Emanating a childlike, frenetic energy, she stands at the doorway to my office. Barely in her twenties, she is part child, part budding woman. It appears she is poised for flight; she scans the room as if expecting unknown creatures to spring out; her deep brown eyes are as wide as saucers. Seeing no obvious danger, her anxiety seems temporarily assuaged. She moves to an overstuffed chair across from me. Her gaze meets mine briefly. She offers an anxious half-smile, yet it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. As I begin to greet her, my gentle welcome is interrupted by a tumbled stream of words. She unconsciously twists her hair in angst as she apologizes for her tardiness, for paperwork undone, and—it seems—for being here at all. The room is filled with her anguish, and then silence. Her posture is tense, coiled, as if preparing to defend herself from harm. With a soft smile and soothing tone, I offer her tea. Her posture relaxes subtly as she chooses from the basket; her selection, a calming white rose blend. As I prepare her tea, she quietly scrawls on her half-completed forms.
An appreciative smile lights her face as I offer her the steaming cup of fragrant tea. Shifting forward, she faces me as if to engage. I return her smile as I move to my chair. Placing my own cup of tea aside, I notice that she has shifted her posture again. She has locked herself away from contact. Arms crossed and jean-covered legs angled sharply away from me, her defenses are high. Her long, sandy-hued hair, highlighted with streaks of burnished copper and gold, falls in smooth waves upon her shoulders. Her skin, as flawless as a young child’s, is touched with a natural blush of soft pink. A vision of fragile ingenuity, she is lovely. She is transparent despite her guardedness, and there is no hiding that she remains edgy and frightened. Lips trembling, she peers at me with unsteady, anxious eyes. I return her stare with a warm, unwavering gaze. She rises to offer the small sheaf of papers to me. Wordlessly, she returns to her closed, tightly held position.
As I glance quickly through her paperwork, I feel her eyes scrutinizing me. I begin to speak, and a fresh stream of frantic words bubbles forth over mine. “When I was writing all of that—reading it—it made me feel so much more messed up than I really am.” She pauses and averts her eyes. In a hesitant voice, she adds, “More than I think I am.” As I begin to respond, she interrupts imploringly, “Please, please don’t give up on me! I’m not as bad as what it looks like. I’m really not. I’m a mess, but I’m not bad.” Her eyes are fearful, searching me with panicked, blazing intensity. Her voice trails off with a final, soft plea, “I’m really not…” I smile reassuringly, yet her face remains frozen in doe-like fear. I wait, allowing room for her words to settle, to make space for her worries, but she is silent and pensive. Her edginess fills the air. “Well,” I offer, “you needn’t worry. I don’t give up easily. Besides, I can’t imagine why I would give up on you—why I would even want to give up on you. I see nothing we can’t work through together.” Seeking further confirmation, her dark eyes pierce mine. I meet her gaze with warm intensity. “Every individual has wounds…scars. You just can’t get through life without them. Some are more obvious than others. Some hurt more deeply. Visible or not, wounds can fester and cause silent pain.” With tear-filled eyes she interjects, “But I am damaged, really damaged. Really messed up.” Again, I smile gently, and our brown eyes meet in silent understanding. As if striving to further convince herself of her internal deformities, she adds, “And I mean really messed up.” My voice calm and reassuring, I offer, “Ah, I hear your fears. I am here. I don’t run from my clients’ concerns, whether they are difficult or fairly easy. ” A welcoming silence fills the room, and a tentative smile forms at the corners of her lips. I add, “You know, I am quite a tenacious woman; I don’t give up easily.” As if a magical spell had been invoked, the haunting fear dissipates from her eyes. Slowly, her beautiful smile broadens and its sweetness fills the room. There is work to do, there is much to be shared and learned, but—for now—nothing further needs to be said. For this precious moment, it is enough that the tides of understanding and compassion move between us.
I know her, this woman-child, for she is not too different from the girl I had once been. She is not unlike the younger version of me that still sits quietly within my being to offer hope, guidance, and wisdom-based memories. This young beauty who now sits curled up in my office chair is not so very different from many of the women and men of all shapes and ages who come through my door in search of understanding and healing. There is a fundamental commonality among them all, for somewhere within each lies hidden tattoos of self-doubt and fear. How starkly vivid and damaging they can be, the hidden tattoos of shame and pain accumulated in childhood. What inner anguish they can create, the amassed tattoos of life’s bitter hardships and love gone awry. And what dark ink stains on the spirit—the soul– they become, the silent, unresolved inner images of anger and hatred turned inward.
A wry sensitivity infuses me, for I know these tattoos all too well; they are the reason my vocation calls to me stridently. I have been witness, up close and personal, to the tattooed and their makers. I have seen their etching into the very spirits of tiny children, confused adolescents, and despondent adults. There is anguish, sorrowful torment, as tattoos of inner chaos, fear, and self-loathing are instilled within souls too young for understanding. The thoughtlessly ignorant, the angry, and the cowardly bullies of the world–all of these pierce away at the soul. And, too, it is the harsh words, punishing actions, and deep betrayals that mark the spirits of the weak, the weary, and the innocent. Oh, these tattoos and their artists come in all shades and colors, yet one can learn to recognize them and the damage they create. Yet it is my calling, my vocation, to remove the internal tattoos that wreak havoc on the lives of many. Now and again, it is as though Shakespeare’s call, “Out, damned spot!” permeates the air. It is no easy task, this wrestling with the imprinted, tattoo-like nature of psychological demons.
As dusk settles, I listen as the fragile–yet strong and resilient– young woman tells me her tale. I listen with rapt attention as she gives me a glimpse into her agonizing childhood stories and the confusion that marks her current world. The tiniest of details do not escape me, and I do not move to take written notes. Her words fill the air; they soak into me. She has so much to say, so much to rid from her spirit. She watches intently, carefully, to see if I will recoil. With her eyes on my being, my very heartbeat, I can feel her wondering when I, too, will judge her.
No, I surely do not judge these beautiful souls with their hidden tattoos. I am them, and they are me. It is now late, and I prepare to leave the quiet of my precious office. I linger and stop to appreciate a lovely piece of artwork on the wall. Buddha’s quote at its lower edge speaks to me, “If you see yourself in others, whom can you harm?” It has been a long, wonderful day in my journey with others, in this work with inner tattoos. I smile to myself as I muse, “If I see myself in others, then whom can I judge?” So simple, so true.