How Tattoos Helped Me Reclaim My Identity

Trigger Warning: abusive relationships, emotional & physical violence.

All names have been changed.

“People say they don’t hurt,” I told Ava. I was sitting on a thin layer of paper stretched across what looked like a massage table. I was sweaty, even though nothing had happened yet. I was nervous.

“Of course they hurt,” Ava replied, pouring reds and blues into little plastic cups. “They’re tattoos. I’m stabbing you. That hurts.” We’d met through work, before she’d become a tattoo-artist-in-training. She was the most alarmingly attractive woman I’d ever met. She had long lashes and disarming eyes. Her manner was curt and direct. I appreciated that about Ava. She would always tell you what she was thinking.

It was February 2018. A year since Trump was sworn into office. Eight months since I felt comfortable enough to start dating again. A year since I broke up a five year relationship that was killing me.

A year before I was about to let Ava stab me in the ankle repeatedly, I was with Brent. Brent was a broken man, surly and depressed and eager to spread his pain onto others in the vain hope he may feel less of it himself. I was the only person close to him, so that usually meant me. His anger came in many forms: barbed insults, dismissiveness, demoralizing, and often, outright violence.

I didn’t think of my relationship as abusive. I didn’t think of myself as a victim. Not until later. Not until Brent was gone and I could sit with the memories for a while.

That may be hard to understand. For those who haven’t been in abusive relationships (especially cis men who haven’t been in abusive relationships), this is the thing I hear from them the most:

Why don’t they (i.e. me, maybe you, and so many others) just leave?

I ask myself that a lot. The thought keeps me up at night. I watch the street lights flicker across my ceiling as cars pass, and I think, “I could’ve left. I always could’ve left.”

And that thought breaks my heart into painful shards. But I have the power of retrospect now. My life has improved. The darkness is so much more obvious once you’ve been dragged back into the light. When you’re trapped in that murky, shadowy world, the one where you fear your own partner above all else, your eyes still adjust to the darkness. They grow used to it, and you learn to survive.

And abusive relationships don’t spring forth from the ground, barbed and ready to tear you apart as soon as you touch them. They grow, slowly, over time. Brent was a lot of things I wanted in a partner. He seemed funny. He seemed smart. He was eager to impress me, so he was always on his best behavior, going out with me, having adventures with me. It took time for him to return to his default.

But it happened. And once our relationship had aged, and he’d isolated me from my friends, things changed. Slowly. Brent soured as he slumped back into his anxious depression. He became a surly creature, and seemed to only experience joy when he could exercise power over others. He was angry. Violent. He violated other women’s privacy. He punched a hole in the wall. He made sure I felt ugly and stupid as often as he could, and when his words weren’t enough, he wasn’t above using violence to get his way. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the horrible things he’d done to others online or at his workplace. He always lied, especially to himself. When he was offensive or cruel, he always spun the story until he came out the victim. He did it to me all the time. Brent would physically pin me into a corner as I tried to leave, screaming in my face as his own turned beet red, and if I cried or screamed or tried to get away, this was his signature move to distance himself from culpability:

“We both messed up.”

So why stay? For me, it was more than normalizing a shitty situation. Being with Brent made me depressed. I was already prone to depression because of my anxiety. And Brent was very good at making me feel worthless and unworthy. Something he used to tell me all the time was, “No one else will love you as much as I do.” From anyone else, that might sound like the amount of love that he felt was so great, no one else could possibly exceed it. But from Brent, I knew exactly what he meant: no one else could love you. My depression tethered me to my relationship. Even though I was miserable, surviving by existing exclusively on autopilot, I felt that this was what I deserved. I had asked for this.

But this isn’t a story about Brent. This is a story about me, post-Brent. And even though I’d been free of him for over a year, I didn’t truly feel “free.” I dreamt about him coming back. I’d wake up in the dark, panicked and sweaty, listening for his footsteps outside my door. I still acted small in an attempt to minimize myself, even though that was how I survived Brent, not how I needed to interact with the rest of the world.

Amidst all this change and emotional unpacking, I got a tattoo. One of Brent’s favorite pastimes had been informing me what he found unattractive in women. Sometimes that meant telling me how unattractive I was. Other times, it was just women in general. This was another way for him to feel powerful. His personal aesthetic should be the rubric by which this world’s women measure themselves. Or so he thought. Among women wearing too much/not enough makeup, women having short hair, women wearing clothes that were too masculine or too feminine, there was his #1 complaint: inked up skin. Or any sort of body modification. But tats were definitely at the top of his shit list. He’d bemoan “today’s women” and how they’d let themselves go. It was times like this I utilized my “minimizing.” I used to fight back. But as shameful as it feels to admit this, I’d stopped fighting. It hurt too much. Emotionally (and sometimes physically).

When Rey said we should get matching tattoos from Ava, I practically fell out of my chair with eagerness. Maybe that’s kind of petty, getting a tattoo to spite your ex’s expectations. But fuck, if it didn’t feel satisfying to say, “Heck yeah!” My best friend and I got matching sushi; they got a shrimp nigiri, I got tuna. As Ava began to work, with the pain came instant regret. Why the hell did you do this? Not just because of the pain, but because of the permanence. This was going into my skin. This little tuna boy was forever. What if I hated it? What if I hated it in twenty years? How could I be sure that this was the right decision?

It took Ava three hours to complete my tattoo (I was only her 25th, after all). And when I looked down, I could see a little sushi grinning back up at me.

“I gave him a wasabi buddy,” Ava said. And so she had.

“I love it.”

And just like that, the fear was gone. Fear of mistakes, fear of regrets, it all melted away. I had altered my body. This wasn’t the same body I had a year ago. Not the same one that cowered in the corner or hid on the far side of the bed from groping hands. This was a new body. Forged from blood and metal, with a permanent reminder of how much I love my friend (and how much we love sushi).

My body was different. I could be, too.

That may sound silly. That a tattoo gave me the emotional jolt to better myself. But that was the catalyst. It made my body my own again. I no longer felt like the person who had been with Brent. That person never would’ve gotten a tattoo. Brent wouldn’t have stood for it.

But I wasn’t that person anymore. I was this person. And this person liked getting tattoos. A lot.

It’s December 2018. I have four tattoos now, and I text Ava all the time with new ideas (she’s talked me out of some real duds, but nothing will extinguish this enthusiasm).

Sometimes, I still have the nightmares. Where Brent comes back. Or worse, where he never left. But I no longer cower at the thought of them. I won’t cower ever again.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store