My First Tattoo
By Amanda Rose Adams
I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.
For years I joked I would never get a tattoo because I wouldn’t pay someone to poke me with a needle unless it was medically necessary. I’d never considered spiritual necessity might lead me to a tattoo.
My friend Heather had one word, “Worthy,” tattooed on her forearm, and I admired it as a bold declaration in a world that conditions girls to question our own worth until we doubt it entirely. Heather died on November 30th; she was forty-one. While I’d considered copying her tattoo for some time, losing Heather made me commit to it. Yet I wanted the tattoo to be unique to me. On January 1, 2015, I had my first and possibly last tattoo placed on my left upper arm. It is the indelible word “Worthy,” with the addition of one yellow and one pink rose.
Twenty-six years ago, I was fourteen. In the glare of a pink reading lamp I discovered some small bumps on my left shoulder and upper arm. Several hours later, my arm felt like my skin had been massaged by thorns. This began a lifetime of self-harm.
My self-harm escalated to include needles, pins, tweezers, and nail clippers. It spread like an infection to my chest, legs, face, neck and even my stomach. While I inflicted injury, I never hurt. The poking, picking, digging, and scraping was all relaxing. The pain only came when I stopped. I was trying to excavate the thing inside me that made me wish for death. I never found it, but I left a landscape of scars, like strip-mines in the surface of my skin. I’m extremely pale, so most people don’t see my ancient scars, but I see every flaw in my skin, whether I’m looking or not. Each mark is like a glowing diode, a pixel of imperfection.
It all began in my upper left arm, so that is where my tattoo went, covering some of my deepest and widest scars. “Worthy,” shouts bold and dark against my pale skin and scars. My middle name is Rose. My yellow rose symbolizes my friend Heather, but yellow roses were also my mom’s favorite flower during her marriage to my father. Dad always bought Mom yellow roses, but he died almost eighteen years ago when he was forty-eight and I was twenty-two. My yellow rose represents memory and loss.
A pink rose (according to many tattoo websites) stands for healing, among other things. Traditionally pink roses represent gratitude. My pink rose is entirely centered on healing. I’m healing from my self-harm and the ancient pain of sexual abuse and isolation that led me there. I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.
Yet, I still am healing in the present, and trying not to pick at my skin at all, but especially in front of my kids. Leaving a pimple alone is nearly impossible for me, and I’m ashamed to admit my children have seen me pick at my skin. Now they are entering adolescence and getting their own pimples, and I’m terrified that my actions will teach or worse—have already taught them to be violent against their own bodies.
My beloved husband doesn’t understand my tattoo or how I could question my own worth. I know he loves me, just as I know my children love me, but the lies we tell ourselves as children are insidious. They haunt us well into adulthood. My tattoo is a rebuke to my doubts and reminds me that I was as innocent as my own children are when other people harmed me and when I began harming myself.
The tattoo reminds me to be honest with my children about their own self-worth and about my own. This tattoo, easily covered by a t-shirt, is not a declaration to the larger world, it is an affirmation and a pledge to myself in the second half of my life to set an example of self-care and self-respect that I deserve and want my children to inherit. Some people think tattoos are mutilations, but mine is the conscious art of reclamation from the true mutilation I did to myself out of self-loathing. My tattoo is the final word on the question of my self-worth.
I may never get another tattoo, but I might have the word “Loved,” with a deep red rose added beneath “Worthy.” In Latin Amanda, my first name, means, “Worthy of Love,” and I am worthy, I am loved, and so are the people I love in return, including myself.
Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.