This month will mark my 4th year sober. October 2017 always reminds me of how hard I tried to stop drinking, after successfully quitting other drugs a few months before. I remember the chaotic situations I was desperately trying to drag myself out of. I had ended a relationship in the summer that was extremely “un-sober” which left me with nowhere to live. I was homeless, unknowingly autistic and chronically ill, manically depressed and hovering at rock bottom – trying to do my best to create good tattoos and becoming well again. After spending 8 weeks without a fixed address and sleeping on a blowup bed in an empty house that wasn’t mine, I finally got the keys to a new little flat of my own on the 3rd October. 🔑 I plan to write about the first time I got sober in my twenties, called Relapse.
🎃 October 2017 reminds me of all the questionable and downright toxic friendships and “situationships” I had surrounded myself: the coworkers at a guestspot that had no problem with staying up late drinking and tattooing hungover the next day. The problematic clients who would haggle and push boundaries. The photographer that wanted to do shots at 9am before we started shooting. The monogamously married man that wouldn’t stop texting. The sexually abusive friend asking if I wanted to “hang out” again. I find the whole summer to autumn transition very triggering, but it ultimately reminds me of how much self harm I’ve survived, the manipulation I’ve endured and everything else I’ve fought through.
I sometimes wish I had been able to get sober sooner. 3 weeks after getting the keys to my flat, my best friends at the time pulled me out of a quiet night in unpacking and nesting and into town last minute to try and hook me up with a couple they knew I had a crush on. I got there for 11pm, anxiously sober and dressed my best… The rest is a blur. I vaguely remember ending up in a strip club, then a flashback of watching both of my friends strip down to their pants in their flat with the couple watching and laughing, the three of us fully clothed. I woke up alone the next day. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but it definitely wasn’t that. The whole night left me with a bitter taste in my mouth (maybe it was the shots) and a lot of regret and shame. 6 days later I managed to stick to my Sober October pledge and had my final drink (fingers crossed) in the early hours of the 29th. I was at a Halloween party, dressed as a giant plant (Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors, to be exact!). Everyone else stayed out that night but I was so tired. I took myself back to my flat, washed off the green and put myself to bed. I was so painfully tired from the exhausting PartyGirl persona I was performing and feeling the need to audition for people’s attention and affection. Fed up of playing out all the drama and tragedies that would give me plenty of excuses to want to drink. I didn’t want to feel excited by bad situations and toxic behaviour anymore. I wanted to recover, to get better, to have better boundaries and higher self esteem. I wanted to feel peaceful, not bored. I desperately wanted the courage to be happy and content.
🎃 October 2021: sobriety has NOT been easy, especially the last couple years! I’ve let go of 90% of old relationships, and my block list is longer than my arm. I wanted boundaries, and now I uphold them fervently. It’s definitely more peaceful, which is what I strive for constantly. I got real honest about what I wanted in a relationship, which was monogamy along with a list of qualities that I wanted in a partner. I don’t have the emotional and psychological energy for polygamy; and looking back, I never did. I share my flat and my tattoo studio with my sober partner Chris, who ticks ALL my boxes! We’re both autistic and chronically ill, and we take care of each other. He recently started his second degree and is studying Psychology alongside tattooing part time. We’re working hard to survive the pandemic and looking forward to our first anniversary this winter. ❄️
Should self-employed people be overextending themselves when being confided in by their customers and clients? Should we be treating our hairdresser or tattoo artist like a therapist? Why do we shy away from the idea of professional therapy?
One of the most basic and primal human instincts is to avoid pain and suffering at any and all costs. When you willingly expose yourself to the experience of being tattooed, it can bring forth a lot of other pain lurking under a perhaps otherwise calm surface. Having a safe, positive experience of pain and suffering through tattooing can free yourself of fear, empower yourself (through decorating the precious body you live in) and help you understand that tattoos are only as permanent as your skin!
I love the entire experience of being tattooed, from start to finish. I love the preparation and anticipation: saving up, emailing the artist and pulling the appointment together. Booking the travel and accommodation well in advance. Counting the months, weeks and days. Preparing myself: drinking more water, moisturising my skin, protecting the tattoo area etc. Getting an early night with my bag prepared (full of essentials and goodies) the night before. I love the buzz of the tattoo morning: barely able to eat breakfast due to nerves and excitement; eventually settling myself and meditating/deep breathing whilst travelling and waiting for the appointment start time. Wearing my comfiest clothes and cosiest items: including a blanket, hot water bottle/mini fan, snacks and last but not least, my toy dinosaur 🦖
I love the experience of the tattooing itself: the ebb and flow of endorphins and stress hormones, the introspection of gently observing and noticing pain, random thoughts and other sensations. The relaxed, almost meditative state you can eventually get yourself into. The blissfully subdued and ‘happytired’ feeling afterwards. Hurrying back home to relax and recover: enforced self care.♥ I’ll be writing more about this in another blog post: “Prepare to be Tattooed!”
Sonder [son-der] (n.) –
“The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
John Koenig’s definitionof sonder, which he coined in 2012.
Technically, it isn’t a ‘real’ (English Dictionary) word. In German, sonder is an adjective that means “special”; in French, it’s a verb meaning “to plumb.” In Afrikaans it means “without.” Sönder means “broken” in Swedish. So you can see, sort of, how Koenig might have mixed all those meanings together to come up his own definition, which fills a gap in English. I have been obsessed with his concept of sonder for years, and think about it often.
I want to begin this post by raising my hand up and admitting that I am a (recovering) chronic over-sharer. Guilty as charged! Info-dumping and monologging are two of my biggest autistic traits. I whole-heartedly apologise for my numerous accounts of unsolicited, unwelcome ramblings and rantings as a fumbling, intensely ambitious raconteur. I’m hoping that the reason(s) why you are here is that you wish to understand how to conduct yourself better in tattoo appointments, or that you want to know more about therapy. I will not be discussing the gory details of my trauma stories here, but I will be sharing some pretty heavy, potentially triggering stuff with you. I feel like it’s only been in the last 3 years (the entirety of my thirties to be exact) that I’ve started to make any real conscious effort to learn, grow and do better. I’m learning as much as I can about trauma, therapy and mental health; and how best to approach heavy subjects with the people I’m lucky enough to tattoo. When I see you for our appointment, I am a grateful witness to but a keyhole into your entire universe on that one particular day. I hope I can make it a happy, memorable one.
Allow me to properly introduce myself:
I’m Lala: a tall, white, commercially pretty ciswoman. I define myself as queer, but am straight-passing. I am disabled (Autism & Fibromyalgia) but can pass as able-bodied. My slim build is largely due to my chronic illness and symptoms, but I pass as physically attractive, according to most conventional Western/European beauty standards. My ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score is 9/10. In-between my privileged (25/100) Western existence and whiteness, I have faced and survived extreme hardships in my lifetime: homelessness, extreme physical/emotional/sexual childhood and adult abuse, emotional/physical childhood neglect, addiction, family dysfunction, missing education, learning difficulties/cognitive impairment, domestic violence, sickness and poverty. I have also experienced great luxuries and comforts, similar to any normal middle/upper middle class upbringing and lifestyle. I am incredibly grateful to have the life I have now. Having a high ACE score means that statistically, I’m at a considerably higher risk of stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, chronic illnesses, cancer and an earlier death than someone with a lower ACE score. However, if I needed to in most situations: I could pass ‘safely’ as a white middle class, pretty, femme, able-bodied and neurotypical straight woman. The mask I wear is an elaborate one.
I’ve been tattooing for almost 10 years.
Here’s the biggest thing about 2020: not one single person in modern society has been unaffected negatively by the COVID-19 global pandemic, subsequent civil and human rights movements and political events. They are now intrenched deep into our history. They have changed our human experience; created new trauma and triggered the old. Our routines and lifestyles have been severely impacted. However, there’s still lots of joy, calm and hope to be found amidst the strife and suffering… If we just remember to be kind, patient and stay in our lane! Let’s use “The Great Reset” to reset ourselves and move forward into becoming more compassionate and careful in our interactions with others.
Do tattoo artists have a tendency to over-work and over-extend themselves? Abso-fucking-lutely. Why?
Tattooers rely on creating good tattoos and good customer experiences to succeed and thrive. We are self employed, and do not have paid leave for sickness, bereavements or holidays. I like to think that my boundaries are much better now. But in the last 2 years alone, I’ve skipped events, parties and special occasions to be able to fit clients in on specific dates. I’ve sacrificed time with partners, family and friends in order to try and “keep clients happy”. Some of these clients I overextended for still haggled on the cost of my time, complained or half joked about how I work, that I should tattoo them all night and the next day to make sure it’s finished(?!). I had the building my previous studio lived in opened up outside of normal working hours, by the owners who travelled from home on days off. I’ve worked much later than agreed, and given hours of hard work that I haven’t charged extra for. Some clients I treated with extra care still took my hard work, generosity or extra customer service for granted. It’s no wonder that tattoo artists, hairdressers and other self employed people in creative industries have such high statistics of work stress: self medicating with alcohol and other drugs. In business, I am always learning what does and doesn’t work. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I only have a finite amount of time and working years left. If I am to keep working consistently and at my best, I need to be mindful of the clients I work with, and maintain my professional and personal boundaries – so I can stay sober and stay sane!
As your tattoo artist: I believe I have a duty of care for you. I will do my best to make sure you feel safe and comfortable. I will strive to treat you with dignity and respect, pay my best attention to you and how you’re feeling, and stop when you’ve reached your limit. You’ve given me your precious time, money and skin to work with, and I understand how big of a deal that is. I want my behaviour to reflect this as much as possible. I understand that I am responsible for the energy I bring into the tattoo appointment. I want to arrive well-rested, clean(!) well fed, relaxed, prepared and on time, every time. The same goes for you! Sometimes life happens, something unexpected comes up. Sometimes we have to cancel, start late, reschedule or finish early. No big deal. Tattoos are non-essential, a luxury. I promise to do my best, and hope you will too.
It’s one of the biggest reasons I have a private studio: I bring treats with me to work sometimes, provide a great sound system, aromatherapy, heated seats, decent tea & coffee (COVID regulations permitting!). I’ll ask you what music you want to listen to, and understand how important that snack break is. If you’ve been really lucky and we’ve both had the time, I sometimes order takeout to the studio!
However: if you can’t work with me, then I can’t work with you. It takes two to tattoo!
I always strive to make amends if I run late, or make a mistake. despite how hard I try to get everything right, it’s impossible to please everyone. Last summer whilst doing a routine tidy up during a late afternoon tea break, I threw away a cold, half-empty takeaway coffee that had been sitting in my studio for over 5 hours. The client was visibly upset and frustrated to learn that the coffee she’d brought with her early that morning was now gone. Even though I was confused and shocked that she would still want to drink it (I had also just made her a third cup of tea), I apologised profusely and memorised her order for next time. I woke up an hour earlier and found a Starbucks at 8am before the next appointment, to make sure she had a complimentary fresh cup of coffee ready to start the new day. I also gave her a heavy discount twice, in a desperate (stupid) attempt to keep things amicable. Unsurprisingly, that woman became a complete living nightmare: she and her boyfriend’s harassment and accusations ruined my mental and physical health for 6 months, ending in a cancer scare and being unable to work full-time. I sometimes wonder if I’d just shagged them both and given them what they really wanted, it would have been a different story. (Calling all FetLife couples: exit on the left please!) Around the same time, I learnt that another client had wanted to sue me: claiming that a human error on my part was “illegal” (I got her name mixed up with another person with the same first name, both had recently married and changed their surnames). I mistook a cancellation email from said other client as herself and refilled the day. She suggested (demanded) that I tattoo two people back to back for 12 hours that day so that she could keep her original appointment. I refused to work 2 long sessions that day, and later received flowers and an apology. I have never made a mistake like that before, nor have I made it again since. Taking on an assistant this year was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I had to cancel on a client last minute due to a Fibromyalgia flare up recently, and I was told that “maybe I’m in the wrong job” and that she was going to “write a bad review”. Jokes on you huns, I’m not Starbucks, I’m literally one human person. I don’t have a review system (not anymore!), and yes I’m autistic and chronically ill. When I’m bad, I’m really bad. But when I’m good, I’m fucking exceptional.
“Because you’ll only end up bitter if you try to keep everyone sweet.”
This summer, during a brief stint of online dating and asking a few people out on dates, I asked someone out for “mocktails sometime”, who had instigated a conversation asking about my fibromyalgia diagnosis and sobriety. They received the request positively, but a date/plan was never made. 3 weeks of intermittent, vague half flirting later, they told me they really wanted to book in for a tattoo (cue eye roll). 12 days later, they actually made an appointment, which then fucked up my plans of taking them out on a date, making a mess of my professionalism. However, I really wanted to create the project, and was already working on a couple of design commissions with a close friend of theirs. I decided to focus on my job and paying my bills, and ignore my libido (which I’m pretty good at!). Unexpectedly, they tried to resurrect my dead date offer nearly 2 months later: suggesting we could go for “drinks” straight after tattooing. Also, after finding out I had the day off booked the next day (starting the project and professionally tattooing someone I’d asked out and got turned down was going to be hard work), they ‘joked’ that I could maybe tattoo them all night and the next day too(?!). No mention of any extra money, of course. Along with a hard eye roll, I turned both excruciatingly exciting offers down. Impressively, I somehow felt even more used and rejected than if we’d just fucked(!). They continued to try and flirt with me while they knew I was now dating someone else (and at one point, tried flirting with my best friends). This dragged on intermittently for ages. I finally came to my senses 3 months later, grew a backbone and stopped being so fucking polite and “nice” – I dropped both the design projects with their friend, returned the hefty commission deposit and stopped responding to their messages. A few days of silence later, I noticed that I was tagged in a grand online gesture: showcasing and promoting the tattoo work I made 3 months before, gushing about how I was “genuinely one of the best talents out there”, “a completely gorgeous person, inside and out!” and they were “very very lucky”, also managing to boast that they sat for “10 hours plus”. I laughed at the unbelievable avalanche of audacity: I blocked them on social media shortly afterwards, filing the whole interaction and mishap under “manipulations of my professionalism/autism for their own gain”.
I wondered how many people looked at this self employed, chronically ill and autistic woman living alone, during a pandemic, whilst plotting how they could benefit from it.
Here’s the thing: I don’t actually owe anyone that duty of care in my profession. There are plenty of tattoo artists out there that don’t provide the level of customer service that I do, and clients keep going back again and again. I offer and provide those things to you freely, in the hope you can appreciate how much I love and respect my job. I am able to take care of people more if I’m taken care of first. The UK has a strange attitude to tattooing, generally speaking: how cheap and how fast a tattoo can be done, is valued above how much time and how much care the tattoo artist takes to complete said permanent, sterile and professional procedure. In the UK, the general public are willing to spend more money on their hairstyle and iPhones than they are on their tattoos (hair grows back and phones go out of date!). Also, not many people can even tell the difference between a good tattoo and a bad one, let alone a good tattoo and a great one. In tattooing, I believe I need to respect the weight of the task at hand and make sure I’m taking care of myself, and you should be making sure you are too. I wrote more about self care in a previous blog post: Life is too short to suffer.
