Tattoos reveal more than we realize
Our Beloved Family:
Every picture tells a story, especially if it’s tattooed on the human body. As tattoos have become increasingly popular over the last decade, it seems each one holds a special reason as to why someone chose to get it. Ask anyone why they got a particular tattoo and you’re likely to hear stories about how the image commemorates a special moment or achievement in their life, how it bonds them to a lover or friend, or expresses a particular part of their personality. Tattoos are intimately connected to who we are perhaps in a way that nothing else can be, not even our style of dress, because we can always take clothes off. Tattoos become part of us, a permanent, ever-present display of who we are on the inside radiating to the outside world. Unfortunately, the pictures aren’t always so pretty, outwardly revealing a darker story linked to an internal emotional issue that needs healing.
It was several years ago that I experienced such a situation. I was preparing to examine a young woman in her early 30’s. After she’d partially disrobed, I was taken aback by her tattoo, an enormous snake bearing its fangs winding its way around her entire body. Through the psycho-emotional work I do with most of my patients, I came to discover that ten years earlier she had been abducted on her evening jog by a man and taken to a remote location where she was sexually assaulted by a group of men over a two-day period. She said she got the tattoo a couple of years after her harrowing experience. It seemed clear that the venomous snake entwined with her body was an outward representation of the constriction and confinement of her abduction and physical assault that she still felt herself to be in. She was in a life and death struggle with her pain because she didn’t know how to process it, and so that internal conflict manifested outwardly as a serpent struggling against her body. It also seemed plausible that perhaps she unconsciously chose the snake as protection against further assaults on her body.
Often times, when we have a traumatic experience and don’t have a way of breaking it down or catabolizing and resolving it, it gets misplaced.
This year, I will be submitting a paper on a theoretical medical hypothesis for publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. I have been developing this medical theory with my mentor, Jon Tabakin, PhD, FIPA, Training and Supervising Analyst for The Psychoanalytic Center of California, with whom I have consulted over 800 hours on psychosomatic illness and mind-body healing. Our paper is an empirical observation on how tattoos can serve as indicators for psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors with regard to certain internal issues that may be affecting their patients’ mental and physical health. In the report, we discuss the unique relationship between the brain and skin.
When cells begin to divide on their way to becoming a human being, the skin and brain are formed from the same part of the developing fetus, the ectoderm. The skin and brain have the same origin therefore, in a very real but different way, the skin acts like a second brain. Often times, when we have a traumatic experience and don’t have a way of breaking it down or catabolizing and resolving it, it gets misplaced. The fear, anger, sadness, regret, and shame related to the trauma dominate the mind, and so to create more mental space so we can function, we transfer that burden from the inner brain to the outer brain, memorializing it with a tattoo on our skin. The image is the outer representation of the undigested material from a painful past. Sometimes the mental pain can be so intense that submitting ourselves to hours of excruciating physical pain under the tattooing needle is preferable to the mental suffering required for us to heal.
Sometimes there is so much hurt to displace that one tattoo cannot contain it all and so people act out by acquiring even more. I’m constantly amazed at the number of patients I see with increasing tattoos. It seems that people are bombarded with so much stress these days that they have no means by which to process the difficulties of their lives and so those internal struggles keep manifesting outwardly as more bizarre images inked on their bodies. Without the tools, guidance, and courage to breakdown or catabolize their unresolved emotional issues and anabolize or rebuild their sense of wellbeing by giving new meaning to those experiences, they run the risk of damaging their health. Over time, they’ll acquire still more tattoos attached to their body, only this time it will be the ones that come with disease like rashes, lesions, and cancer.
When we have the right tools to process the traumas, disappointments, and heartbreak of our lives, we don’t need to wear our grief on our skin.
The paper we are intending to publish is a call to doctors to pay attention to the tattoos their patients display, particularly with regard to certain types of images and location on the body. The information these images reveal can be of great importance in cases where healthcare professionals are struggling to make a breakthrough. Even if tattoos aren’t visible, it’s sometimes important to ask patients if they have any. Likewise, patients should be asked if they’ve had any tattoos removed, what the image was, where it was located, why it was acquired, and what emotional shift or reasoning led to its removal.
When we have the right tools to process the traumas, disappointments, and heartbreak of our lives, we don’t need to wear our grief on our skin. Our minds remain clear and free, and the personal story we display to the world is one of light and hope—darkness no more.
Please enjoy the following poem, Tattooing in Qazwin, by Rumi. It’s a humorous short tale with a wonderful message. I share this with you as a way to celebrate the Persian New Year, and to request that you keep our friend and Rumi scholar, Coleman Barks, in your thoughts and prayers for a rapid recovery from a recent health challenge.
Tattooing in Qazwin
In Qazwin, they have a custom of tattooing themselves
for good luck, with a blue ink, on the back
of the hand, the shoulder, wherever.
A certain man goes to his barber
and asks to be given a powerful, heroic, blue lion
on his shoulder blade. “And do it with flair!
I’ve got Leo ascending. I want plenty of blue!”
But as soon as the needle starts pricking,
“What are you doing?”
“Which limb did you start with?”
“I began with the tail.”
“Well, leave out the tail. That lion’s rump
is in a bad place for me. It cuts off my wind.”
The barber continues, and immediately
the man yells out,
“Ooooooooo! Which part now?”
“Doc, let’s do a lion with no ears this time.”
The barber shakes his head, and once more the needle,
and once more the wailing,
“Where are you now?”
“I like a lion without a belly.”
The master lion-maker
stands for a long time with his fingers in his teeth.
Finally he throws the needle down.
“No one has ever
been asked to do such a thing! To create a lion
without a tail or a head or a stomach.
God himself could not do it!”
Brother, stand the pain.
Escape the poison of your impulses.
The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do.
Learn to light the candle. Rise with the sun.
Turn away from the cave of your sleeping.
That way a thorn expands to a rose.
A particular glows with the universal.
What is it to praise?
Make yourself particles.
What is it to know something of God?
Burn inside that presence. Burn up.
Copper melts in the healing elixir.
So melt yourself in the mixture
that sustains existence.
You tighten your two hands together,
determined not to give up saying “I” and “we.”
This tightening blocks you.
Please continue reading to join Drs. Sadeghi & Sami at a very special event.
Light, Love, & Clarity in the Month Ahead,
Dr. Habib Sadeghi