Getting Tattoos Changed How I Felt About Hiding My Self-Harm Scars Around Family
Everyday is a struggle when you self-harm, but the holidays always make things worse. Imagine being back at your parent's house, sitting by a fireplace, drenched in sweat, but unable to take your sweater off because your arms are covered in scars. Or sharing a room with your sister and awkwardly changing in front of her, making sure to cover up as much as you can, fearing that she’ll notice and ask about the cuts on your thighs.
This was my experience most holidays in my late teens and early 20s. Going home for Thanksgiving and Christmas meant packing enough long-sleeved tops to wear so that my self-injury cuts and scars were hidden.
On the surface, I was just like any other college student — I loved going home any chance I got. I mean, who would say no to big meals, a comfy bed, and getting to see their family dog? But deep inside, I was struggling.
At the time, I couldn’t explain to myself why I got high off cutting my arms, legs, and stomach with knives, scissors, or whatever sharp objects I could find, so I definitely didn’t want to talk to anyone else about it. My best tactic was to hide the scars and hope that no one noticed. And most of the time, I was successful at keeping them a secret.
There was only one holiday where my mom caught a glimpse of the scars on the inside of my arm, as I noticed her eyes focusing in on three bright red cuts. She didn’t say anything at the time, but I knew she saw, and I later beat myself up for being so careless.
The next day, when I was alone in the car with my dad, he said to me, "Those scars on your arm are upsetting your mom. Whatever you’re doing, stop it." I nodded and cried, and we never talked about it again.
For years afterwards, I still lived with my secret. In some ways, it felt special to have something that was all my own. I got a rush of adrenaline every time I cut myself, and whenever I couldn't cope with the world or my feelings, I knew exactly what to do. And while some periods were better than others, I had no real intention to stop self-harming.
Tattoos have been a way for me to reclaim my body.
Once I had graduated and moved back to my hometown for work, my younger sister came home for Christmas one year after being away for her first semester in college. After dinner dishes were cleared, she announced, "I have something to tell everyone." Then without hesitation, she turned around and pulled up her shirt to reveal a small tattoo of her Chinese name — done to look like it had been written with an ink brush — on her lower back. My entire family leaned in to take a closer look.
"It actually looks quite tasteful," my dad said. And to my surprise, my mom nodded in agreement, as she admired the tattoo as well. I was confused at their response, but for the first time, I started to think about getting a tattoo of my own.
By the following Christmas, I had gotten my first bit of permanent ink on the back of my neck of my surname in cursive script. I figured it was a spot I could easily hide with my hair down in case I didn't like it, and getting my last name seemed like something I’d never regret.
A few years later, I decided to take the plunge with a pair of much larger tattoos: black and white portraits of my sisters on the insides of my arms, where my mom had discovered my scars years prior. I was very close to my sisters, despite living apart. And although I'm sure they knew that I self-harmed, they never prodded or made me feel embarrassed and ashamed of it — so this felt right.
Once I found the perfect artist, we talked about the designs, and I made an appointment to start the tattoos around the holidays, since it would take several sessions to complete both portraits. On the day of the first appointment, both my sisters came along. I showed them the designs and the tattoo artist got started.
I’ve gotten many more tattoos since — one on my leg and several on my arms. Some of them cover up old self-harm scars, while others that are there don't cover up anything up at all — I just love the beauty of tattoos. I also still have some scars that are visible, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever cover them up. But what I do know is that tattoos have been a way for me to reclaim my body and talk about what’s on my skin in more positive ways.
Maybe that’s true for my family as well. Because now when we get together for the holidays, we take stock of who has new tattoos because someone inevitably always has a fresh one.
To this day, I still don't feel comfortable talking about self-harm with my family and I’m not sure I ever will. But thankfully, after a decade, I was able to find the right therapist who could help me to stop.
But what I am sure about is that I see myself and my body differently these days — and tattoos have been a big part of that. Because when I look at my skin now, I see beauty and art. I see portraits of my sisters staring back at me. And most of all, I see a person who’s stronger, who has tried to heal and get better, and I’m pretty proud of that woman.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.