Last month, I finally did something that I’ve been thinking about way longer than I’ve ever admitted aloud. In fact, I was thinking about it decades ago, when I was still a pre-teen and had no idea how I would do it. And once I finally decided to do it, I was incredibly nervous. I wanted nothing more than to have someone there with me, but in these days of a global pandemic, having someone with you isn’t allowed; if I was going to do it now, I was going to do it alone.
So that’s exactly what I did.
Once I was on the road en route to my destination with my playlist of soul-crushing, intensely-emotional metal songs blasting from my car speakers, the nervousness slowly dissipated, like water on a hot, summer sidewalk. It was there; then a little while later, it wasn’t.
I was thinking about what I was going to do, why I was going to do it, and what it all meant to me.
I wasn’t thinking about how I’d spent most of my life denouncing what I was now about to do, or how selfish I’d felt for making the decision that would require me to be absent from home for the majority of the day, or what anyone else would have to say about my decision.
I arrived and had a short spike of anxiety trying to figure out where I should park; a challenging task for anyone when in the city, but one I find especially difficult since cities are a trigger for me, always leading to heightened anxiety with a barrage of physical symptoms, and sometimes even a full-blown panic attack. With determined effort, I managed to convince myself—after a short call to my husband about my parking struggles—that even if I couldn’t stay where I’d found parking, I wouldn’t be towed in the time it would take me to walk inside the building to discover that fact as well as where I would need to move my car.
After receiving assurance there was no need to move my car and a quick trip down the hall to the restroom, the time had come to get started. With a slow, deep breath through my cotton face mask, I was ready. Serene, really. Then, after spending the next forty-five minutes with Ken to complete paperwork, discuss and solidify final details, and decide where to begin, I realized I was glad I’d come alone.
If I’d had someone with me, I would have looked to them for confirmation of every decision I made, to see what they thought, likely—knowing myself—before I even spoke my own opinion. Hell, that had already happened during the consultation, for which my husband had accompanied me. Being alone turned out to be an unexpected gift; with no one else there, each decision had to be mine and mine alone.
“Are you ready?” Ken asked.
I laughed, feeling a simultaneous flutter of nervousness and sense of peace. “I guess,” I replied with a small laugh.
From across the room, someone else asked, “Is this your first time?”
I shook my head. “No. But the last time was almost twenty years ago.”
And this is the first time I really want to do it, I thought to myself. Eighteen years ago, I’d succumbed to pressure to do it when I hadn’t really wanted to. And then I’d spent years regretting it. This time, though—I was doing it for myself, because it was what I wanted to do.
Ken gave a short nod and touched the tattoo pen to the underside of my wrist for the first of three pieces I would get that day. The pain was significantly less than I remembered from having my ankle tattooed when I was barely eighteen; it felt more akin to an annoying scratching sensation than pain, and triggered a barrage of memories of self-harming in that same area when I was a teen.
My eyes roamed lazily around the room, looking at the art on the walls, the artists’ supply racks and cabinets, the other clients having work done. I felt the vibrations from the tattoo gun and the thumping base from the music blaring throughout the room as if I was near the stage at a rap concert. But as my gaze flitted around, my mind wasn’t focused on what I was seeing or hearing, but rather on other things.
I was thinking about my teenage cousin, who touched me against my will and threatened me if I told anyone when I was seven.
I was thinking about my biological mom’s drinking buddy, an older man, who’d also taken the liberty of using his hands to explore my body until his sexual impulses were satisfied when I was eight.
I was thinking about the older girl, who lived in the same foster home as I did periodically when I was ten and eleven, who frequently used threats and her fists to force me to engage in a sexually violent version of “playing house.”
I was thinking about my boyfriend’s brothers, who raped me when I was barely thirteen.
Glancing down to pull my mind from the images parading through it and stave off the tears that were milliseconds from overflowing, I saw that Ken was about a third of the way done with the sexual assault survivor symbol on the underside of my forearm. There was no turning back—I could never again retreat into myself and pretend those things had never happened to me. I could no longer hide behind the crippling shame so many survivors carry, despite the fact that the shame should be resting on the shoulders of the people who did those things to us. I was a survivor—I AM a survivor—and I could never again let the people who’d hurt me take that away from me.
