Friday, September 8, 2017

Tips for Your First Tattoo + My Tattoo Story! #ProjectSemicolon

Trigger warning: This post details my experiences with anxiety, depression and self-harm in some detail, so if you're triggered by these things, try checking out this post or this post instead!

I am proud to be a supporter of Project Semicolon, an organization dedicated to helping others recover from mental illness, with particular emphasis on suicide and self-harm prevention.

If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Hello, beautiful! Today on the blog, I'm sharing a long-overdue surprise: I got my first tattoo! Technically speaking, I actually got this tattoo way back in late July, but I wasn't sure if I should post about it or not, since the story behind my tattoo is actually quite personal and raw. However, I decided to take the plunge, to raise awareness for Project Semicolon and hopefully inspire anyone who's A) scared to get their first tattoo or B) struggling with a mental illness.

Once upon a time, I firmly believed I would never have a tattoo because I thought I'd never be able to decide on what to get and commit to getting it. But ironically (as you'll hear more about later in this post!), when I finally did decide to get a tattoo, it was on a total whim. In fact, the idea just came to me - kind of like a message from God. How cool is that?!

In honor of my first tattoo, I'll be sharing the story of how I decided to get my first tattoo, what it felt like to get it and what the healing process was like. (Over a month later, my tattoo is now fully healed!) Additionally, I'm going to share some tips for getting your first tattoo, so you'll know what to expect if you ever decide to take the plunge. So, let's get started!

My Tattoo Story

I know I posted a trigger warning earlier, but I just want to reiterate for anyone who might have missed it: this part of the story gets a little intense in dealing with my experiences with mental illness, so if you're triggered by anxiety, depression or self-harm, try checking out one of my other posts instead!

In case you didn't know, I suffer from clinical anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, to be exact) and depression. I've struggled with these disorders in some form for as long as I can remember, but they really didn't begin to take over my life in a negative way until my sophomore year of high school. 

That winter, I just remember feeling really low about my life for no reason at all, fighting with my mom and my (now ex-) boyfriend over stupid stuff and bursting into tears at the drop of a pin. That episode, which was my first depressive episode ever, lasted about three to four months. Once it was over, I looked back on it and realized that I had been depressed and that one of the reasons why was that I was super anxious about school and my relationship. 

After the word anxiety popped into my head for the first time, I thought more about a lot of my neurotic behaviors that I'd once deemed a combination of stress and "just my personality," and many parts of my past just started to make sense to me. For example, my mom loves to tell this story about when I was four years old and firmly believed that I was going to die from a paper cut. As funny as that seems to me now, thinking back on it I can't help but think of how anxious I must have been, even as a very young child.

Though my anxiety story may seem random in a post about my tattoo, they're actually deeply interconnected. In fact, my mental illness was 100% the reason I decided to get a tattoo in the first place, in honor of Project Semicolon.

Here's the part of the story that gets really difficult for me to admit online, but that's the most crucial reason why I ended up getting this tattoo: for me, part of dealing with anxiety and depression also means recovering from self-harm.

I hate to say this, but while I've gotten really good at managing my anxiety levels in my everyday life, I still don't feel like I've learned the coping strategies I need to de-escalate my anxiety when I'm in the middle of an attack. And, since I also suffer from depression, I'm prone to beating myself up and mitigating my self-worth when I'm in the middle of an intense episode of anxiety. I start thinking things like "I hate myself for having an anxiety attack right now" or "I screwed up, I'm worthless" (often, I have anxiety attacks like these after big fights with Ryan, friends or family). 

About a year or two ago, I developed a negative coping strategy of harming myself to deal with these negative thoughts. Namely, I scratch myself. It started with me digging my fingernails into my arms so hard they would leave marks, to distract myself from the mental pain. Now, I try my hardest to refrain from harm in the middle of these attacks, but I'm still working on it - and occasionally, I've even made myself bleed from scratching my arms so hard and so violently. 

When I do these things, it feels almost like a wild animal is taking over, or a completely different person. It's not that I dissociate to the point where I don't remember doing it, but afterward, I always wish I hadn't done it. I always get this sinking feeling that if I had been my usual self, I would have reacted differently. But that's the thing: it's my anxiety, and it's my depression, causing me to self-harm. It's not me, so it only makes sense that I don't feel like myself when I self-harm.

Anyways, now that you know the backstory you need to know, I'll try to cut to the chase. Jump forward to the month of July. It was the last week of camp, and I was driving with my arm out the window, the summer sun shining down...when I noticed my scars for the first time.

