Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘tattoos’

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”

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: 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

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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