We may carry it well, but that doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.
Almost all of us are anxious and depressed, I think that’s more or less a given now (especially after 2020’s utter bullshit!). Modern living isn’t designed for human thriving. We feel stressed on a daily basis and suffer prolonged fatigue from stress. Many of us have psychosomatic health problems due to stress, and excess stress hormones building up in our bodies (adrenaline, cortisol etc). Tattoos have been used medicinally for over 5000 years. Today, when used similarly to acupuncture therapy, tattoo sessions could help relieve stress in everyday life. Tattoos have also been found to reduce cortisol levels: this improves the immune system and also helps provide stress reduction, enabling tattoos for depression and anxiety to possibly be useful.
During my entire tattooing career, this profession has often been referred to as “therapy.”
“Tattoos are my therapy!” “Another session of ink therapy”, “Who needs therapy, *eye twitch* when I can just get more tattoos?!”, “I don’t need therapy *sweating, shaking* I just get more tattoos!”
Joking aside, should these dialogues be happening? Think about it. Are tattoos really a form of therapy, or are they just therapeutic? There’s a big difference.
Are any of the tattooists you choose qualified therapists? Should they have to be? Do you treat them like they could/should be? Offloading on self-employed people in creative industries whilst they’re up close and personal is killing us and our creativity. Seriously, I’ve lost tattoo friends to suicide. It’s no surprise that work pressures contributed massively.
“Therapy” has replaced “Tattoo” as the new taboo.
Isn’t it just cooler to say your tattoo artist is your therapist? You can talk about how “edgy” and damaged you are, without admitting that you’re actually feeling completely on the edge and broken inside. You get to mention your tattoo artist in a reply to a mental health enquiry (“yours”, as if belonging to you) in a way that implies you spend many many hours with them, and that you have a super candid, relaxed connection with them. Extra cool points. Also, I’ve noticed a lot more cishet men are happy to mention me when it comes to the subject of therapy. Historically, cishet women are expected to naturally overextend themselves (I’m not hetero but I pass as straight). We must be agreeable, be accommodating, be polite, be caring, be a “good girl”. Extra emotional labour comes as standard, lest we risk looking like a cold heartless bitch.
Car crash TV in spoken form. The modern world is obsessed with trauma stories. Murder, crime, drug abuse, paedophillia, sex trafficking… If you haven’t directly experienced it, you might want to live vicariously through it. The shock, the disbelief, the adrenaline rush. Maybe you’re reliving it, or escaping through living inside someone else’s. Maybe you feel the need to share it excessively, like a protagonist shares their backstory in the movies.
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”
“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganisation of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our capacity to think.”
I’m a huge advocate for mental health candidness. But how candid should we be during a tattoo session?
Unloading leads to Overloading.
Have you ever vented and (without warning or asking consent) dumped a long, angry rant, an exhausted confession or anxiously revealed an awkward or terrible secret to us while we’re trying to concentrate? Did you become stressed/upset/angry/fidgety whilst you did this? Did you stare at your tattoo artist, directly in the eyes/face whilst they were focused on tattooing your body? Did you wonder why the appointment took longer that day? Did you turn up unprepared, miserable, stressed or angry? Have you ever wondered why the artist became anxious/hurried, or took longer than you expected to finish the piece completely? There’s a really good reason why counsellors/therapists always sit a certain distance away from their clients in therapy sessions, and limit the sessions to 1 hour.
“Don’t arrive cold and empty in the hope of being filled up with warmth and joy. Don’t expect people to accommodate your bullshit either.”
— Brené Brown.
If you expected your tattoo artist to overextend themselves to tend to your mental health, in a similar way a therapist would, did you at least tip them after the appointment was over?!
Good tattooist, bad therapist
I might be the right tattoo artist for the work you want doing, but what if my style of mental health approach makes you uncomfortable? For example, I’m probably going to discuss my sobriety if you discuss heavy drinking (I’ve been sober for 3 years, I understand everyone’s lifestyles are different but obviously don’t share that same enthusiasm anymore). I’m going to naturally defend the person with autism that a neurotypical person has just started complaining about to me. I’m going to have to fight through being triggered by a man talking about being physically abusive to people. I have my own biases and experiences. Over the years, I have tried a number of different therapists. I didn’t connect with them, didn’t feel understood by them and didn’t feel I could trust them. They also presented me with information and ideas I wasn’t able to process and take onboard at that time. If you treat a tattoo artist like a therapist, and are adverse to the idea of real therapy with a real therapist, you risk the same thing happening during the completion of a tattoo project. I may also have to adjust my responses in conversation as a matter of good customer service, not because it honestly reflects any of my particular beliefs and opinions.
Do you really want a tattoo session to be like a therapy session?
Trauma overwhelms listeners as well as speakers. If you’ve never been to a professional therapy or counselling session, or haven’t been consistent with your therapy: your family, friends and coworkers may become your therapist. Not only are these people biased because they love you, they are probably under-qualified and (deep down) unwilling. They will be fighting through their own demons and inner struggles too, maybe trying to recover from codependency and generally trying to rescue others from difficult emotions. I discuss alternatives to therapy a little later in this post.
“Visiting the past in therapy should be done while people are, biologically speaking, firmly rooted in the present and feeling as calm, safe and grounded as possible.”
In the last 18 months, I’ve had about 28 sessions of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). During a Skype therapy session in the summer, I admitted to her that I was “afraid of the impending stress of returning to work after 4 months in lockdown”. Totally understandable, but I had no idea how to navigate it. I’d become visibly distressed and upset admitting this to her, so she suggested we did a short guided meditation together. She then explained to me the difference between stress, anxiety and fear. “Stress can be reduced, anxiety can be managed and fear can be confronted and worked on.” Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. You can reduce stress simply by reducing unrealistic deadlines, introducing better time management and a work/life balance, streamlining work days and increasing self care, quality sleep and rest. Anxiety is an emotion and medical condition, characterised by feelings of tension, irritability, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure and heart rate, sweating and IBS. You can manage anxiety through relaxation and grounding techniques: such as meditation, journaling, running, making healthy changes to diet, reducing screen time, alcohol and caffeine intake and increasing self care and rest. Fear is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined; it is the feeling or condition of being afraid. Fear is a great teacher that alerts us to something that requires our attention and care. Although fear is completely natural, persistent fears can be explored and solved in talking therapies.
I use this as an example to show how effective CBT is in breaking down problems.
They say that a problem shared is a problem halved, but a problem shared in therapy has a chance to be truly understood and solved.
Surely that’s better than just venting to a co-worker, hairdresser or stranger on the bus?
I am required by law to provide a sterile and safe working environment. The rest (like customer service, music quality and conversation) is up to me. I’m trained to offer first aid, and in the last 2 years alone I’ve spent over £1,000 on private therapy sessions. I’m legally required and obligated to provide first aid to clients, but not therapy. For the same reason I don’t expect clients to book in for tattoos based on my first aid experience, I don’t think clients should book in for tattoos based on my therapy/mental health experience.
Getting tattooed doesn’t have to be this great big grand experience, full of big loud feelings and heavy taboo subjects. Getting tattooed can be calm, respectful, even gentle. I want to create an environment full of music, (maybe some singing), peace, fun and focus: for both of us.♥
A good tattoo session is one that leaves both of us worn out, sore but feeling uplifted and positive. We arrive back home feeling “happytired”, not totally drained and exhausted, and with a fuzzy head from too much sugar, not from a “vulnerability hangover”. Tattooing can be a positive, healing experience, for both the client and tattoo artist.
Sometimes I have to break out of “customer service mode” and ask politely if we can change the subject. Sometimes I have to say “that’s not something I want to talk about when I’m tattooing”. I want you to be able to say the same if you’re uncomfortable. Speaking up about the conversation ‘going off-piste’ is extremely hard for me to do, and usually when it’s got to that point I’m already at a considerable level of stress. It’s difficult to “stay in your lane” and not offer advice, when clients confide in you or present you with a dilemma they’re stuck in. I can easily say, “please could we not discuss this anymore, it’s making me uncomfortable”, but how would that feel if I said that to you, on top of the pain of being tattooed?! Maybe we could both be more mindful of conversations going forward.
As tattoo artists, we have to concentrate while clients tell us intense stories and vent their anger/sadness/frustration/hopelessness while we’re creating incredibly intricate (permanent) work with tiny needles. We have to be constantly engaged in both what that you’re saying and doing, and intensely focused on what we’re saying and doing, for hours and hours. I’ve had clients turn their heads to face me completely when I’m working in close proximity to their face: examining my eye makeup, my hair, staring at my chest, my legs, examining my tattoos etc. I now wear extremely unflattering scrubs, two sizes too big: for hygiene, comfort and feeling safer. I’ve felt clients intensely looking into my eyes for the entire time I’ve got my head down working, as if searching for a level of attention, intimacy or engagement that I simply can’t give them because I’m trying to do my fucking job create a good tattoo – the one and only thing they’ve actually asked and paid me to do! It’s nice to look, rude to stare. I get it, you’re curious and anxious and that’s okay.♥ Tattooing can be a really scary, exciting and horrible experience. I’ve been tattooed many times by many different people, and have had both good and bad experiences. I can put up with all of the above, to a certain point. It’s all part of the process and trust me, I really do fucking love my job! I’ve worked so hard to be able to do this for a living, and I’m so unbelievably grateful to be where I am today.
“When we share vulnerability, especially shame stories, with someone with whom there is no connectivity, their emotional (and sometimes physical) response is often to wince, as if we have shone a floodlight in their eyes. Instead of a strand of delicate lights, our shared vulnerability is blinding, harsh, and unbearable…
When it’s over, we feel depleted, confused, and sometimes even manipulated.
Sometimes we’re not even aware we’re oversharing as armour. We can purge our vulnerability or our shame stories out of total desperation to be heard. We blurt out something that is causing us immense pain because we can’t bear the thought of holding onto it for one more second.”
— Quotes from Brené Brown on “The Vulnerability Armoury”.
I haven’t published any blog entries since February this year. I began writing this post straight after Grief and Growth, as I was feeling exhausted from overextending myself to clients whilst dealing with a cancer scare, a breakup and moving homes. I was still battling unknown health complications every day. I was very tired, and very scared. As the pandemic crept into the UK during March, I moved what I could into my new place and kept my head down. I worked as much as I was able to, making sure that I had some savings to rely on should “the worst” happen – both with the pandemic, and my own health.
2020 has been a fever dream, right?! Such an exhaustingly scary year.
Bleed & Bloom.
Before you can start healing, you need to admit that you are hurting and bleeding.
I opened my own studio in 2018: in the midst of a breakdown, knee reconstruction, autism diagnosis and intensive CBT therapy. I wrote more about this in a previous post, Rejection and Redirection. Despite trying to heal and working extremely hard, I was still bleeding.
After suffering for most of my twenties, dragging around (diagnosed) depression, anxiety, complex childhood and adult PTSD, and (yet to be diagnosed) autistic burnout and chronic illness, I got sober at 30. Piece by piece, things started to connect; the muddy water slowly began to settle and become clearer. I could see a way out, gradually. I started weight training, ended some big toxic friendships and relationships, opened my first independent tattooing business and got the knee reconstruction I desperately needed. I finally found the right therapist for me: she allowed my life to start making sense. Slowly but surely, I started to finally breathe, bleed and process those 3 decades fearlessly. I got my autism diagnosis, and started to pursue a chronic illness investigation/diagnosis. After bleeding openly to my therapist, a small group of my dearest and most trusted friends (and yes, some of my clients!), I published some of my writing last year. I poured the last drops of my angst-soaked blood into my new blog, along with careful and caring introspection. It was a calm catharsis, and I felt released. I’ve continued with inner trauma work and self care, and finally got the answer to my lifelong chronic illness mystery with a Fibromyalgia diagnosis earlier this year. I’ve become a runner and have been celery juice cleansing for 7 months to heal my body and mind, and further process trauma and years of physical/emotional damage from almost constant, unrelenting stress. Feel it to heal it!
We’re not qualified, but maybe we should be? I feel that being trained in “mental health first aid” for tattoo sessions would be as useful as being able to provide medical first aid. This crucial medical training, quite literally, saves lives. Tattooing is an invasive procedure that can put you in a vulnerable and risky position: physically, mentally and emotionally. Nobody plans on having a seizure, or passing out, or injuring themselves at the studio through an accident; nor can they consciously stop it from happening. Same goes for an unexpected mental health crisis. Saying that, if tattoo artists choose to spend the extra time and money learning new coping strategies and skills regarding mental health, we shouldn’t be relied on for them – the same way we shouldn’t be treated like a GP/paramedic for our first aid skills! Before the pandemic hit this year, I had planned to study an entry level counselling course (recommended by my therapist upon my request). I wanted to be able to process and handle some of the heavier interactions with clients more lightly. I also had my first ‘guided imagery’ trauma session planned, which I was really looking forward to experiencing. I hope I can still achieve these goals next year. I’ve read a handful of books recently about trauma, therapy, stoicism and self-improvement this year in the meantime. I have lots more books on my list, and am launching a book club in the new year. Stay tuned!
Expert tips for tattoo sessions & alternatives to therapy sessions:
I’m doing the work, and if you like, you can too: I’ve learnt this stuff from my own personal experience, access to books and the internet. I’ve lived on my own for the best part of 8 years. This has meant I’ve been able to take lot of time to dig deep and get to know me, and educate myself further on things I wanted to know more about. Tattooing full time and being self employed has meant that most further education has been out of my reach; but books, YouTube videos and podcasts have always been an option. I’ll be sharing a more exhaustive list one day, but for now: here’s two books that you can read before embarking on therapy, and later can compliment whatever step you choose next.
I feel like I’m really late to the Brené Brown party, as I only started listening to her podcasts and TED Talks last year. I now recommend her to everyone, and Daring Greatly is the book I wish I could’ve read 10 years ago. I couldn’t put it down, and managed to read through it during a few long baths and one cold November evening. This is an essential read if you want to learn how to protect your energy and your well-being by learning when and how to be vulnerable with the rest of the world. I’ve learnt a lot about integrity recently. Brené describes integrity as “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” I’ll be writing more about this in an upcoming blog post about integrity, internalised misogyny and the military: “Invented Integrity”.
The Body Keeps The Score is the book I’d been preparing myself to read for 3 years. It’s natural to want to progress from therapy sessions to research case study books and counselling courses etc. “Research” eventually becomes “me search”. Such is the way of healing: to want to ‘level-up’, expand your knowledge and share with others once your mind has start to clear and your own cup has been filled. I started reading this book after Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly – she’d given me that last little push that I needed. My darling cat, beautiful flat and my best friend next door have been wonderful anchors during the deep dives of trauma recall. Also, playing through FFXV whilst eating chocolate kept my inner child feeling happy and safe. I can’t recommend this book enough if you want to finally confront the boss level of your suffering and recover. I now have a greater understanding of myself and others, particularly ex partners that I was so hurt and confused by before. In understanding, there is forgiving. Approach this book with patience, bravery and plenty of self care and respect, and make sure to reward yourself often and read something lighthearted and uplifting afterwards!