I used to think that scratching wasn't a "real" form of self-harm. I never thought I could do enough damage to make myself bleed, let alone leave a mark. But I can and have done both of these things, albeit unwittingly. And the thought of that completely overwhelmed me with sadness, disappointment and resentment - after all, I like to pretend that I'm fully, or at least almost fully, recovered, but really this is the middle of my story with mental illness. I'm nowhere near the finish line yet. 

Realizing that hurt like hell.

But, almost in the same exact moment, a random idea popped into my head. I wanted to get a semicolon tattoo, on the wrist of my left arm (the arm I scratch when I harm). The thought was so impulsive, and so crazy out of character for me, that I can't even explain it. But just like that, I found myself driving to the nearest tattoo parlor on a total whim, without any prior research.

I chose the semicolon because of Project Semicolon, a movement where people draw or tattoo semicolons on their wrist to raise awareness for suicide and self-harm. According to Project Semicolon, a semicolon is used when an author could have chosen to end his or her sentence but decided to continue instead.

I chose a semicolon tattoo because no matter how bad my anxiety and depression got, I always wanted to remember that feeling of determination never to self-harm again - and never to let it get to the point of wanting to take my own life. My tattoo was a decision to heal from my anxiety, depression and self-harm. And, with some of the things that have happened in my family since I got my tattoo (which I won't disclose since they're extremely sensitive personal matters), I'm so glad that I solidified my commitment never to let mental illness take over my life again.

I can only describe it as an act of desperation. I never wanted to hurt myself again or leave any more scars. I wanted to leave something there as a permanent reminder of my commitment to overcome self-harm.

By the time I got there, my heart was practically beating out of my chest - but I walked in like everything was totally normal, and I was completely fine, and I said to the girl at the front of the tattoo parlor, "I want to get a price quote for a tattoo."

The price of a tattoo depends on its size and difficulty for the artist - things like many colors or intricate designs really jack up the price. Since my tattoo is tiny and was expected to cause little trouble, I only had to pay the shop minimum. If I'd wanted one of the artists to do it, it would have been $85, but since I got mine from the apprentice, it was only $60. 

For my tattoo, I had to lay down a deposit of about $40 prior to my appointment. Then, on Friday when I came in, I only had to pay $20, plus a tip for the apprentice. I didn't have to do much prep prior to the tattoo - just make sure that you're well-rested, well-fed and well-hydrated since all of those things can make a tattoo less painful! (More on that later.)

On Friday, I came in to actually get the tattoo right after a long day breaking down from summer camp. The tattoo artist began by helping me choose the size, font and placement of my tattoo. Then, she shaved my wrist to ensure there was no hair over the tattoo area and applied a stencil exactly where I wanted the tattoo. After the stencil was on, she tore open a brand-new needle, dipped it in ink and began the actual process of tattooing!

To me, the tattoo process wasn't extraordinarily painful at all (and I have an EXTREMELY low pain tolerance, so that's saying a lot!). Some people say that wrist tattoos hurt more than anything they've ever experienced since the skin is very thin and close to the bone/some major veins; to me, it only hurt the way it does when my cat sinks her claws into my arm. (So, I guess the best way to prep for tattoo pain is just to get a cat! J.K.)

When the tattoo was over, she covered it in plastic wrap, which I was allowed to take off after only an hour (since my tattoo was so small). I had to wash my tattoo three times a day for two weeks. For the first few days, I also had to apply Aquaphor ointment and then switched to Lubriderm lotion (or another hypoallergenic brand) for the rest of the healing period.

Healing was pretty painful - like, more painful than the actual tattoo - for the first one or two days. The area was so swollen and tender I could barely touch it, but the pain faded as the tattoo began to heal. The worst part of the healing process was the flaking and the clouding, which left me wondering if my tattoo would come out looking as good as I hoped it would - which, it did! It just takes some time for your tattoo to heal and reach its full vibrancy and potential.

All in all, I'm super happy with the results of my tattoo after healing. I'm super thankful I decided to get this tattoo, even on a whim. And besides - as I told Ryan and my family when they were shocked that I came home from getting a tattoo, I know I won't ever regret it because the story behind a tattoo is just as meaningful as the tattoo itself!

Things to Know Before Your First Tattoo

Okay, so now that we've gotten the heavy stuff out of the way, here's the fun part: helping you prepare to get YOUR first tattoo! If you're thinking about getting a tattoo, that's perfect. If not, that's fine, too! Tattoos aren't for everyone, that's true - but we do need to get to a place in this society where we can respect each other's differences, as far as ink is concerned.

I do want to take a moment to say that let's try to be respectful in the comments when it comes to our opinions on tattoos! I know some people in my family have strong opinions where tattoos are concerned, and you might, too. However, nearly 50% of the people I know at college have some sort of tattoo, so it's pretty clear that tattoos aren't just for delinquents or criminals anymore. YOU don't need to be part of that statistic - but you definitely shouldn't judge someone who is, either! Everyone has the right to get (or not to get a tattoo), and everyone deserves respect - no matter which decision they choose to make.