I felt like a cup that had been filled to the brim and was beginning to spill over, the source of the liquid flowing in faster with each passing second. I was overwhelmed by emotions—many of them conflicting.
I felt weak and strong, scared and brave…healed yet broken wide open.
I felt the heaviness of years of carrying around these things that had happened to me.
I felt the shame, self-disgust, pain, and self-hatred that accompanied those experiences and memories, and I also felt the almost effervescent lightness of it lifting, as if I was standing on helium and growing inches taller.
The feelings never abated during the hours I was there that day. As Ken began inking the outside of my forearm with the words I used to recite to my younger sister when she was scared or having nightmares during our abusive and traumatic childhood—love, peace, happiness, rainbows, butterflies—I felt something begin growing in my soul.
The pen moved again, tattooing butterflies—a beautiful symbol of strength and transformation—between my heart and shoulder in beautiful oranges and reds to signify the foundations that had been violated and vibrant blues to represent having found my voice. As the butterflies took shape and color, the unidentifiable sensation that had begun in the depths of my soul welled up, filling me until I was coated with an impenetrable armor from the inside out.
I felt powerful; the kind of powerful that means I can face anything and come out—maybe not unscathed, but intact. The kind of powerful that fills in the missing pieces I wasn’t aware were there. But it also felt like home, like I’d had it all along and simply had to learn how to summon it.
The entire experience was not only emotional, but intensely soulful and spiritual—not in a religious sense, but as in embracing my truest self. After going home, I found myself gazing down at my new tattoos often, experiencing an intensifying of every emotion I’d experienced each time I did so.
Nothing will ever take this feeling away from me again, I thought.
But I was wrong.
Day one after getting my tattoos was uneventful; I stayed inside, avoiding the intensity of the sun and wore only a very loose top to keep material from rubbing against the raw and tender skin on my shoulder. On day two, however, I needed to get back to some normalcy in my mental health routine. Early that morning, I took a deep breath, pulled on a bra and tank top—wincing a bit as I did so—and headed out the front door for my usual morning walk.
One of my favorite things about walking in the mornings is that I usually don’t see very many people. I can walk alone and allow my thoughts to wander where they will, listening to the sounds of nature as my feet carry me along a path through the woods. I don’t have to worry about leaving my thoughts to greet anyone, taking care not to startle strange dogs, or (nowadays, in the time of COVID-19) moving off the path into the underbrush or dew-soaked grass to ensure there’s plenty of space between myself and the other person as we pass each other.
I was halfway through my walk when I passed the first person—a woman I’ve seen most days, either on her morning walk or spending time with her granddaughter, a girl of perhaps eight or nine. I don’t know the woman personally, but I raised my hand in greeting like I usually do and smiled as I said, “Good morning.”
She started to smile, then her eyes locked onto my shoulder and the smile faltered a bit. She returned my greeting but didn’t make eye contact this time.
Instantly, my face, my neck, my arms—my entire body—was on fire with shame as my mind flooded with questions and self-doubt, unsure if her behavior was due to something that crossed her mind at precisely that moment or because she noticed my new tattoo.
Oh no. What the hell have I done? What will the moms of my daughters’ friends think? Will they still let our kids play together?
As my heart raced and I began to panic, I looked down at myself, glancing at the sexual assault survivor symbol on my forearm, then craning my neck to see the butterflies on my shoulder, split by the strap of my exercise tank top.
Oh my God, I thought. I can’t believe I did this. I’m so trashy.
My feet came to a halt with the conclusion of that thought. No kidding, folks—I literally stopped right there in the middle of the path like I’d smacked into an invisible wall, and my eyes widened in realization at the words that had just paraded through my mind.
Trashy. I just called myself trashy. I’m thirty-six, married, have a stable career, two happy and well-adjusted children who want for nothing, my family lives comfortably in a coveted well-to-do neighborhood, and I just called myself trashy.
