mental health

Permanent Stories

“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach.”

~Kat Von D

Certain things fall out of your notice after awhile. For instance, I forget that my hair’s blue all the time. When I first dyed it, I was always conscious of the color, and I felt people’s eyes on me constantly. Some of the people who saw the color narrowed their eyes in disapproval, and I hunched my shoulders. (Never mind that I loved it and felt like myself for the first time in ages) Others took the time to come over and compliment me, which made me smile and relax. And kids – especially little girls – loved it, which tickled me to no end. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve gone through several other colors, but blue is the most common. And since it’s ALWAYS colored at this point, I forget about it. So I don’t think anything of people turning to look my way – and I stopped caring about their opinion. It only matters when someone comes over to ask me how I did it (and I feel bad when I admit I don’t – that I rely on my fabulous hairstylist to keep me from looking like a Smurf)

My tattoos are the same way.

Now, there’s a slight caveat there. When I got my first tattoo, my mother was panicked. She was afraid I’d risk losing my job. Even in our current “age of enlightenment,” she felt that tattoos equated to rejection by employers. And she wasn’t entirely wrong. The clinic I worked at had a strict “no visible tattoos” policy. We weren’t in the Bible Belt (where damn near everything is against the rules), but they didn’t want clients getting offended. I’m not sure how a tribal shark and Calico Jack’s Jolly Roger might offend someone, but people can get weird about anything. So I brought my scrub top to the appointment, and we made sure the tattoo wouldn’t be visible when I was working. And I did the same with my second (dragon triquetras being horrific images and all).

Every time I got another tattoo (if you’ve never experienced the process, they’re like potato chips – you can’t stop at just one), I made sure it would remain covered by my scrubs so my mom could rest easy. Because the prejudice against ink kept cropping up. Unlike questions about your marriage status and children, it’s acceptable for an employer to ask if you have ink. And they can demand you cover it up. (So much for enlightenment) I decided it didn’t bother me, but I noticed a difference when out in public – where no such restrictions are in place. During the winter, when my arms and legs were covered (and thus no tattoos were visible), I ended up with those annoying kiosk people at the mall coming up to me ALL THE TIME. My Resting Bitch Face did nothing to deter them. (Yes, I am a master of that expression – most Capricorns are) However, during the warmer months when I had on shorts and tank tops, they decided to avoid me. The only difference between the situations was the visibility of my tattoos. I didn’t change how I walked, the expression I wore, or anything else.

The difference was THEIR perception.

Obviously, I’m not hemmed in on tattoo placement restrictions anymore. While I DO have client conversations via Zoom now and then, I feel zero need to worry that a person might decide I can’t write because I have a tattoo here or there. (And I have grand plans for two more – at least one of which will be my forearm) But the prejudice hasn’t stopped – even within my family.

In December, I added my fifth tattoo. I know I discussed it with my mother, and I even posted pictures on my social media accounts (because it’s adorable and came out fantastic. It’s also my first color tattoo, which I was a little nervous about). Earlier this month, we had a surge of warm temperatures, so I had shorts on when my father dropped by to help us with some home improvement things. It’s hard to miss the tattoo since it takes up most of my thigh, and he immediately commented that he didn’t know I got a new one – in a disapproving tone. I was shocked. One, that he wasn’t already aware of it (I mean, it’s been months – the thing’s completely healed). And two, that he sounded like one of those people on the street that ask if you realize tattoos are permanent. I carefully explained when I’d had it done, and that I’d told Mom about it (assuming she’d tell him). It did nothing to change his expression.

Which sums up the reactions I get out in public. It’s like my hair: some people offer positive comments, while others turn up their noses. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I know they’re permanent. (For that amount of pain, they damn well better be) I’m not a spur-of-the-moment tattoo person. I plan them over MONTHS. I think through what I want and why. Every tattoo has multiple meanings and reminders for me. I put them where I can see them for that reason. It’s why I’ll never get one on my back – what good is it if I can’t see it every day? These are important stories for me, marking moments in my life that I don’t want to forget. And I know it’s the same for other people that decide to go under the needle.

Tattoos are a person’s identity.

It amazes me, in the age we’re in, that you can still find pockets of prejudice. If hair color, piercings, or tattoos aren’t your thing, that’s fine. But does that give you permission to judge the people who DO want to embrace them? These are people expressing their personal identity. For a lot of us, it’s finally embracing our self-expression – people we’ve hidden away for decades. Your judgement? That’s not needed. We aren’t walking around telling you you look ridiculous buttoned up to the chin and wearing…oh, I don’t know, a wristwatch. (I have no idea where to go with that – mostly because I don’t engage in this behavior) I’m proud of the hours I’ve sat for my tattoos – because it isn’t easy! They fucking HURT! We’re talking holding incredibly still, trying to distract your body as it screams, “What the fuck are we doing?!” Not to mention the weeks after as you engage in care while it heals, and peels, and ITCHES.

