I’d barely exchanged pleasantries with the mustachioed man named Ivan before he pressed a gun against me, drawing blood.
Five painful minutes later, he tossed me aside, leaving me to survey the damage that was my first tattoo.
I sat, staring at the black blot, tears dripping down my face, and whispered, “I did it. I’m alive. And it’s perfect.”
Of course I survived. Ivan gave me a skin lesion, not a lobotomy. And of course it was on fleek. I wouldn’t let my dermis be forever marked with just anything, unlike my sister, who permanently sports both the Playboy Bunny logo and the NASCAR flag.
But as much as I’d love to use this space to regale you with tales of my sibling’s many bad decisions (and there are so, so many), that would only serve as a distraction from the unpleasant narrative I actually need to tell.
That story is this: For longer than I care to admit, I questioned whether I belonged—in my profession, in my relationships, in my body or on this planet. I believed I was a fraud, a hoax, a person completely insufficient in ways not even yet discovered.
But back to why I was in that parlor . . .
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cool person, in possession of some dope swagger, must be in want of a tattoo.
Unfortunately, I am not one of them. And by one of them, I mean cool. I dress my cats in couples costumes for Halloween and enter them in cute pet contests. That is how hip I am not.
So, I knew I did not belong in that tattoo parlor, with Ivan grumbling about my low pain threshold. However, I had ventured there after reading an inspirational quote about using flesh as a canvass: A basket of fries looks about as boring as celery sticks in comparison to the tot’s nooks and crannies, seemingly tailor-made for sopping up ketchup, cheese sauce or ranch dressing.
Oops. That’s not about tats. That’s about tots. Of the tater variety. My bad. Here’s the actual line: Tattoos keep track of time. Sometimes things happen and you feel that you need to mark them down.
Last year, I hurt so hard that I wanted to end my life. But I didn’t. And I wanted to mark that victory. In an enduring way. In a way that ensured I never forgot that I belong.
On the day I stared down a pile of pills and planned to swallow as many of them as fast as I could, everything about me felt wrong and out of place.
Two years earlier, doctors had diagnosed me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (a.k.a. PCOS) and a thyroid tumor. In a matter of months, the illnesses and their treatments caused me to balloon up like a bloated badger left on the highway, to sprout facial hair swarthy enough to make a 13-year-old boy envious and to spontaneously defecate myself. Depression, anxiety, infertility and hair loss completed my transformation.
Conjure an image of a 300-pound, fuzzy-jowled, balding, post-gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde of Willy Wonka fame if Violet crapped herself. Yup. That was me.
Perhaps you can understand why, as I stood in front of my medicine cabinet mirror, drugs ready for the downing, I didn’t see cysts or tumors or medical maladies. Rather, I saw failure and humiliation. I saw an unhappy whale woman who loathed every inch of herself. I saw someone who did not belong in her body. I saw someone who did not belong in this world.
Part of the reason I thought I didn’t belong was because of body dysmorphia.
This anxiety disorder causes people to have such a distorted view of their appearance that, in severe cases (such as mine), they will hide themselves so no one else will suffer from seeing the disgusting form they believe they have taken.
Oh, and doctors at the emergency psychiatric hospital where my husband took me also told me I suffered from imposter syndrome, a phenomenon in which those affected feel they are not smart enough, capable enough, whatever-they-want-to-be enough—even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
So, to recap—I was fat, sick, hairy, incontinent, crying a lot, panicking, convinced my body was a blimp testing the bounds of gravity and certain I was the biggest dummy in a bazillion-mile radius.
My life was like a melancholy Sarah McLachlan song with lame, non-rhyming lyrics: I have not achieved (X). I do not meet (Y) criteria. Even though I have accomplished various (Zs), those were clearly something anybody could have done and/or survived, so it’s not impressive. I must accept that my dreams are not meant to be pursued by the likes of a fat fraud like me. It’s time to settle for less than my goals and ambitions. Or perhaps I should stop existing.
It’s tempting to end this article here, with my insecurities laid bare, because I still struggle mightily to view myself as anything more than a walking dumpster fire, and I feel disingenuous pushing forward when I still feel stuck.
I tell you this not to whine or weigh you down. Rather, I am presenting you with this pile of word vomit because we must muck through the sour bits together to get to the inspirational message on the other side.
So, onward, shall we?
For too long, my imperfections floated unchecked in my head and my soul. They seemed too numerous to tackle. And then I read an ancient story that gave me the ability to identify, wrangle and address them by name.
Centuries ago, a man told Buddha about the things that made him happy—his farm, his wife, his children. Yet none of these things brought contentment —weather made farming an unpredictable profession, his wife often nagged him, his children didn’t always show him the respect he desired.
The Buddha responded, “Each of us has 83 problems, and there’s nothing that can be done about that. You will always have 83 problems. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it, but if you do, another one will pop right into its place.”
Furious, the man shouted, “I thought your teachings could help me!”
And the Buddha said, “My teachings can help you with your 84th problem.”
The man asked, “What’s my 84th problem?”
And the Buddha responded, “You want to not have any problems.”
I am that farmer.
Except I don’t grow food. And I hate dirt. And I’d probably die if asked to spread manure.
But like that farmer, I’ve got mad problem-counting skills.
