Walking in the Shoes of OCD: My OCD and Me Got a Tattoo

“The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.”

This is from a poem I read ten years ago. This is from a poem that inspired a tattoo two years ago when I wrote the words “invite them in” with eyeliner, as skillfully as a layman can, on my inner bicep.
This is from a poem that as of yesterday, I have tattooed on my arm.

It reminds me to let all of my emotions hangout in their guestrooms. And two years ago, many of the guests had questions about the prospect of getting a tattoo:

What if I regret it?
What if I can’t tolerate the pain?
What if I contract a disease?

Pretty standard. The guests permitted a consult with an artist. However, the consult was not a good experience and the idea was shelved–until I picked up my eyeliner again a few months later.

The new guests asked “what if I’m allergic?” followed by “what if there’s carcinogens in the ink?” They insisted upon fear-mongering research. The fear of an allergic reaction festered the most because of my sensitive skin, not to mention my skin’s ability of once turning a mosquito bite into a pyogenic granuloma.

I consulted with a few people who likely meant well but their responses fed the guests more sustenance. The idea was placed back on the shelf until just a few months ago when I stumbled across a local apprentice’s work and fell in love with her dainty, crisp lines. If I was going to take a chance on all my fears, it was going to be with her

But first things first: write a novel of questions to the shop owner about safety concerns. A mere sampling:

When do the needles expire?
Is the shop blood borne pathogen certified?
(They are! But I’m pretty confident this is not a standard question).

Before I knew it, the deposit was out of my pocket and my appointment was booked.

I became what felt like the client from hell in the days leading up to my appointment.

Was the font loopy enough?
Too loopy?
Too big?
Too small?

I took comfort in knowing that my inspiration photos held steady for two years but making my vision a reality was both agonizing and exciting. Agonizing when I had printouts of tentative versions taped onto my arm. Exciting when we did a test run of the stencil the night before and realized all that was left was to enlarge it slightly.

Things become agonizing again a few hours later when I went to wash off the stencil. It. Wasn’t. Coming. Off.

Yes, it faded. But I wanted it gone.

What if the longer I waited, the harder it would be to get off?
What if it interferes with the placement of tomorrow’s stencil?
What if this results in me regretting the placement?
What if I can’t tell whether I like the stencil?

I tried soap, makeup removers, an acne face wash, argon oil–whatever the bathroom supplied. It was tenacious, that stencil.  I then grabbed a washcloth and scrubbed. I scrubbed so vigorously that I popped a few blood vessels and was left with a burning arm. This sent my OCD into a tailspin.

What if the broken blood vessels mess up the tattoo process?
What if it doesn’t heal properly?
What if I end up with a deformed arm?
What if it warps the shape of the tattoo?
What if they don’t know the answer to my concern?
What if they are wrong?
How could I have scrubbed like that?
Why didn’t I take the stencil off right away?

I could fix this. I could heal it with lotion. I would apply enough to cure it overnight.

I was advised by various people, “wait and see what it looks like in the morning.”

I looked at it at 6am. The popped vessels were still visible. I sent photos to friends, featuring a zoomed in version and a bonus collage comparing the status from night to morning.

“Melanie I don’t even see anything.”

“Melanie I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Too late. Already saw it. Already worried.

I was in a panic and felt an urgency to analyze the situation incessantly. The tattoo was in a few hours.

It wasn’t until a friend connected me with a tattoo artist who not only hastattoos but has OCD as well. He brought me to a point where I felt I had the facts. I was able to see that the OCD had commandeered my excitement. I was back. But not without anxiety.

On the drive to my appointment, I oriented my friend Krista to the location of my juice and snacks in case I felt faint. I reviewed my notes with her–questions to ask, things for her to remind me of. I informed her that I had aponcho stuffed in my purse in case I became cold or started shaking.

I wanted any control I could still hold onto. But once we arrived, I knew I had to start loosening my grip. I had to be calm. I had to be calm despite not getting a good night’s rest or eating a hearty meal as I had researched to do prior to a tattoo. I asked my rigmarole of what felt like painstakingly embarrassing questions, knowing that as each question was answered, I had to let up on my grip.

Laying down on the table was like a ceremonial surrender. But fear quickly found a way to join me in the experience.

What if I flinch and ruin the tattoo as a result?
What if I get startled and move?

I used that fear as motivation to keep still and to squeeze Krista’s hand when it hurt.

They say a tattoo feels like a cat scratch on a sunburn. I haven’t experienced that. So if someone asks me what it feels like, I’ll say that it’s not as bad as vigorously rubbing a washcloth repeatedly over an area of skin until it’s red and burning.

But what hurt more than anything else was the anticipatory anxiety. Yet it was also that familiar feeling that helped me commit to my decision toproceed with getting a tattoo.

I know anticipatory anxiety will return, being the frequent flyer that it is. But when it does, I’ll know what to do.



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