Tattoo Day, in pictures. It was too image heavy to send in an email – I kept trying but it kept freezing up the app.
Sewing on the go train.
My view into the city.
Carbing up in Union Station. You need a good amount of carbs in your system, otherwise your blood sugar levels can crash – essentially you’re putting your body through trauma so it’ll fight what it deems to be an attack on the system. Some people report being extremely healthy after a tattoo session because the body is fighting to protect itself and thus becomes stronger immunity wise.
In the subway for a quick three stop ride. Normally I would’ve walked it but we’re pressed for time here.
Ugh. So much for pressed for time. Construction on Dundas!! That means I’m on a bus and buses make me pukey with how jerky and overheated they are. Also, construction. I hope I’m not late!!
So I didn’t get a shot of the front door. Oops. Also I made it on time!
Here’s what we’re covering up. It’s a 21 year old, poorly applied tattoo. I *could* have had it fixed but … that seems like too much work.
Here’s a panorama of the tattoo shop inside, where the tattoos actually get applied. The front of the shop is not visible in this picture but there are gorgeous plants out there that Ben (co-owner) is a master of taking care of. He’s the plant whisperer!!
Jacqueline’s area is in the corner on the far right, against the wall.
Note how it looks more like an art studio than the typical tattoo shop. It’s clean, friendly, and inviting.
Alright. This is the stencil. We’ve applied it to the leg but she’s realized the entire old Tattoo won’t be covered so she’s going to draw a leaf or petal with a toothpick and then she’ll trace the lines to cover that area.
Meet Jacqueline!! She reminds me of my friend Kate. You spend the day with either of them and they’re like the antidote to a shitty world or a shitty day. You leave there feeling lighter, refreshed, cleansed of the bullshit you don’t realize you’re bogged down with. I could spend all day with J. She’s incredible people. I know you’d love her.
Alright. It’s go time. Are you ready??
Outline of the flower is done. We chose purple because we needed to cover up the blue but we used four different kinds of purples…so it’s got depth and it’s just so pretty.
The flower is done!! You can’t even tell there was a crappy tattoo there before!! Also, her green leaves are incredible. I don’t know if this picture does it justice.
Switch positions and onto the hands, water, and petals. So this is a tender spot and where I start trying to find a way to accurately describe what a tattoo feels like after 6 hours. And I’ve got it. The burn you felt during a vaginal delivery is how a Tattoo feels after 6 hours. Raw. Hot. Sharp. You start attempting each Lamaze breathing exercise you know, and you invent your own, and then you have to remind yourself to continue to breathe.
The hand of the survivors with water flowing through their hands and fingers. Water is cleansing the soul, flowing through the fingers and it represents letting go.
Omg are we done yet ha ha she’s getting more ink for the hand of the one who has passed on. I’m sure my face was hilarious around this time.
Ok, here we go. We’re nearly done. She’s just doing the last of the hand now. The next four pictures are the completed Tattoo.
You can see how swollen my skin is. I don’t bleed much, I hold colour extreeeeeemely well, but I swell up like a balloon as soon as the machine turns on.
A lot of symbolism can’t be seen. The flower petals that have fallen are actually lighter in colour than those ON the flower, representing a loss of life over time, as time passes. The hand that is barely visible represents the hand of the lost loved one, always a reminder that she’s there, in my life, and always a part of me, of us. She unites us, in what was a hard and awful way but is now a beautiful way – there’s love, respect, friendship, and perhaps a need, too. I don’t know what I would’ve done without this friendship. It has made my burden easier to carry.
And so while the Tattoo looks sad, it’s about letting go of that sadness. Recognizing what happened, and not necessarily moving on (because I don’t know that you can), but accepting it for what it is. It will always be there but it doesn’t have to be a burden anymore. At least for me. It’s a transformation. Love, water, life, and death.
I am feeling very empty today. Empty of emotion, empty of cares, empty of desire, empty of motivation. And yet I feel too much, I am over emotional, I am overwrought. I want to cry but I have nothing to give. I want to go to bed but I am not tired. I don’t have a desire to go to bed, and yet I don’t want to stay awake.
I am restless. I am empty of feeling and yet feeling too much, so much that I don’t even know where to begin. I cannot put a physical spoken word to the anxiety, the storm, the calmness, the swell inside me.
It has been six years. I have lived with Your trauma, spliced with my own, for six long and short years. My own trauma rests at the feet of Yours and I sometimes don’t know where one ends and one begins.
I think back to before I knew our pain and it seems a lifetime ago. I think, too, though, that my pain sometimes feels so fresh and new. As if it had only just been mixed in a fragile beaker two weeks ago, ready to implode. Some days it feels like I’ve never known anything else. That it’s like an old scar I’ve learned to ignore but still pains me. Like that time I cut myself sharpening knives. It’s just become a part of me, tender but not fresh. It’s as if I’ve never lived without this pain and trauma, as if it’s as old as I am.
