Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘tattoos’

My Next Mental Health Tattoo

My next mental health tattoo isn’t going to be about mental health at all – except that it will be.

I have had several ideas for tattoos recently: a yellow rose for my mother (whose maiden name was Rose and whose favorite flower was yellow roses); a compass rose to celebrate my love for travel; or the constellation Orion for my love of astronomy. I also thought of getting a script “My story isn’t over,” which would, of course, be a mental health tattoo.

But what I decided on was a stack of books.

Why is this a mental health tattoo? Because books have saved my life so many times when I was at the bottom of the pit. I find books the best distraction from thinking about my misery. They are the best escape from what is going on around, and inside, me. They take me to places I never imagined I’d go. They have helped me understand my condition.

And I have written two books myself on mental health topics, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us. They were compilations of these blog posts, including some of my most popular ones, such as “What Is It with Showers, anyway?,” “When You Don’t Want to Live But You Don’t Want to Die,” “The Fire and the Window,” and several on gaslighting and bipolar disorder.

The tattoo will not be about those particular books specifically, as the tattoo will be too small to have titles on the books. Instead, it will represent all the books that have nourished me, supported me, surprised me, touched me, informed me, and delighted me. Books I return to again and again, sometimes every year. Books that I own, or borrowed, or lost in the tornado that destroyed our house.

There was one time in my life when books were not an option for me – during my last major depressive episode. Then I was so deep in despair that no book appealed to me. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read more than a couple of pages. I missed my books (and my music), but I was unable to respond to them as I normally would. I even tried reading one of my favorites, a novel called Memory, but found it upsetting at that time, as I was having trouble retaining or accessing memories because of one of the medications I was on.

When the depressive episode ended, I was once again able to read and enjoy, for which I am infinitely thankful.

These days, I don’t read many books that are about bipolar disorder or other mental conditions, though books like The Noonday Demon have helped me in the past. In my young adulthood, I did read self-help books that I thought would help me with psychological issues, feminist issues, alienation issues, relationship issues, and more. I no longer read those sorts of books, especially workbooks that are supposed to reveal the inner workings of one’s mind and to help discover how various therapies can help get through the bad patches.

Perhaps I don’t like that kind of workbook because they’re too much like journaling. I once kept a journal, an erratic one that I wrote in irregularly over a year or more. I can’t bear to read it now because it was written when I was undiagnosed, unmedicated, and dealing with a lot of confusion and psychic pain. When, later in life, I tried to return to journaling, it quickly turned into this blog. It contains things I want to say to my old self and my new self, but also things I want to share with others. A blog (and the resulting books) seemed the best way to do that.

Right now I am reading that yearly series of books, plus nonfiction ones (I try to balance my reading between fiction and nonfiction). And when I finish those, I have over a thousand more to choose from, as I keep nearly all my books stored in electronic form on my Nook reader.

So, that’s why I chose books as my next tattoo, and why they represent mental health as well as just plain enjoyment. I have had so little enjoyment in my life when depression has hit me hard. I think it’s time to celebrate the times when books and reading have held me up and helped me through the bad times.

Bad Thoughts and Tattoos

Sometimes I have bad thoughts. We all do. I find that mine fall into three groups.

The first kind of bad thoughts are when I want to snap or snipe or snark at my husband, despite the fact that he is indispensable to me. He takes care of me, understands me, helps me, hugs me, feeds me in ways I can’t begin to describe.

When those bad thoughts arise, I have a brief internal chat with myself. (It looks like I’m thinking what to say because that’s exactly what I’m doing.) Then I choose not to say the nasty thing or I think of a less-nasty way of saying it. (I’ve written about the phenomenon before in “Managing My Anger” https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-kw.)

The skills involved are impulse control, the use of “I statements,” and the ability to rephrase. I try to say something that will get my point across without hurting or making things worse. These are techniques I have learned over the years, which makes me think they are things that can be developed with a little practice.

Learning to restrain myself has prevented many a fight. Some people find this style of communication inauthentic or wishy-washy – that I am tiptoeing around my husband instead of saying what I really think. All I can say to that is that it works for me and for our marriage.

The next kind of bad thought is the kind that comes with depression: I’m useless. I’m pathetic. I can’t do anything right. I’m worthless. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) talks about these thoughts in her book Furiously Happy, and she has one thing to say about them: Depression lies. These are the thoughts of a biochemically influenced brain that makes you miserable and sometimes wants to kill you, or at least kill your possibility of happiness.

Fortunately, my husband has read Jenny Lawson too. When I express these bad self-thoughts – and it’s best if you have a safe person to tell them to – he reminds me. He doesn’t try to deny the thoughts (You know you’re not worthless. You do lots of things right). He tells me, “That’s depression lying to you.” I used to get stuck in these cycles a lot before I was properly medicated and before I had his help and that of my therapist.

