Happy Halloween: no tricks, just treats! 🎃🍂 Friday 29th 2021 marked the 4th year of the treat of sobriety, and being free from the tricks of alcohol and other drugs.
“Everyone is welcome to take their own life experiences and version of events and make them into art. These are mine.”
When I was writing Sober October at the beginning of this month, I remembered that I had 4 other posts I’d been working on since 2020. I hate saying “I’ve been so busy” because it feels like such a thin excuse, but honestly I really have. I started writing back in October 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit the UK. In the last 18 months (with the help of others) I’ve moved house, built and opened 2 tattoo studios, successfully applied for a business loan, finally got the official diagnosis of lifelong chronic illness, celery juice cleansed for 7 months, built a life for myself in lockdown, met my partner Chris and, as well as travelling the UK this spring/summer, we now work and live together. Busy, I have been!
The idea of becoming a writer was born from years of scribbling intermittent Morning Pages at the crack of dawn, completely unaware back then that the rambling confusion I was scrawling onto the pages half asleep would be planting the first tiny seeds of change in my mind and heart. These seeds grew bigger, much to my surprise. When they became too large to ignore, I began to tend to them properly with honesty and action.
I started to make big changes in my life that seemed sudden, crazy and out of character to the people around me. I started to grow into the knowledge that one day that I was going to alchemise a lot of my pain, trauma and suffering into healing and inspiration. I’m so grateful to the people who have reached out over the last 3 years to tell me that my writing has really done something for them. It helps me to keep going and keep telling my stories. Everyone is welcome to take their own life experiences and version of events and make them into art. These are mine.
I find writing in a global pandemic and lockdowns easy(!), but it’s been the fluctuation and extreme pressure to work hard, return to business as normal, make the most of things opening back up… but then plunging back down to “stay at home, stay safe”, stopping working and entertaining ourselves. I’m currently hovering on working part time around weekly Fibromyalgia flareups. It’s been like a worldwide game of Simon Says, but with people’s lives and livelihoods. Fucking exhausting, especially for disabled and disadvantaged people.
I’m 4 years sober from alcohol and 4.5 years sober from other drugs. So far, I’ve saved just over £33,000.
This was based from what I was spending on an average week: £150.
£70 a week on booze is easy to do when you’re buying multiple glasses with a couple meals out at dinner, along with a few nice bottles per week to “unwind” with after work (decent meaning slightly better tasting poison with a prettier bottle and better branding). Funny thing is: no matter how much money you pay, it all feels the same the next day (so is the damage it’s doing to your brain and body).
£80 a week on average for other drugs. I definitely wasn’t partying every weekend (some months I was!) but the 3 years before I stopped had started to become increasingly heavy when I inevitably did. There were weeks when I hardly drank or partied at all. In the months leading up to getting sober, I would be teetotal for weeks before blowing it in one spectacularly chaotic evening. I managed just over 4 months sobriety back when I was 27, which I’ll be writing more in an upcoming post called Relapse.
“Funny thing is: no matter how much money you pay, it all feels the same the next day.”
Not to mention the amount of money I’ve saved on lost wallets, taxi rides, makeup bags, key replacements, locksmiths, replacement phone screens. Being neurodivergent means that this still happens, but not quite as often! I still shudder to remember the amount of shots I bought for people I didn’t even know. Those rare but ridiculous bar and strip club tabs. Having to go back the next day to pick up my wallet/makeup bag/keys. All those comfort purchases made during the emotionally vulnerable aftermath; like online shopping and hangover food. The ruthless payday loans and humiliating financial instability (self employment, disability and partying don’t blend well). Now, I won’t split a dinner bill if it’s full of other people’s alcohol. These days, it’s always principles before personalities.
Alcohol is a drug.
One more time for the “drugs are bad” crew at the back! Alcohol is a drug. It’s one of the most addictive substances and the only drug that can kill you if you withdraw from it too quickly. It’s a mind altering, mood swinging, mess making mockery of sophistication, style and sexiness. Poison ain’t pretty, despite the clever branding and advertising. Self destruction is too easy, the real anarchy and rebellion is self preservation.
Live within your means.
The financial gain from being sober is easy to talk about. the biggest gain I learnt in sobriety was how to live within my means, and I’m not just talking about income and expenses.
Living within my means looks like complete honesty and integrity about my limits and boundaries. Those limits are emotional, psychological and physical (as well as financial).
I spent over 30 years of my life without the knowledge that I am neurodivergent and chronically ill. I’ve had to process each diagnosis and disability, and redefine the scope of my abilities. I’ve had to learn to drop the elaborate mask I had created and was hiding behind. I had to stop trying to keep up with the outdated, able-bodied expectations I had put on myself and internalised ableism from society.
Living within my means can also look like choosing not to overbook my work schedule, refusing to watch that extremely triggering film/TV show until I’m ready, or be realistic about how much of my life is being affected by my chronic illness symptoms. It can also look like dumping that person with an avoidant attachment style who won’t go to therapy, can’t seem to stay sober or stop flirting with his female friends. Recently, living within my means meant I had to turn down an offer of a weekend away hiking Snowdonia, because it was happening just 4 days after a 3-week tour of North England and tattoo guestspot in Scotland. Good thing too, because I came back from Lake Windamere with a sprain to my reconstructed knee (hypermobility strikes again!).