Here’s 3 conversation pro tips:
Number 1: pretend your tattoo appointment is a PODCAST.♥
A calm, compassionate, sometimes candid but mostly positive (public) podcast – along with lots of breathing space and intervals of quiet, retrospective focus. Also, less time talking can mean more time tattooing.
Be mindful of the conversation you’re creating.
“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them — people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are crucial connection questions.”
I confess: I worry and think about clients outside of work. I have a really good long term memory, and am haunted by some of the things clients have told me. Vicarious trauma can be extremely powerful. I’ve lost nights of sleep, wondering if that person that confessed about wanting to end their life in their last session (who hasn’t responded to my last 2 emails) is still alive. I worry about clients getting home. I hope and pray that they’ve stopped cutting, stayed sober or left their abusive partner. I have to find a balance between caring and caring too much. Sometimes, the calmness of my tattoo studio, my (hopefully) reassuring presence, the music or the pain of the tattoo session can be enough to make people blurt out things I’m sure they never ever planned to tell me. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug!
I want my studio to feel like a safe space. However:
Maybe think twice before ‘slagging off’ an ex who is a long term client of mine, or fiancé’s ex wife, or ex husband and his partner when I personally know them (it’s exhausting and stressful). Explore why you feel the need to lie about achievements, hobbies and stories, in an attempt to please or impress me (my validation should be irrelevant). Consider holding back on the gory details of your weeping divorce. Please do not tell me that story of how you beat someone up on the weekend in your hometown, or strangled your last manager “because he deserved it”. Maybe think twice before admitting that you’re having an affair, 10 minutes into your first day session. You might want to explore why you would show me unsolicited, treasured wedding photos of you and your ex husband from 10-15 years ago while I’m tattooing, when you know I have his new fiancé booked in next week (what are you trying to convince me of?). Maybe don’t disclose to me (while I’m trying to concentrate) intimate details of your sex life (yikes, very distracting) or that you and your partner are looking for a third person to join your relationship (doubleyikes, and what the hell happened to asking people out to dinner?!)
These are just a few examples. There have been hundreds more, and far worse. Although these confessions and are overwhelming at times, I am honoured and grateful to have been confided in and trusted with them – to keep the innermost personal details secret and safe. If it’s unlawful or dangerous, the same rules should apply in tattooing as it should for therapy: and ask yourself why you would confess to dealing drugs, beating people up or other various crimes to someone who’s 3 years sober, obsessed with Star Wars and designing cute merchandise.
Oversharing is one of the most common trauma responses.
I get it, some tattoo appointments turn into a bit of a venting and ranting session, and that’s perfectly okay. I discuss some real heavy, intimate shit with some clients. Especially when I’ve been tattooing them for years and they feel more like a friend. I don’t want this blog post (handbook?) to echo hints of toxic positivity, like “good vibes only”. I’ve always been more “all vibes always”, and believe most vibes can still exist freely without altering the tone of the session. Shit happens, life happens, and it helps to share and get it all out.Being human can get really messy sometimes.♥
Sometimes, I feel like I have to mirror the person ranting to join in and make them more feel comfortable during the appointment (mirroring is a big part of my autism too, one of my biggest autistic traits). But when I catch myself ranting or revealing too much, I know that I need to wind my neck in. I start planning to increase my self care when I get home, and try and get to the bottom of why I keep bringing certain events, people or situations up to others. Maybe I’m full of pent-up energy, or I simply need to book another therapy session to explore it.
“Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.”
— James Russell Lowell.
Number 2: always remember the 5 minute rule.♥
The 5 minute rule can be really helpful for people on the Autism/ADHD spectrum, or have social anxiety/panic disorders. If you’re feeling nervous, it can be easy to try and make conversation by pointing out things you notice. If it can fixed in 5 minutes, it can be helpful to mention. Pointing out someone’s hair is out of place, food in their teeth, or that their makeup is smudged is easy to fix. Pointing out the shelves in my studio or my teeth are crooked, or making a comment about my height, weight, tattoos or my choice of socks: not so easily ‘fixed’ in 5 minutes! Telling me that your dad thinks I’m “not a legitimate business owner” because I “don’t have a landline”, is more likely to create a big ball of awkwardness than an interesting topic of conversation!
Number 3: Karaoke, anyone? 🎶
Seriously though, if you’ve been tattooed by me in the last few years you’ll probably notice that I sing while I work. Since I got sober, I sing all the time (not even that well, but it feels great!). I have a default playlist of hundreds of songs that I love, and love singing along to. Devin Townsend, Santigold, Taylor Swift… I fucking love musicals too. In the same way that exercise boosts endorphin flow, singing releases those delicious ‘feel-good’ chemicals – resulting in a sense of euphoria, enhanced immune response, and a natural pain relief. Singing also triggers the release of oxytocin, which helps relieve anxiety and stimulates feelings of trust. If we can sing a musical together (even badly!) or harmonise even for one moment whilst we’re working, my god it’s the fucking best feeling ever. I remember ‘tattoo duets’ so fondly – Phantom of the Opera, Greatest Showman, Six or Little Shop of Horrors (in their glorious entirety!). The days that Phoenix, CHVRCHES, Florence & The Machine or Tame Impala have played during the whole appointment are absolute bliss. Tell me the songs that set your soul on fire and make every pain of living disappear in that moment! Fancy reliving Glastonbury 2011? I was there too, let’s go back! Fancy reliving the days when you were a 16 year old mosher/goth/chav? Fuck yeah, let’s do it!
If singing still isn’t your thing: talking, headphones or peacefully listening to the music works for me too.♥
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
—- Almost Famous.
“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.”
Merry Crushmas! 🎄
Christmas is in 10 days. This entire year has finally caught up with me. I’m currently fighting through a breakdown, autistic burnout and fibromyalgia flare-up: but I’m still sober and working hard to focus on my self care full-time. I haven’t been well enough to tattoo for 5 weeks now, but hope to return soon. I’ve survived a cancer scare, breakup, breakdown, severe financial hardship, lifelong medical diagnosis, moving house, death of a friend (and I’m just talking January-mid March 2020 here). I not only survived lockdown, I fucking thrived in lockdown. I kept up regular weight training/hiking/meditation/yoga. I had so many baths(!) and kept up with my appearance. I launched an art subscription club. I started juice cleansing and was taking 20-30 supplements a day on top of an improved diet. I brushed up on my limited Japanese. I smashed all my laundry and KonMari folding everything! I tried online dating again. I left my old studio, built and opened a brand new studio. I did a fuck tonne of unproductive shit too, my flat was a mess as soon as I went back to work. I did this to stop spiralling, adapt to the new normal and set myself up for the future. Despite doing all this work, I was criticised for not answering emails in a timely fashion, not producing enough artwork, not producing the ‘right’ artwork or entertaining content, not tattooing enough or being professional enough – after emerging from 4 months in UK lockdown during a global pandemic, after what I went through in the months before? The frustrating side effect of doing “the work” was that people assume you are bullet-proof. They assume that the stuff you’re carrying so well isn’t excruciatingly heavy. Most people’s biggest achievements in lockdown were sitting around on furlough, completing Netflix, making banana bread, not drinking themselves to death, not shaving their head or managing not to murder their partner and kids (hey, that’s okay too).♥ I am so grateful for the positivity, support and admiration I receive about my tattoos, art and writing over the years – but please don’t put me on a pedestal. Expectations are planned disappointments: it makes it impossible for me to be human without you becoming disappointed and disheartened. I am absolutely not above anyone, ever, and shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever put me on a pedestal, please consider me knocked off! It’s inhumane and stops me exercising my natural human birthright to make mistakes or say something that upsets someone somewhere. It saves us both lot of guilt and a lot of resentments. Holding me to the same high regard and level of customer service or professionalism that you’re used to, during a global pandemic, is absolutely insane.
Let’s use this Winter Solstice and New Year to move forward into a Great Awakening along with The Great Reset: let’s all agree that we’ve experienced collective trauma, suffered together. Let’s have more honest and open conversations, but keep them kind and compassionate. In tattooing, customer service needs to be seen as customer collaboration – with effort on both sides.
If you want to talk to me in person about something heavy and honest, get help finding a therapist (or maybe an autism or chronic illness diagnosis), talk about recovery or sobriety in more detail, ask about getting into tattooing or just connect with me on a deeper, more personal or vulnerable level – you can book and pay for a consultation with me (via video call or at my private studio). You can also buy some of my art prints and arrange a date/time to collect them from me in person.♥ Make sure to mention what you’d like to discuss beforehand, so I can understand the context and prepare for it. Respect me, my time and my energy, so that I can provide more of it to you more easily: email@example.com
Letting GROW: How the pain of both can feel the same, and that there’s beauty and grace in-between the “ie” and the “ow”…
Grief is inevitable, but growth is optional. Finding space for both in our lives can sometimes be a challenge. It seems counterproductive in life to open the door and invite grief in for a visit, or schedule in time to allow for growth. Sometimes, we cling to what we can control and lock the door on grief: we keep ourselves busy and ignore the sadness that gives life meaning.
“Life is growth, and if it does not involve a perpetual passing away, then we can neither grow nor live in any meaningful sense. And eventually, by accepting this truth in our honest grief, we will be ready to let the first rays of light penetrate the darkness.”
— Derren Brown, “Happy”.
How many deep, Romantic introspections and Narcissistic exhalations of one’s inner experience does it take until you’re qualified as a real blogger? Asking for a friend…
It’s 2019. Along with opening and running my first business, whilst recovering from a knee reconstruction – I was able to realign my priorities and start regular therapy. I’d had sessions in the past, but the timing wasn’t quite right and the professional wasn’t the right fit. I found an incredibly effective CBT counsellor, and was diagnosed Autistic at age 31 after voicing some concerns that I might be on the spectrum. I spent most of the year doing lots of journaling, inner child work, boundary-setting and hardcore self-care around tattooing. I began to slowly and painfully crack open the hard, convoluted walnut of my past traumas with weekly sessions of CBT. I was doing all this work for me, not particularly for anyone else. The fortunate side-effect was that I started to show up better for others in my life, personally and professionally. An unfortunate side-effect, was that it made me pretty emotionally unstable at times. Discovering I was autistic, played havoc with my autism. Facing the source code of my unhealthy coping mechanisms made it difficult to cope with my usual routines. I started questioning everything about myself. My new thought patterns were catching old triggers like trip wires. The psychological land mines would detonate: I would have to (quietly, calmly, socially acceptably as much as possible) ride out the shock and emotional fallout, heal in solitude, and use the new space for better things.
Growth is never easy, and it almost always requires pain along with joy. It is in the space between joy and sorrow that our hearts are strengthened and our bonds renewed.
— Trisha Lundin.
I ran so far away from myself, during a long time of survival in the earliest, most formative years of my life – that I forgot how to come back home to myself, for decades. I denied and shut off my (autistic) inner child, my inner strength and full potential. I have spent a lot of time and have done a lot of work to rise up to meet myself. I still have a lot of work to do, and I’m really excited to learn even more. I’ve been mapping out what my “higher self” looks like – how she would respond, what she would look like, what she would be working on next. Ironically, whilst I was working on my better self, I was very much sat rotting in my “lower self”. It reminded me of last January, when I was writing lists of all the things I wanted to do when I could walk again, whilst I was sofa-bound with a freshly reconstructed knee.
Merry CRUSHmas! 🎄
It’s 2019.Christmas is always tough for me. It puts things into a harsh perspective. Like slamming a sharp festive cookie cutter down onto my reality, during the bleakest days of midwinter and at the very end of the year – just when I’ve got past the gorgeous autumn leaves, cute layers and Halloween stuff. Some years, I’ve spent them completely alone for days, hardly eating, mostly drinking and crying; or at friend’s houses, excessively drinking and taking drugs. I’m usually adopted by some current partner’s family, or sheepishly herded into inclusion by friends. I’m forced to face the ‘Crushmas Roulette’, and it varies every year: will my alcohol dependant mum’s health get worse before Christmas? Will she want to see me this year? How long will I be able to spend with her? Will she become angry/aggressive? Will I be able to leave my darling cat in her care for a week this year? Will he be safe? How will I manage a week in Devon? What if his dad doesn’t like me? What do you buy dads for Christmas? Will I be the only person not drinking? I wonder if I’ll get bath bombs this year? I made a difficult decision to cut contact with my father in November. He fled to Australia to pursue his own happiness and escape his mistakes when I was in my early twenties. He was reduced to a few polite phone calls and greeting cards a year, which felt safer. Therapy gave me the strength to actually come to terms with and say out loud some of the things he did (that I could remember). My inner child was finally speaking out, heartbroken and angry. He never made any attempt to resolve or make amends for his historic alcoholism and physical, emotional and sexual abuse, before and after he left. I muddled through and tried to make the most of the cards I was dealt, struggling to accept it for years and years. Alcohol has been a consistently destructive force my whole life, and is an incredibly effective dissolving agent: it dissolves families, marriages, friendships, jobs, bank accounts and neurons, but never problems. I spent months writing the email, he replied with patronising denial and zero remorse. I chose not to reply back: I had finally got it off my chest and out of the pit of my stomach. I finally let go of trying to understand such a dysfunctional person, because dysfunction has no logic behind it. Now that I had closure, I prepared myself as best I could for the real grieving to begin.
I quite like the uneasy calmness and existential dread that January always brings. The first 2 months of winter always kill me. The slowly darker days, miserable weather, then the crushing bottleneck of Xmas and NYE: then, a sadly confusing emptiness for the first 2 weeks of the year. The only part of Crushmas that was bearable this year was “us”. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up against the pressure.
I was in a beautiful relationship for most of last year; with someone I’d vaguely known for about 6 years. He looked like me, so naturally I was pretty attracted to him! We had lots of mutual friends in common – he was very supportive, respectful, intellectually and emotionally nutritious. Before we dated I told him I was recently coming to terms with my autism diagnosis. He explained that his brother was on the spectrum and in full-time assisted living, and he suspected that he was on the spectrum himself. He was a qualified hypnotherapist, a naturally calm and rational person that I could confide in and trust. As our relationship progressed, I shared things with him that I’d shared with no one else on earth outside of my own professional therapy. He helped me to help myself, and I used hypnotherapy for months to reprogram my brain and process stress and trauma subconsciously. During a panic attack that was brought on by pain during the first few months of my knee surgery recovery, he was able to calm me down, put me under hypnosis and I slept it off. He inspired me creatively, and I produced some great artwork because of him. He meditated and loved yoga. He had some previous experience with polyamory, and had the same conclusions about it that I did. We had lots of stuff in common, like Star Wars, Japan and nerdy science stuff. We were both gluten-intolerant, which made food choices easy. We could keep up with each other in intelligent conversation. He made me laugh. He did my washing up without being asked. My therapist once referred to him as my “soulmate”, which felt pretty wholesome. There were lots of other great things, but I’ll leave it there. I realised a few months in, that this was maybe my first proper ‘grown-up’ relationship. He confirmed that it was his first proper relationship too. We went on amazing dates and had great weekends together. I had made a decision in my early sobriety that I wanted to rise in love, not fall in love, and felt like it was going in the right direction.
