Last week I got a tattoo.
Given that I have several this didn't seem like it would be that big of a deal. I know the feeling it creates, physically, mentally, emotionally. I know how I process the sting of the needle, the buzz of the tool, the excitement of watching an image from my head come to life on my body, the momentary rush of both excitement and fear over the permanence, the acceptance and happiness of the finished work. I didn't anticipate this being any different from the others.
But the body remembers even when we do not.
It was the one year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis and like many other things in my life I realized that while not planned, this was no coincidence. I felt wholly excited, anxious even, for my appointment. My original idea was to have it go on my arm but after working with the artist and messing around a bit we found a new spot - on my L shoulder leading into cover my port scar on my chest. While tattoos may seem edgy to some, those who know me know that I consider myself timid when it comes to them and my ability to flaunt or hide them as needed. This placement felt bold and scary and I realized it made a statement. I loved it from the moment the stencil was laid despite the hasty decision of changing its home. And so before I could overthink it she went to work. Quickly, calmly, and kindly, she started by my shoulder and ended with her finishing strokes right over that scar that most days I didn't honor with much thought. And all of the same feelings were there - the pain, the excitement, the fear, the almost incredulous wonder that I was doing this again. I stood up and looked in the mirror and began to cry. They were happy tears but they surprised me. I didn't expect to have this reaction. I was aware of the date but had felt no real anguish over it. No need to acknowledge it more than to be aware of how much had transpired since that day last year and to be happy with how far I had come. A grateful hug, payment for service rendered, and on my way. Back to clients and work and business as usual. At least that's what my head said.
But the body remembers even when we do not.
In the car I started to cry. Big tears, sobby tears, a mix of grief and fear and relief. A catharsis I thought. An acknowledgment that maybe this date did matter and that I needed to grieve it a bit. That seemed understandable and so I allowed it to come and go as I went on my way, back in the studio, staring into the mirror peeling back the bandage with joy and trepidation. Client on the table, soft music playing, dim lights, this safe sanctuary that I've created for others but also for myself. This space that cradles me when I need it to and that I lose myself in often in the service of others.
But not today. Because today my body remembered.
As my client lay there, eyes closed, enjoying being cared for, I launched into a full blown panic attack inside while trying to keep my composure and my rhythm. FEAR the size of which I've never felt washed over me like the icy waters that swallowed the Titanic. I wanted to run, I wanted to drop to my knees, I wanted to scream, I wanted to vomit, I wanted to never know the word cancer again. Feelings I'm not even sure I had when I first heard the news a year before demanded they be heard. I bit my lip and scrunched up my eyes while my hands kept working. I fought to retain control and do my best for the person so graciously sharing themselves with me. I focused on my breath and tried to rationalize my way out of this moment, these feelings. Was it regret? Focus on the tattoo, the word, the picture, the placement. Did it feel wrong? No, no, all was good there. So what was this? Where was this coming from? My body knew what to expect from this minor trauma so why was I near collapse? And as I probed my soul with questions, the answer came quietly from within.
From my body. In a whisper....
"My scar. That needle penetrating my scar. That bandage covering half my chest that feels so horribly familiar to two surgeries invading me with a little piece of plastic that's impact was so much more than its size. I remember and now it is time you do too."
They all told me I would love my port - it would be my friend and save the veins in my arm - the placement and removal would be nothing. They were wrong. It hurt for days when they put it in, the sticky bandages that assaulted my skin as much as the incision itself. I hated that bump in my chest that stuck out and never seemed to want to hide. I hated the smell of the lidocaine cream that numbed it so they could hook me up for hours to medicine I was grateful for but sent me on a physical and emotional rollercoaster for months. It was the right thing to do, they were right about that, but it wasn't my friend. It was a necessity and one I was glad to be rid of. And now as I felt that bandage covering my chest, as I felt the tenderness of the fresh wound of my own doing right in that very spot that was working so hard to heal, I realized that my body remembered when I had not. That one inch scar held the pain and the fear and the hatred for that plastic mountain that I never really allowed myself to express. I was a trooper, I smiled, I stayed positive, and I meant it. But I also didn't recognize that my shiny attitude wasn't the only thing carrying the weight of this experience. This body, this vessel that is the only one we get was poked, cut, prodded, sewn, glued, punctured, and assaulted in so many ways just so I could have the chance to keep it around as long as possible. And now it was sharing it's story with me. Making me remember emotions I let it carry for me when I wasn't strong enough to do it on my own.
In massage therapy we are taught that the body holds emotions. As a cancer patient we are told that PTSD is real and can happen to us just like it can a soldier home from war. Looking back I suppose it was hubris to think I could escape that day unscathed, that I was above or beyond a date on a calendar. It was egotistical to plan a day so full that left no room to honor an anniversary that mattered, even if it wasn't one I wanted to celebrate. I won't get into my dislike of the "battle" language often associated with cancer (at least not in this post) but in that moment I realized that my scars were more than just physical and there was a war going on within me. A hidden war of the self, one where control is an illusion, and releasing into all you feel is the only way to win and return home to ourselves. Not as we used to know ourselves but changed, perhaps for the worse, but perhaps for the better too.
I am learning that recovery is about more than healing scars that the world sees. It's about healing the ones that are hidden deep within too, and for that I am grateful that my body remembered.