It’ll be a Tuesday, and I’ll be watching Mulan, because Disney movies are totally meant for adults, too, and then WHAM! I am no longer thinking about how to defeat the Huns. I’m thinking about how to not eat Honey Buns, because how can anybody possibly be attracted to a pasty blob like me, and if I eat the 230 calories of that golden, gooey goodness, will that finally be the straw that makes me so heavy that I can no longer make love to my husband without breaking his back?
But I do not ruminate alone, because Depression comes along and brings his friend, Anxiety, and they text their side hoes, Body Dysmorphia and Imposter Syndrome, that their parents, Logic and Reasoning, are out of town, and an epic pity party ensues. Never one to be outshined, my brain takes on the role of DJ and spins a non-stop set of such hits as “Even Your Grandma Thinks You’re A Failure,” “Your Muffin Top Brings Zero Boys To The Yard,” and the all-time classic, “All Of Your Friends Are Doing Better Than You.”
Please do not be confused by the lightheartedness with which I address this inner monologue. This narrative is deadly. And in the height of my depression, it told me that because I was obese, because I was unable to naturally conceive, because I did not have a graduate degree, because I did not have the job that strikes envy in the hearts of my old nemeses, because I did not dress in a way worthy of the Instagram hashtag #glam, because I had not published a novel, because I did not own a house, because I was not debt free . . . insert a few dozen more “becauses” here . . . then I obviously did not belong in this world.
I have re-read my words too many times now, and they rip me apart each time.
When I see my thoughts boiled down to their bones, I recognize the absurdity of wanting to end it all because I can only shop at plus-size stores and because my bio blurb wouldn’t knock the socks off the attendees of the high school reunion I don’t plan on going to anyway.
But it crushes nonetheless.
And it hurts in the marrow of my soul.
Buddha said we would hurt. He said we would have hardships. He said all humans experience moments of suffering (or, as he also called it, duhkha). This is the nature of life.
And while it causes me pain, it also brings me peace.
According to Buddha’s teachings, the more we try to scrub our lives clean of difficulty or discomfort, the more we increase our suffering by trying to accomplish the impossible.
I had tried to kill myself because I so desperately wanted a life with no problems, but the ironic truth was that my sense of not belonging actually belonged in my life. I wanted everything at once—physical beauty, financial success, perfect health, educational accomplishments, undeniable career achievements. And I wanted it all with absolutely none of the obstacles or hurdles that offered me opportunities to grow into a better version of myself.
I now believe that problems (or duhkha) are possibilities in disguise. My own life argues this.
I endured sexual assault as a child. The inability to verbally express my emotions about that ordeal led to a love of writing. I watched my sister die from substance abuse. Her death gifted me with an ability to put myself in another person’s shoes. My parents weren’t in a place emotionally or financially after my sister’s death to help me go to college, so I forged ahead on my own, breaking into the journalism industry with no higher education, and the lack of typical qualifications forced me to be more resourceful, to be more self-driven, to be more independent.
Duhkha plagued me, but I overcame each problem and moved on to the next. And in the process, I notched up a fairly unique list of achievements: I was nominated for a Pulitzer. I kissed a sitting U.S. President. I married my best friend. I moved cross country. I survived a life-threatening illness. I returned to college as a non-traditional student and graduated with honors. I published a research article in a scholarly journal. I presented at several academic conferences. I left the 9-to-5 world and am writing full-time. And I started a blog that is deemed a success, if the Internet gods’ guide to desired daily visits can be trusted.
There will be more problems. Eighty-three of them, if some long-dead Indian dude’s concept of enlightenment is correct. But that’s not a number I can change. Rather, I must focus on the sum that is mine to control.
When I stepped into that tattoo parlor and let Ivan not-at-all-gently scratch the beejebus out of my skin, I had been alive 384 days longer than I had intended to be.
Today, that count sits at 602.
Now, when I look down at my wrist and see that semi-colon, I do not remember the obese woman so repulsed with herself that she didn’t feel she belonged in the inked community.
Rather, I glance at my arm and recall that this punctuation mark symbolizes a life paused rather than concluded. I remember when I first read that “a semi-colon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to.” I relive that moment when I viscerally identified with the statement, “That author is you, and the sentence is your life.”
And, just for a moment, when I see that tattoo, I remember that I belong here. And I will belong here on Day 603 and Day 604 and Day 6,005. And I remember, not that I am encountering Problem 81 or Problem 82 or Problem 83, but rather that I am not going to welcome Problem 84 into my life by feeling I do not belong.
Because I do belong. And so do you. So do all of you. Well, except for you, Ivan, if you’re reading this. You were sort of a jerk sandwich.
True story: Life would be super swell if we all embraced our OMG side instead of living a Facebook-friendly existence. So, let it out. Who are the jerk sandwiches in your life? How many problems do you have in your life? For real, though, do you ever feel like you don't belong? How do you combat those feelings? How do you ward off the demons in your head that tell you that you are inadequate and a farce? Sometimes I eat mac and cheese, and that helps for a minute or so. Just saying. Feel free to disclose details. You're safe here.
Side note: This piece is actually one I wrote for the online magazine of which I am doing managing editor stuff. Meander on over to www.liveintobeauty.com and check out the really cool stuff we have. Mwah!