The Healing Power of Ink

I found the strength to face family judgment on the other side of a tattoo gun

Photo: Roberto Peri/Cultura/Getty Images

“You’re going to feel a bit of a sting.”

I turned away as the tattoo artist leaned in, the needle humming like a dentist’s drill across my skin. It was my first tattoo, a declaration of freedom from my conservative family. They would disapprove of the permanent mark, just as they’d disapproved of my decision to break from the unhealthy relationship I shared with them.

The black ink seeped into my pale wrist, the same patch of skin I once opened with a paring knife in the bathroom when I was 17. The cuts were never deep enough to end my life, but deep enough to end the numbness I felt. Cutting gave me a sense of control, the small beads of blood that surfaced were a form of atonement for the sin of not becoming the person my family expected me to be.

I never mentioned my anxiety out of fear that exposing my Achilles heel would make me more vulnerable to criticism.

I was the youngest of four children and had been hardwired since birth to seek my parents’ approval. The impossibility of meeting their expectations created a sense of failure and anxiety that prevented me from feeling like a “normal” child — something that only my oldest sister, Cherie, understood. She was under the same pressure to conform to their high standards, but was strong enough to shrug off the verbal barbs they aimed at her.

My middle siblings were also targets of my parents’ criticisms while growing up, but their later achievements, both academically and in their careers, spared them from further judgment once they became adults.

It was different for me — I internalized every negative comment, giving each word the power to chip away at my confidence. I never mentioned my anxiety out of fear that exposing my Achilles heel would make me more vulnerable to criticism. I hid it instead under a blanket of self-condemnation that led to depression, guilt, and an eating disorder that overshadowed much of my life.

In a hospital room three miles south of the tattoo parlor, another machine was humming life into my mother. Her condition was tenuous at best after a ruptured aorta, but that didn’t stop me from praying for her recovery. A veteran of grief after losing my infant son, my father, and then Cherie, I understood the pain that came with unexpected loss, and was prepared for the worst when I pulled into the hospital parking lot.

Rain fell from an angry sky, heavy drops of water cocooning my car in a blanket of solitude. I sat for a moment, trying to gather the strength I needed to face my siblings. Although they lived nearby, it had been a year since I’d seen them.

I pulled down my sleeves before entering the hospital to conceal the tattoo. My siblings were huddled in the hallway with their families as a young doctor in blue scrubs explained the fragile steps of my mother’s recovery after surgery. I stood on the outer fringe of the group and listened, a position I was comfortable with until my middle sister spoke.

“We need to pray for Mom,” she said, a flicker of disdain in her eyes as she glanced at me for a brief second before turning away.

There was a time while we were growing up that we shared a strong sisterly bond, but our differences had become more pronounced over the years, especially after Cherie passed away. Cherie and I had been the closest siblings in our family, and no one else could fill the emotional hole that was left after her death. She was the only one I fully trusted in the family; the sister who always had my back and never judged my decisions.

I cussed too much, drank too much, and at age 55, decided to dye my hair with bright purple streaks as a statement against ageism.

Cherie died from complications brought on by her morbid obesity. In her later years, she used food as a coping mechanism against depression and low self-esteem. It took losing her for me to realize that we shared the same eating disorder and that I was on a similar path, sabotaging my body with unhealthy foods whenever I was stressed out or feeling inadequate. It was an illness we shared and one I felt only she understood.

It occurred to me after her death how little I had in common with the rest of my family, despite our shared history. They were conservative bankers and realtors; I was a struggling writer and mother of four children, trying to make ends meet. They shunned my liberal views as well as my philosophies, and my decision to leave the church that had been like a second home to our family. I was the “wild child” who went against the grain by marrying a man raised in a lower-income family — a man without a college degree who preferred working outdoors rather than behind a desk. I cussed too much, drank too much, and at age 55, decided to dye my hair with bright purple streaks as a statement against ageism.

The first time my brother saw the new color, he flipped a strand off my shoulder and asked if I’d lost my mind. The rest of the family pretended not to notice, but their silent judgment spoke volumes. When the familiar knot of anxiety rose in my throat, I swallowed against it, smiled at my brother, and said, “I think my hair looks pretty damn fabulous.”

Although my mother and I also had our share of differences, she became less rigid in her beliefs after my father died. We were able to shelve past disagreements and form a mutual respect for one another’s opinions. When she became sick the following year, she voiced her concerns about my family alienation and asked me to rethink the decision to cut my siblings out of my life. I understood that her children were her top priority, and that she wanted nothing more than to see us reunited, but couldn’t allow myself to be dragged down into their toxic rabbit hole of judgmental attitudes and petty gossip.

After Mom was hospitalized for her damaged aorta, it was impossible to avoid my siblings. The month she spent in the ICU meant daily encounters with my family, our brief conversations centered strictly on Mom’s medical care. When it appeared that her condition was improving, I took the opportunity to attend an out-of-town writers conference that I’d booked months earlier at my mother’s insistence.

Before leaving for Ohio, I stopped by the hospital to say goodbye. My mother squeezed my hand and wished me luck, a small glimmer of pride in her eyes. It was the spark of encouragement I needed to shake off my anxiety about attending the conference.

I had no idea it would be the last time that I’d see her.

She passed away quietly one evening while I was still at the conference. The call came from my nephew — not from my siblings — and for that, I was grateful. He was Cherie’s son, and it seemed fitting at the time that the news of her gentle passing came from him.

I knew then that her passing would undoubtedly be the final fracture that would break any chance of reconciliation with my siblings.

I thought of nothing else during the 10-hour drive home, weeping and reflecting on my mother’s death and on all the other losses that had created small fissures in our family foundation. I knew then that her passing would undoubtedly be the final fracture that would break any chance of reconciliation with my siblings.

The next morning, before heading to the funeral home to finalize plans, I ran my fingers over my tattoo and realized that I no longer needed to hide it. With my sleeves rolled up, I met my siblings in the reception area and immediately felt the wall of their resentment over my absence. There was a moment when we shared a brief, awkward hug, and when it was over, our conversations returned to forced formality throughout the days of making arrangements for the service. I knew they expected me to feel guilty for being out of town when my mother died, but all I felt was the odd sense of incompleteness that came with losing her too soon.

Some days I’d drive around her neighborhood before pulling into her empty driveway, my car still running as I stared at the overgrown lawn and the weeds, determined to push through the cracks by the front door. I remembered Sunday afternoons when I’d drop by her house and find her in the kitchen, a book of crossword puzzles open on the counter as she poured a cup of coffee and asked about my week. During the long, afternoon conversations we shared while sitting at her breakfast nook, I realized that despite all her criticism while I was growing up, she was doing the best she could as a mother. She came from a different generation of parents who often used guilt and shame as a means of getting their children to conform. In a roundabout way, her criticism was meant to strengthen, not harm me.

Weeks after her death, the static tension continued with my family when we met periodically at Mom’s house to clean out the remainder of her belongings. My siblings and their spouses wiped tears and embraced one another as they opened old boxes of handmade Christmas ornaments, silver serving trays used for our holiday dinners, and the scrolls of unframed landscapes my mother had painted in the small loft of her vacation home in Montana. I stood back, absorbing the weight of their grief that was intertwined with my own, knowing it would be the last thing we’d share as a family.

I trace the word inked on my wrist, “Perseverance,” and think of the loved ones I’ve lost and the family I’ve left behind. It hasn’t been easy, but there has been no greater gift than discovering my own resilience and self-acceptance, putting myself together again piece by piece, and learning how to move on.

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humor book, “Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane” and a blogger at “Menopausal Mother”

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