for being a voice for us. Those are the kind of things that help us when we feel so alone in our inner battles. Keep being a voice.

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  10. Ambrosia

    I feel very deeply connected to what she’s saying. For as long as I can remember I have always been fascinated by tattoos. I loved then beauty, I loved the process, I love that they’re permanent. I decided getting tattoos was the best way to help me stop. I kept telling myself if I make more scars, I can’t place a tattoo there. I cureenky have three and they are all beautiful and mean the world to me. Tattoos are my way of coping.

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  11. Anonymous

    I got my third tattoo a few days after my aunt died from cancer and one day after I stopped self-harming (hopefully for good). Its my constant reminder that I have some control on my own suffering, of my own body. It helps me to know that I’m not alone in this fight or this solution. Thank you.

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  12. Anonymous

    In a way it’s comforting to know that the reasons I have my tattoos are shared by another who suffered the same destructive urges. Just goes to show that we are never alone.

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  13. dani

    I get tattoos for the beauty and the reminders. I’ve been self harming for about the past 8 years and have managed to redirect those thoughts to ink. I have 7 and am planning my next. All have meaning, they are my code.

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  14. Alicia

    I have 6 tattoos and all but 1 of them have a deep meaning behind them. The last two tatts that I’ve got are both on my inner forearms not only to prevent me from cutting but also to tell a story of my beliefs in myself and in the Divine. One in Chinese Kanji that states:
    Courage to Embrace change
    Strength of character
    Integrity in all I do
    And on the opposite arm I have written “I am we” which means “We are One” in the Universe, the Divine, etc…all equal to one another in peace.
    When I get into that dark place and want to cut myself to pieces, I look at these tattoos as a reminder of why they are placed there and what I don’t want to do to my body. Getting them was very gratifying as I liked the pain or lack there of it, and the cutting desire goes away.

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  15. meriq

    I used to hav unpleasant thought , still do. I thnk all of us do. We need distraction and its our choice of what it wud b. Gaming is too easy yet not so beneficial to our life. All those negative thought r the output of our excessive energies. So, why not channel it to something that we will thank ourself later?

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  16. Anonymous

    I’ve been wanting a tattoo on either my wrist or my hip. Something to remind me that I am better than my self-harm and I don’t need it to go on. I’ve been thinking of just getting the word Believe on my hip. I have self-harmed there on a few occasions and thought if I get a tattoo there, I won’t want to ruin it. Now thinking about it, getting a tattoo when I’m in a dark spot can help ease the troubles.

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  17. Casperette

    I have 6 tattoos that Represent my life and my fight! I want to say thank you for sharing your story and know your not alone. I am too a self-harmer and in recovery and been SH free for two years now and when I look at my tattoos it helps me fight this and shows my life, I am in the works on getting my 7th soon. I too half to keep my hand busy when I find myself down that dark road and I will write mostly but it clean too lol … Keep positive and know your in my prayers coxo

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  18. ash

    Tattoos are a story for most people. They are a symbol, meaning, something important. I myself have 4. I am huge believer of dreams, never growing old and doing what you love.

    My first tattoo was 2*R on the inside of my middle finger on the left hand. It’s the first half of the map to neverland.

    My second tattoo is a showering of stars on my right shoulder. A gift from a friend but a reminder to always aim for the stars.

    My third and forth tattoos are a set, one on my left forearm and one on my right forearm that read 화이팅 하루하루. It’s in Korean which is something I am very passionate about and translates to “fighting day by day” I see them every day and no matter how bad it gets for me they are my reminders to never give up, keep going.

    I plan on a few more but I put a lot of time, effort and though into each tattoo so it’ll be a while before I get another

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  19. Anonymous

    I have tattoos and they allowed me be strong 🙂 I am mexican and in my country tattoos are “bad” that’s the reason why I don’t tell them when they ask me what they means beautiful your journey with tattoos stay strong 🙂

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  20. Allie Freshour

    I also have three tattoos for the same reasons. I also really love the last sentence. It is something I am still working through and it is encouraging to me that you chose and are still choosing to love yourself. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

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  21. Annaley

    I too am in a constant recovery phase addiction self harm..i also am scattered in scars that all came from me i finally stopped in 2010 and its funny i poured myself into music writing singing but i wanted the Japanese Phoenix for years but would never do it because of the meaning behind it i felt i wasn’t ready i wanted to remember the huge obstacle i fought and still fight as me conquering something that i had convinced myself was my way of healing time passed and i now have a beautiful Phoenix perfectly adorning much of my left side i still struggle very much but i don’t have any new self inflicted scars…. it brings me genuine joy to see others finding a way their “code” as you said i wish you well and sending light and love on your path to further healing

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  22. Cyreks

    It’s amazing for you to find that relief. I think I shall start planning my next tattoo now.
    I also have LOVE written in a wristband tattooed and it was certainly never regretted.
    Thank you for your post.

