So far, this is the typical, somewhat predictable response I’ve received after people, especially the older generation – no unfair disrespect, just a fair observation – discover the not-so-secret truth that I have revealed a minimal rebellion, once again stealing from the world’s inkwell, stacking my impressive tattoo tally to a gasp-worthy eight.
Can I get a towel for the sarcasm here – it’s dripping. Great, now that we’ve cleared that potential mess, on to more important things.
Like, Confession Time. When I was 15, my mom got a tattoo. She was in Florida. On spring break. Or winter break. The details are fuzzy, and I’m not really sure which one. Don’t panic – I’m not about to crack open the deep, dark vault of Family Secrecy or regale tales of inappropriate adult behavior. My mom was a teacher – a really great one – specifically, one who job-shared and got a lot of well-deserved, much-needed time away from the classroom. When she wasn’t whipping my brother and me into shape, she was whooping it up in the Panhandle.
During one of her stints as a Minnesota-Winter-Weather-Escape-Artist, she proudly marched straight into a Tattoo Shop and bravely straddled the branding chair. I imagine she felt like she was about to go head-to-head against an Angry Bull with sharp horns and she’d better hold on for dear life.
When the wild ride was over, my mom walked away unscathed, if not for the two red and blue hummingbirds, their delicate wings forever in-flight, making their way to the crook of her shoulder.
I love that tattoo. Every time I see the inky art on her back, it surprises me. Just for a second, I am a naïve 15-year-old girl who thought moms with tattoos was an impossible reality.
But now I know better. Yes, she’s a mom. And she’s a woman. A woman who wanted to celebrate a milestone and capture a moment, not just in her memory, but on her body, too. Today, a tattoo that once confounded me, now makes me feel nothing but proud. You see, those hummingbirds are not just a pretty picture drawn on a human canvas in permanent ink. Those birds, in perpetual flight, represents a unique strength, courage and beauty that is all hers. My mom is badass, ya’ll.
Not one drop of sarcasm that time. But, no true confession either. Trust me – that’s all true, but I was just warming up. Wetting your whistle, if you will.
The Real Confession is this: I promised my mom that I would never, ever get a tattoo. Yep, I claimed crippling fear of needles and swore she would never have to worry about me covering my body in tattoos, unless they were the $.25 stick-on ones you could get after you bought a gumball or two at the movie theater.
The problem is, my promise to never exercise my right to self-expression with such permanence had a whole bunch of tiny holes in and around it. The invisible bubble I put around myself popped and deflated faster than I could say, but wait! I really do want to express myself this way.
Tattoos are incredibly beautiful; the patient artistry, the humanity revealed, and the pointed vulnerability frozen in time.
Of course, I didn’t come to that conclusion when I was a bright green 15-years-old, no, it took living some real life first. Not the muted, protected version of adolescent life where our decisions are often not our own and what we do and how we live comes from the experience of others and not the lessons we have taught ourselves.
But the version of life where we’re forced to go off-script because we got hurt, because we got the dirt kicked up in our faces, because we learned that not all intentions are pure and because when we wanted to hear yes, the universe screamed back no. That sticky, messy version of life where any perceived circumstantial control shatters at our feet and things go wildly wrong – or wildly right, depending on perspective – and we have to change and adapt to a new normal.
It wasn’t until I sat in the raw realness of what it actually means to be alive, which is working hard and fighting even harder for all the things we love, believe, value and want for ourselves. The downright exhausting exercise of living – that’s what it is, isn’t it? Every day, we are exercising our hearts, our minds and our bodies in order to be our best selves – quantify that any way you like.
The daily grind and endless workouts can feel like scaling a mountainside. My tallest, most menacing mountain is the one where I’m trying to live a full life as independently as possible while still acknowledging and sometimes surrendering to the painful and difficult realities of living with cerebral palsy.
No doubt, your mountain looks and feels differently than mine. And we can choose to conquer the ascend and descend differently, too. If I have to climb this Mammoth Mountain known casually as Life, then I sure as hell better have something pretty to look at; my mountain will be adorned.
Guideposts and Badges
So, I started getting tattoos. I wanted to celebrate each mile marker and share bits and pieces of the story that makes me who I am, from the inside-out. Like opening a book and never closing it entirely. We’re all voyeurs on some level, so if people are going to look inside, I want them to be moved to think instead of gawk.
But these tattoos I bare, these art pieces, are more than just conversation starters. They are daily affirmations and mantras. They are guideposts and badges. These inked emblems I carry are daily, sometimes hourly reminders to me, and anyone else looking and asking their meanings, that life’s mountains are yes, daunting and daring; and they are courage-finders and strength-builders.
Only three of my tattoos are geometric or organic shapes. The rest are words and phrases. I was 22 when I got my first tattoo: an unoriginal rendering of a Gemini sign situated between two tangled vines and hung squarely on the back of my right shoulder. It was equal parts shout-out to my best good friend, my twin brother, tangible proof that I’m tougher than he is (where is that rag to sop up the sarcasm?) and straight-up naïveté to the art form.
