Never say die: why getting tattooed helps my anxiety

The relationship between my tattoos and my health anxiety is a complicated one. My coffin tattoo is a representation of my journey, and how I refuse to let anxiety get the better of me.

Photo by Anton Darius, Unsplash.

I write for a UK tattoo magazine and in 2015, explored the link between tattoos and death. I think that getting tattooed to deal with grief can mean that you’re squaring up to the Grim Reaper with courage and honesty. The title of the article was ‘Never Say Die’, inspired by the 1978 song by Black Sabbath. These three words are also the focus of one of my own tattoos. I wanted this phrase tattooed on my body for a long time as for me it symbolises my own battle with anxiety.

I’ve never written about this battle publicly before, or really discussed it in detail with anyone close to me in my life. The world doesn’t always want to talk about mental health, although it’s amazing to see that this is changing in recent years.

If you’ve never experienced anxiety or depression, you probably don’t understand why we can’t all just shake it off. I’m going to fear being judged by many who read this. I’m going to shit my pants when I click ‘Publish’ in a minute. But the time has come — for me to portray with language why these three little words represent my own triumph and strength, and why I must cherish this tattoo forever.

I was officially diagnosed with Health Anxiety in 2014, but it actually began when I was just a small child. I remember always being fascinated by death, and one day (when I was about 13), the penny suddenly dropped (with a loud thud in my heart). Thoughts snowballed in my head until they resulted in one drowning avalanche of panic in response to the following concept:

I am only going to exist as a person for a really short period of time. So are my friends, so are my parents, my grandparents, my brother, everyone I ever know. A day will come when I will never, ever, EVER see those people again. I’ll be put into a box in the ground, and stay there, forever. Not for a few years, or a hundred years, but until the end of time itself which we cannot even fathom. One day, I’ll never breathe air. I’ll never feel emotions. I’ll never again know what it means to live and be alive. I won’t know when that moment will come for me — it may come suddenly, with no warning. It could come next week. It could come tomorrow. It could come in five minutes.

As a philosophical teenager, I channeled these seemingly morbid thoughts into writing, poetry, painting. Every now and then they’d surface in the middle of the night, a sense of uncomfortable dread would wash over me and I used to think I was going to be sick. The only way I would get back to sleep again was by thinking about something else or by pacing around my room. I’d lie there and force myself to imagine holidays, shopping, friends, films, TV, anything. I fell asleep eventually and soon came to realise that you can only get on with life by completely ignoring its inevitable end.

I did a really good job of suppressing those fears and living a normal, healthy life for over a decade. For no real reason, perhaps because of other un-related stresses at work, in 2014 these underlying feelings started to bubble to the surface again, this time in the form of severe hypochondria. I spent the next few months irrationally terrified of my own health deterioration. I didn’t like to leave the house, never mind get tattooed. I was always taking myself off to A&E for no reason. I was in a permanent state of panic. I constantly felt like I was about to faint. I became crap company for anyone who knew me and I couldn’t dedicate space in my brain for anything else other than my own health worries.

Every time I was in contact with death, loss or tragedy (like seeing something on the news or overhearing someone in a restaurant say a friend was ill), I was paralysed with irrational fear. I fussed about every single movement in my body — every twitch, every pain, every abnormality, convinced that something was severely wrong with me. I couldn’t spend time in public. I became agoraphobic. My mental health deteriorated quite rapidly — I was no longer existing in the real world, but completely encompassed by an anxiety that ruled my every waking (and sleeping) moment.

A friend encouraged me to talk to my GP and I was referred for an initial therapy session. I was introduced to the term ‘Health Anxiety’ and spent the next few months working to understand what it meant, why I had it, and how I would manage it.

I responded really well to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As a positive person who likes to find solutions and look forward, adopting coping mechanisms learnt in CBT quickly brought me out of the dark hole that I’d buried myself into. Therapy reminded me of who I was — someone who loves a challenge, who constantly strives to be a good person in a world that they’re head over heels in love with. Anxiety was my challenge and I WOULD overcome it.