Despite describing myself as a “hopeless romantic”, I really believe, the perfect partner, “the one” and “soulmates” do not exist. Your only hope is to pick someone that shares the same core values, views and opinions, someone who respects and compliments your own lifestyle and routines – and work to create a beautiful life with that chosen person. Love takes practice, patience and perseverance. Great relationships happen by choice, not chance. Always easier said than done, however.
“What makes love so compelling? The fact that this is the one, short life we have and we might spend a large part of it with this other person. That here is someone to cling to and grow with for our allotted lifespan. Here we are, broken and fraught in our own way, loving another who is broken an fraught in theirs, and who happens to love us too. But if we knew we were to have endless love for all eternity, there would be no reason to feel excited about this one. Love is a risk: we attach ourselves to someone and they to us, and we face the world together.”
— Derren Brown, “Happy”.
The things you ignore in the beginning become the reasons you leave in the end.
In my state of proud excitement and being stupidly in love, I forgave and ignored a few snags and red flags that conflicted my own values and beliefs along the way. He lived in Bristol, which was usually a 60 mile round trip and 2-3 hours travelling via public transport. It was a big commutement. He had plans to buy property for himself in Bristol, and despite the relationship progressing and getting more serious, he remained very clear that he had no desire to relocate anywhere else. Bristol is extremely triggering and sensory overloading for me. He had quite a serious office job that I struggled to connect with and understand. His work and his lifestyle was “Bristol”. My business, most of my friends and poorly mum are all in South Wales. My home, my lifestyle and my heart is “Wales.” Although it was suggested for the first few couples of months that he hardly drank anymore and didn’t enjoy it (“sober-curious”), he very much still enjoyed drinking. Most of his closer friends loved drinking too. He had no tattoos, no plans for tattoos in the future and little interest in my career. I preferred this over someone who might ‘use’ me for tattoos/status, but he didn’t even like being at my studio or the idea of attending tattoo conventions. We talked for hours and hours about the world and everything in it, but he had an intense passion for left-wing politics and was very vocal about it – it conflicted against my own friendly neighbourhood anarchism and political neutrality online. He had lots of intimate friendships, all women. At the beginning I assumed they were all like sisters to him, completely platonic. I later learnt that he’d been in previous relationships and had very ambiguous, complicated history/chemistry with almost all of them. There were lots of other not-so-great things, but I’ll leave it there. We were so compatible in so many other ways, I worked hard to try and adjust and adapt. It was the healthiest relationship I’d ever had to date, so figured these things were just teething pains that could be communicated on and worked through. We had a great foundation, and believed it could hold up to whatever came next.
I know that every relationship involves compromise, and their differences can often compliment yours. Relationships are about both of you becoming better because of your differences. He would reassure me that although there was clear evidence to me to suggest this really wouldn’t work long-term, he told me he loved me and wanted to be with me. I loved him too, and really wanted to stay together. So, we kept going…
“The older you get, the deeper the love you need.”
— Leonard Cohen.
He’s very funny, and naturally flirty. He adores female attention and being fussed, and makes it very easy for him to be fussed, adored and looked after by women. I remember looking forward to meeting his very best friend of years and years for the first time, who I imagined was like a sister to him given how much he talked about her and messaged her while we were together. There were hundreds of photos of them together online. Within minutes of being with them both in the same room, I could instantly feel something between them. He played with her hair in front of me whilst we were talking, and I said to myself “this is totally fine, they’re just close, as long as there’s no history or chemistry…” He once asked both of us to have a race and see who could braid his hair the fastest. She was in a relationship with someone for about a year, but kept her status as “single” online. A couple of weeks of processing and a couple of therapy sessions later, he brought up another story about her over Sunday dinner, and I calmly asked him if he’d ever slept with her. He struggled to swallow his food, and admitted they used to hook up with each other on nights out – he would end up looking after her when she would get blackout drunk, calling an ambulance, making excuses and generally being very codependent for years. I told him that I used to have crushes on people like that. He admitted that for a long time, he really liked her. He assured me that it would never happen again, and that it was different now. One of the reasons he gave, without any hint of humour, was that she refused to date anyone with better hair than her. I was really grateful for the honesty, but I struggled to digest the rest of my dinner and the new information that day. If you’ve ever seen Fleabag, you’ll understand how many times I had to resist the urge to break though an imagined Fourth Wall with a concerned, side-eye stare.
In the summer, I spent a weekend away in Birmingham getting tattooed for 2 days. He spent the same weekend in Bristol, with one of his single female friends. He hadn’t told me much about her, other than he referred to her as a “Power Woman” from London. Despite earning a good salary from her profession, she had made plans to sleep on the floor of his tiny studio flat for 2 nights instead of sleeping in a hotel. He had agreed the plan with her when he was single, months before we started dating. I had no right to try and change it, I could only be patient and focus on my own plans. They spent the weekend drinking, catching up and reliving uni nostalgia. She left him at a bar in the early hours of the first night to sleep with a stranger, and came back to his flat later on the next day. I really struggled to understand and accept it. He couldn’t see a problem with any of it, and assured me it was all completely normal and harmless. I trusted him, but I had no idea who she was. My autism allows me to notice patterns of behaviour others seem to miss. I spent a very painful weekend being tattooed and shamefully searching Facebook for an hour to find out more about the woman that was spending the weekend with my partner. Her Facebook posts of him involved declarations of how good looking he was, sultry looks, lots of hearts. Maybe it was all related, maybe it wasn’t. I actually met her a few months later, and to me she just seemed like a lovely professional woman in her thirties who struggled with boundaries and growing up. She mentioned she’d started dating someone and it was going really well (almost the length of time we had been dating) and that she proudly hadn’t slept with him yet because she was serious about it. She drank heavily that evening, answered work emails late into the night, ended up in a student bar and slept with another stranger. None of this is particularly bad, but I personally define “Power Woman” very differently. When you don’t drink for a long time, you can see from the outside exactly what it does to people and how it effects their lives. I tried my best to be friendly with her and thanked her for the Christmas card addressed to the both of us. She ‘unfriended’ me shortly after we broke up. I later removed myself from his other friends.
I’ve dated many men with weird Oedipal friendship groups and ex-partners as close friends, and it usually involved lots of lying, sometimes cheating and later returning to those ex-partners. Maybe this time, it was a chance for me to make peace with that part of my past. I’d deemed this new relationship as healthy, so surely even the unhealthy parts were due to my own jaded, warped view and nothing to do with him. I thought the problem wasn’t the weird collections of women themselves, but the way I was relating to the weird collections of women. I examined my own sense of femininity and self esteem over and over, checking myself for anything I needed to improve on. The more I got to know myself, the more I became sure that it wasn’t because I was intimidated by them in any way or insecure about myself, I just wasn’t interested in getting involved with that dynamic again. The more I saw it for what it actually was – a big sexy sad crab bucket. Maybe it was all normal for him, but it wasn’t normal for me. It was a useful marker and gentle reminder for me to hold fast on my standards and self worth. I feel these unhealthy monogamous traits are the opposite to polyamory: an environment in which you can be a lot more honest about your feelings towards your friends and your sexual appetites, invite in extra partners, and use boundaries and close communication to keep it healthy. In theory, anyway. In my experience of polyamory (and monogamy) over the years, more people = more problems! I was done with subconsciously picking men where there was always “other female interest” of various history/chemistry in close proximity, or that had obstacles of distance, complicated situations or lifestyle choices. There’s literally hundreds of less complicated people nearby, who share similar goals, attitudes and opinions on life and the world – and whose life would compliment my own. Why wasn’t I going for them instead? Because it’s a challenge for the ego to convince them to chose you.
If you’ve ever seen how successful, beautiful and funny my best friends of 10 years are, you’d understand that I’m not intimidated by other women easily. My other close friend is a gorgeous 5.11” police officer, self employed florist and leading lady in theatre productions. Their sparkling traits do not dim my own shine. I feel more beautiful, empowered and successful when I’m surrounded by these kinds of people. I’m so proud of them and love to celebrate their achievements, and in turn it inspires me to keep going and keep believing in myself. Supporting more of the good things I love to see in others and want for myself, keep me focused on all the things I’m striving to create and what I already have to be grateful for in my own life. It stops me wallowing in my own tar pit for too long. I’ve also been a life model for 12 years – I find being in a room completely naked, staying perfectly still while being studied to create beautiful paintings and drawings, incredibly relaxing. I love to model in many ways, and to observe being seen by other people creatively is very nourishing to my self esteem and self worth. By becoming part of a creative process in a very different way to my own tattooing and illustration, I’m crystallised inside the art and the process, not just in the outcome.
He once told me he was curious as to why he had so many female friends, and wanted to try CBT therapy to find out more about it. I could have told him why, but I didn’t want to. My therapist confirmed it was unhealthy but very normal, and gave him a name for a highly recommended, fantastic therapist in Bristol. I suggested it, and he turned it down with a thin excuse. He hadn’t ever really come to terms with his own autism, and I think missing social cues and boundaries in his friendships was sometimes happening. He denied his autism and my own at times, explaining that meltdowns were just me being grumpy, or say things like “it’s just traffic”. He was right, it was just traffic, it was just cars and noises. It was also Autism, and very overwhelming at times. You can’t talk someone out of an autistic meltdown. I started to feel ashamed of being autistic, and started to hide it from him and ‘mask’ more.
I have platonic male friends that I’ve been friends with for years and years. I wouldn’t stay the weekend with them like that, but understand that other people are not me. I love attention, and I love women too. I have loved women, and it’s an amazing and beautiful thing. I like to look visually pleasing to myself and other people with similar tastes, but know that underneath the 5.10” long frame, the flowers, awkward charisma(!) and tattoos – I’m pretty abrasive, brutally honest, intense and disruptive. I’m not deeply liked by many people, and wouldn’t want to be. I have a very small group of close friends (all women, all of which I haven’t slept with). I’ve been drawn to and collected many father and mother figures in my time (both toxic and healthy) so I could recognise and understand why it was happening, and was able to offer compassion and patience for it. I discussed it at great length with my own therapist, trying to understand it so that I could try to accept and tolerate it. For the first time in my life, I was doing lots of work on myself, not just for me. I wanted to overcome it, because I truly wanted it to work and was fed up of being repeatedly blamed and accused of having an unfair reaction to those close friendships. He was extremely defensive and protective of the unhealthy behaviour and codependent tendencies. The beautifully healthy relationship became peppered with old, familiar feelings of guilt, shame and not feeling good enough. I spent my own birthday surprising and spoiling him, with a weekend away at one of the best spa hotels in the UK. It had been on my ‘bucket list’ for years, and felt absolutely incredible to be able to finally do it. Obviously he loved it, and loved me for it. I loved it too. Deep down, I knew a part of it was a show of force to those close to him, and to cheer myself up. It was also during the early months of composing that email to my father, titled “my surviving suicide note”.
“It’s very hard to be compassionate towards people when they’re hurting us.”
— Brené Brown.
Whilst juggling the relationship, my business, therapy and physio, I struggled with some professional boundaries in the summer. I had to overcome online and offline intimidation and harassment from a few obsessive, mentally unstable and angry former clients. I doubled-up on therapy and self care and kept moving forward.
Coupled with a relationship that was becoming increasingly unhealthy, I became really ill. My immune system kept flaring up, my digestive system was all over the place. I had chronic inflammation in my joints and my throat/stomach. I was sick some mornings, my hair was falling out. I was having breakouts of shingles/cold sores each month. I lost my appetite, I lost all my energy, I was sweating and having nightmares at night, and my nutrition levels crashed. I was having meltdowns and panic attacks more frequently. I stopped training and had to knock down my hours tattooing to keep producing my best work. I was disassociating. On my 2 year sobriety birthday, I slept most of the day and managed to speak to a doctor in the afternoon. She asked me what if I’d gone through any big changes in the past year or so. I laughed, and listed everything. I told her about the sudden loss of my job in late 2018, creating and opening my private studio myself whilst being cheated on/ghosted, a few days before a knee reconstruction which I mostly recovered from alone. The therapy, the autism diagnosis, the online/offline harassment. Encounters with extremely toxic people. Confronting the reality of my father and subsequently cutting him out of my life just before Christmas, dealing with the deteriorating health of my mother. Her response was incredibly supporting and caring and I broke down in tears. After hearing all of my symptoms, she recommended I get booked in for a CT scan on my torso.
“Growth” started to become a less positive, more sinister word.
For most of December and January, my mental health was hovering between extremely low and absolute rock bottom.
Hot and cold, blood of stone.
I had two tickets to see Devin Townsend beginning of December, that I had been looking forward to since I bought the tickets back in March. To say I’m a huge fan of his would be an understatement. I usually go to gigs and festivals on my own these days, as I can’t find anyone who shares the same enthusiasm as me for the music or the timing isn’t right. I was hoping to take my partner with me, but he dismissed wanting to go at all for months: “ask someone else first, I’ll go if no one else wants to”. So I did, I posted online asking if anyone would like to be my +1. He changed his mind within the hour, declared that he’d love to see me at a gig that he knew would make me so happy. We went, and he really enjoyed it. Obviously I had the best time, but I’d already started to wonder how long I could stay with someone that found my enthusiasm and energy both adorable and intolerable. I thought of all the pubs in Bristol I’d sat in to support his comedy gigs and take photos for him, and the comedy gigs we went to together to support others and see people he loved. The Ninjutsu training I went along to watch. I already had a list of guest-spots in Scotland that I could tattoo at whilst he was doing Edinburgh Fringe, which was a future plan of his.
From Devin to Devon: although at this point I couldn’t see us working long-term, he reassured me that he still loved me and wanted to be together. I agreed to spend Christmas in Devon, having not met his father or brother before. It was a beautiful and calm week, mostly because I had reached a level of stress and illness that I declared “no stress and drama”. What I really meant was “no more conflict and difficult conversations”. His family were lovely. I covered my tattoos out of respect to his father, I knew how much he hated them. I was told on Christmas day “don’t joke with my dad about tattoos.” Unfortunately, I’m a tattoo artist of 9 years and fucking hilarious, so there wasn’t much I could do in that department. I even managed to keep up with never ending conversations about politics and history. I kept my chin up, smiling politely. I kept my mouth shut when I realised they were drinking to get drunk every day, despite him playing it down when I asked him a few weeks before. I stayed quiet when I could hear my partner slurring his words and smelling of alcohol when we went to bed. I watched his hangover sweat from him the morning after, and heard the familiar mumbles of denial. I bought him drinks from the bar when he asked for them, as I didn’t want to bring up a difficult conversation in front of his friends who I was meeting for the first time. He knew I had managed over 2 years without buying alcohol (except when it’s for my alcohol-dependant mother), but must have forgotten. I shouldn’t ever have to ask someone to stop drinking, it’s not for me to decide. Continuing to date and drink in front of someone who’s famously sober and proud, with a dying alcohol dependant/alcoholic mother, would be like dating someone who has a mother dying of cancer and insisting on booking solo weekends away to Chernobyl. There’s plenty of women who he could date instead, who didn’t have alcoholic parents growing up and is enthusiastically sober now. There’s only so much I can make peace with from my past, and only so much I can tolerate as a sober adult. Alcohol is a proven carcinogenic, as well as depressant. I came home exhausted from masking and spent days in a sensory hangover that I recovered from in private. I got Jedi: Fallen Order and a coffee mill for Christmas, and I gratefully spent the last few days of the year back home escaping reality, trembling with caffeine and smashing The Empire.