Later on, after I had time to live a little more life, my choices for body art became smarter, more personal and much more meaningful. The artful traces of days gone by left on my skin became less about proving something and more about understanding myself: owning the woman I became and championing who I’ve yet to become.
My wrists, hand, arms, chest and shoulders are masterfully decorated with richly thick and delicately thin lines, smooth and curved strokes that together create hearts and crosses and arrows. There are messages penned in intricately feathered longhand. They greet me every morning, these lifelong love notes. They remind me to breathe deeply, trust even deeper in The Divine Doing of the Universe, fan the flames of my spirit’s fire and, above all, stay in the ring until the bell sings. I’ve still got a few rounds left in me. You do too; get out there and fight. Hard.
But, it’s hard to fight, even meekly, when you’re tired. I know. That’s why I really want to talk about the product of my latest ink therapy session. Last Friday, I marched (well, rolled – semantics, am I right?) just like my mom, into one of my favorite uptown tattoo parlors. After a short ride on a mechanical bull, I brushed the dust away to reveal my most precious embellishment yet: a semicolon, planted sideways and below my left wrist bone, a small heart where the period should be. I never thought that I would be one of the thousands requesting a semicolon tattoo. Then again, I never thought I’d seek therapy and medical treatment for anxiety and depression. But I did; because I had to.
I can remember, almost viscerally, me as a young girl, no older than six or seven, experiencing what I can now identify as anxiety and panic attacks. My heart drumming hard against my tiny ribs, my vision becoming strained, blurry. My chest tightening to the point of real pain, mirroring what I tell my mom is a heart attack. Then my throat constricts, two giant hands around it, refusing to lessen their firm grip. I can’t breathe and I’m convinced I’ll die. I feel sharp pains in my stomach. I don’t know why I feel so scared. I cry hysterically until I almost throw up. Then I slowly calm down, finding deep, slow breathe again.
Getting older, anxiety revealed itself through a wicked attitude that I’m sure my mom wished I would adjust. I learned to manage my anxious episodes with junk food and sweet things. In college, I felt better, more relaxed when I drank. But I didn’t like that unhealthy girl; I didn’t get along with her well. When I graduated, I pledged healthy habits. I stopped drinking entirely, food of the fast and junky varieties were not part of my diet anymore and I learned how to adapt workouts to match my level of physicality in my wheelchair.
Slowly – cliché alert – the clouds parted and the sun came out. I began to manage my anxiety differently, with workouts and writing. I prayed and chanted mantras until I could almost believe them. For years, I took care of my mental health as best I could, completely drug-free and I was proud of that. I thought I could make it on my own.
The millions of people who live with it daily, including me, know that A&D is a relentless beast; even when you think you have the monster caged and under control, it rears its ugly head. The bear is easily poked and impossible to outrun, no matter how hard you try.
My anxiety intensifies anytime there’s big change in my well-rehearsed routine. I am a creature of habit, yes, because I know what I like. And, because habitual behavior helps keep me calm and centered. Lately, Life has been off-kilter, at best. Never in a truly terrible way, more in a, holy fuck, I didn’t expect that plot twist. I guess I’m making a sharp right turn. Hold on to your asses!
Jokes aside, my anxiety spiked to an all-time high. I couldn’t go a day without at least one inconsolable crying fit. I felt tense and panicked almost always. I couldn’t concentrate on anything important for more than five minutes and my exhausted brain played negative thoughts and conspiracy theories on a loop. My productivity at work slipped to an all time low. I ignored the signs and waved the red flags away. It took getting fired from my job of eight years before I examined my life. I needed to stop myself from sinking and move to higher ground.
I admitted defeat against the ugly, filthy demons that call themselves anxiety and depression. I depleted my strength and I couldn’t fight alone anymore; I needed reinforcement. I am not ashamed to say that the combination of talk therapy and the right medication drastically changed the quality of my life.
I wear this semicolon proudly as a badge of strength and survival. It is a mark of solidarity with those fighting battles, too. Yes, this art reflecting experience, alone and shared, is a pledge. One to never give up, and to agree that the best life is yet to come if we keep going one day at a time. And it’s a beautiful illustration of a powerful declaration: Yes; And.
Facing Triggers; Finding Healing
When it’s not moonlighting as a mountain climbing instructor, Life‘s day job is to design our unique course. You see, Life knows It can’t always stay the same, for fear of stagnation or complacency. Those ruts we dig ourselves into can stunt growth and evolution – the pillars of Life’s purpose. Every so often, and usually without our prior consent, Life must re-route our course, removing one obstacle or challenge to make room for another.
The inevitability of change brings little comfort to most people. Almost immediately, feelings of discomfort and anxiety can be triggered. Fear of the unknown will forever be my greatest trigger of anxiety. Almost two years ago now, I began what will probably be the biggest, most life-altering Journey into the Unknown that I will ever embark upon.
It was January 4, 2017. I had just spit into a small, plastic vile. (Not gracefully, by the way, but I will spare you the details of my self-imposed loogy-hacking for fear of losing your attention).
Four months later (it seems to me, everyone wanted a complete work-up of their genetic material for Christmas presents that year) my results were in. When the report finally came back, it was revealed that I am equal parts German and French. Finally, my recurring dreams of dancing baguettes dressed in black berets being chased by dark-brown dachshunds explained.