Left WITHOUT parental interference, kids don’t judge. They come up to you and examine hair, earrings, and tattoos with interest. They ask questions – and a lot of them are intelligent questions. Have I EVER told a small child they could get a tattoo? No. I always explain it’s something they need to think carefully about and WAIT until they’re 18. With hair, I say they need to ask their parents. I’m not an irresponsible individual (though parents like to make me out to be one – thanks ever so much). Prejudice is LEARNED, it’s not innate. And it needs to stop. People need the freedom to be themselves – whatever that looks like.

Do you want to cover every inch of your skin with ink? Then do it. Want to experiment with every color on your hair? Go for it. Maybe you want to shave your head entirely. Why not? Self-expression represents who you are at your core. There’s nothing wrong with it. Do you need to open yourself to the potential questions? Yeah, you do. But – barring the ignorant – is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. It gives you an opportunity to open up about YOU. Embrace your self-confidence. You never know when THAT might catch on. And maybe you’ll inspire one of those kids to do the same – away from that misguided parental influence.

mental health

Embrace the Happy

"Just Be"
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Let me set up the scenario for you: something amazing just happened (you choose the amazing because that definition is different for everyone), and you are dancing on air. You can’t wait to share the news with everyone around you, hoping for the same cheer and light to infuse their day, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. You can barely keep still, and the words jumble together. If you battle depression, this moment shines even brighter for you because it means you’ve climbed out of the pit and felt the sun on your face for the first time in days, weeks, maybe even months. Your face feels like it might split wide open, you’re smiling so bright. Your present your news and pause for the reaction.

And they just stare at you.

The entire world falls back around you in shatters, and you feel like a complete and utter fool. If you’re really unlucky, you receive a lecture about having the nerve to be so cheerful during “this time” (I’m not referring to any time in particular – sure we’re experiencing COVID-19 right now, the upheaval of race relations, the trauma of LGBTQ rights being revoked, but there are also individual times that get thrown at you). All of the life goes out of you, and the chasm splits under your feet to cast you back into the pit.

How DARE you be happy?

Because no one on this planet is ever allowed to be happy (well, except for them, of course – don’t you dare ever consider doing the same thing to them). Happiness must be squashed out at every turn, crushed into the mud and silenced lest it brighten the world. You spend 95% of your life depressed and miserable, and – dammit – people want to push that to 100%. What’s the phrase: misery shared is misery halved? Yeah, that’s bullshit; misery shared is misery compounded.

The truth is you have every right to be happy, regardless of when it happens. It’s not like you have a crystal ball to predict and plan out your moments. Happiness is random, spontaneous, and, frankly, the times it needs to be shared are when everything is falling apart. You can’t just save it up until “time is right” – who knows when that might happen? Do you want to wait months to share the news that you got a job? Got engaged? Are pregnant? Bought a house? Finished a story? Will you still feel the same rush of joy months down the road?

Of course not!

Share the news when you have it (not before – you’ll jinx it). Don’t feel guilty about your happiness, and don’t let anyone rob you of your joy and excitement. You’re entitled to be happy! Every person on this planet has that right! If the people around you feel a need to lecture, then they aren’t the people you need in your circle. You should be allowed to be yourself at all times with the people who support you, and that includes being allowed to share good news – whenever it happens.

If you wait until the “right moment” for something…are you prepared for that moment to never happen?

mental health

Out of the Box

“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.”

~Benedict Cumberbatch

There are plenty of people out there that like to stick to their plans, never deviating from the precise details they spent so much time working out – and that is definitely one way to go about things. Hell, I spent a lot of my life following that pattern; I accomplished exactly what I set out to achieve.

Yay.

If that’s all you want – the success of a job well done – then, by all means, keep to the paved path. However, if you want to flex your muscles even the tiniest bit, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and set some challenges. I don’t mean goals (you do need those, of course) – I mean out-of-the-box, out of your comfort zone, risky challenges. These are steps that still coincide with your ultimate dream, but they’re not on that careful map you worked so hard on. They involve a stretch of your creativity, and they’re probably scary (in fact, the more they scare you, the better). Those kind of challenges.

You want your blood pumping.

Why? Because, ultimately, those challenges make you a stronger person. They push you to grow beyond the boundaries you thought you had (crazy when you discover how far you can really go), and they teach you skills you never imagined you were capable of.

Maybe you’ve only ever written fantasy or literary fiction. This time, you sit down to try something new, a strange idea you’d never consider normally because it’s not what “you’re known for.” Did you know you could write that level of horror?