Being able to step back and see what anxiety was doing to my day-to-day existence opened my eyes to the fact that I could, and had to, learn how to control it. Otherwise I would spend my limited time on earth worrying about when it was going to end, instead of actually just sitting back and enjoying the ride. It also allowed me to explore the root cause of my anxieties. I hadn’t been through a traumatic incident, I’d had a perfectly happy childhood. I just genuinely had always been contemplative about existence. I suddenly remembered that little girl in bed, jumping around the room in an attempt to shake those feelings of sickness. My anxiety was a result of my constant philosophising, my ongoing fear of dying. I’ve always been like this, I always will be, and I just needed to know how to deal with it.

One thing my therapist said to me really stuck in my mind. She said I should embrace my obsession with death as something positive — it’s made me who I am and allows me to see the world in a very appreciative and grateful way. Excuse the cliché but I do live every day as if it’s my last. I strive for the best standards for me, my health, my work and my life. I don’t settle. I do all the things I say I want to. ‘Not many people can say that,’ she said.

From the moment she gave me that ray of light, I’ve encouraged my creative side to seize my fears and I now use them for something good. Anyone that has read my writing before, in magazines or blogs, knows that I always try to share inspirational messages about making the most of your time on earth, cherishing each second and every person around you. Being able to hide messages about life’s transience in my everyday writing has been cathartic — it has made me love my own anxieties as something special. Writing allows me to channel my thoughts into words for others, and as a result they no longer stagnate in my own brain.

So, as my therapy came to an end in 2014, I moved forward. I wrote. I learnt how to be better. I was aware of my thoughts and actions and refused to let myself drown in them again. I developed healthy habits that eventually drew me out of the horrendous state I had worked myself into. I remembered those habits and they have become an invisible part of my everyday, like breathing.

I read a book recently that said we only ever deal with the darkness by firstly truly going as deep into it as we can. Those few months were my exploration of the darkness — the deepest corners of my mind. Just over three years later, and I am no longer ruled by Health Anxiety. I have never slipped back into that darkness and never wish to. If I feel myself doing so, I am very aware of it, and make changes and take action to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Being in a place of constant fear destroyed my mind and my body aggressively in those few short months. Today, being out of the darkness is the best feeling in the world, and (as much as my therapist gave me the tools to do it) only I was the person who could make the transition.

Tattoos today represent my ability to overcome hypochondria. My therapist was very surprised to learn that someone who obsessed about their health would choose to regularly undergo voluntary skin trauma that would almost certainly arouse panic for someone living with Health Anxiety. As I reflected upon this I realised that I get tattooed to remind myself that I don’t need to worry. When I look down at my tattoos every day they remind that the human body is strong — it heals, it fights, it’s still here. I will decide what to do with my own body and I control it — I choose for mine to stand tall and tattooed, to successfully heal every self-inflicted, colourful wound, to live long and healthily.

Now, I have the one thing I am terrified of inked on my body forever. There was a time when seeing a coffin would send me into a panic — now I have to look at one every day on my leg. You only conquer fears by facing them head-on.

We all brush death under the carpet — we move forward after loss because we have to, otherwise we wouldn’t go on. If I constantly obsess about the inevitable, I’m going to blink and my time will soon be up. I regularly conjure an image of myself on my death bed, looking back with regret and saying to myself ‘I wish I had spent less time worrying’. That often pulls me out of growing anxious states.

I will never again let my anxieties take over my life to the point where I stop living it.

I will never try to control things that I can’t, like my own impermanence.

I will Never Say Die.

“Future’s on the corner, throwing us a die
Slow down, turn around, everything’s fine
Oh, don’t you ever, don’t ever say die
Never, never, never say die again”
Black Sabbath, Never Say Die

Words: Rebecca Rimmer.
The above article was written and first published in June 2016.