In all seriousness, it took me 30 years to discover my heritage and countries of origin because I am adopted. My search for pieces of my puzzle lead me to more than just a DNA report. I got to know the flesh and bones, too. I found my beautiful younger sisters – two of my best friends and treasured confidants – and my other momma (she’s a badass too, y’all). I’ve learned an endless amount about courage, strength and the deepest, most sacrificial love there is, from my Momma Gia And I’ve gotten to form such clarifying relationships with my new favorite aunts, sweet-as-pie grandparents and wonderfully weird and perfect cousins.
It is a beautifully strange thing, the opportunity to know my flesh and blood after so many years; and to be introduced to Brittany Louise – my name for a short while before my parents transformed me into Mollie Ann. I saw pictures of that sweet, tiny little baby; I’m glad I got to meet her. Simultaneously, I had to grieve the girl I might have been to make room for the woman I became.
Around that time of renewed self-discovery, when I thought it wasn’t possible, my heart cracked open even wider and I gave away its contents to a wonderful man. I fell deeply in love, the hard and fast way, for the first time.
Magic. Mesmerizing, breathtaking magic. Those powerfully defining moments in my life were also riddled with anxiety. In a blink and a snap, so it seemed, my roles: sister, daughter, niece, cousin, granddaughter, aunt, friend and girlfriend all expanded to unimaginable proportions. I didn’t know if I was big enough to fill the space of each one. Grateful as I was, and still am, for a chance at greater love and an intrinsic connection, I was terrified.
The heart pounding and shallow breathing returned and I lost hours of sleep trying to shut off a broken record in my brain. It played a song of fear and longing and loss. My anxiety was convincing me that I would mess up and disappoint. All these people that I needed and had grown to love would someday leave.
If you’re wondering, yes, they’re all still here. And I’m still enough.
Opening ourselves up to love and new relationships that will, no doubt, change who we are and how we experience life is scary as hell.
It’s like jumping off the top of our mountain without the parachute and hoping for the best. Sounds crazy, right? Yes; and taking emotional risks and putting our hearts to the test, that’s a humanities requirement. It’s how we fulfill Life’s most important assignment: imprinting onto others and letting them leave their mark in return.
A year later, I lost my job. Anyone who has traveled through job loss – or the loss of anything considered the heart and guts of their identity – knows that a consequential change of that size can feel like your head is spinning clean off. When you finally find your wits and screw it back on, your nose is on your shoulder and your neck is the new forehead. Everything is upside-down and inside-out.
Yes, the unexpected loss of the cornerstones of your foundation may also feel like purpose lost. You’re floating skyward, aimlessly, with nothing to ground you. And, this not-in-the cards, up-in-the clouds free-floating is a time to take a breath, survey the uncharted landscape before you, press reset and land anywhere you want to.
Remember, Life will always re-route courses. It’s up to me and its up to you whether or not we’re going to look up, move forward and grab the next rung of the ladder.
Assuming you haven’t gone to sleep and you’re still with me: remember earlier when I said my most menacing mountain is living life with a disability? That hasn’t changed after 15 paragraphs. In the last six months, I have visited the hospital twice – just to make sure everybody’s doing their jobs well. You know, just your run-of-the-mill quality control. I have gotten x-rays and talked to multiple specialists. That’s the protocol when you fall twice in one month.
After my experiments to see if gravity is still a thing, (side note: it is) I grew extremely hard on myself. I begin to doubt my strength and determination. I listened to my anxiety and questioned whether or not I could do this anymore. This being living independently.
Turns out, I can, but in one particularly ugly moment between choked sobs, I admitted I didn’t want this body anymore. I wanted to trade her in for a new model. I wish I hadn’t said that.
Yes, having a disability tests my limits of patience and persistence. Yes, traveling through life in a vessel with faulty wiring and rusty hinges means chronic pain and mobility challenges.
And, it means strong will of character. And it means a louder voice to educate more and inspire culture change. And it means that when the tough gets tougher, it’s time to dig deeper. And commit to never giving up.
That’s what this new tattoo means to me. It’s a visual reminder to press on and persevere. It’s a picture of a promise to myself to work every day at releasing the power of my negative self-talk and anxiety. Very slowly and surely, I am able to inch a little further and conquer the climb up my Life’s mountains.
Being Human is Hard
Whatever your Yeses – those thousand-mile markers up the side of your mountain – I hope you are able to acknowledge and embrace them for what they are: courage builders and strength finders. But don’t forget to turn them on their heads, to find the ‘Ands’ – the reasons to keep going and never give up.
Friends, being human is hard – it’s a bitch, really. It’s even harder if you’re struggling with mental health issues. We spend ridiculous amounts of time and money on our physical health, but our physical and mental health work together in tandem. If one isn’t well then the other one suffers. Both spheres of our health need and deserve equal care.
My plea to you: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to seek the guidance of a trained professional. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take the help of medical intervention. Don’t be afraid to call out to your friends and family. They are there to love and support you.
Yes, and if nothing else: Saddle up and get another tattoo.