The Tattoos I Didn't Choose--Scars...

So many different colors, various shapes, and multiple textures. Some are so large they cannot be hidden or ignored. Others so tiny they are forgotten until they are accidentally touched and their bumpy surface felt once more. They are the markers of illness; the products of surgery, biopsy, permanent rash, eczema, scleroderma, scars--they are the tattoos that were not chosen.

People commonly choose to tattoo their bodies with images that contain some meaning to them and images that they wish to look at on a daily basis. Something permanent on the body forces one to face whatever the tattoo symbolizes without the option of escape; this is a choice. People living with chronic illness are often filled with unwanted and unchosen tattoos. They are constant reminders of their journey with the illness. Imagine looking at your clavicle every day and seeing the scar from your last surgery. Perhaps it can be covered up with makeup; however, the knowledge that it is still there cannot be as easily hidden.

When people experience traumatic situations, they typically want to avoid any reminders of the trauma. People in car accidents may be afraid to drive or war veterans may avoid areas with very loud sounds. These reminders of the trauma can cause anxiety and in some cases a physical feeling of the trauma being relived. It is not too hard to imagine what it is like when a reminder of a trauma cannot be avoided, such as in some cases of these unwanted tattoos. A person may look in the mirror and see the scar on his/her back. To another it may just look like some sort of surgery scar, but to the person with the scar it may hold volumes of experiences and carry a lot of meaning. This one scar could be the concrete representation of a decade long journey battling kidney disease. It could be a reminder of intense pain, daily difficulty, the source of conflict in relationships, the reason for lifestyle changes, and the outcome of a suffering surgery. All of this cannot be is right there carried in that unwanted tattoo.

One may wonder how people with these unwanted tattoos can possible deal with their traumatic experience when such powerful reminders of the trauma cannot be avoided. It is possible! In fact, a large part of working through and healing the trauma is when the feelings associated with the trauma are no longer avoided. The unwanted tattoo can actually serve as a reservoir of feelings that do not yet have words and maybe are not even in one's conscious awareness yet. Taking time to think about and share with someone else all of what the unwanted tattoo carries can free one of the trauma. The power of the experience starts to shrink as the person begins to transform into the master of his/her own experience. The scar becomes a container of stories from the past rather than an image of torture that creates a bodily response of fear and anxiety. Of course when one is ready to embark on this journey depends on when each individual is ready to do so, and it is crucial to explore this with a trained psychotherapist as it can be a difficult and lengthy process.

Today the rash is a symbol of suffering and helplessness, someday it could be a reminder of strength, survival, and one piece of your life. The unwanted tattoo was not a choice; beginning the process of transforming its meaning is. What will you choose?