Sobriety doesn’t happen by osmosis. Simply dating or spending time with a sober person may involve short-term relief and occasional breaks from drinking completely, but it doesn’t offer a long term solution. That is always entirely down to you. I’m so happy and grateful that I inspire so many others, but I cannot do the work for them.
I admitted to him that I was struggling to stay sober after everything that happened at Christmas. He proudly announced he wouldn’t drink on NYE, for me. The last few days of December and NYE gifted me with one if the worst periods of my life. Given the fact I was only a week or so away from my CT scan, it terrified me. I’ve never been in so much pain, in that way. I couldn’t breathe deeply, walk or maintain a consistent trail of thought for long. I’d maxed out on painkillers by the late afternoon of NYE, meditation and CBD oil did nothing. I got on the wrong bus at Bristol and ended up in some random part of the outer boroughs, wrestling a panic attack/sensory overload. I left my suitcase on the bus. He was in a bad mood that day, either because I’d missed the bus and was late or because of something else. We managed to pull it together, get the suitcase back and have a nice time. It felt like a small victory. I left his home in Bristol the next day, and a couple hours after I left, he half joked via message that I hadn’t been giving him enough attention lately. I absolutely lost my shit. If I’d had a few more days between Christmas/NYE, I might have handled it better. Maybe not. Everything I’d been trying to manage behind the scenes, burst into the foreground. It took me days to recover, and still feel like I failed him.
I was doing the best I could to the best of my ability at the time: meditating, writing/journaling, keeping on top of eating regularly, supplements/medication/CBD oil… I even started drinking less coffee. I completed my taxes instead of binging Netflix, cleaned my flat instead of depression sleeping. I was taking walks in the park, having a short sun bed sessions every week (I still put suncream on my tattoos!) and made sure I had some kind of healthy routine on days off. I was chasing up diagnosis’s and having tests. I stayed sober, somehow. I kept on top of my emails/admin like a boss, and even hired an assisting team to help run my business and create some professional distance from me and my wonderful clients. I was tattooing part time to rest and look after myself. I even managed some extra self care treats, like taking myself to dinner. I really felt like none of it was working, but then I realised I was still breathing.
Here’s a short summary of the books, without reviewing them too much. I hope if you do read them, you can get as much out of them as I did.
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Dr. Gary Chapman is a book about how to communicate better with your partner(s). It helps you understand how people best interpret love individually, through 5 types: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Physical Touch and Receiving Gifts. I listed them in order of what I consider to be most important, from highest to lowest. Some people want a diamond watch, others just want the time. I chipped into it as I was reading the others. It’s a comparatively shallow and dogmatic read compared to the other two, but has some really valuable parts. There’s also some cute, insightful quizzes you can do online.
School of Life by Alain de Botton is a book about emotional intelligence. I consider it to be a general handbook for living a more richer life, full of really useful ‘life hacks’. I dove straight into the Relationships section whilst I was reading Happy, and particularly loved the “Choosing a Partner”, “The Hellishness of Others”, “The Longing For Reassurance” and “Partner-as-Child” chapters. “Emotional intelligence affects every aspect of the way we live, from romantic to professional relationships, from our inner resilience to our social success. It is arguably the single most important skill for surviving in the modern world. In The School of Life, de Botton introduces the gathered wisdom of ten years’ innovative research and conversation, teaching and listening, about the nature and practice of emotional intelligence. Using the combination of social analysis, philosophical insight and practical wisdom which has come to define the School of Life’s essential work, it works through five core areas – Self, Others, Relationships, Work and Culture – and shows how none of us will be perfect but each of us can be a little bit better. Rigorous and revelatory, humane and hopeful, Alain de Botton and his team of experts present The School of Life: a comprehensive guide to the modern art of emotional intelligence.” – alaindebotton.com.
Happy by Derren Brown is like an illusionist’s guide to living life illusion-free: offering wisdom and calling on popular philosophy to teach us how to conjure up our own happiness, and learn to find magic in the everyday. A self-proclaimed avoidant and advocate of Stoicism (the foundations of CBT therapy), Derren embarked on a career in hypnotism whilst living in Bristol, and is now a successful and acclaimed magician and mental manipulator. He found himself pondering how to be happy after the breakup of a long-term relationship with an artist – and he’s found that it’s simply a trick of the mind. You can talk yourself out of sadness, and into happiness. I started reading the book a few days before the breakup: in the earlier chapters on relationships, anger and hurt, I found myself identifying with the avoidant/attached narrative and found some other parts hard to digest. The book is particularly meaty, for many reasons. Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, was clearly autistic by the way – he had the same routine for 27 years, and pushed a woman down a flight of stairs for talking too loudly outside his door? He also had a string of poodles named Atma his whole life, always eternally named Atma. I wonder if Derren is on the spectrum too. During the month of daily reading that it took to get through it, I saw myself through the eyes of my very own avoidant hypnotist in Bristol, struggling to date and cope with his attached artist. I thought to myself more than once, “I need to leave the poor boy alone”. As the book progresses into chapters like ‘Relinquishing Control’, through to philosophy, Stoicism and how to apply the methods – I was able to get through the first and worst few weeks of the breakup more comfortably and productively. He’d actually recommended this book back in 2018. It was a bittersweet irony that the book that made me initially interested in him was the book that made me realise we were ultimately wrong for each other, and that we needed to be apart. It really helped me grow and improve.
“Trying to improve your way to acceptance feeds the false idea that only an improved version of you is acceptable.”
— Lisa Olivera.
Still feeling like I wasn’t good enough until I’d made as many changes and improvements as possible, I kept reaching outwards, grasping for answers and solutions. The relationship and the professional conflict I’d endured last year had made me question everything, and I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone anymore, including myself. I figured that if we both eventually moved in together, we could help look after each other. Sharing the same soil, we could grow together.
“To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be. The people they’re too exhausted to be any longer. The people they don’t recognise inside themselves anymore. The people they grew out of, the people they never ended up growing into. We so badly want the people we love to get their spark back when it burns out; to become speedily found when they are lost. But it is not our job to hold anyone accountable to the people they used to be. It is our job to travel with them between each version and to honour what emerges along the way. Sometimes it will be an even more luminescent flame. Sometimes it will be a flicker that disappears and temporarily floods the room with a perfectly and necessary darkness.”
— Heidi Priebe.
My physical and mental health was in serious trouble, and my relationship was beginning to rot. He saw me at my worst and most vulnerable, which must have been terrifying. I snapped at him more than once. He started becoming avoidant and dismissive, I started becoming attached and clingy. When I started getting fed up and distanced myself, he would lean forward and seek out attention. Although we were discussing the idea of him moving in with me for a bit to see if we liked living together for the future, it was only a way for him save more money as a deposit for later buying property in Bristol. I spent days sorting, throwing out and giving away belongings, rearranging the bedroom. I was convinced that I could change his mind (if only he could see how great things could be if he moved in, how great I really was!) he would want to stay. He became easily flustered and stressed, and snapped at me too. When I behaved more like him, he behaved more like me. I was so tired of the games and role reversals. We were no longer rising in love, we were both sinking. I’d received some comments online from a fake profile, and wasn’t sure if it was someone from last year who was trying to get at me again, and had no idea if they’d try to work out where I lived and follow me home. As things got increasingly worse with us, I told him I was at my absolute limit and begged him to come and talk through things at the beginning of January – he instead spent the weekend with friends, leaving the names blank for me to assume which ones. “Probably a chance to get drunk too”, I thought. I felt like I had died. I deactivated and deleted all my social media for two days. I buried my phone and iPad behind my sofa cushions and shut myself in my home; I mostly read, cried and wrote. I later worked up the energy to visit my mum and my best friends. He’d promised to help me financially that weekend as I had taken a lot of time off over Christmas, and had ran through my savings when I was unwell and working part time to keep producing my best work. I had to borrow money from my mother’s funeral fund instead.
He came over 2 days later – I’d invited him over to talk and said he was welcome to stay over afterwards. Instead of trying to resolve things, he broke up with me. 3 days before my CT scan. He admitted he was scared of my meltdowns, and told me that if he ever moved back to Wales permanently, he knew he would resent it. He told me he was done, and started to unpack the things of mine from his flat that he’d brought with him from his bag. He had no intention of staying over that night. My reality cracked open. I broke down, begging and pleading with him to stay. I had a panic attack/meltdown, but hid in my bedroom to make sure I didn’t scare him. He followed after me, and quietly asked me to hand him the front door keys so he could leave whilst I was sobbing in the dark. The potential reality of facing the scan without him was unbearable, and the reality that I had somehow ended up in another relationship that left me just before another serious medical procedure was fucking abhorrent. After declaring that I would move to Bristol for him (I wasn’t thinking straight) and lots of tears from both of us, he stayed, but it was only out of pity. An hour later, he turned down an offer to be my +1 at my best friend’s big event before I could finish speaking. I slept on the sofa that night to make sure my cat didn’t disturb his sleep for work the next day, and cooked us breakfast early the next morning with tears rolling down my cheeks. I was relieved we were still together, but I wasn’t happy anymore.
The relationship had become terminally ill. There was no future.
He came with me to the scan – his 8 years previous experience as a radiographer and my own meditation made it bearable. I spent the evening fussing and giving him a back massage a few hours after the scan (Dr. Chapman would define back massages as both an “Act of Service” and “Physical Touch” in the Love Languages book). He had complained/joked a week before that I hadn’t been giving him enough attention lately, and wanted to make him happy. Both my arms and wrists were sore from the 5 attempts to get a line in to pump my body full of contrast fluid. I was trying everything I could to try and re-connect and repair. I can still taste the Omnipaque sometimes. Communication and “Words of Affirmation” are really important to me, especially then. Towards the end, he put off having big conversations for as long as possible, and there would be days without any messages. In the final two days, I sent him a little photo that I’d created (it was really funny) to try and lighten things up and show him I still cared. He ignored it.
Love cannot hurt us; it is person who doesn’t know how to love us that causes pain. Any relationship that is ruined by having conversations about your feelings, standards and expectations was never really stable and healthy to begin with.
Someone’s best effort at loving you may not be the thing that you need. It doesn’t mean they’re not trying hard enough, or that they don’t love you enough. It means that’s all they’re capable of doing, and you have to decide if that’s what you’re willing to live with.
All this energy that I was putting into a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, I needed to start putting back into myself.
The next day, I saw my therapist to get her advice and perspective. She was equally disappointed to hear how it had deteriorated, but assured me it wasn’t beyond repair and that it was possible to overcome everything I’d mentioned. She suggested couples therapy, which I knew he wouldn’t agree to. She also suggested he explore an Autism diagnosis, to help him better understand himself and how it effects him. Without an equal effort of understanding/growth, or any attempt at coming to a compromise from him, it would never flourish. It was crystal clear that at some point, for whatever reason(s), he had simply changed his mind about me. She could see that I was done, and we were done. I had given up begging, pleading and trying, and decided in my session to finally finish-off the breakup and put “us” out of our misery.
After reaching outwards for so long, I reached back into myself. I spent the rest of day taking care of myself before the breakup and making sure I treated him, me and us with respect: I started with therapy in the morning, followed by a manicure/pedicure in a massage chair. I made stock orders, got some important admin done and made appointments. I went for a walk in the park, then took myself to dinner. I waited until I knew he’d be home from work to message him. I admitted that I didn’t have the strength to travel to Bristol just to break up (again).
…“Let’s both save our dignity, save the drama and stress and leave it here today. Thank you for loving and supporting me, and teaching me that it is possible for me to have a healthy relationship with someone. Thank you for teaching me that I also have the strength to notice when it becomes unhealthy/unsustainable and take action. I’ve never loved anyone like I loved you – thank you for teaching me how. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay. You’ll find someone better suited and when you do, you’ll know for sure and it’ll feel right.”…
I saw him for what he really was: exhaustedandoverwhelmed. I had already imagined his life without me: I pictured him getting in the door to his own Bristol home, to someone who he could share a bottle of wine with and talk about his office job, who would get along with all of his friends, and accept and love them regardless. Someone he could discuss more with his father. Maybe someone who practiced martial arts and was passionately into talking about politics too. Maybe someone who didn’t have autism, or someone who didn’t have more issues than Vogue(!). I imagined them talking about buying a larger property in Bristol together one day, and drinking together at Christmas. My heart swelled at the potential happiness that lay ahead of him, far past me. We didn’t fail, we simply expired.
When we waste time chasing someone to give us love, there’s an unmet internal need for love and nurturance toward our inner-child. When we abandon ourselves for someone who’s undeserving of our energy, our inner-child is usually hurting deeply and feeling afraid to be alone. The excitement of trying to prove you are so special, lovable and worthy that you can change someone’s mind or behaviour, is draining your energy on so many levels. We’re all going to have days where we show up as the worst version of ourselves, but at the end of the day, we all deserve to be with someone who we know is in our corner. Someone who loves us on the hard days and treats the relationship as precious, sacred and deserving of protection and care. I wasn’t willing to throw it away because it was getting tough, but he was. I needed to let go, too. I had someone else more important I needed to take care of.
He replied back quickly, compassionately and calmly. He admitted that he was hurt and saddened, which I found hard to believe at that point but took his word for it. He said he was happy to end it via message. We said goodbye.
“When we consider that these things we value are only here for a while and will eventually turn to dust, we both remind ourselves of their worth and align ourselves with Fortune. The Stoics tell us to think, when people die or things are destroyed, ‘I gave them back.’ What we have lost was never ours; we enjoyed them for a while and now they have returned to eternity. In the case of a broken vase, this may be a helpful thought; in the case of a lost loved one, perhaps it sounds like a meagre comfort.”
—- Derren Brown, “Happy”.
The CT scan and test results all came back negative. I broke down and wept with relief, but still didn’t have any real answers. I’m still sick, and it’s pointing more to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS)Hypermobilty type: (h)EDS. I’ve been on the waiting list for a diagnosis for over a year, as I wasn’t able to afford the diagnosis privately along with private CBT therapy without it affecting my business.
Cheat code for forgiveness!
Most of us are trying our best, me included. Despite this, we’re all going to hurt people as we muddle through figuring it all out. We don’t need to take it so personally when it does happen. When you learn that a person’s behaviour has more to do with their own internal struggle than it does with you, you can welcome in grace, understanding and compassion.
Repeat this until you really, truly believe it:
“They were doing the very best they could at the time”.
You’re released from being angry. The pain changes. You’re able to start grieving the loss of a person that you needed in your life. The person you wanted them to be, the person you expected them to be. The person you thought they could potentially be.
