The Healing Power of Ink

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

Marcia Kester Doyle
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readJun 14, 2019

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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…

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Marcia Kester Doyle
Human Parts

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”