Softening

Artwork by Audrey Valbuena

Artwork by Audrey Valbuena

By Zoe Huettl

My mother doesn’t like it, but much of my healing has been through tattoos. A handful of skilled Chicago tattoo artists have graced me with beautiful work that helps me love my body for how it has carried me.  I see my body in the world and I feel so lucky to wear art that feels like armour, or a hand knit sweater. As a person with self-harm scars, eventually I had to let my body speak for itself. To observe the ways they entered my day, when I changed my clothes or pulled up my sleeves. To let my scars reflect where they came from and the fact that I am responsible for them. Not to punish myself any further for having them—that doesn’t make them go away—but to accept that my body will not lie for me. Maybe my body is the best teller of the ways my illness has hurt me.

But as I lived with my scars longer they started to feel like gossipy old women, things that loved to tell everyone my business. I wanted to wear shorts without fumbling to cover them, or wear tee-shirts without watching everyone look at my arm and then pretend they hadn’t. I started getting tattooed because the practice sparked so much self-love for me--the artists made that part of my body special and lovely. It’s like permanently wearing your favorite outfit, or always looking perfect in the mirror. Turning this to my scars felt empowering, and let me to be more confident with the body I have.

Invisible illness is strange to talk about because physical description isn’t the best illustration of the experience. Because my disability is emotional, most of my healing takes place in a weird half-space. The only way to really see mental illness is to talk about the sick thoughts and emotions--to process them. And that’s the simple shit they tell you in treatment: keep going, stay accountable. For so long I hated that I needed therapy, that I needed so many grams of medication to be a person. I didn’t want to be ‘dependent’ but then I realized the consequences of not taking my meds, how impossibly difficult everything became and how easily, how swiftly my life dissolved without it. And I had to recognize that healing meant psychiatrist appointments and keeping up with my pills. I couldn’t skip doses. I had to take my own care seriously, and let my doctor help me. I needed to get my ass to therapy, and seek out higher levels of care when things felt overwhelming. I had to be responsible, because I was the one who would live with the consequences.

Once I squeezed out that little bit of self-respect, I wanted more. I weeded all the accounts that tripped my negative thoughts out of my Instagram, and found ones that renewed or motivated me. I started listening to funny podcasts while walking my dog, to make a peaceful experience even more freeing. I found Nicole Byer’s Why Won’t You Date Me? A hilarious podcast about being single that made me laugh (out loud, while walking my dog… embarrassing but totally worth it). I came for the jokes about bad Tinder dates, but I stayed for the talks about how Byer is challenging her negative self-image and pessimism. (Check out her episodes with Jameela Jamil and Punam Patel for a good mix of deep and funny, or Joel Kim Booster for less serious laughs).

Being sick makes functioning hard--getting up, going to class, meals, making plans with friends… The most helpful thing in the midst of all this work (for me) is feeling seen. Artists like Kississippi, Tracy Chapman, the Airborne Toxic Event, Matthew Hoffman (YAB project) Pattiegonia (@pattiegonia), and Megan Jayne Crabbe (@bodyposipanda)  meet me where I am. Their work has been instrumental in the processing and feeling work of healing. To see others render their pain in such exquisite, blinding detail, to have a song or poem that fits the feeling inside you—you are unavoidably, irrefutably found. Listening to All at Once (Airborne Toxic Event’s devastating sophomore album), finding “You are beautiful” signs, or seeing supportive posts on Instagram makes the hard stuff more accessible. I’m not a broken toy or project that needs mending—other people live like this too. I am a person who continues to exist, within her fundamental illness. And I am not the only one.

I am endlessly thankful for and respectful of the mental health professionals that keep me a person, and I hope that those of you who are in need can find your match. Find people who give you the support and care you need. They will make your efforts twice, three times as effective. I am also very grateful to the artists who keep creating in the midst of their own lives and illness—you help me believe that I can too.