Your memories and dreams of them can be examined and torn open. Inside the rift of your reality and life experience, there is new space to welcome in grace, growth and maybe a little bit of love and forgiveness. Maybe some pity and self-righteousness too, which is okay. Boundaries are still essential of course, and letting go with love is possible. Closing the door on someone who shows no remorse can be a silent forgiveness, and an ultimate act of self-care and protection. Healing always comes in waves, so keeping riding the tides of pain, anger and sadness that come up.
We’ve all been through terrible, horrible and shamefully dark periods of our lives. Wouldn’t you want that level of compassion from others, for them to be able to hold you and support you and say “you were just doing the very best you could at the time. We forgive you.”
We can never ever know if people are actually doing the best they can at the time. Most of the time, they’re probably not. But one thing you can guarantee is that your life will be easier and happier when you assume that they are. It’s not your job to control others or persecute them for it.
I forgive my mother, my father and all of my partners. I deserve peace now. I’ve spent years and years with both my fists raised up in front of my face, and it’s blocked my perspective.
It’s been exactly one month since we broke up. I’m eating reduced Valentine’s Day chocolate (16th is the new 14th!). I’m still sober, and he’s back to drinking like he used to with the people he’s used to. He’s moving into a new place and getting that mortgage he always wanted – I’m moving closer to work, my mother, my sister and most of my friends. I spent Valentine’s night drinking mocktails and watching Taylor Swift on Netflix. I’m lining up guest spots, hikes and travel destinations for 2020 with the cat on my lap. I’m cooking dinner and seeing my best friend later. I’m not sure what I’m looking for in terms of partner(s) now. All I know is that I just want to keep writing. This has been one of the most powerful and cathartic outlets for me. Knowing it has helped so many others brings me to tears. I’ve helped people get sober, process trauma, get out of relationships and get into therapy. If I keep speaking my truth with real love, the truest and most real love will come back to me.
Doctors can diagnose and treat you, but they don’t make you healthy. Surgeons can repair you, but they don’t heal you. Teachers can teach you, but they don’t make you learn. Trainers can train you, but they don’t make you fit. Coaches can coach you, but they don’t make you rich and successful. At some point, you have to realise that your growth is your responsibility.
It’s been 4 weeks since the breakup. I still miss him, of course I do. I love him too much to be with him now, as I know it’s for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad that I ‘gave him back’. I love myself more now that I was able to let go, and choose myself and my independency over the familiar trap of codependency. I’m really proud of the progress I’ve made, and am really looking forward to whatever comes next.
“What I miss most is how you loved me. But what I didn’t know was how you loved me had so much to do with the person I was. It was a reflection of everything I gave to you, coming back to me. How did I not see that. How did I sit here soaking in the idea that no one else would love me that way. When it was I that taught you. When it was I that showed you how to fill, the way I needed to be filled. How cruel I was to myself. Giving you credit for my warmth simply because you had felt it. Thinking it was you who gave me strength, wit, beauty. Simply because you recognised it. As if I was already not these things before I met you. As if I did not remain all these once you left.”
— Rupi Kaur.
Always remember: NO ONE is more equipped to love you than you are.
BREAKDOWNS & BUCKETS: Feeling lost or stuck? You might be trapped in a Crab Bucket™. How my breakdown last year became a breakthrough and a blessing: leading to my Autism diagnosis, my own business and the start of an incredible healing journey, out of the bucket and beyond…
For my entire life, I’ve always wondered why it felt like I was playing life stuck on HARD MODE… Getting sober 2 years ago started a chain reaction of events and circumstances that I could never have imagined.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
— Cynthia Occelli.
If you ever feel guilty or uneasy when sharing good news and positivity – you’re sharing it with the wrong people.
Crab mentality, also known as crabs in a bucketmentality, is a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. It’s a metaphor for how humans respond when they see someone else around them achieving some kind of self-improvement that they can’t achieve themselves. The metaphor is derived from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket. While any one crab could easily escape, its efforts will be undermined by others, ensuring the group’s collective demise. Crabs can resort to pinching, pulling off arms/legs and even killing their fellow crabs if any of them continue to try and escape. In human behaviour, this can look like undermining achievements, snide comments, belittling positive changes, ignoring, bullying. They do what they can to hinder progress, or even stop the person from simply trying to succeed. Promotions in the office due to sheer focus and hard work get dismissed as unfair, weight loss and new exercise routines can be met with jealousy and sabotage, holidays and travelling can be sneered at. Cutting down drinking can be met with surprise bottles of wine and extra boozy work lunches. Encouragement of unwise and damaging decisions. People with the crab mentality feel insecure when they see other people improve, and assume that they are failing because other people are succeeding. For crabs, and humans – misery loves company.Bad tribalism.
“We are built to be tribal. But sometimes that tribalism goes too far. The worst type of tribalism is groups aligned to destroy other groups, such as through ethnic cleansing and genocide. We have heard the word tribalism used a lot today in reference to our politics. Today in our political world, we have “bad tribalism.” Bad tribalism is a group identity that fosters the bullying and scapegoating of others not like you. Bad tribalism joins people out of anger, jealousy, and spite, not for collective well-being. The unfortunate irony is that bad tribalism is easy to provoke, but not healthy to maintain. Staying angry is stressful, and large doses of stress are bad for our health. At the same time, good tribalism is difficult to build, but healthy to maintain. When we connect with others to ensure safety and good health, we lower our own stress.”
— Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”
— Jim Rohn.
In my whole career, I’ve worked at and visited almost 20 studios around the UK. Unfortunately, in my experience, most tattoo studios are Crab Buckets™: breeding grounds for bad decisions, gang tactics, shitty behaviour and Drama Triangles. They’re usually alco-centric, narco-centric performance platforms of enmeshment and trauma bonds. The bad ones will trade healthy behaviour and professionalism for late nights, late mornings, hangovers, overworking and undercharging, lack of boundaries, lines in the bathroom, “after work beers” and smoking weed during work hours. Aren’t we supposed to just do our job, in the cleanest, happiest and most mentally healthy way possible? I wanted to be better, but couldn’t navigate myself out of the environment. I felt stuck, completely lost and unable to really ‘fit in’ anywhere and call it home. Every time the cycle repeated, I thought to myself “it’ll be different this time, it’ll be better.” The only problem was, I didn’t know how to function inside any environment that wasn’t dysfunctional…
🎉 Today’s a great day.
1st December marks the 1st anniversary of my own little micro-studio, YAY! What an insane, amazing, wonderful year it’s been…
My first appointment were those Stitch & Toothless cuties! Line-work was done a month prior. Thanks again to the lovely Leann! I’m so happy with how these turned out.
Since opening my own little business last year and going independent, I was able to confront A LOT of things that I had kept under wraps for a long time, but didn’t have the psychological, emotional and financial capability to tackle any of it before.
This business move started out as a product of sheer adrenaline and fear…
Late 2017, I was suddenly kicked out of my full-time job of 19 months one day with no notice, no real explanation and nowhere else to go. I was confused, devastated and unable to talk about it. I somehow stayed sober, and kept going.
I won’t go into a long, pitiful story of gory details. One day I’m telling my coworkers how excited I am about the staff Christmas dinner, the next day I’m silently, furiously packing up my stuff with everyone watching and a taxi waiting outside. I was utterly ashamed. In less than 24 hours, I found out there had been issues for months that weren’t discussed and campaigns/plans to have me out for ages. One of the owners of the studio, who isn’t a tattoo artist, stormed into the studio during work hours to verbally abuse me (loudly) whilst clients were getting tattooed. I didn’t have a chance to defend myself, and any defence I calmly attempted to make was dismissed before I could finish, so gave up and agreed with everything she said. She stormed out of the studio in tears, past clients getting tattooed. They moved in 2 other artists that day, who were good friends of theirs. They’d moved them in last minute because their last studio had suddenly closed down. I wasn’t told about any of the drama that was going on, but found out about it whilst I was setting up and tattooing a very delicate and personal tattoo for a new client. I packed up my stuff the same morning 2 other people were unpacking theirs. I scraped together what was left of my dignity and self-respect, and disappeared for good. I’m so glad I managed to hold back from lashing out. I considered them family, they considered me a problem. The last thing I was going to do was prove them right in my final moments in that building. I couldn’t change their perception of me. It all was a nasty combination of bad luck, bad timing and good intentions – with the wrong people.
“When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.”
— Peter Bromberg.
Tattoo studios don’t have HR departments, and don’t care about things like unfair dismissal, discrimination or loss of earnings. If they decide they want you out, you’re out. I had bookings I had to contact and rearrange myself, and clients had to retrieve their own deposits from the studio themselves. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent and bills that month, let alone be able to think about taking anyone to a small claims court. I closed my diary and lied to so many people. They said that if I told everyone what had happened, I would just be “playing the victim again”. My mental health was at absolute ground zero. I wanted to either kill someone, or kill myself. Mental breakdowns are sort of a death: the death of a current system of thinking that is no longer working.
I was almost 1 year sober at the time. Bookings were increasingly scarce, I had an impending knee reconstruction that I was desperately saving for, due to be scheduled over Christmas time. My mother’s health was deteriorating further. Somehow, I still didn’t manage to drink or take drugs during all of it. Despite how bad everything had become, I knew that it would be even worse if I wasn’t sober. I knew that if I didn’t stay on track, I’d be dead.
I was never told the real reasons why, just that ”the timing never seemed right” and that I would be “too fragile” to handle any feedback they had. I just had to accept it, keep my mouth shut, move on and learn from it as best I could. I survived on travelling and working hard at guest spots, where I managed 5 stays around the UK in about 6 weeks. It was a blur of train rides, suitcases and AirBnBs, trying to save every ounce of energy and positivity for my clients and their tattoos. Most evenings I would kick myself when I was down, yelling at myself in my head: “why didn’t you just ask them if something was wrong?”, “you asked for a shop meeting but you should’ve kept pushing it!”. After I was done yelling, I realised – it shouldn’t have been my responsibility, it should’ve been theirs.
I had a feeling no one liked me there anymore, but didn’t actually believe it was true. I figured it was just my own paranoia. I thought it had something to do with my sobriety, or that I have a blind spot for subtle social cues…
My mind was racing for weeks/months, working backwards and replaying things over and over. I started remembering little things dating back about 8 months – like walking into rooms when people were talking and hearing abrupt silence as soon as they saw me. Comments like “you’ve changed”, “I miss the old La”. Spending days off and early mornings deep-cleaning the studio myself. Being the first one in to clean and set up whilst everyone else ran late. Bookings being messed up. Being blamed for things that were not my responsibility, because they were more emotionally involved with the real person at fault. I remembered the things I did – like always talking about sobriety. Saying things like “sobriety has given me what drugs and alcohol promised me” to my client whilst someone was talking about the benefits of smoking weed to their client. Taking ages to sort my head out and find a place to live in Newport after moving out of Bristol, and complaining/despairing about it. Shaking my head at people’s stories of heavy drinking and hangovers. Proudly announcing my new gym/exercise routine. I was really annoying, and definitely wasn’t the best version of myself at times. I worked much differently than they did, and did things in my own way. When I look back with hindsight from the correct perspective that I am actually Autistic, I am able to forgive myself and have compassion for myself now, when I did not have compassion by others before.
Statistics show that only 15 percent of adults with autism are in full time employment. That means that there are hundreds of thousands of adults whose often unique skills and talents are not being utilised in the workplace or recognised across society as a whole. Every one of these individuals will have their own story of disappointment, rejection and embarrassment that they can’t just fit in at work, mixed with the sad knowledge that they have so much to give an employer simply because of their autistic traits.
Kay Lomas, researchautism.org
I was too distracted and wrapped up in myself. Bookings were scarce. My mum was becoming more ill. I saw my estranged father briefly for the first time in 7 years, it brought up a lot of stuff and made new wounds when he left again. I was enjoying being sober and single for the first time that summer after a short, unhealthy relationship/breakup. I redecorated my home. I was worrying about my knee-op and worrying about recovering. I was getting up at 5am, training twice a week in Cardiff at 7am before being back in work for 10am. I should’ve realised what was going on sooner.
Funny thing is, your ego can have you crying over a closed door that had nothing left behind it. I realised that as I transitioned from my old self into the new, that I’d tolerated some pretty bad behaviour and bad professionalism, even in the studio that I considered my “home” and “family” I realised that anywhere that reminds me of those things will always be dysfunctional.
“FRAGILE”, OR FORMIDABLE?
3 weeks after losing my job in that studio, I celebrated my 1st year of sobriety on the 29th October. Although I’d made plans to properly treat myself that day, it didn’t feel like a victory. I spent the day travelling to a guest spot week at a studio in Bristol over Halloween, which was super fun and rewarding. I was exhausted and overloaded, but managed to keep my head above water. The AirBnB had a great bathtub and lovely hosts, so there was definitely another win.
I opened my own little business inside the gym that was helping me prepare for the knee reconstruction.
I managed to get my little studio up and running myself: 2 weeks before the operation date, which was 5 days before Christmas and in amongst a horrendous heartbreak (cheating/ghosting by a Paramedic, tragically ironic!). It made the hospital visits, stays and complications even more stressful. I managed to afford to take 4 weeks off to recover from the surgery. I mostly looked after myself, and planned how I would raise myself up from the tar pit. I sent an invoice to the Paramedic a few months later – for emotional damages, expenses and most importantly, wasting my time. I still keep in touch with one of the women he was dating the same time as me, a then 21 year-old pole fitness student Jess. We compared screenshots, anecdotes and supported each other through the bullshit. Solidarity and feminism done right. Jess, you’re strong, beautiful and wonderful – thank you.
“Fear-based decisions make people more likely to feel they’re not the authority of their own life: make more love-based decisions!”
— Karamo Brown.
Recovery is a process of UNCOVERING and RECOVERING who we truly are.
Trauma is the gateway to addiction. Connection is the remedy to addiction.
I got sober in 2017.
I started the year with a funeral: someone who ended their life, aged 33. I’d only met them once in life, but went to support my ex-partner and friends there. Going to that funeral broke apart and changed me, but what I found the most astonishing was how people behaved. Good people, chemically destroying themselves in unity, all agreeing “it’s what they would have wanted”. So many people turned up, utterly devastated. Getting fucked up at a funeral of suicide seems all the more tragic, spreading further the pain and manifesting more harm. I couldn’t quite understand it, but I joined in anyway and felt disgusting the next day. It should never have happened. I was utterly overwhelmed, and wanted to try and make it stop somehow. I realised that I could stop the harm I was doing to myself, and in turn pay respect to their life by learning and living better. Rest in peace, you wonderful soul.
It took me nearly 11 months to get fully sober. I started with drugs, then alcohol 5 months later. I just couldn’t pretend or hide anymore. I finally took responsibility for my own life. After years of running, hiding, self harm and trauma, I paused to reflect. Around the same time I was coming to my absolute limit, Russell Brand wrote and released his book on sobriety, called Recovery. This was the real catalyst of change for me.
I had NO idea how sobriety would completely transform not only myself, but my entire life.
My sobriety disrupted many people that were in my life. I started to fall out and lose touch with lots of friends, family and co-workers as I transitioned from my old self to the new. It was really hard to see everything I was so familiar with fall apart and change so quickly and so dramatically. Many people with autism hate disruption of routines and comfort, and holy fuck it was traumatic.
