Today was a good day, filled with the slightly familiar pain of a tattoo needle on my arm. Over the last year, I’ve been contemplating and designing my first recovery tattoo. For me, it had to be more than just recovery from my eating disorder; it had to reflect my entire journey and outlook on life. That’s a lot of responsibility for a little bit of ink under the skin. It was well worth the effort and wait though.
My jumping off point was the Fourth Heart Chakra. I’ve never studied Buddhism or have any belief in chakras, but the symbol itself was something I couldn’t get out of my mind. The Heart Chakra, according to my research, stands for unconditional positive self-regard, or put simply – self-love. It took me a long time to reach a place of self-acceptance in my recovery, and I found it was never about loving my body. It’s about loving me, quirks in all shapes and forms, physical, emotional, and spiritual. That’s a pretty good place to start, don’t you think? Gets to the “heart” of the matter, right?
Okay, moving on. So the next design element was what to do with the symbol in the middle of the chakra. I have no idea what it is or what it means for Buddhists, but figured I’m making my own symbol up as I go so tossed it to the side. There were several other symbols that I considered, the most obvious one being the National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) symbol for eating disorder recovery. If you Google eating disorder tattoo, you’ll see a plethora of images incorporated into body art. But they’re all women! Why? Because the symbol itself reflects a woman’s natural curves. As usual, the feminist grip on eating disorder language tripped me up again. It couldn’t be the heart of my recovery as it didn’t reflect me.
With more thought, I realized again that the heart of my recovery was music. During my most depressed times, music was my salve. When I needed distraction from ED, my guitar was my primary instrument of recovery. Through every stage of my life, music has played a major role in my life. That had to be the center. But a simple musical staff with a treble clef didn’t seem like enough. Puzzled, I took a long time to let the answer germinate. It came to me like most of my best song ideas, while drifting off to sleep. It has to be a single note – the one directly in the middle of the clef – the B note. A single dot on the staff wouldn’t do. No, it had to have movement to reflect a greater truth. You see, when you write the stem of the B – note you have to know where the melody is coming from and where it’s going to determine of the stem points up or down. It requires you to make a choice. I chose for my B-note to have a stem go up and down, to reflect that I’m always making a choice in my life to recover or not. The “B”-note is also a reminder that I have to “be” present in the moment, feel all the feelings that encapsulate our lives and not shrink away from them. That’s a dramatic note, indeed, wanting to resolve up to C or fall to the A-minor. It keeps me precariously balanced and on my toes, that busy B.
Ah, but that NEDA symbol kept gnawing at my design, wanting a place inside. It’s my journey, and doesn’t have to mean anything about being a woman. I had to pull that particular man-sized stick out of my butt and move one. I found a place for several small versions of the NEDA symbol. It feels right.
Last, what arm should it be on? That took a bit of doing. I’m a man who likes balance and order in life, just ask my wife who often gets on me for “putting things away,” or as she calls it “what did you did with my stuff, you goon?” One on each arm seemed balanced, but excessive. I asked around and got some good advice. We give things to people with our right arm and receive with our left. I should have remembered that from getting my high school diploma back in … a while ago. This tattoo is a reminder of the ideas and beliefs that I want to give myself every day, if not every moment. I put the tattoo smack dab in the middle of my right forearm, a place I will always be sure to see it daily, to give myself that unconditional positive self-regard. It’s also a place where the skin is really, really tender and not super happy about being stuck by a needle hundreds of times a minute for two hours.
But it’s a beautiful tattoo. It’s all mine, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share my recovery story with anyone who asks about it.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.