Rant aside, here are my top tips for getting your first tattoo! Whether it's the pain you're worried about or staying healthy and safe during aftercare, here's everything I learned from losing my tattoo virginity:

Before You Get a Tattoo...

  • Don't worry about the "rules." And I'm not talking safety rules here - you should definitely follow those! But when it comes to sayings like "you should wait a year to make sure you still want it," don't listen to all the noise. Only you know yourself better than anyone else, so only you get to decide when (and if!) you want to get your first tattoo. Besides the obvious age restrictions - in my state, it's 18 or 16 with a parent's permission, but yours might be different! - there's no one right time to get your first tattoo. So, follow your heart and make your own decisions when it comes to when you want to get inked! (And whatever you do, don't Google "tattoo horror stories." EVER.)
  • Be prepared for a financial commitment. If there's anything I regret about my tattoo, it's that I didn't plan a budget for it in advance. A tattoo isn't just a commitment for life - it's also a significant commitment to your wallet. Since my tattoo was so small, it only cost the shop minimum, with a discount for going with the shop apprentice; however, larger tattoos, tattoos with lots of intricate details or tattoos with many colors can cost hundreds of dollars, so ideally, you wouldn't just waltz into a tattoo parlor and slap down a $100 deposit without doing a little planning first. 
  • Choose a tattoo artist you trust. For me, it was important to go with a female tattoo artist. I didn't feel comfortable spending that much time with some random dude hovering over my wrist. Plus, I wanted someone I could trust and get along with so I wouldn't be nervous about carrying on a conversation, on top of getting the tattoo. So, if you know there's a certain kind of tattoo artist you're looking for, then don't be afraid to shop around until you find exactly what - and who - you want! Remember: this piece of art is literally going to be on your body for life, so there's nothing wrong with being a little picky.
  • Scope out the scenery before you commit. It's totally okay for a tattoo parlor to look, well, like a tattoo parlor in the front lobby. However, the actual workspaces should look just like a doctor's office: pristine white, hygienic and with a secure box for disposing hazardous waste (like used tattoo needles!). If you can't see the workspaces well enough from the front lobby, don't hesitate to ask for the artist to show you around before you lay down your cold, hard cash.

The day of the tattoo...

  • Please, please, PLEASE eat and drink water before your appointment! This might be the most important thing to take away from this entire post: do NOT go into your tattoo appointment without eating or drinking. Kind of like giving blood, being dehydrated makes it more difficult for the tattoo artist to painlessly insert the needle - plus, not eating increases the chances that you'll get woozy when you see that gun going in.
  • Don't take any pain medications. I learned you're not supposed to take painkillers like Tylenol, Aleve or Advil before you get a tattoo because these medications are technically blood-thinners. In other words, taking these meds increases your risk of excess bleeding and bruising when you get a tattoo. If you're really worried about the pain, ask your doctor or tattoo artist about what you CAN use to numb the pain! You might be able to get a topical anesthetic to apply to your skin before the appointment, which will help numb and soothe the area without increasing your risk for bleeding.
  • Be clean and wear comfy clothing. Remember: you're spending at least twenty to thirty minutes in close contact with another human being! Even if they are paid to spend time with you, it's only respectful that you show up to your appointment showered and smelling great. (Not to mention, smelling bad increases the risk that your artist might rush the tattoo and you'll wind up less-than-enthused with your brand-new $100 ink.) So, do yourself and your artist a favor and take a shower before you head over - and when you get out, put on the comfiest clothes you own. After all, you'll definitely be sitting awhile! 
  • Know EXACTLY what you want. If you can bring pictures, print-outs or hand-drawn art to the appointment, even better. My tattoo would have gone by so much faster if I didn't spend so much time fussing over the size and font of my semicolon. That being said, don't feel pressured to follow a tattoo artist's "vision," no matter how supposedly brilliant or up-and-coming they are. Regardless of what that Yelp reviewer says, this tattoo is going to be on YOUR skin forever - so you shouldn't feel pressured to bend to the artist's will just so they can add another credit to their portfolio.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you're feeling confused or nervous about the process, I find it helps to ask the tattoo artist to walk you through what they're doing step-by-step. A great tattoo artist will do this anyways, but sometimes even the best of the best get so caught up in their craft that they forget there's actual human flesh beneath them. So, ask as many questions as you want - and if you feel uncomfortable or want to chicken out at any point, it's ultimately your decision whether or not you get this tattoo. (And just a side note: if you see any indication that the tattoo studio might not be 100% sterile - i.e. it looks less than medical in the workspaces, not just the lobby, or you can tell they're reusing needles/ink - don't walk away: RUN!!!)