And rarely, I live without You. There are glorious days where I do not fear, where I do not feel, where I just simply exist. They never last. I am always brought to my emotional knees and left gasping for air.
Always, though, I think of You. You are never far from my thoughts. It’s as if You leapt from that ledge and landed in my psyche instead of on the pavement below. You take up space in my head that I didn’t advertise for. You are not a welcome resident and yet, You are not unwelcome.
You exist. Your last few moments on this earth exist because I remember You. I remember the moment You walked in and I remember Your last moment. I was Your witness. You chose that place because it was convenient and easy, You knew You could get the job done, but You had to know as You walked by me, when I acknowledged You, that I would be there, to see it, to see You. To watch as Your soul shattered into a thousand pieces and left me to watch them scatter.
I saw You. And it’s as vivid today as it was then. The sounds, the smells, the deafening silence as I stood up, unable to compute what my eyes and body and soul knew but refused, screamed for me not to believe. Screamed for it to not be real. Screamed for it to be some vivid and horrible dream.
I could not have witnessed Your death, and yet I did. It was unbelievable, traumatic, loud, and it happened. I saw You. I watched You die. I watched You walk before me, 11 minutes, and then I watched You leave and you took a piece of me with You.
And in the weeks afterwards, my mind played games with me. I would dream of standing in nothing, in a black existence, as if on a stage, lit under a spotlight. I was lit, but there was nothing around me. No floor, no ceiling, no walls. I just existed. My mind, protecting me, knew that I could not dream. My mind while awake was torture enough. I did not need to see these images in my sleep and my subconscious knew that. And then when the dreaming started, when my mind could no longer protect me, I dreamt over and over about Your death and I could not protect You. Always, I continued to try and stop You and I never could. I was always too late. And yet still, my mind protected me from the visuals. From the sounds. From the quiet that followed. Instead, it was just the emotional horror of trying to get to You, and never reaching you. My dreams became a Hitchcock movie on a constant loop. Suspenseful thriller, over and over.
For the past couple of weeks I have been having panic attacks at night. I have been struggling with questions, thoughts, curiosities that have been too big for me to hold in my mind, too large for my heart and soul to manage, and they cause panic attacks. It feels like I am falling into a rabbit hole that is too deep for me to be able to continue to breathe. It feels as if it’s an ocean of confusing despair and I’m sinking. I try desperately hard to claw my way back out, fearful that each time I won’t make it. That each time may be my last and I’ll drown into a constant state of panic. I am fearful of what that means. But it is January, and so I accept that these are my mind’s slow way of leading up to today’s date. That the heaviness of You is the reason.
I must learn to live around the pain of You but I don’t know how. You are heavy, like a constant, unwanted burden I carry around, and I don’t know how to drop that weight. I don’t know how to let You go and yet I must. I need to leave Your pain at the side of the road. Your baggage has become too much for me.
Death is a heavy burden and one we all struggle not to carry with us. Sometimes we can’t help it. Sometimes we are burdened with things, people, objects that we don’t want. You have become an inheritance. A piece of crystal that has been passed down to me but I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know where to put You and so You just exist with me, within me. I try to coexist with Your pain and my trauma, intermingled. It is forever etched into my soul.
I am bereft.
Race was not something I was taught to see. I was not taught to see a persons skin colour but their heart, in front of me. Their worth. Their value. Those could not be found in how much pigment their skin held. Those could not be found in the weight or their height, the size of their bank account or house, where they went to school or where they worked.
My parents believed in a persons heart and soul. My brother and I were told to not judge based on skin or hair, eyes or mouth. The God they pray to. The partner they lay with. We were taught the most basic of religious preaching. To love. To love your neighbour. Even if he has AIDS. Even if she’s gay. Even if they’re black chinese muslim first nations.
When I moved to Toronto I was shocked by the number of times I was asked, but what ARE you? What the fuck does that even mean? I’m a woman. Are you blind? No, what are you?
What are you?
What are you so I can judge you and classify you and put you in a labelled box because I can’t live in a multicultural international metropolis without putting every person I meet into an ethnic category. I need ethnic order and you need a label so I can understand where you stand on the hierarchy that exists only in my mind.
And I responded with Human and they didn’t know how to process it. They didn’t understand when I responded, again to their What are you? with Canadian. They didn’t understand why I didn’t live in a white neighbourhood with all the other whites. They didn’t understand why I refused to put myself into their classification, why I refused to accept their ready made labels to stick on my forehead: straight, woman, white – irish, scottish, First Nations.
They couldn’t understand why I didn’t step into their ethnic little box and why I didn’t answer their question. They didn’t understand why I refused to let them label me.