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  23. Leah

    I h as ve j it st 3 tattoos and they were all impulse but 2 of them mean the world to me. I have Love on my inner left forearm which covers my Hate scars and I have a heart on my left hand because I wear my heart on my sleeve and I used to draw a heart every time I wanted to hurt myself.

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  24. Julie

    I have 9 tattoos. I started 6 years ago just before I was going down the hill, where depression started. I have a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (severe) always been there since my childhood, I have to “manage” this everyday. And depression came along in 2009: I had a major depressive disorder in 2005 and another one in 2009 and I had to be on sick leave for 1 year and a half. When I started having tattoos, I realized it was a release from the emotional distress, emotional pain and suicidal thoughts. When I get a tattoo I am in the moment, the present only. I prefer the physical pain that the emotional distress. It’s easier to manage. My depression goes away for a couple of hours ( i have 3 bigs tattoos) and I prefer to have physical pain than psychological or emotional pain. Some of my tattoos are a little bit impulsive but Ialways chose a excellent tattoo artist, 2 of my tattoos I had to wait 1 year to have it, but it’s worth it. There is a meaning for some tattoos, for others not because I just like the art of tattoos and for me it’s a way to express myself and my story. The most meaninful is the word “Love” on my inner wrist that reminds me where i come from and TWLOHA helped me, with also psychotherapy, medication, support from my husband etc. I am struggling again with depression and it’s very hard. I don’t want to have all my body covered up by tattoos. But there is one thing sure: I agree with you, it release the emotional pain, distress, suicidal thoughts, and that, is a lot. Tattoos are like a part of my treatment plan for depression and I do a lot of self-harm (on an emotional level). Thank you so much for sharing your story.
    P.S. I am not perfectly bilingual, French is my first language. thank you.

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  25. Joy

    I love this. You are walking Art and love both at once. You are also inspiration. Thank you for sharing. And may you come to realize how deep deep deeply you are loved for you are indeed a Masterpiece. That is straight out of the word – Ephesians – maybe chapter 2… Not sure! :). Much love to you!!!! And may the darkness always give way to Love!

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  26. Katie

    I am also a cutter (I don’t say “ex-cutter” because sometimes if it’s really bad it still happens) and I have tattoos that tell stories. The one that gets a lot of notice is the one on the inside of my right wrist…it’s the word “hope” written into an infinity sign. I got it after my last hospitalization to remind me that no matter how bad things get, that there is always hope.

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  27. Barb

    ever since i found my best friend, we have planned tattoos we want and what they mean. we plan to get at least one matching one so we never forget each other, should we ever split. and then we each want some more that each mean something to us as we deal with the hardships life throws at us. horses and love is what i want, as plan to love all my tattoos! they remind me someone cares and loves me, both my horses and my best friend.

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  28. Lauren

    Beautiful and well said! I’ve wanted a tattoo for the longest time but I couldn’t come up with anything that I deemed worthy of going on my body. Finally after years of thinking and drawing, I’ve drawn something that I’m like “YES!! That’s the one I want!” Every little detail of it, from what it is to the pattern to the placement means something. Now I’m just waiting on being able to get it put it on me. 🙂

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  29. Kristin


    I, too, got a tattoo to remind myself on a daily basis that “I can love myself or hurt myself.” My tattoo (on the inside of my left wrist) and the extra piercing in my ear serve as a daily reminder of the pain I’ve lived through – the two times I’ve been close to letting go – and survived. Many thanks for telling your story and helping us all to think more about the beauty behind our scars.

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  30. kate

    I am the same.. I have 1 tattoo on my left wrist and I am in the long process of designing/ planning my next- for the same reason you wrote about, its nice knowing im not the only one.

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  31. Natalie

    So one of my inner battles has been a subject of tattoos as well for a couple of months now. They are meant to tell stories, memories, remind you of things, or say whatever you want them to say in order for the world to understand. I had decided that I wanted a half sleeve, but where. Oh I know, right where all my disgusting self-harm scars are, so I forget what each scar meant, why they were there and keep people off my case who constantly say “Oh you’re a ________?” when I forget to hide them. Then I thought, well… maybe I should keep those scars there so I will remember to NOT do it and gain self-control. Then back and forth, back and forth. So I wonder, how does everyone else feel about it? Are our scars meant to be a reminder? Or are they meant to be hidden?

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  32. Ron

    Thank you for sharing story. I understand completely. Been a self-harmer for 12 years. it’s something that will never go away but the way I’ve come to manage is through therapy, meds, and tattoos.

    i’ve got 9 tattoos. each are symbolic. they also cover the scars. they are all on my left arm and wrist. I have scars on my right arm too and i’ve come to realize it’s time to get rid of them via art.

    another positive about my tattoos is that they act as a deterrent. by having them I won’t harm anymore. it’s worked for my left arm so it will work for my right.

    I couldn’t think of a better way towards healing than the art on my skin to tell my story.

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