“Why Do Y’all Have Tattoos?”

SEP. 24, 2014

The 2014 NAMI National Convention was an amazing, surreal experience. For four days, people from all over the country came together to educate and learn about mental illness. The entire conference was a smorgasbord of options, from panels on the latest updates in schizophrenia research to exhibits with titles like “Bipolar Girl Rules the World!” Yet, as fascinating as many of the lectures were, the thing that really intrigued me was the conversations people were having with each other. Ordinary people were coming together to communicate for many reasons: education, concern and curiosity.

One of the most profound experiences I had was completely unexpected. I was looking at a booth on borderline personality disorder, when a man came up to me and started talking. He was there because his daughter has borderline and he wanted more information. I told him I had borderline and I’d be happy to answer any questions I could. He had one:

“I don’t meant to be rude, but why do y’all have tattoos? I’m what you might call “old-school,” and I don’t really get them. My daughter has a bunch of them all over her. Is it a Borderline thing?”

Very few things faze me, especially in regards to people asking questions about myself. They’ve run the gamut from polite to slightly tactless to downright insulting, and I’ve fielded them all as best I can. I should also mention that I have six tattoos, some of which are very visible when I wear a short-sleeved shirt. I listen to Goth and heavy metal music, and I wear a lot of black. I’m noticeably “different,” and I accept that people are going to have questions. But I never had anyone ask me if tattoos were “a borderline thing.” This was new, and somewhat refreshing. I liked this guy.

He must have realized how awkward his phrasing was, because he started backpedaling. I just smiled and told him that people with tattoos get them for different, often personal reasons, and that the same applied to people with borderline who have tattoos. I told him a little bit about why I had them: that, for a long time, I lived in a body that gave me a great deal of suffering. This was my way of taking back control. Each tattoo symbolized a time and place in my life. I also explained that many people who have borderline self-harm, and that I saw this as a positive alternative. Perhaps his daughter did too.

He smiled. “Yeah, you might be right. And considering what else she’s dealt with, tattoos aren’t so bad. It could be worse.”

Our conversation switched to several other topics surrounding this notoriously maligned illness, but the initial question remained with me long after the conference was over.

I shared with him how I had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder 12 years ago and was told I would never get better. How I was informed that there was no cure, and that I shouldn’t ask too many questions about my diagnosis, because then I would become “fixated.”

Meeting other people with borderline wasn’t much better. I don’t know if it’s me, or the fact that this illness tends to emotionally cripple us to the point where we simply cannot interact with others because of the amount of psychic pain we’re in.

But here was a guy who was not a doctor, not a therapist, not a person who had dated someone with borderline and written us off as “psychopaths,” but a father concerned for his daughter. A father who lived through the chaos that ruled over his child’s life, who couldn’t totally understand why she was the way she was, but who nevertheless knew it was an illness, not a character flaw. And who loved her anyway.

When he looked at me, it was clear he didn’t see a lab specimen or an emotional leper, but a person who just so happened to have the same illness as his kid. The fact that she has tattoos or wore Edgar Allen Poe earrings? Feh. It could be worse.


FEB, 11, 2018 10:29:35 PM
Agreed. That is a nice piece of writing! Excellent essay!


What is it with you 'borderline' people that makes you such great writers and so in touch with your emotions?!?

DEC, 09, 2015 09:44:04 AM
Wonderful, simple and to the point article. I have a daughter who is now 19 years old and we are now in the infant stages of learning what BPD is and how we can help her on the journey. She has gone through excessive self-harm, drawing on her self and piercings. As a parent this article and the comments from fellow readers, has really helped center my thinking. Keep up the great work NAMI!

APR, 24, 2015 04:37:42 PM
amy k
I have struggled with being bipolar my whole life and got my first tattoo at 46. It was like reclaiming a price of myself that the depression claimed and the manic could find fulfillment in without devastating consequences. I relished in the release I felt from both sides of my mental illness while getting the tattoo of two koi embraced in a yin and yang symbol and have that same sigh of relief each time I glance at my art.

APR, 23, 2015 05:45:13 PM
i am not borderline but have chronic depression...I did not get my 1st tattoo until i was 46. At almost 60 i now have 5...The most recent one was last april a week after my fiancee' died in a car accident. My father asked me just recently "why do you have tattoos? i could not give any better answer than they represent me...No more questions. my dad at 84 just accepted this answer. Maybe people who are "mentally unbalanced" just need to show the world who we are. I am a psych nurse and i guess i understand my patients better than someone who really doesn't get someone being just different. Tattoo's are better and prettier than cutting or mutilating our selves. I have never wanted to harm myself at least not knowingly...There is nothing wrong with tattoo's and they show the rest of the world who we really are. Peace

APR, 23, 2015 02:15:34 PM
Shelby robson
Loved this article

APR, 23, 2015 05:14:19 AM
Abby Safer
Real people, living with mental illness challenges and their families share unique knowledge. It's all a learning experience of shared concerns. Interactions that aren't confrontations are practically refreshing!

APR, 22, 2015 08:14:19 PM
loved this! That's what NAMI does. It helps us connect. Beautiful.

APR, 22, 2015 08:09:15 PM
jane d
wonderful story!

APR, 22, 2015 03:07:21 PM
Mary Jane
I didn't know about the convention but would love to attend in 2015!

APR, 22, 2015 02:49:10 PM
I also have BPD and around 44 tattoos...I never thought of the correlation between the two, but now it has piqued my interest. Thank you for writing this and thank you to that man who seemed to be interested in what his daughter was dealing with. BPD is so misunderstood and we need more people like him to ask these questions in a non-judgemental way. It gives us all insight. Thank you again.

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