Trigger warning: This feature discusses depression, disordered eating, and alcohol abuse.
Seven years ago, still practically vibrating with giddiness from the joy of it all, my brand new husband and I rolled out of bed the morning after our wedding, gingerly stepped over the fading rose petals that had been strewn all over our hotel suite by our wedding party, and tiptoed over to the shower to wash off the glitter still stuck to our bodies from the previous night’s festivities. Our first stop of the day—on our first day as a married couple—was brunch. We headed to our favorite little café, just the two of us, to decompress and debrief, and to fill our bellies before heading to our local tattoo shop.
Tattoos have been part of our relationship for years.
My husband and I have been getting tattooed together for a long time. Whenever something momentous happens in our lives, we like to get tattoos to commemorate it. All of our tattoos have meaning to us—our collection of designs remind us of how far we’ve come—but these ones were especially significant. Our wedding photographers even came to shoot the appointment.
We opted for finger tattoos, but before we could get them, our artists handed us waivers to sign confirming that we understood the risks: finger tattoos have a tendency to fade, blowout, and require a lot of upkeep. We did understand, but we didn’t care. We were married! And we were ready to mark the moment. We signed those waivers without hesitation.
My husband got a solid black band around his finger, and I got a crisp little black star on the inside of mine. Our photographers and artists made the entire experience a dream, and our tattoos looked amazing. We were on Cloud Nine, perhaps because we were filled with endorphins from both the wedding and from getting tattooed. I wouldn’t trade that memory, or any of the memories of that weekend, for anything, no matter how messy my life became down the road.
My wedded bliss was an anomaly; a break from my usual mental health struggles.
I started struggling with my mental health long before my wedding. Severe depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia are my most prominent issues, among others. All of these things combined with my Type A personality—I like to be in control and have a borderline obsessive pursuit of perfection—and my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can make for some especially difficult days.
It was in college, when I noticed that the stress of my competitive music program seemed to be affecting me more than my classmates, that I first began to realize what I was struggling with mentally wasn’t normal. Still, I tried to ignore it. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work. I was getting worse—I had increasingly disordered eating and exercise patterns, and was regularly attempting to drown my sorrows with alcohol. The perfection I had come to expect from myself was slipping further and further out of reach. So finally, in my senior year, I started seeing a therapist.
I’ve become better at dealing with my issues over the years, but stress still takes its toll on me now, as it did in the years between the end of college and my wedding. A lot happened during that time. For one, I moved to New York where I would spend all day auditioning, all night waiting tables, rarely slept or ate enough, and didn’t have health insurance or access to mental health care. The pressure of life during those years even came close to breaking my now-husband and I apart. But we made it through, and eventually got engaged.
Preparing for the big day also came with its emotional difficulties, though. Planning a massive, elaborate party was stressful, and my problematic pre-wedding weight loss methods weren’t helping. In spite of it all, we pulled off the wedding of our dreams.
After the wedding this small tattoo took on a big, messy meaning.
The wedded bliss was great, but it didn’t last long. Soon we were back to reality. With no ceremony to obsess about and no dress to fit into, my destructive pre-wedding ‘diet’ was over just in time for the onset of my PCOS. The result was rapid weight gain—the number on the scale seemed to never stop rising—which led my depression to creep back. It was a fog that spread so slowly I almost didn’t notice my own descent, that is, until I saw my reflection in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself.
When I looked down at my hand I saw that my lovely little star tattoo had also become distorted and unrecognizable, just like me. It was spreading out. Its lines were blurring. So not only did I no longer recognize myself, I also couldn’t recognize the tattoo that had once meant so much to me. ‘Look at that gross little thing,’ I thought, in part referring to myself, too. I went to a tattoo shop to get it retouched, but it just became a bigger, even less symmetrical blob. That blob felt like a reflection of me, and it wasn’t a pretty one.
I was always somewhat worried about what other people thought of me, but now I was worrying constantly. Before I at least seemed perfectly fine, but now I couldn’t hide behind a facade. My illusion of perfection was gone and in its place I had an extra 25 pounds, a distorted, ugly tattoo, and some of my deepest days and weeks of depression.
Finding beauty in the imperfection required a lot of hard work.
A few years ago, I finally got tired of constantly hating myself. I resented the critical voice that shouted out my every flaw, day and night. Worrying about what other people thought of me was taking up far too much time, so I decided to make a real, lasting change: I found a great therapist and committed to our sessions no matter how bad I felt, rejigged my medications (with the help of a doctor, of course) to be more effective, and did the homework necessary to retrain my brain.
Slowly, I started to let my guard down. As I became more open and honest with people, they began to see the things in me that I’d been trying so hard (and failing) to project for years. Now they saw me as strong, creative, talented, and smart, and they were seeing all of this in the real me. I was allowing the world to see my flaws, and the response was not the jeers I had anticipated all those years, but complete acceptance and even applause. Then I noticed the way my husband looked at me—the way he had been looking at me all along—with eyes filled with love and pride.
That self-help journey gave my blown out, faded wedding tattoo new meaning. Now I can see beauty everywhere, even in imperfect things—things that my hypercritical brain would have dismissed before—like my tattoo. It has become a symbol of my sort of reverse metamorphosis. It’s imperfect but also perfect in its own way, and a reminder of the love I’m so lucky to share with my husband.
My imperfect tattoo has become my personal North Star.
I’m not going to claim that it was (or is) an easy journey. Instead, it’s a long, hard journey that I’m still on. But that’s the nature of this particular brand of struggle, and as long as you’re trying, every step and misstep is worth it.
For me, eating mindfully and moving regularly and joyously with my husband has allowed me to love and nourish my body, even though it may not look the way I previously idealized. It’s healthy, strong, and I’m proud of every beautiful inch of it. My depression is now quieter than ever, and I am armed with tools and a team to fight its constantly shifting tide when needed. I do my best every day to see the beauty in myself and others, to create meaningful things, and to use my voice—flawed as it may be—to fight for good. And always guiding my path, lighting my way, is my imperfect little star-blob tattoo.
If you liked our story I Regret My Tattoo, But I’m Keeping It—Here’s Why, make sure to check out our post about The *Real* Story Behind the Semicolon Tattoo.