“No tattoos” my mother said. “Don’t do drugs, don’t get pregnant as a teenager, and don’t mark your body.” Those were her three major rules and while I managed two of them, I broke her heart when I inked mine.

I’d like to believe the first one was an act of rebellion. A point of youthful defiance. I thought it was cool. It was my secret badge of bad ass. Coincidentally, it shared that same body part. I used to catch my reflection coming out of the shower and be tickled at the thought that I had done such a thing.

“Never again Audrey,” she said to me with a look of hurt betrayal on her face upon discovery. “Don’t ever do it again.”

Shit.

This might not be the best time to tell her that I had already gotten 3 more and she just hadn’t discovered them yet. I couldn’t break her heart by telling her (at least that’s what I told myself) but really, I couldn’t break mine by disappointing her again. The guilt of a mother is incredibly powerful and my mom has mastered the delicate art form to a shade of scary perfection.

Somehow I didn’t think telling her that one of them was an ode to her was going to make her feel better.

When she did discover the new pieces, she was devastated. She was

Image provided courtesy of Audrey Bellis.

Image provided courtesy of Audrey Bellis.

hurt because a family member told her about them. She was the last to know and felt I had played her for a fool.

We had our biggest fight yet. She said things like “How could you? Your father is Jewish- does that mean nothing to you?” and the clincher: “I won’t tolerate this in my household”.

I replied with equally sharp fighting words: “Fine. I won’t be part of your household anymore.” Before the close of that calendar month I had packed up my clothes and moved out into my first apartment.

We stopped talking. We were both stubborn and neither was going to yield to the other. It was both our strength and weakness. She only came to that apartment once. In fact over the course of 3 years, she only came to my home that number of times- just three.

“It’s better this way” I told myself. “We’re too alike. The physical distance is making us closer. We can’t fight if we aren’t in the same house” But it wasn’t really bringing us together. We were just polite strangers that didn’t really know each other. We politely tolerated each other. As I struggled in my early 20’s, I continued to hold her at a distance. Unforgiving of her lack of understanding.

A few years ago I got my most recent tattoo. Following a time in my life when it seemed like there would never be sunny days ahead.

It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.  ― Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

I decided to get one that would serve as my scar of happiness, and it was my biggest piece so far. Stretched over an arm rest to give the tautest skin possible, I dropped trou and gave my artist a new blank canvas.

With each pass of the outline and subsequent shading, it felt like I was conquering an unspeakable pain. I was creating a flesh wound to physically remind myself of what I had overcome. I was owning my experience and taking control.

It burned like hot tears. The vibration from the machine made my teeth chatter and I kept hearing my artist say: “Breathe Audrey. Don’t hold your breath.”

Inhale, exhale. Release. Two hours of flesh carving.

I didn’t keep that one a secret. She finally knows all my scars and wounds. She wasn’t thrilled but I think she tried to understand in the best way she could. She used to tell me, “a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child.” A recent study in The Atlantic says that’s actually true and not just her guilt trip.

In the last few years as we’re grown close again, I think I finally get what that means. When I hurt, I see her hurt. As I have faced challenges, I see in her face the pain that she wishes she could take away. When I have felt alone, I have seen her feel pushed away because I didn’t know how to let her in.

My markings are my choices. They read across my body covertly like a road map of personal conquests and emotional triumphs. I wish I could tell her that I won’t get anymore but that would be a lie. My tattoos serve as physical reminders of times in my life I never want to experience again times that I hope to always strive for. I still can’t wear a bathing suit in front of her (or any family members) and I can’t wear clothing that exposes them because it hurts her eyes… and her heart. But at least I don’t have to hide it anymore.

We’re as sick as our secrets they say, but it’s comforting to not have secrets from her anymore. This is how it was always supposed to be. I don’t know how we got so far off the path but I’m grateful we managed to find our way back before it was too late.