This post is from a good friend of mine who asked to remain anonymous. It is such a powerful glimpse into the behind-the-scenes struggles of someone struggling with mental illness and really gave me a lot to think about:

there are lots of reasons why people get tattoos.

I have two tattoos.

They are a part of me.

They express deep pain and have indescribable meaning to me.

I love it when people ask me about them, ask me what they mean.

I have a standard general answer for why i chose the tattoos that i did, and i have a deeper reason that i tell few people about. I think the people who know me well, who interact with me often, have grown so accustomed to them that maybe they don’t even notice them anymore…but i know, everytime i look at them i know, i know why they are there and they remind me to keep fighting in more ways then i could ever tell you in a blog post. In fact, during one bout of bad depression, it was the thought of messing up my tattoos that kept me from hurting myself. Its funny what saves us sometimes.

What i loved about getting tattoos in the beginning was the idea of choosing a scar.

You see, when you suffer from mental illness there are no surgery scars, there are no stitches or bandages or casts. There is no way for you to know what i am going through, the intense and suffocating pain, unless i tell you about it or you take the time to notice the small things that are out of place, for example: my hair is messy, i haven’t showered in a few days, i am not eating, my socks don’t match. But if you don’t know me well, you would think that i am not taking care of myself, i am letting myself go. When the truth is: i am fighting so many hard battles in my mind, that i simply do not have the energy to fight external battles too, and yes, when i am in the throes of an episode these simple things feel like battles.

I chose my tattoos carefully. I will tell you about one.

I have a tattoo of a rose, it’s really quite beautiful. The rose is just starting to open, there are thorns on the stem, and there are 2 leaves on the stem. The standard reason i tell people about why i have it is, “Some people complain that roses have thorns, i am just glad that the thorns have roses” and then i launch into a speech i have perfected about how there is good in every bad situation, just like there is bad in every good situation. It’s a motivational message about how things are never as bad as the may seem, there is always good to be found, no matter how big the thorns are there will always be a rose too, if you willing to look for it. And i do believe that, with all my heart…but that’s not the only reason i got this tattoo.

This is the story of my rose, the story i don’t tell people:

I have been on some form of psychiatric medication since i was 18 and have fought some tough depressive episodes, PTSD and anxiety. if i am really honest there are months that i simply do not remember, i spent most of my early twenties so medicated that i simply don’t remember much. These were hard and dark days for me. I would look at myself in the mirror and wonder who this person looking back at me was, i used to be happy once, i was sure of it…but i felt like i was watching my life from a distance, unable to participate and unable to understand what was going on with me. All i knew was that a darkness had moved in and taken hold, and there was no relief. Sure, with each new drug i tried there was a surge of hope, like a princess waiting to be saved i thought maybe this new drug would be the one, the one to break the spell. But the “pill in shining armour” never came. My doctor and therapist did all they could to help me, but the darkness had taken hold of me, and it seems that it did not want to let go. For years i just moved around in a medicated haze, punctuated

by bouts of intense sadness and panic attacks. For the most part i learnt how to fight through it all, I learnt not to talk about how sad i was feeling and to put on a brave face, i learnt that if i pretended the darkness wasn’t there then sometimes i forgot for a moment or two how sad i was, there were seasons when this was easier than others…and by some miracle i managed to graduate, a qualified teacher.

It was in my first year of teaching that it all came crashing down, the world as i knew it was crumbling and i was powerless to stop it. It started subtly, i was stressed about my workload, my classroom flooded and destroyed all of my books and planning, my car was stolen…things that perhaps would be manageable for your “average” person became catastrophes and insurmountable obstacles to me, i fought paranoia (a fun side effect that has plagued me for years, and i still battle daily) and the feeling that everything in my life would blow up and that i would destroy everything i came into contact with. It was around this time that i started experiencing severe abdominal pain in the middle of the night, so severe that i led me to drive to my parents home one night, at 2am, and climb in bed with my mom, begging her to take me to the emergency room. I felt like i was dying, there was something severely wrong and i am not sure that i have ever been more scared than i was in that moment. Well, the doctors found a gall stone 2cm big and decided to operate to take my gallbladder out, it’s a routine key hole surgery with a 4 day recovery period. No problem, right? Wrong. The prospect was frightening for me. I felt scared and vulnerable. The surgery went well, but i struggled to recover emotionally from the experience. At the time i felt robbed, like a piece of me was taken away without anyone asking my permission…please understand, as you read this, that i was severely depressed at the time, and i often do not think rationally or logically when i am depressed. This onslaught of negative thinking sent me into a spiral that i found it hard to get out of.

It was during this time that i recall walking down Claremont Main Road and fantasising about jumping in front of a car. I just wanted the pain to end. I felt defeated, beaten down, and like i would never stand upright again. It was then that i decided to be honest with my psychiatrist about how i was feeling, it was then that i resolved to ask for help, more help then i was getting by putting on a brave face. My psychiatrist, a wonderfully gentle and kind man, said he thought it was time i went back to The Clinic. I had already been hospitalised there twice, when i was 21, and i was hesitant to go back, but he said that there they could keep an eye on me, and he could come and see me everyday and it would be easier for him to fine tune my medication.

So, it was then that i was admitted to high care.

It was then that i was diagnosed with Bipolar II.

it was then that i started my rocky road to recovery.

Again, and not for the last time.

Putting my life back together was one of the hardest things i have ever done. For me this meant seeing my therapist weekly, communicating honestly with my loved ones about how i was feeling, giving people i trusted and respected the permission to ask me if i was taking my meds and reminding me to do so AND practising self care…which brings me back to the rose tattoo.

Just before i went into high care a friend gave me a birthday gift of rose scented body wash. I took it into the clinic with me. When you are in high care, you are under constant

supervision, there is not a move you make that the psychiatric nurses don’t know about, and sitting on your own (or as they call it, isolating) is frowned upon as you must make every effort to be part of the “community.”

So, i found that the times when i was on my own, in the shower, were magical. I would take out my rose scented body wash, and the smell would fill the bathroom, and for those few minutes i felt like i was somewhere else. I loved the solitude, and as the cloud of steam rose around me and the scent of roses filled the air i thought maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay. After a few days i began to realise that if i could enjoy something as simple as a shower so much, then maybe there was hope for me to find my way into the light again.

So, yeah, thats why i have a rose tattoo. It reminds me of the time i decided that i was going to keep fighting, come what may, i was going to keep fighting for those moments, those simple moments, where something as gentle as a smell can give hope that there is still good in the world.

I wish i could tell you that things have been easy for me since then.

They haven’t.

Bipolar is a label i will live with for the rest of my life, sometimes it feels like a gift and sometimes it feels like i life sentence.

The reality is i will always be on medication, my life will always circle back to my psychiatrist’s waiting room, there will be periods where it will be hard to keep going as the darkness descends yet again, i will be misunderstood, i will need to be brave, i will always fear the next episode and wonder if i will have the strength to pick myself up again in its wake…but the sobering truth i call back to my mind, everytime i look at the rose on my wrist, is that there are small pleasures all around me, and they are worth fighting for.

[For more stories linked to mental health issues, click here]