Tattoos inspired by your mental health experience

19th Feb 2019
Mental health

This content mentions depression, anxiety and panic attacks, which some people may find triggering.

We recently posted a MHF Question Time post on Instagram asking people: ‘Do you have a tattoo that was inspired by your mental health experiences?’

The author of this blog, Rachel was so intrigued to see people’s responses to such a personal question that she decided to write a blog about it.

The posts covered lots of topics. They were inspiring. They reinforced my belief that openness about mental health is so important and that tattoos are a wonderful way expressing our feelings and experiences.

Some people had tattoos to remind them that they will get through it:

  • ‘‘I have ‘it can’t rain all the time’ a quote from the film the Crow, which reminds me that however bad I feel, with depression and anxiety, it can't last forever’’.
  • ‘‘I have the word smile but the 'i' is a semi colon, I got it from a horrible bout of depression and self-harm. It reminds me it will pass, it’s not forever and to smile, you’ll get through it’’.

Some people had tattoos that reference surviving an attempt to take their own life:

  • ‘‘I have ‘I survived 2016’ following my most serious attempt.’’
  • ‘‘I have a small one on my left wrist over one of my 'scars'. It is a single red drop of blood outlined in black It is to remind me that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. As long as there is even the minute possibility of hope, I will hang on, I will look for hope, I will not let mental illness beat me. It is a disease, but I will not let it eat away my soul. And yes, even my small tattoo can give me all this strength’’

My own mental health inspired tattoo

I have my own mental health inspired tattoo on my inner left arm that reads ‘Comfortably Numb’.

As a moody and confused teenager, overwhelmed with emotions and trying to navigate myself through school, exams, heartache and social life, I found refuge mostly in music. I used to steal my Dad’s CD collection and listen to it as much as I could, either on the school bus, at break time or at home in my room.

One band that my fourteen-year-old self really connected with was Pink Floyd. I had never heard anything like them before. They were both euphoric and melancholic at the same time. The music took me to a place where all the worries I had, all the feelings of low self-esteem, anger and sadness just disappeared. It was like my escape. It was healing.

Photo of a young woman with a tattoo on her arm

​The song that inspired my tattoo

The one song in particular that allowed me to feel free and let me forget the world was ‘Comfortably Numb’.

The lyrics are beautiful. Songwriter Roger Waters explains that the lyrics are about what he felt like as a child when he was sick with a fever. As an adult, he got that feeling again sometimes, entering a state of delirium, where he felt detached from reality. The lyrics are reminiscent to me of how it feels to be in a heightened state of anxiety or a bad episode of depression. During those periods, it is common to feel delirious and detached from reality, as Waters did during his fever.

The imagery for me is relatable to that terrifying feeling of uncontrollable panic, the irrational feelings and behaviour that the closest people around me when I had bad anxiety struggled to understand – my ex-boyfriend, my housemates, my colleagues. When people can’t relate to you, it makes you feel like you’re alone, a burden on people and sort of drowning, but I felt like the song understood me at my worst, so there was comfort in that.

I got the tattoo because the song had helped me so much

Ten years after I discovered that song, I decided to dedicate a tattoo to it aged 24, because it had already helped me so much with my mental health. I wanted to have it permanently attached to me, at a time where my anxiety was particularly bad, so that I could remember when I felt low and desperate how I was making slow and steady progress.

I didn’t understand my mental health at school, and I didn’t have the tools to deal with it, so despite being an anxious young adult in London at 24, I was much more self-aware, had an improved sense of identity and was better at caring for myself.

My tattoo now reminds me at 28 how far I’ve come in managing my mental health and my life in general. My panic attacks have stopped. I’m a lot stronger and more confident.

Tattoos are a unique art form, personal to the individual

What’s so great about tattoos is that they are a unique art form, personal to the individual. For an individual who feels a creative urge to express, or even just for someone who wants to make a statement to themselves or to others, tattoos allow you to do that. For me, my tattoo feels like an act of solidarity with myself – a reminder to carry on against adversity, a reminder about how feelings will and do pass.

Comfortably Numb itself is an oxymoron, a contradiction, which I think also illustrates the complexity of mental health. How is it that I can feel numb, soulless, desperate, pained and bleak on the one hand, as though there’s not much point in carrying on with things, and also feel comfortable, protected, calm, ambitious, determined and strong on the other?

My tattoo reminds me of my strengths and weaknesses

I myself battle with mood swings fairly regularly, even if they are slight, which can make me feel like I am not really strongly defined as a positive or a negative, a happy or a sad, a comfortable or a numb type of person – but can interchange between all of these things in the same day, week or month.

This is another reason why I love my tattoo: it reminds me of the strengths and weaknesses in my personality, the areas I am proud of and the areas I need to work on. I can’t be put in one box because there are many elements to me, some good, some bad. As someone who has been misunderstood before, this gives me strength. I am much more accepting of myself these days and the fact that I sometimes just need to allow myself to be alone, to wallow in the person I don’t like being for a bit, and that is ok.

In a depressive or anxious moment, I can take comfort in numbness, because I know I’ve been there before and can overcome it, and that the feeling is temporary. I feel the happiest I’ve ever felt now and that is partly because I know how dark it feels to be on the other side – remembering the younger versions of me where the negative swamped the positive most of the time.

Having experienced mental health problems has made me a better person today

I believe that having experienced mental health problems has made me a better person today. It has given me the power of hindsight and wisdom, it has allowed me to feel grateful for my life now and be proud for how much better I am at coping. It has allowed me to feel a strong connection and empathy with others who are struggling, and to help them.

The tattoo I have is wrapped up in all of that – it is part of me and the journey I have had. It is part of my identity, my image, my love of music, my love of deep and meaningful conversations and my relationships with others.

Tattoos can be a perfect conversation starter about mental health

It strikes me that tattoos are a perfect conversation starter about mental health. People often ask me what mine means and I don’t always go into detail but sometimes I do. Getting the elephant out of the room is something we still need to do in a world where mental health stigma still exists. It isn’t always easy to weave mental health into conversation, but tattoos can do this for us. They spark curiosity and interest from others.

If a tattoo can help others feel empowered, if it can symbolize overcoming an illness that has plagued them for years, a celebration that they’ve come out of the other side fighting and well, then that is fantastic.

Tattoos can too quickly be dismissed

People don’t always understand tattoos and are quick to dismiss them as spoiling or damaging yourself. But I don’t see it that way. Some of the posts we received on Instagram talked about covering up self-harm scars with tattoos – turning the horror of depression into something beautiful. Taking the focus away from a dark past and instead to a positive future.

My comfortably numb tattoo might seem at a first glance to be a negative tattoo. But to me, it is positive. It is my emblem of continual self-improvement and better mental health. It is an emblem of strength and recovery.

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