How Tattoos Helped Me Recover From Self-Injury

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woman with tattoos

By next weekend I will have a new tattoo, bringing me up to a total of three — and it certainly won’t be the last.

Like many people's ink, my tattoos will represent artful expressions of my personality.

But mine also serve a larger purpose. I have struggled with mental illness and self-injury for more than a decade.

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By the time I got to high school, I was being sexually abused by a teacher, at constant loggerheads with my parents, and feeling suicidal from the stress and pressure. At a low moment, I impulsively sliced my arm open to prove my body was my own — to prove I still controlled something.

Self-injury became my secret refuge from a world that no longer belonged to me.

It soothed my chaotic thoughts and gave me brief respites from the horrible reality in which I found myself. I was at the end of my emotional rope, and this was the only coping skill that worked.

And once I started self-injuring, I couldn’t stop.

Now I have hundreds of scars. Some are prominent; others are faint lines that linger.

While I’m not ashamed of my scars or what they represent, they are very personal. I don’t want to discuss my scars over a casual dinner conversation, because I don’t want to reveal large swaths of my history. It’s not something I share with everybody.

At the same time, it’s important to me to be able to see my own scars. When I feel like an invisible shadow, self-injury takes the inexpressible and makes it tangible.

I realized tattoos could replace my scars. I could reinterpret what my scars stand for and transform them into something beautiful, something worth remembering.

It’s proof that I’m alive, that I have control over my body.

It means I have something to say, even though I can’t always express it outside of self-harm yet.

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My pain matters. It’s written all over my arms. Scars help tether my feet to the ground and keep me from floating away.

As I work toward healing, I don’t want to romanticize an unhealthy coping strategy.

But I struggle with the need to have physical, visible proof of my inner world. That’s when I realized tattoos can replace my scars.

I got my first tattoo with a co-worker after I had been inspired by the mental health awareness campaign Project Semicolon. “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to,” the Project's website explains. “You are the author and the sentence is your life.”

It could not have a more fitting meaning. I encased my semicolon in a butterfly and put it right over my wrist.

This placement intentionally makes my vulnerable wrist area off-limits for self-injury. My second tattoo, a cat, I placed on my inner forearm to protect even more real estate.

Now, every time I look at my arms, I remember the meaning of the semicolon and think of the love I have for my cats.

As a result, my tattoos have become a protective buffer against self-injury and an important step in my journey toward wellness.

A couple of months ago, I went through a rough patch. I was feeling overwhelmed and out of control. I dissociated. A dark voice kept daring me to cut deeper, to cut closer to my wrist — the one without a tattoo.

I had no concern for my well-being. My cuts were superficial at first until a haphazard slice opened up a deeper wound.

I jolted out of my trance-like state, immediately panicking. What had I done?

The cut wasn’t terrible, but its placement freaked me out. What if it had been a little deeper, a little more centered over a vein? I could have killed myself, and it would have been a stupid accident.

I immediately left a message for my therapist and made an appointment with my doctor to get the cut cleaned. I threw away all my knives — for the third time — and vowed to do everything I could to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again.

That was the night I decided on my third tattoo, a larger one that will start at my now-scarred wrist and cover my entire inner forearm. I asked my brother to design it for me — it’s beautiful. A feather quill flows from the symbol Lady Gaga had tattooed with other sexual abuse victims after the Academy Awards this year.

The vibrant blues and purples of the feather will transform my scars into a piece of art. And I’ll be safer.

My tattoos are protecting me from serious harm — but more importantly, they’re turning my scarred arms into beautiful reminders that I am alive, strong, and resilient. My tattoos provide powerful reasons to keep working toward a world where I don’t feel the need to self-injure at all.

I survived. Through my tattoos, I can find beauty in even the darkest places.

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Renee Fabian is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor, You can find her at

This article was originally published at Ravishly. Reprinted with permission from the author.