Last year I blogged about the link between tattoos and death – how getting tattooed can mean you’re squaring up to the Grim Reaper with courage and honesty. The title of the article was ‘Never Say Die‘, inspired by the kick-ass 1978 song from Black Sabbath.
These three words are now the focus of a new tattoo, that I received today from apprentice Stephanie Melbourne at The Square Tattoo in Solihull.
I have wanted these words tattooed on my body for a long time as they symbolise my battle with anxiety.
I’ve never written about my own anxiety before, or even discussed it in detail with anyone close to me in my life. The world doesn’t talk about mental health in the same way as physical health (for more on this: Tattoo The Taboo). If you’ve never experienced anxiety or depression, you probably don’t understand why we can’t all just shake it off. I’m going to fear being judged by many who read this. I’m going to shit my pants when I click ‘Publish’ in a minute.
But the time has come – for me to portray with language why these three little words represent my own triumph and strength, and why I must cherish this tattoo forever.
I was officially diagnosed with Health Anxiety in 2014, but it actually began when I was just a small child. I remember always being fascinated by death, and one day (when I was about 13), the penny suddenly dropped (with a loud thud in my heart). Thoughts snowballed in my head until they resulted in one drowning avalanche of panic….
I am only going to exist as a person for a really short period of time. So are my friends, so are my parents, my grandparents, my brother, everyone I ever know. A day will come when I will never, ever, ever see those people again. I’ll be put into a box in the ground, and stay there, forever. Not for a few years, or a hundred years, but until the end of time itself which we cannot even fathom. One day, I’ll never breathe air. I’ll never feel emotions. I’ll never again know what it means to live and be alive. I won’t know when that moment will come for me – it may come suddenly, with no warning. It could come tomorrow.
As a philosophical teenager, I channeled these seemingly ‘morbid’ thoughts into writing, poetry, painting. Every now and then they’d surface in the middle of the night, a sense of uncomfortable dread would wash over me and I used to think I was going to be sick. The only way I would get back to sleep again was by thinking of something, anything else.
I’d lie there and force myself to think about holidays, shopping, friends, films, things, stuff, toys, TV, anything. I fell asleep eventually and soon came to realise that you can only get on with life by completely ignoring its inevitable end.
I did a really good job of suppressing fears and living a normal, healthy life for over a decade. For no confirmed reason, perhaps because of other un-related stresses at work, these underlying feelings started to bubble to the surface again, this time in the form of severe hypochondria.
I spent the next few months irrationally terrified of my own health deterioration. I didn’t like to leave the house, nevermind get tattooed. I was always taking myself off to A&E for no reason. I was in a permanent state of panic. I constantly felt like I was about to faint. I became crap company for anyone who knew me and I couldn’t dedicate space in my brain for anything else other than my own health worries.
Every time I was in contact with death, loss or tragedy (seeing something on the news, a scene in a movie, an article in a magazine, overhearing someone in a restaurant say a friend was ill), I was paralysed with irrational fear. I fussed about every single movement in my body – every twitch, every pain, every abnormality, convinced that something was severely wrong with me.
After several trips to the doctors and an initial therapy session, I was introduced to the term Health Anxiety – I would spend the next few months working with my therapist to understand what it was, why I had suddenly developed it, and how I would manage it.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most wonderful things in the world. The way in which I have learnt techniques to use every day, has literally changed my life. It works well for people with a positive mindset, who look forward, create challenges for themselves, strive to be better and love the world they are in.
Being able to step back and see what anxiety was doing to my day-to-day existence opened my eyes to the fact that I could, and had to, learn how to control it. Otherwise I would spend my limited time on earth worrying about when it was going to end, instead of actually just sitting back and enjoying the ride.
It also allowed me to analyse the root cause of my anxieties. I hadn’t been through a traumatic incident, I’d had a perfectly happy childhood, I really, genuinely (no, honestly – I repeated to my therapist), have just always been contemplative about existence. I suddenly remembered that little girl in bed, jumping around the room in an attempt to shake those feelings of sickness. My anxiety was a result of my ongoing fear of dying. I’ve always been like this, I always will be, and I just needed to know how to deal with it.
One thing my therapist said to me really stuck in my mind. She said I should embrace my obsession with death as something positive – it’s made me who I am and allows me to see the world in a very appreciative and grateful way… not many people do that, she said.
From the moment she gave me that ray of light, I’ve encouraged my writing to seize my fears and use them for something good – anyone that reads my blogs knows that I always try to share inspirational messages about making the most of your time on earth, cherishing each second and every person around you.
Being able to hide messages about life’s transience in my everyday tattoo writing has been cathartic for me every single time I write a post, and has made me love my own anxieties as something special. Re-kindling my love for writing has allowed me to channel my thoughts into words for others, and as a result they no longer stagnate in my own brain.
I moved forward. I wrote. I learnt how to be better. I taught myself habits and ways of thinking that would eventually draw me out of the horrendous state I had worked myself into. Being in a place filled with constant fear isn’t good for your mind or body, and being out of the darkness was the best feeling in the world.
Tattoos play a huge part in me battling hypochondria. My therapist was very surprised to learn that someone who obsessed about their health would choose to regularly undergo voluntary skin trauma that would almost certainly arouse panic for someone living with Health Anxiety.
I get tattooed to remind myself that I don’t need to worry… that the human body is strong – it heals, it fights, and isn’t going to conk out at any minute. I choose for mine to stand up tall and heal every self-inflicted, colourful wound.
I also now have the one thing I am terrified of inked on my body forever. There was a time when seeing a coffin would send me into a panic – now I have to look at one every day on my leg. You only conquer fears by facing them head-on.
We all brush death under the carpet – we move forward after grievances because we have to, otherwise we wouldn’t go on. If I constantly obsess about the inevitable, I’m going to blink and my time will be up. I used to envisage myself on my death bed, looking back with regret and saying to myself ‘I wish I had spent less time worrying‘.
Never let your anxieties take over your life to the point where you stop living it.
Never try to control things that you can’t.
Never fear your own impermanence.
NEVER SAY DIE.
Find out more about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on the Mind website.