Anxiety disorder tattoo: One writer’s response to a mental health struggle

Destigmatizing mental health problems at the tattoo parlor
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 02/22/2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

Anxiety is a liar. It whispers and weaves its way between the soft folds of your brain, invading your thoughts and making you question every single thing. It can steal your breath, churn your stomach into shreds, and squeeze your heart until it feels like it will jump out of your chest …or stop beating all together. I know because I’ve been living with a diagnosed anxiety and panic disorder for three years. And, just last week, I decided to commemorate it with a tattoo.

I decided on an illustrated model of a serotonin molecule with a little watercolor splash behind it. It now rests on my inner right bicep, flaking a bit as it heals. This isn’t my first tattoo. But I only got my first one a few months ago. And, like potato chips for some folks, apparently I can’t stop at just one.

“But why another one?” my father asked when I met up with my folks a few days after getting it done. “What does it mean to you?”

Jokingly, I said that now I’ll never be able to forget to take my daily medication, since I’ll have this bright, visual reminder. And while everyone laughed, there was some truth in it.

Like a diabetic who needs insulin to help control sugar levels, I need medication to control my serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is found throughout the body, and it has many jobs. One of those — and the one most significant for me — is contributing to well being and happiness. For some reason, and that is up to a lot of debate, I have a depletion of serotonin in my brain, and my daily medication help keeps my levels normal and prevents me from sliding down that dark, live-altering tunnel.  

When I was first diagnosed with anxiety in 2015, I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I knew was that I was sick, could hardly get out of bed, was losing weight at a rapid pace, and felt like my body was turning on me. I would be constantly sweating, my palms, soles of my feet, neck, and armpits felt permanently moist and clammy. My legs would occasionally give out, unable to support me, and instead turning to jiggling stalks of jello. My heart would seize up, felt like it was caught in a vice that would not let up. And there was an unmistakable, but unfamiliar current that would sizzle right below my skin, speeding through my entire system, making me feel uncomfortable in my own body.

Those few months, until I was properly diagnosed and began treatment, were hell. I lost days and weeks of being a “good” mother and wife, let alone a functional employee and general human being. I thank all that is holy for family and friends that supported me by helping out around the house and getting my son to and from school while my husband worked and I molded deeper into my bed sheets.

Then, the medication my provider prescribed started kicking in. The clouds cleared a bit from my brain, and my body started getting stronger. Over the last few years my dose has changed, but one thing I learned was that I need medication and that’s okay. I’ve been on a daily SSRI since then, and I am beyond thankful that I have it as part of my anxiety toolkit.

Despite the important work of advocates, experts, and patients, there is still stigma surrounding mental health. Many people feel shame at needing to be on medication for mental health problems. When our bodies are sick, nobody questions the need for medical attention or treatment. And yet, when it comes to our minds, we — as a society — falter in how we treat those who have mental health challenges.

So, the tattoo. I wanted a vivid, visible reminder that I have a mental health problem, that it doesn’t make me any less of an individual, and taking medication as part of the way I manage it doesn’t make me weak or bad or broken. I am here, able to share my story, able to go to my beloved yoga class, cook my nutritious food, exercise, spend time with friends, be a kick ass mother and wife, because of the extra serotonin I infuse into my body and brain on a daily basis. And I am thankful for that.

My artist Kellsey had done my first tattoo, and I really enjoyed working with her, so I returned for this one. I showed her what the serotonin molecule looks like, and let her know I wanted a strong black outline and some sort of vibrant color splash in the background. Known for her solid outlines and incredible punches of color, I knew Kellsey would be able to bring my vision to life. And, I knew she would understand why I wanted this specific tattoo. 

This is my way of literally wearing my mental health journey on my sleeve for all to see. I hope that my tattoo not only serves as a reminder of my struggles and the power I possess to keep moving forward, but as a signal to others who are struggling that it does get better.

Explore These Topics:
Grok Nation Comment Policy

We welcome thoughtful, grokky comments—keep your negativity and spam to yourself. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.