You help tinker around with electronics every day, and you can repair just about anything someone hands you. You have endless boxes of parts and equipment stacked up in your garage, collecting dust, so you decide to go through them, just to see what’s there. Did you imagine you could assemble an entire computer from scratch?

Whenever you’re bored, you putter around in the kitchen. You’ve made cookies dozens of times, and you can bake a mean cupcake – everyone tells you this on a regular basis. You’ve never attempted anything “significant,” though because you’re just a home baker. Did you have any idea you could bake a tiered cake with your own two hands?

You love attending cons, and you marvel at the ingenuity in the people around you; they’re so talented. You wish you had more to offer than your comic t-shirts and cat ear-headband. You’ve glued some foam together before, but you’ve never even touched a sewing machine. Did you realize you could sew a unique costume from a design in your head?

Stop sitting in the box!

Yeah, the outside of the box is unknown territory, and the challenge is as daunting as scaling a mountain. The feeling you get when you reach the peak, though…nothing feels that good. You amaze yourself, and you start to wonder more, to ask yourself more questions.

“If I did this, what else can I do?”

Suddenly, your checklist of dreams gains color and depth, and it becomes even better than it was before. Those challenges drive you forward in a way you wouldn’t believe. They have a way of silencing doubt and bolstering confidence. Yes, you have to overcome the shivers and hesitation each time, but the risk is worth it. I challenge myself with my writing all the time: can I handle this topic? Should I pitch this article? Maybe I should try setting this in this genre? The rewards have paid off each time, and my writing has continued to improve. If I hadn’t challenged myself, I wouldn’t have some of the contracts I do, I’d only have a handful of insipid short stories, and I wouldn’t have half of the novels I’m working on. I would have hamstrung myself.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and then think of something just outside of reach, something that scares you. Then go do it.

mental health

Open Brain – Insert Reason

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

By now, you have probably had the unfortunate experience of witnessing first-hand what happens when human beings go into idiotic panic mode. It is really easy to point fingers at governments or media as the source of the problem – and I won’t deny that they have a share in the blame – but the truth is that the majority of that blame comes right back home to rest with each and every individual who ran out blindly without a single thought in their head. They forgot they were rational creatures, capable of reason, and turned into a mob of insanity that generated an entirely new problem.

Because we really needed a new problem.

When I was getting my Wreck Diver certification, they put us through an exercise that has stuck with me ever since, especially in these kinds of situations. Our masks were lined with aluminum foil so we couldn’t see out of them, and then we had to dive in a pool full of obstacles – this simulated a dive where visibility was lost and you needed to navigate blind (a real possibility in caves or wrecks). We ended up tangled in ropes, caught on pool hooks, and our instructors would turn off the air on our tanks (lots of fun). The purpose of the exercise was to teach us one simple thing: when a situation arose, our first reaction wasn’t to panic (that gets you dead), but to stop and think about what was going on first and THEN figure out how to react.

Every last one of us failed the first time.

It was hard – especially when you realized air was no longer flowing through the regulator – to think first instead of reacting first. Once they hauled us out of the pool and told us that we were killing ourselves, though, things started to make sense. No, air wasn’t flowing, but we still had air in our lungs, and provided we DIDN’T panic, we weren’t going to suffocate instantaneously. The second time around, when we stopped, thought about where the tank was on our backs, and how to reach the valve, we did fine. The same with all of the other obstacles. It didn’t even take long to stop and think before puzzling out the problem and how to correct it (crucial when you’re diving and might have a limited air supply).

Guess what? Lesson works in real life.

For some strange reason, people want to panic first and think…well, they don’t want to think; they decide that thinking is overrated, that Fake News, or an idiot with a big mouth is good enough for them. For some, it does go back to school and the fact that we’re failing to teach children to think for themselves anymore. For others, they slip into hysteria and forget that they ever learned the skill in the first place. Either way, it’s damaging – to everyone. I’m not saying that you have to adopt the pose of The Thinker and write out a 10-page essay on the topic, but take a breath and ask yourself, “Wait a second – what am I reacting to?”

I’d like to say this has always benefited me, but since not everyone in the world thinks, it hasn’t. I can say, with a clear conscience, that I have employed this lesson to myself before I’ve done anything – though I stretch it a bit into the overthinking realm (you do have to learn where to stop). People don’t like to think – it’s uncomfortable (for some, it’s painful – you can see it on their faces), it makes them responsible, and it sets them against the grain of the mob. However, if the mob is hurtling off the cliff, why do you want to go with them?

Thinking is not illegal – yet. And as soon as it DOES become illegal, we need to stand up and question why because there’s a problem. It doesn’t take much time or effort to ask a single question of yourself before you react to anything. Thinking is a quick process, for the most part, and it saves you from looking like a complete and utter moron.

Or you can always blindly follow the mob off the cliff. But it’s a little late to question why when you’re falling onto the rocks.