Because I didn’t see their imaginary labels.
(Originally written in 2015)
They say that everything takes time. Trauma takes time. You just need time. It wasn’t something that I could’ve believed then, though. Hell, I still don’t. Some things there just isn’t enough time for.
In the Aftermath, friends who’d suffered trauma said I just needed time and I didn’t believe them. And I want to ask them, when is enough time enough? How does the soul repair itself when it’s been through hell? And not just a one off moment of trauma but a lifetime of heavy, soul weary, trauma? When does the breath of ones being finally free itself from the binds of hell?
No one has an answer. Those well meaning friends don’t have an answer. The psychiatrist I was sent to could only tell me to read books but the answer I wanted, the answer I still seek, cannot be found in any text – it never heals.
We enter into this world with a soul, one we believe is all shiny and new, freshly polished. Depending on what religion you follow, however, that soul is as old as time or new as the days sunrise.
What baggage has each soul carried with it from previous lives? What do we do to ourselves? What do we continue to put ourselves through? No soul is untarnished and with each passing day, with every little bruise, our souls become stained. With love? Trauma? Pain? Is it weary? Is it hopeful for a new life? A new day?
I have been thinking of you a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s because this is 5 years, if this is date and day, or if I just feel your strong presence because our world is in turmoil and I seek something comfortable that I know. But I feel you and think of you daily. Repeatedly. And then, when I’m alone in a room and doing something, I see something moving out of the corner of my eye and I look and there’s nothing there. Is it you? Someone else I’ve picked up? I spent a childhood with dead people. I had dreams of people before they died. Am I a conduit? If only that were the case. I’d speak with my grandparents again.
I don’t understand your pain but I understand my own. The anger. The absolute rage that I have because I was molested and people would deny that truth. For their own protection? Self preservation? I don’t know. I only know that I see you, your face. I see your pain, your death. I see your rage turned inward and onto yourself.
You beautiful girl. How I wish I could ease your pain.
You are with me every day. We are bound together. The girl who lived and the girl who died.
I sometimes wonder if I don’t purposely hold on to you, your death, the gore. Like a security blanket, it’s something I can cling to for safety. A bit of an oxy moron to those who’ve never suffered but it’s a safe pain. Something you know and understand.
I worry that I’m keeping you with me on purpose. And then for five minutes I’ll forget about you. And for five minutes I’m free. I can breathe. I don’t feel a weight tugging at me, a niggling reminder of my own impending death, my own expiry date. I am a helium balloon and you are a weight. We are counterbalanced.
I used to worry that talking about you and what happened, that people would see it as attention seeking. I would go out of my way to not talk about what happened, to not even mention it. Again, how terrible that I worried more about the comfort and opinions of others instead of myself.
First Nations believe that as long as someone tells the story, nothing is ever dead. And so I will tell my story. Maybe I won’t shout it from the rooftops (an unlikely pun) but a quiet whisper from my heart instead.
Edited to include a picture taken of me, a week after the suicide. I’d not slept more than 28 hours the whole week.
I don’t support the Bell Let’s Talk day because Bell doesn’t give two stuffs about the mental health of their employees. So they can shove this day up their asses. They’re hypocritical jerk muffins who are only in this for the PR.
Having said that, I do think everyone should take the opportunity to discuss mental health, be it a personal story of their own, or a story about someone they know/love.
I have had my own struggle with mental health. The causes have been varied but the one everyone knows because I’ve been somewhat vocal about it is – I witnessed a suicide.
The woman who took her life was 30, beautiful, a successful lawyer at one of the best law firms in the country (basing this on how often their lawyers are nominated as top lawyer of something or other). She grew up in an affluent family, travelled, went to the best schools. On the surface she had everything going for her. Beneath the surface, however, she was living a personal hell that she probably kept secret from everyone she knew.
Like many women, myself included, she was molested as a child. For many, there is a disconnect and you brush it under the carpet and hope you get over it. You know what’s happened and just hope to slough it off like dead skin, but you have not acknowledged it. The pain exists in a sort of limbo. It slowly poisons you and you make subconscious decisions based on that poison, without even realizing it.
When you do wake up, when you do fully and consciously face the abuse you suffered, it makes or breaks you mentally. You either become stronger or the pain wears you down.
Sadly, the young, intelligent, beautiful woman could no longer cope. And so she attempted to take her life. Unsuccessful, she checked herself out of the hospital, came to her workplace on the 27th floor, got to the roof through an access window, and jumped.
Her pain ended with her life, yes, but that only started the pain for other people. Her family. Her friends. Her coworkers, one of whom ended up taking three years off work because of her own breakdown. And then me. The unfortunate witness to her death.
In the movies it is portrayed as a slow moving and beautiful fall. The wind whipping her hair. Her fingers floating on the wind as you would out the window of a moving car. Perhaps a tear falling down her cheek. Some flighty dramatization of what we wish suicide by jumping looked like.