I kept it real quiet at first. I remember seeing my best friend from Southampton for the first time in ages. She drove up to South Wales to visit, and didn’t know I was 2 months sober at the time. I bought us dinner and gifted her my bicycle: I wasn’t able to ride anymore because of ongoing injuries. Long story short, I told her that I was sober and pretty serious about it. Shortly after that, she announced she wanted to visit another friend: she left my house and drove to a bar in Bristol to drink with another tattoo artist, either staying at his place that night or driving back to Southampton from the bar. I thought she was joking until she walked out the door. She ate the food I bought, took my bike and left. She’d been my friend for years. I was devastated and felt sick, I kept yelling in my head “we’d been through so much together, worked together, lived together! She has a boyfriend! How could she just leave like that after coming all this way to see me?”. I paused, then realised: “We mostly drank together, complained together, partied together… She wanted to drink that night, why should I stop her? Let her go.” I remained her friend for a year after that, but it was never the same. I wish her well and hope she’s happy. I started to notice more toxicity in the relationships I’d chosen to maintain with people: when people would make little digs at me, put me down, nip at me. I realised my whole life was a bit of a Crab Bucket™ – sobriety was the first step in climbing out.
If I’m not careful, I get sucked into people’s melodrama. I start worrying about everyone in the situation and hyperfocusing on it – trying to understand everything about their problems, and ultimately, try to solve it all. I start mimicking the people around me, copying behaviours. To me, love is always conditional. I feel I have to be of use to people, and require feeling liked and needed to be of any value. Every day I have to work really hard to feel worthy, valuable and deserving. The curse of codependency!
As my mind got clearer and clearer, started seeing so much more. I started feeling better and better, and started to lose interest in my usual habits – complaining a lot, self deprecating humour, ranting etc. I even started eating less sugar. I noticed a part of my mind still craved the familiar, it still wanted all those people and situations. They’d become the last artefact of my old life, and I still craved bullshit. I stayed in the bucket and kept hanging around people that had quite frankly lost interest in me. As the months went on in sobriety, I realised it was the first time I was acting like “myself” since I started drinking 15 years ago. Turns out, the “real” La was a super awkward, Autistic weirdo who had got really good at pretending she wasn’t. I still crave bad stuff when I’m feeling low and run-down, but nowadays it’s just excessive, unhealthy amounts of aggressive sex and chocolate. Not exactly replacement behaviours, but I’m working on it!
My confidence grew with my sobriety: I started using it for stupid things. Like telling someone I used to work with for years, that I’d always had a crush on them. It lasted 3 months! I was still attracted to people who were irresponsible and drank/partied a lot. Their behaviour still seemed sexy, funny, spontaneous and appealing. I feel it was still a part of me that was holding onto that state of mind, even just a little. I stayed sober on dates, whilst watching them drink. Sometimes they wouldn’t drink either, maybe to impress me or try and prove a point. Most of their conversations revolved around drinking/drug taking, or ex-partners. I realised that this was just another trauma-bond, and that I still had a lot of healing to do. They started drinking again and hooked up with someone else after I left – and later got back with their ex for the 3/4th time. I went celibate for 3 months, joined a gym and redecorated my home. I don’t know what happened after that, but truly hope he’s happy now. I’ve now learnt NOT to chase things that were never, ever meant for me.
I grew stronger, and in growing stronger I grew louder. I started speaking up about things that weren’t right, about people and clients that were being unreasonable and ridiculous. I started being more honest when speaking. I started charging and pricing my time more accurately, my sense of self-worth started to increase. I started to stand up and flex my muscles, literally and metaphorically. Projecting my voice more. Everyone loves a strong woman until she actually starts showing and using her strength. Suddenly, she’s too much. She’s forgotten her place, “too big for her boots.” Too loud, too much attitude. These women are coveted as ideas, as fantasies. Not tolerable as living, breathing humans, threatening to be potentially better than they could ever be.
‘A lesson is repeated until it is learnt.”
After that breakup, I joined a specialist gym at HANGAR in Cardiff with personal trainer Matt Bowring and commuted from Newport twice a week for 6 months. We were focusing on building strength and preparing me for the knee reconstruction. I was hyper-focused and determined – getting up at 5am and making it to the gym for 7am, before getting back to Newport again for work. My personal trainer was fantastic and incredibly patient, and didn’t see me as a lost cause. I fell in love with the gym instantly. My confidence skyrocketed – I started wearing nicer clothes, treating myself better. When I told him what had happened with the studio, he told me that there was going to be a licensed treatment room inside the gym available in December…
After the sheer amount of rejection, missing hints and certain comments in 2018, I genuinely started to wonder if I was “on the spectrum”. I followed my gut and took 2 autistic spectrum tests online (scored 88% on the 1st and 38/50 on the 2nd). I managed to afford to take 4 weeks off – and in that time I mostly looked after myself, and planned how I would raise myself up from the tar pit.
I made a list of things I wanted to do when I could walk again. Start weekly therapy sessions, treat myself to brand new boots. Start hiking again, climb a mountain. I imagined running, being able to weight train and do yoga again. I told everyone it was almost full healed, even when the stitches were still in, even I was still in crutches. It was mind over matter – The reconstruction was successful, and I healed in record time for someone my age and the scale of the existing damage.
As soon as I could drag myself in, I marched into therapy on two crutches in January 2019. I have been to counselling etc in the past, but had very poor experiences with them professionally and just wasn’t ready. I chose a private CBT counsellor who had an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) background. I began therapy with the CBT angle, and only brought up autism a few sessions later. The first few sessions addressed the PTSD I’d suffered from losing my job, the 2 short relationships/breakups and having a particularly traumatic hospital experience and recovering from surgery alone. When I raised the concern myself, she smiled. “ASD” was one of the first things she wrote down in her notes during our first session!
After that, and a lot of doctors/hospital visits, I was professionally and medically diagnosed as autistic with multiple associated conditions/chronic illnesses. I had to navigate and learn to process and manage this with no support outside of therapy, whilst continuing to work hard running/operating my own business, still recovering from a knee reconstruction. I’ve always tried to stay positive without being “fake” – and maintained upbeat professionalism online as much as possible, whilst recovering and healing in private.
(I chose not to follow a clinical “government” diagnosis, as I feel I don’t need to access extra support, and do not work for a company or have an employer. Over the last 10 months, my private therapist has helped me process the diagnosis, grieve my “old self” and helps me manage my life and my autism every week)
“Changing bad tribalism into good tribalism: How can we invoke healthy forms of tribalism and lessen bad tribalism? First, recognise that groups built on the foundation of hate, disdain, and anger build those traits in ourselves. With the constant urging of bad tribalism, we stay angry, and that can affect our personal well-being. Second, we can step outside ourselves through empathy and see the world from the view of others. When we use empathy to understand others, we see how we are similar, how we are all human beings. Empathy can broaden our sense of connections to others, and that diminishes bad tribalism. Ultimately our goal should be to build the tribe we all belong to: that of humanity. When we can see each other as human beings, we change bad tribalism into good tribalism. We are part of the work to ensure the survival of our shared tribe of humanity.”
— Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com
Those 6 months were completely life destroying and life changing. I have had to completely rebuild myself, and am navigating most parts of my life all over again from the correct perspective (finally). There has been a lot more darker things I’ve had to deal with too, which quite frankly will stay between me and my therapist.
V for VICTORIOUS, not “VICTIM”.
I created my studio myself. I built all the furniture myself, and have brand new top of the range everything. I’ve spent 14 months recovering from and processing everything that happened. I can do things my way, set up and clean everything in my own way. If I want pink kitchen roll, I can buy and use as much as I want! I’m no longer using worn-out, cheap furniture that didn’t belong to me. I’m no longer paying 40% of my earnings every day to 2 people who complained that I used too much kitchen roll to clean with, while they own a large rural house with a swimming pool and vintage cars. When I was being screamed at that day, I was told I was “ungrateful” for everything they did for me, and I understand how they felt that way. But I thanked them so many times, over and over for 19 months. They did not thank me for the 19 months I earned my keep and tried my best to make things work, but I didn’t expect to be thanked. I was happy to do it and be part of the team. Expecting loyalty and conformity in return for helping someone is just a form of control. Gang tactics. Staying in that studio for as long as I did, commuting from Bristol for 5 months in the beginning, turning down job offers in other studios and making a 60-70 mile round trip every day by train and bus, choosing to stay even when bookings were bad and people didn’t want me there anymore, keeping my mouth shut even when I was being abandoned by the people I’d pledged “loyalty” to, now that’s commitment and dedication. Now, I thank my clients more, over and over. They’re the REAL stars, and always were! I’m now able to dedicate myself to the most important parts of tattooing, as much as I am able to. If you want something done right, do it yourself.
What if simply being autistic and not fitting in gives us the need and drive to create our career paths by working freelance, by being entrepreneurial, by making an income out of a hobby or by working creatively or in scientific research? Would we really want to lose that unique pool of talent to a big corporation just for the sake of being able to fit in? It seems vital to me that each unique autistic person is given the opportunity and support to succeed at work in whatever career path they want to follow. I believe those of us who have a voice must speak up for the rest of our community when we can. There’s an awful lot of work to be done before we see any percentage increase for employment levels realised.
Kay Lomas, researchautism.org
Surround yourself with people who will help and celebrate your improvements, and empower you to be a better version of yourself. Pulling someone down will never help you reach the top.
Cultivating a positive, fulfilling life will be almost impossible to do surrounded by negative, unfulfilled people. One of the biggest tests of your strength and commitment to a better life is to be able to pull yourself out of the bucket on your own. You can’t change how other people think, so in order for these destructive thoughts to not affect you, move on and spend your time with people who are more supportive. Attend seminars, listen to podcasts, read books, go to galleries, conventions and shows. Replace self-harm with self-care. Don’t let the crabs get to you down!
Earlier this year, the studio sent me back some items of mine I’d left behind at the studio the day I packed up and left; along with a note wishing me good luck with the new business. I sent them a big bunch of flowers to say thank you, and sorry for leaving them behind.
When asked what forgiveness is, the Sufi holy man replied: “It is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.”
People with autism deserve a place in society and the tribe of humanity. Let them thrive like flowers: they may grow differently, require different soil. Require different conditions to live. Some may flower less than others. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live and bloom. I hope to raise awareness, offer support and shed light on this beautiful community of rare and precious talents and perspectives.
Traditional tattoo history in the UK has come from seedy beginnings and back alleys, shrouded in mystery, criminal gangs and bad behaviour. It was a big boys club, when clients were second-rate citizens next to the prestigious artists. Tattoos were reserved for criminals, sailors, soldiers and sex workers, and were a symbol of unsavoury, low-brow taste. Bad tribalism. The real roots of tattooing come from good tribalism, thousands of years ago to this present day – symbols of growth and special occasions between communities, ways of connection. Tattooing is a ritual, a sacred event.
🦀 Let’s get out of our buckets and into the tribe, where we all belong.
Surviving, thriving, self care and self harm: Why should you give a fuck? Because you deserve it.
We need regulation of our appetites. We shouldn’t be able to just run amok. There should be limits in place that stop us, because there are human appetites that are very self-centred and non-communal as much as there is love and community spirit.
Most of our behaviour is either self-care, or self-harm.
First of all: FUCK YEAH, you made it this far! Life is a balance between order and chaos. Care and harm can be managed and handled in equal measure. The fact that you’re still managing to hold it together, whilst reading a blog about self care is testament to that! You’re doing much better than you think, I promise.
Humans need regulation!
We all crave discipline, and we all deserve happiness. Pain & pleasure, but in equal measure.
The One That Thrives is the One You Feed.
Just because I carry everything so well, does not mean it’s not heavy. I’m Autistic, chronically ill, processing big trauma, grief and working to re-wire my brain and nervous system. Depression and anxiety are dear old friends of mine. I’m self employed, run my own business and live with my cat. I work most days, all day – I clean and maintain my own studio, answer all my own emails, do my own admin, run my merch store then have to clean my home and feed the cat afterwards. Maybe see my partner on the weekend, or my friends at some point. Maybe train, or watch anime and play games. Maybe write some more. Maybe not…
Stuck on HARD MODE: My default setting is pretty harsh and dark. The tar pit is always out there, waiting for me. I have to work really hard to re-wire my default programming every day.
SELF HARM isn’t just about cutting/burning your skin when things are really bad. It can be self sabotaging when things are really good. It can be watching sad, depressing movies and horrible documentaries all the time. It’s winding people up who you know will lash out at you. It’s repeatedly engaging with people who are committed to misunderstanding you.
Complaining that someone’s being a clown all the time? Stop hanging out in the circus! This stuff is totally your choice. Allow yourself to believe that you deserve better.
If you run from your demons, they will chase you – if you turn to face them, they will run from you. Train them, by training yourself!
I can’t turn OFF being depressed or anxious. I can’t STOP being Autistic and chronically ill – but I can manage it all better with self care, and I can choose to be happy and grateful in spite of it all.
“My sanity requires daily maintenance.”
— Julia Cameron.
FEEDING//STARVING YOUR DEMONS:
Self harm can look like:
Lack of routines
Denying yourself sleep, sleeping poorly
Staying up late, then sleeping in
Choosing not to eat/drink well
Not keeping yourself/your home warm enough
Not keeping on-top of laundry
Denying yourself showering/grooming
Keeping your home messy/damp/unclean
Spending too much time on social media
Comparing yourself to others
Skipping prescribed medication
Skipping doctors appointments/checkups
Not brushing/looking after your teeth
Over-exercising & over-working yourself
Skipping physio appointments
Taking on too many jobs/projects at once
Staying in contact with toxic ex-partners
Scratching/picking/pinching your skin
Getting tattooed irresponsibly
Forcing yourself go out and do things when you’re exhausted
Choosing to put yourself in anxiety-inducing situations
Triggering yourself: movies, TV, books, social media etc
Looking up abusive/toxic ex-partners, friends or family online
Entering relationships you don’t want to be in
Hanging out with people you don’t want to be around
Having sex when you don’t want to
Setting yourself punishments
Not giving yourself enough time
Always running late
Leaving everything last minute
Spending less time with people who love and care for you
Avoiding healthy, nurturing relationships
Yelling/making fun of yourself in your head
Sneering/scowling at yourself in the mirror
Criticising your body in the mirror
Holding in things instead of venting
Seeking out confrontation/conflict
Staying in toxic relationships
Doormats have to be lying down on the ground, before people are able to walk all over them. Get up!