It’s hard to talk about the health benefits of being sober when you’re chronically ill. I know that my conditions and symptoms in would be so much worse if I wasn’t sober. In terms of mental health, the benefits have been immense. It’s a myth that alcohol “loosens you up” and makes you more confident, it just makes you drunk! It’s a proven depressant and causes anxiety symptoms to worsen.
I preordered Sunshine Warm Sober earlier in the year on the recommendation of my wonderful friend Sammy of @sober_circle and wasn’t disappointed. 💛 Although I fucking love recovery, I admit I still struggle with accepting and tolerating the heavy drinking of the people I love. Catherine’s book made me feel so seen, heard and understood.
She’s armed the book with a formidable weaponry of statistics about the multi-billion worldwide industry that is Big Alcohol: did you know that drinking alcohol is as equally toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing) as smoking cigarettes? ☠️ and the REAL “safe” amount of alcohol would be ONE glass of wine per YEAR?! 🍷 but you wouldn’t know that, because Big Alcohol makes sure of it.
This is hands down one of the best #quitlitbooks I’ve ever read. Catherine starts this book at 4 years sober, and my sobriety journey and recovery feels so much like hers. She has another book that’s perfect for your shaky (terrifying) first months, and into years 1-3 (The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober).🕊
My favourite line from the book is about detaching from a loved one who is being consumed by their illness (addiction), and knowing when to walk away: “It’s not hypocrisy to detach with love. Three things can be true at once: 1. I love you, 2. I empathise, 3. I can no longer be around you.”
“Sunshine warm encapsulates how it actually feels to be sober… It feels beautiful, mellow, temperate and clear; like a fine summer’s day.”
I started celery juice cleansing in spring 2020. It was a few weeks after getting a lifelong Fibromyalgia diagnosis after fighting through a cancer scare and years of struggle and suspicion. I managed to keep cleansing after the 30 days, and read this book along with 2 more of the @medicalmedium books. I kept it up for about 7 months, but a sudden breakdown in November last year halted my life as well as my juice healing. I lost the ability to feel my lower abdomen and breathe deeply, and suffered constant migraines… I hardly left the house for 4 weeks. I worked hard to try and break out of that breakdown by being super gentle on my mind and heart. I spent it bathing, reading books and playing FFXV. December 2020 gave me so many amazing gifts after surviving what I did, and I’ve grown and learnt so much. Maintaining any “health kick” of any kind is tough, especially for anyone disabled or disadvantaged.
I definitely noticed an improvement in my symptoms last year after 7 months, but not as much as I’d hoped for. At first, I took this as a sign that the cleanse just wasn’t very effective. Now, I feel that it was more of a sign of how deep my chronic illnesses and conditions are rooted in my body, and how able-bodied you need to be to start and keep up the cleanse in the first place. This year I’ve been slowly getting back into healing and cleansing. Saying that, I finished day 30 this morning and I’m looking forward to not cleaning the juicer again tomorrow!
It’s definitely a luxury and privilege to be able to access juice cleansing. Although running a business and juice cleansing is tough, being self employed means I can adjust my hours to fit in juicing, cleaning the machine and making smoothies into my morning routine. I live opposite an organic food shop, and close by to lots of other shops. I can afford lots of extra fruit/vegetables and supplements. I don’t have children to take care of in my daily life. I’m not allergic to any of the extra things I’m introducing into my usual diet, as far as I am aware. I understand juice cleaning isn’t for everybody. But if you’re interested and feeling capable, you should definitely check out the @medicalmedium books and try it for yourself. 💚
This year’s Halloween is a quiet one: my chronic pain has been unbearable recently. Great excuse to spend the day resting, playing video games and watching horror movies with Chris. Having a partner that’s also chronically ill and neurodivergent means we can fully understand and take care of each other. Even though it’s just the two of us, it’s the first time I’ve had a proper sober Halloween. I’m so grateful for this, and for the life we’ve made together. ♥
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/ADD/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 rather 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
Read time: 50-53 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression, anxiety, emotional/psychological/sexual abuse, family and relationship trauma.
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 and 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.
Home wasn’t a consistently safe space for me as a child, and was routinely locked in my bedroom in the dark. During conflict, the bathroom door was always lockable and my choice to do so. I still love the sound that a bathroom lock makes, and the sound of a bath filling with hot water. As an adult, locked toilet doors at events and parties provide the same relief, and can enjoy a bath for hours and hours. I was able to manage Christmas a lot better this year because I was allowed to spend so much time in here. The tattoo on my thigh reads “Formidable” – both the English and French meaning. It was a celebration of overcoming and fully recovering from a skiing accident I had in the French Alps 4 years ago (it frames the surgery scars) and to symbolise letting go of the F words I used to call myself or were put on me by others (“fragile”, “failure”, “fuckup”) and give myself a new, strong and sexy F word. My therapist was impressed!
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 wasn’t autistic, 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.