The next thoughts flew through my mind rapid-fire, like in movies when someone’s life is flashing before their eyes as they’re about to die:
I can’t be trashy—I’m not poor anymore.
Oh shit, do I really see poor people as trashy? I used to be that person, the epitome of trailer trash—living in a trailer without electricity or running water and begging on the streets for money to eat. No, I couldn’t possibly think that way.
Wait, that means I must still think tattoos are trashy! Except that I don’t, not really, that’s just the opinion I adopted from those around me. It isn’t really my personal opinion.
Oh my god, I can’t believe this. I’m still stereotyping people without even realizing it! What does it matter what I might think is the reason someone is trashy? Why the hell is that even a description for a human being?
I lingered on that last thought. The details of what was triggering me to feel trashy after that interaction with the neighborhood woman aren’t what really matters—what really matters is that we, as a society, even have a term like “trashy” to describe people.
Trashy – resembling or containing trash : of inferior quality : worthless
Trailer Trash – poor people who live in trailers
Read those definitions from Merriam-Webster a few more times until they’ve had a chance to fully sink in. The words that really grab me from the first definition are inferior and worthless. We’re saying there are people who are inferior and worthless, and it’s because they’re poor and live in trailers.
Can you believe that?
Does it make you uncomfortable?
It’s difficult to ignore how the terms “trashy” and “trailer trash” strip away all basic humanity and equate people with garbage we cart away to landfills when we look at it this way. And it’s nearly impossible not to feel deep, intense discomfort because almost every one of us is guilty of having thought this about someone at some point in our lives.
I know I have.
I have been both on the giving and receiving end of these terms. However, I now am better able to recognize and understand how it’s possible to think of another person the same derogatory term that was once applied to me.
It’s rooted in shame: I was shamed as trailer trash when I was younger and literally living in a trailer. Then, in order to (subconsciously) distance myself from that image out of the shame that experience created in me, I identified others unlike me and designated them as such. (This is a grossly simplified explanation; I highly recommend Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) for a more in-depth examination of how shame functions in our lives.)
Regardless of where it originated, however, realizing that deep down, hidden under dirt and cobwebs, I still harbored those thoughts was… unpleasant. And eye-opening. This is exactly what I was talking about in my post on discrimination when I said:
“Stereotyping and discrimination […] has become ubiquitous, passed down over generations. Children aren’t born with pre-formed ideas that certain groups of people are worth less than others […] That’s something we all, as a society, have been taught and continue to teach the next generation courtesy of grandfathered practices so deeply steeped in prejudice that even the most well-meaning of us don’t see everywhere it exists. […] We, as a society, have to take action to realize this fact and then work to dismantle it by reconditioning our thoughts. In order to do that, though, we have to first identify every way we stereotype other people, however unintentionally.”Katherine Turner
If your face is scrunching up and you’re shifting around uncomfortably on your chair as you think about just closing this post, I understand.
It’s really hard to put ourselves under a spotlight and scrutinize not only our thoughts, but our motivations.
It’s really hard to admit that we may be biased when we thought we weren’t. It threatens the image we have of ourselves as decent people when we realize we might have traits we consider to be inconsistent with that image.
I get it. I really do. It’s HARD.
But it’s also necessary if we want anything in the world to change. I definitely didn’t want to have the realization I did when I called myself trashy, and I wanted even less to share that realization with the world. I’m opening myself up to all manner of criticism and judgment. But how can I possibly expect anyone else to crack themselves open and offer up their vulnerability on a platter to help the world improve if I don’t do it myself?
Does this mean my instinctive thoughts have suddenly disappeared? No. Not at all. But I’m ready for them now. I have the tools I need to combat them when they start to rise. And over time—with intention—I know it’s a battle I can win, that it’s a thought process I can dismantle.
What’s more, though, is that I know you can, too. And then, one day, maybe we’ll all be able to open a dictionary and no longer find words that strip certain groups of people of their humanity—terms like “trashy” having simply faded away into nothing more than history.
Katherine Turner is a an author of contemporary fiction that explores love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse, as well as an editor and sensitivity reader. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!