Looking after your teeth: sticking to dentist appointments
Mindful eating, self-control
Manageable amounts of exercise & work
Keeping up with physio, stretching
Comfortable schedules of jobs/projects
Cutting contact with toxic ex-partners
Open, honest communication: speaking your truth
Moisturising and protecting your skin
Staying in to recharge when you’re exhausted
Choosing not to put yourself in anxiety-inducing situations
Comforting yourself: feel-good movies, comedy etc
Blocking abusive/toxic friends or family online
Avoiding relationships you don’t want to be in
Avoiding people you don’t want to be around
Healthy, connected and safe sex whenever you want to
Rewards, treating yourself
Giving yourself enough time
Structured task management
Spending more time with people who love and care for you
Allowing yourself space to create healthy, nurturing relationships
Complimenting yourself in your head
Smiling at yourself in the mirror
Celebrating your body in the mirror
Freely expressing needs
Getting tattooed responsibly
Quietening the mind
Clear boundaries, open communication
Working through confrontation/conflict
Walking in nature
Self-respect: staying out of toxic relationships
Obviously not all these are exactly as black & white as they are here. They can clash with each other: like going to a dentist appointment when you’re stressed, exhausted and hungry; or dealing with difficult people in your workplace, or keeping up with exercise/training if your work schedule is full. They always require a choice, but sometimes it isn’t easy. I also understand that managing self care can be tricky if you’re a parent, and I totally understand and respect that. I can’t have children, for a number of reasons, but know there are incredible mums and dads out there who are able to navigate parenthood and find their own balance. Following your gut takes practice: breath-work/meditation, therapy and writing can help you tune-in more closely. Feel once, so you don’t have to think twice. Recharging regularly is essential, especially if you have a lot going on.
Here’s some self care basics that have made the biggest impact on me. I hope they can help you too:
Sleep hygiene. 💤
Clean up your sleep routine! Sleep is super important to give you energy to heal each day. Food provides fuel, tea/coffee can stimulate you but only sleep can repair and recover you.
REM sleep allows you to recharge, process stresses/traumas and balance brain chemistry. Negative thoughts and anxieties you’ve stored up subconsciously from the stresses of the day, are able to be processed consciously in the form of dreams. Humans need 7-8 hours sleep per day. It’s proven that if you have less than this each day, your lifespan is significantly less and your quality of life is reduced. REM sleep takes a lot of energy to do – it’s only 20% of the sleep cycle on average. If you’ve got a lot of stuff to process, you’ll go through more REM sleep. This can cause you wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. You can wake up more tired, as your brain has spent lots of energy repeating a REM cycle.
I’ve been doing sleep hypnosis for 7 months now. As with all of these suggestions, I encourage you to discover for yourself, and find out what works/doesn’t work for you.
🔆 Screen time:
Blue light from artificial screens can stop us sleeping properly, as it has the same biological triggers as blue skies and sunrises. Red app notifications are designed intentionally to grab our attention, make us alert and keeping us looking at the screen. This affects sleep because if your brain is in alert mode, making it harder to relax.
I put my phone on airplane mode, every night, without fail. I can’t be of good use to myself or anyone else if I’m running on a shit night’s sleep. Notifications don’t come through, random app reminders stay away until after I decide to turn it back on. I try to leave it on until coffee/writing/meditation is done. I sometimes use it for when I’m cleaning at home, or when I’m with my partner in the evenings.
SAD lamps keep you HAPPY in the darker months! I have a S.A.D lamp that I use every morning now, from September to March.
🌞 Morning routine:
Writing every morning is an amazing way to change your life.
Last time I was writing daily, was over 2 years ago. I’d just moved into my new flat, but was although I was feeling very positive, I was confused and filled with dread. I was heading towards a breakdown without having any idea. Breakdowns are sort of a death; daily writing helps draw it all out. I took a hiatus from writing every day, as I felt I had other things I needed to address. I had a year of big changes to navigate before I settled into the beautiful routine I have now.
Fast forward over 2 years later, to now: the flat is filled with houseplants, my newly adopted cat Sid is here. I run my own business. After 3 years of waiting, I finally went through and fully recovered from a knee reconstruction. I’m 2 years sober. I had a life changing trip to Sweden last month. I have a partner that loves me in a way that I never believed I deserved before. The coffee is really, really good.
When I was writing on that desk back in 2017, I would never have believed I’d get to where I am today. I had almost convinced myself that I didn’t deserve any of it…
Mind wandering makes us miserable. 4/5 thoughts are negative, this is a left-over survival tactic of risk assessment. Meditation quietens the mind and the ‘internal critic’, making it easier to pull to a soft and calm focus when things get tough. Lots of people either love meditation or they hate it. When I re-downloaded Headspace this year, I realised the last time I used it was ‘pre-sobriety’. I use that one word to summarise a very long list of harmful behaviour, situations and general misery spanning years and years.
I think the last time I used it I was hungover, miserable from some breakdown of a short toxic relationship and struggling to book work in a studio that was failing. I’d relocated 140 miles away from home hoping to get a “fresh start” – in a doomed, toxic environment. I was trying to clear my mind, but had no idea the real reasons why I couldn’t quiet things down up there. I was also undiagnosed Autistic and was suffering almost continuous ‘sensory overload’ and ‘burnout’ daily without understanding why. I kept spraining my ankles from hyper-mobility, and had long term damage from gluten intolerance. I had surrounded myself with “frenemies” that had similar lifestyles and attitudes, and really just hated themselves as well as me. I was trying to relax whilst sitting in the middle of a fucking tiger enclosure… on fire.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
— Joseph Campbell.
I got fed up of hiding and distracting myself in over-working, people-pleasing, drinking/partying, complaining, despairing and staying stuck. I knew I had to change, I just had no idea how I would do it.
I moved back home to South Wales in 2017, a few months before I became sober: I (just about) managed to overcome one of the lowest points in my life, eventually finding and creating a gorgeous little home. I stopped drinking and other drugs, embarked on 18 months of training/physio, then suddenly but gratefully got laid off from a job in another ‘alcocentric’/‘narcocentric’ studio. I travelled guest spots for 6 weeks before opening my own business, started to clear my life up of toxicity: I cut ties with harmful people/connections, let go of family members, re-connected with loving, happy and nutritious people, getting closer to my new sense of home. After 8 months of CBT/Autism therapy, 3 months of sleep hypnotherapy and 1.6 years into Recovery, I re-downloaded the app. No more tigers on fire.
I still find meditation tricky, and don’t always use apps – lots of people on the spectrum struggle to focus on nothing. When you feel like your neuro-divergent mind is racing non-stop, it can be really hard to tune-out the noise. Trying is still important, and still counts. It’s all progress. The mind is like a radio, just be aware of it, listen to it, don’t tune into it too much. Breathe in for 4, out for 4. Repeat…
🥥 Coconut oil.
Seriously. I’ve been drinking it in my coffee almost every morning for nearly 3 years. I also use it heal tattoos, and on my hair and skin.
I use it to intermittently fast most mornings (I just have to remember to eat when I’m focused on tattooing!). Intermittent fasting is a process of alternating cycles of fasting and eating – for stamina, metabolism and increasing lifespan and resistance to disease. Coconut oil is quick healthy energy that increases metabolism. It can help your liver, boost brain function, boost bone health, reduce inflammation and aid in fat burning. The healthy fatty acids in coconut oil can kill harmful pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. This can potentially help to prevent infections. You can take your makeup off with it, cook with it – I can’t recommend this stuff enough! Vita Coco, Clearspring and Biona are really good.
🌲 Tree bathing.
CBD oil and supplements are great too – I’ve been taking multi-vitamins for years, and in the last few years have been taking probiotics and amino acids as well as joint care and turmeric stuff. CBD oil is non-psychoactive: stabilising mood and stress levels naturally, whilst managing pain and inflammation. CBD oil doesn’t necessarily make you feel more good, it makes you feel less bad. As with a lot of these suggestions, it can give you a little bit more space to do the work yourself.
This month’s changes are next months results.
“A year from now, you may wish you had started today.”
— Karen Lamb.
6 months of focus and hard work can put you 5 years ahead in life. Don’t underestimate the power of consistency and desire. It’s never too late – trust the timing of your life, and believe that you already have everything it takes. What a wonderful thought, that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet!
There are people less qualified than you, doing the things you want to do, simply because they decide to believe in themselves.
Writing this blog and making posts like this are not just a hobby of mine, it’s the highest form of self care for me. I’m finally able to share my stories and experiences from a healed perspective, and it’s incredibly cathartic and freeing. If I can help others along the way, this will in turn help me as part of my recovery. Life isn’t about competition: I want you to do well and heal. I want us all to thrive!
Signs you are healing/growing:
More observing, less judging
More responding, less reacting
More self-love, less self-sabotage
More boundaries, less resentments
More inner peace, less outer chaos
More clarity, less confusion
More being, less doing.
More faith, less fear.
I’m outgrowing harm, and taking root into care.
For various reasons, beyond my control: I spent my early, formative years frozen in survival mode. I was neglected, abused, lacking emotional/spiritual nutrition and constantly analysing risks and anticipating/avoiding more harm. I’ve had to learn how to become my own nutritional, caring source. I’m now in control. I’ve stopped avoiding pain, and am moving through it. I’m now able to make myself safe and well, more often. As I navigate the decades of trauma and pain, I’m breaking cycles. I want the same for you, too.
Trust me – if I can do this stuff, you’ve got this.
“What you say NO to, often defines YOU and your business far more than what you say YES to.”
— The Costa Sisters.
I have my own business, but I am NOT a business.
I’m an ARTIST and a human being, not Starbucks. I’m 1 human doing the work of 3. I feel everything more than most, and work harder than anyone will ever really know.
I am posting this, currently off work for a few days and suffering an immune system crash due to stress… I think? (I’m having more bloods done and a CT scan, very morbidly exciting). Spending my 2 year sobriety birthday hardcore napping and visiting my GP twice yesterday was an interesting surprise!
Maybe it was working a 55 hour week of awesome tattoos whilst hiding/managing a shingles flare-up – just after getting back from an amazing, 5-day business trip to Sweden. Maybe it was the excitement/stress of travelling and exploring Stockholm for the first time. Maybe it’s been from enduring online harassment for weeks and weeks. Maybe it’s the general misery of the UK. Maybe it’s because I had another flare-up after getting home from a 12 hour round-trip to Manchester, just after the first one healed. Maybe it’s a hEDS thing. Maybe it’s something else.
I’m still learning a lot of things: most importantly, how to say no.
It’s coming up to a whole year since I’ve been running my own little business, and it’s definitely been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’d say most of all the hardest things I’ve ever done have been in the past 2-3 years. Trial by fire, over and over.
Biggest and best thing I’ve been learning this year?
This year, I’ve been speaking up and taking up more space. Communicating with clients that I don’t think are the best fit, or I feel do not trust me and how I work. I’ve been more vocal about clients that have scared me. Clients that are clearly more interested in what I look like, than how my tattoos look! I’ve been more vocal about clients that have made me uncomfortable, and have had to suggest they go elsewhere. I communicate to every client about how I work in detail, and explain my process more. I work WITH clients, not FOR them.
Many people with Autism (me included) have a very keen, overwhelming sense of the emotional states of others. Being hyper-aware like this is usually a choice between: ignore it and shut off, or tune into it and become overwhelmed. Being sensory overloaded can affect this choice too.
When I first started saying no, I did it politely but very bluntly. This shook a few clients up, made them uncomfortable and they lashed out. Setting and holding boundaries is a terrible, clumsy process at first, and there’s never a guarantee you can place them safely and avoid conflict. Maybe their cognitive discomfort is from their interpretation of me, not playing out in real life in the way they had predicted in their mind. They say that expectations are just planned disappointments – I had to keep telling myself that the version of me they’ve created in their mind is not my responsibility. If someone responds in a hurtful way and continues to harass me, I am simply getting feedback on their emotional wellness. I remain calm. I breathe, learn and wish them well.
“Those with trauma and unhealthy attachment will view boundaries as a rejection. Or abandonment. They have not healed, and believe a person with limits is harming them.”
— Dr. Nicole LePera.
Here’s a little bit about what I’m talking about:
I have 2 years sobriety and a substantial amount of therapy under my belt. I meditate, I work out, I fight personal chronic illness and promote mental wellness.
I raise awareness about Autism, and offer support for women going through a diagnosis later in life. I also offer support to anyone going through any topics that are discussed, as best I can.
If that makes you unhappy in any way, please don’t request to book in to get tattooed by me. We both deserve to be happy in life, so let’s agree to leave each other alone! I want to recover out loud to help those struggling in silence; and serve as a testament to the theory that if I can do this stuff, anyone can.
(A lot of what I’ve been through I have managed totally on my own. I live alone and I don’t have any family to rely on or a large support network. Usually, it’s just me. I do however, have an incredibly loving cat, 2 magical best friends, a fantastic PT and a wonderful therapist!)
If my lifestyle makes you uncomfortable, I understand. There’s plenty of other amazing artists out there that make great tattoos and share your values and attitudes – tattooing is a close proximity, 2 player game. Tattoos are a luxury, and I want to keep and treat them that way. I’m more than happy to talk to you about drinking/drugs and share anecdotes from my past, but won’t be able to connect with you about it as a current lifestyle. I’d much rather talk about movies, games, sci-fi, conspiracy theories, science, ghosts, aliens, travelling, where you see yourself in 5 years, favourite animals, funny stories and weird facts. I love hearing all your beautiful, wonderful and interesting answers! We don’t even have to talk: we can just listen to music and enjoy the process. Sometimes tattooing needs to be a quiet, focused experience.
Unfortunately, confessing embarrassing/dark/criminal/secret things to me whilst you’re getting tattooed does not absolve you from them. I’d recommend talking to a licensed therapist, joining a 12-step programme in your area and practicing self love and compassion. I can only listen and offer reassurance during our appointment, whilst you’re in my care.
I’m proud to be able to provide a private and intimate tattooing experience, free from most of the usual distractions and social bullshit. I want to focus on the two most important things: the client and the tattoo! My studio is also inside an amazing gym – my whole life and work ethos is now focused on positive change, self care and self improvement. I truly want everyone to achieve their “best self”, in whatever way that feels best for them, and however that looks for them.
I don’t have to tattoo everyone, or take on every ‘job’. I can’t.
I only have a finite amount of time and energy remaining on this planet. I cannot physically, mentally and emotionally afford to take on clients and work which isn’t the right fit for the both of us. I have big trauma behind me and chronic illness/autism beside me. Recharging in solitude and pacing myself is essential to my survival, and I’ve got really good at it.
This isn’t about NOT being able to tolerate stressful, difficult situations with clients – this is about how much BETTER I am when I’m not dealing with it on a regular basis.
I create better work, I’m able to show up better for my clients and the people in my life, I can manage my autism, health conditions and sobriety more effectively. I can be a better human, more regularly.
“Boundaries are an act of self care. They are for us. If someone responds in a hurtful way we are simply getting feedback on their emotional wellness. Emotionally well people respect boundaries. They honor the needs of others, because they honor the needs of themselves.”
— Dr. Nicole LePera.
I’ve been through a lot. I really have. I’m becoming more aware of how this has changed and shaped me.
I’m capable of a lot of good things, and when I’m happy and comfortable I can achieve great work and great things. I don’t have to constantly grind and make money; I’m very fortunate and lucky to have a modest life, occasionally treating myself and others. I’ve spent 7 years learning and working in studios where heavy alcohol/drug use and lack of boundaries/toxic relationships were not just standard, they were funny and cool as fuck.
I’m now unlearning lots of old, outdated and toxic things about tattooing and the industry, so that I can take in and learn more new, better and healthy things.