Then there are the really bad thoughts, those of self-harm or worse. Most of the time I don’t have these anymore, but when I do, there is one thing I can do. (Actually, there are more things I can do, but this is one that works for me.) I look at my tattoos.

The one on the right wrist is a symbol for bipolar disorder made up of punctuation : ) :  in the form of a smiley face/frowny face. This reminds me that my brain isn’t working right and is sometimes out to get me.

The other is on my left wrist, near my scars from self-harm. It is a semicolon. You may have heard about the Semicolon Project or seen the semicolon symbol on t-shirts or jewelry.

The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark. It comes at the place in a sentence where a writer could choose to put a period and stop; instead, she continues the sentence. The semicolon says, “My story isn’t over,” something you’ll also see on t-shirts and such. (I’m thinking of making that sentence my third tattoo.)

Recently I had a bout of those really bad thoughts. But I looked at my tattoos and told myself, “My story isn’t over yet. I still have things I need to do.” One of them is to tell my story, in this blog and in a book I’m trying to write.

My tattoos helped me get over the bad thoughts. They have paid for themselves many times over. I never regret getting them. They may have saved my life.

My New Mental Health Tattoo

Once again I have gotten a tattoo, supporting the cause of mental health.

A few months ago, I became a part of what’s called the semicolon project and wrote about it in this post: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G. For those of you who aren’t up on the terminology, a semicolon tattoo represents mental health awareness, especially erasing the stigma, and suicide prevention.

The semicolon was chosen as the symbol because in writing, a semicolon indicates a place where a writer could have completed – or stopped – a sentence, but chose to go on. The semicolon says, in effect, “My story isn’t over.” The idea is to have the tattoo someplace visible – in my case, on my left wrist – and use it as a conversation starter.

Most people will assume that since I am a huge grammar nerd, my semicolon tattoo is some weird manifestation of love for punctuation. Then I can tell them that it’s a whole lot more. You can find out more about the semicolon project at http://www.projectsemicolon.org/.

My new tattoo represents bipolar disorder. Again it’s made up of punctuation: two colons and a paren. These symbols, unlike the semicolon, have no special meaning in writing and are never seen together in that order. Instead they make up a double emoticon: looked at one way, the colon and paren make up a smiley face. Looked at the other way, a frowny face.

New mental health tattoo

New mental health tattoo

This symbolism is easier for anyone seeing the tattoo to grasp. In a way, it’s a minimalist version of the comedy and tragedy masks you often see in theaters.

Again, it’s a conversation starter. Bipolar disorder is not well understood by the general public. This is particularly true of bipolar disorder type 2 – the kind I have – which many people have never even heard of.

Since I have gone public with having a mental illness, it seems only appropriate to introduce people to the disorder in a way that’s creative, nonthreatening, and understandable.  It’s a lot less abrupt than blurting out, “Hey, I have a mental illness!” Even my mother-in-law recognizes that these tattoos are not just a whim, but for a good cause.

The second tattoo is on my right wrist, so no matter which hand I extend, I can open up new understanding about a very real problem that many people live with daily.

A number of articles have come out lately questioning whether a person who gets a tattoo will regret it when they grow older. I think I can say with complete confidence that I will never regret these tattoos. They say something about who I am, something that will not change as I grow older. The disorder will always be with me and so will these symbols. For the rest of my life I can use them to educate, identify with other bipolar people, and remind myself that wrists are not for cutting.

I will say, however, that whoever thinks of these things had better put the brakes on new mental health-related tattoo designs – especially those made of punctuation – or I will soon become the illustrated editor/blogger. At the moment I have no plans for any further ink. My friends, however, tell me that tattoos are addictive. So we’ll see.

A few notes, since everyone asks: These simple tattoos take 10 minutes or less to apply. They hurt a little bit, but not much – a stinging sensation. They may fade a bit at first and need a touch-up. Because they are so quick and simple, you will not pay a lot to have them done. After you get the tattoo you have to take care of it while it heals, moisturizing it regularly for the first 3-6 weeks or so.

If you decide to get a tattoo, check out the studio before you have it done. It should be a professional operation, with high standards of cleanliness and concern for health. Tattoo artists should wear surgical gloves and change them frequently. There may be a consent form to fill out, indicating that you know what you are getting into, and even indicating whether you have various medical conditions or allergies, or have drunk alcohol within the previous eight hours. A reputable tattoo studio will not work on a drunken client.

Do you have a tattoo related to mental health? I’d love to hear about it. But don’t tell me if it’s more punctuation. I only have two wrists.

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