The movies are bullshit. Death is ugly and suicide is painful, for everyone.
For the briefest of seconds there is silence, then the most deafening noise, and then the quietest silence again as your brain, soul, eyes, and ears try to put together all that you have just witnessed and heard:
A body hitting the earth.
That someone chose to place themselves there is beyond comprehension and yet, you saw it happen. You know what you’ve just seen is true yet your mind is lagging, unable to compute.
Death by suicide is ugly. It is gut wrenching but not vomit inducing. There is an immediate pain inside you, location unknown, that exists, still to this day. That pain would be PTSD.
In total I took five and a half days off work, what amounted to two weeks. I forced myself back to work because I was afraid of what people would say about me. I was afraid that people would think I was scamming or milking the time off.
I was dying inside, trying to piece together the broken pieces of my soul. But I worried about them and what they would say about me. How insulting. That I spent even an iota of time on their opinions instead of my own health is insulting. But indicative of where we are as a people when it comes to illness, time off, mental health, and trauma.
We take for granted how fragile our minds are. In one split second I went from a confident, take no shit person to someone who was afraid of the dark and tall buildings.
The anniversary of her death is this Saturday. We have come full circle and on the 5th anniversary, the date of her death coincides with the day of the week on which she died. This is not lost on me. At the minute of her death I will be where I was then. I will try not to think of the pain I suffered, an impossibility, clearly, but I will try to think of her family instead. Because while I witnessed it as a bystander, some poor shmuck in the wrong place and time, they must live with the guilt they place on themselves – of not seeking treatment, not helping her, not calling her enough. They live with self induced torment.
We tell ourselves and our friends, I’m here for you. I love you. Whenever you need me, just call. The fact is, though, we get busy and those who suffer with mental health issues, they suffer alone because they don’t want to burden anyone.
We need to be a better society and take better care of our people. An illness of the heart is just as worthy of medical attention as an illness of the mind. People still look at mental health as either a joke or something to be feared. A man or woman living with schizophrenia cannot divulge their mental illness to a potential employer, are in fact terrified of them finding out, for fear of not being hired. Meanwhile, a heart patient thinks little of it.
We need to talk. We need to normalize. Accept. Understand. We need to open our damn hearts and love.
Don’t isolate someone who is suffering because you don’t know what to say, think it’s an awkward conversation, or it would make you uncomfortable. The best thing that you can do is shake their hand or hug them and offer them support with a mere few words. Because for their entire lives they have felt alone and isolation will only make that worse.
When you witness a suicide, you’re changed forever. You’re altered. It’s almost as if your DNA has been changed because things are no longer the same. The way you think, the way you feel, the way you approach life. The things people say. What once meant nothing to you now has more meaning than breath itself. Because sometimes you are left breathless by the tiniest of happenstances.
I navigate around tall buildings and size them up. Where is the roof? Where would a body land should someone decide to kill themselves? I approach my own and plod forward, pushing myself to walk where she died. At times I am sleep deprived, still afraid of silence, still waking up to non-existent people standing over my bed. I still feel her around me, no longer a pest but a guide. It is not actually her that I feel but the shadow of her, burned into my soul. She is with me, always.
Tonight, so close to her anniversary, a contractor needed access to the very roof she used to end her pain. I asked one of her (former) coworkers where the roof access was and advised there’d be contractors accessing the roof.
I don’t know if they’re as hyper aware of people being on the roof since she died but I know I would be were I them.
But then the contractor jokingly said to the coworker that when they were done they’d jump off the side of the building.
Something changes inside you when someone you know kills themselves. You are forever altered. And the look on her coworkers face was evidence of that. He is forever altered. I bit my tongue and didn’t tell the contractor off because how was he to know? How could he? You don’t know what another person has seen or felt and we cannot traipse around the world, for all our given years, on egg shells. Life is meant to be lived, enjoyed, loved. A simple comment that has such intense meaning for us but none to him. It shouldn’t be held against him.
And yet, it affected me still. More than I wish it could. And so I cried, losing my appetite as my tears fell into my pasta, I cried because I so wish his comment and her death could wash over and away from me. There is no 12 step program to death and grief. There’s no timetable of expectancy when it comes to loss and suicide. It just exists within you. Your DNA. Your fibers. It’s as much a part of you as your freckles and scars.
Tonight, after I took that first step in overcoming my fear of heights, I sat down for my lunch break and cried. When I could breathe again, when I let it wash over me, I checked my email. There was a message from a complete stranger who had read my writing – not even the good writing that has been hidden from view – saying that my writing was a gift. How could you have picked today, of all days, to contact me?, when I chose today, of all days, to take that step out there?
I am forever altered, yes, but on this day my heart is full.