After the tattoo...

  • Follow any and all aftercare instructions RELIGIOUSLY. The quality of your aftercare ultimately determines the quality of your tattoo after it heals. Obviously, since you just invested tons of time, money and pain into it, you're gonna want that baby to look as fresh and new as possible for the long-haul - so you're gonna want to do anything your tattoo artist says to do to keep it looking spick and span. Oh, and alternatively, if anything sounds fishy to you at all (not in an "it's not what I read on Buzzfeed" way, but in a "that doesn't seem right/sanitary/medically accurate" kind of way), don't be afraid to get a second opinion from another parlor or your doc.
  • Tattoos heal in three stages: scabbing, flaking and clouding. The first stage of healing lasts only a few days while the scabs from the tattoo heal; this stage is the only stage when you might still feel a bit of pain, whether that sensation feels more like burning, stinging or aching to you. After the initial healing stage, your tattoo might look a bit weird as the scabs and dead skin start to flake off. My tattoo flaked for about a week before it reached the third and final stage: cloudiness. Once your tattoo flakes, you're waiting for a new layer of skin cells to return to the surface of your raw skin, so your tattoo might look a little faded or cloudy until that happens. For me, this lasted about a week before my new skin grew in (so to speak) and my tattoo returned to its full sharpness and vibrancy.
  • Here's what aftercare looked like for me: for me, aftercare meant wearing the plastic wrap around my tattoo for an hour or two after the appointment. Once I removed the plastic wrap, I gently washed the tattoo with soap and water and applied a thin layer of Aquaphor healing ointment to the area (as my artist told me, we're talking "chapstick thin" here). I repeated this process 3-5x per day for the next two or three days. Then, when it became clear the second flaking stage had begun, I switched from the Aquaphor to Lubriderm lotion (you can use any old hypoallergenic lotion you want) and repeated the same process until my tattoo was fully healed - about three weeks later, in my case. During those three weeks of healing, you should avoid submerging your tattoo in water in any way, so I took showers, not baths, and avoided swimming at all costs! That also means you should be showering (or at the very least, cleansing the area of your tattoo) anytime you're exercising or otherwise sweating for a prolonged period of time. 
  • Don't re-wrap your tattoo. Like I said before, my tattoo artist wrapped my tattoo in plastic wrap before I left the studio and I wore the wrap for 1-2 hours following the procedure. This is pretty standard practice, so chances are, your tattoo artist will wrap you, too! However, it's EXTREMELY important that once you remove that initial plastic wrap, you don't try to wrap the tattoo again under any circumstances (unless otherwise instructed by your artist or doctor). This is because when your tattoo is initially wrapped, the wrap is put on in a completely sterile environment free of bacteria - but obviously, at home, this is rarely the case. Your tattoo is technically considered an open wound while it's still healing, which provides the perfect portal of entry for ordinary bacteria from your home to leave the plastic wrap and enter your tattoo, leading to a painful and potentially deadly infection. So, in my opinion, even though it's not good to get your tattoo wet (one time, my big wrapped her new tat to go to a frat party because she was worried someone would spill on it), it's better to just avoid wrapping the tattoo yourself altogether than to risk a horrible infection.
  • Don't pick at or itch your tattoo. Especially when you're going through that awful flaking stage, you're gonna be tempted to pick off the pieces of dead skin or scabs from your tattoo, or itch the itchy, dry, tight skin surrounding your new ink. Even so, resist the urge! Picking at or itching off the scabs covering your tattoo basically re-opens the wound, allowing bacteria to enter your bloodstream from your fingers and potentially cause an infection. For the same reason, you should always make sure your hands are as clean as possible before touching or washing your tattoo - and you really shouldn't touch your tat unless absolutely necessary (like when you're washing it). 
  • Know the warning signs of an infected tattoo. Your tattoo shouldn't really hurt past the first week at most - so any pain past the initial healing stage isn't considered normal, and should be checked out by a doc to rule out infection. In addition, you should also watch out for fever, chills, swelling, pus, redness or abscesses while your tattoo is healing, and see a doc if any of these symptoms occur. Worst of all, keep an eye out for any signs of sepsis or shock, such as a super high fever or black ink spreading through nearby veins - and if you see these signs, be sure to head to an ER right away to get urgent life-saving care. 

Time for another #HMBQandA! What would be your dream tattoo(s) if you had unlimited money and weren't afraid? LMK @haleymarieblog or in the comments below! 

Sign up for my monthly newsletter and get access to the FREE printables library!

* indicates required