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Scars can be beautiful.

A surgical scar shows what we can conquer with modern medicine. Stretch marks, whether from pregnancy, growth or muscle gains, are tokens of transformation. Scars are earned by overcoming obstacles.

But sometimes – especially when you bring mental health into the equation – scars can become more painful over time. After living with mine for nearly a decade, I chose to cover them with a full sleeve of tattoos.

It’s not an unusual choice. Kelly Doty, the new school tattoo legend and Ink Master Season 8 finalist, has tattoos that cover her own scars. “It’s not erased,” she says. “It’s transformed.”

Shane Faulkner, a veteran tattoo artist and the owner of The Tell Tale Heart studio in Burlington, Ontario, understands both sides of the coin.

“If a scar is a reminder of something painful then it’s possible that a tattoo could eliminate the negative feelings associated with it,” he says. “Although I’ve also met several people who wear their scars like a badge. They lived through it and have this scar to tell the story.”

Covering the scars is what helped me come to terms with my story.

When I was fifteen years old, I woke up one day and stopped being depressed. Not by choice, of course. How great would it be if recovery was that simple?

I was getting over a case of mono. The virus wasn’t so bad – with depression, you get used to being so exhausted, you can’t always stand up on your own. But the day the mono cleared, I suddenly stopped feeling tired.

Outside, for the first time in years, the sky was a vivid shade of blue. Depression is like a bad Instagram filter that makes everything look desaturated. It’s science: in 2010, a team of German researchers found that depressed patients had decreased retinal responses to contrast. But that day, for me, the sky was brighter.

A photo posted by Linds Burgess (@lindsburge) on

One by one, the folks who had spent the last few years trying to balance my brain chemistry agreed that I was better. There wasn’t any clear explanation for it. Usually people get depressive symptoms after a bout of mono, not the other way around.

But like that, there were no more drugs, no more counselling sessions, no more hospital stays. I was just a fifteen-year-old trying, for the first time, to figure out how to be a teenager who wasn’t depressed.

A photo posted by Linds Burgess (@lindsburge) on

I also had to deal with my scars.

My battle scars, I joked. They were all pretty old by then. But as much as depression fogs your memory, the scars were physical reminders of darker times. They held the past too close to the surface, and I desperately wanted them gone.

When I was sixteen, I saw a plastic surgeon. She examined the raised lines on my wrist, the shiny hatch marks crisscrossing my forearm, the wads of tissue where my skin had burned and blistered.

My knees shook with excitement as I waited to hear how every last mark would be erased. How I could finally pass as a person who had never seen the inside of a psych ward.

Apparently, that’s not how plastic surgery works.

The doctor pinched at the biggest, blobbiest burn mark and explained that she could make it smaller – but there would still be a scar. The same was true for its neighbour. As for the flatter marks, there was nothing she could do for them.

I went back out into the world, where strangers made a habit of grabbing my arm and telling me to “stop doing that,” not knowing or caring how long it had really been since I actually “did that.”

People didn’t really talk about mental health back then, but that didn’t stop them being intrusive. With summer just around the corner, I dreaded the questions that came along with short sleeves.

By the time I hit my twenties, I knew that I wanted to tattoo over the scars. It took some time to figure out the design, however.

I was about to graduate from a Masters program, and I just wanted something to finally cover my wrist.

Christopher Maslen
Christopher Maslen

I chose a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, my favourite play. The phrase “what’s past is prologue” was stenciled over two lines and inked across a raised, jagged mark.

I didn’t mind that the tattoo wouldn’t fully cover the scars, or that the quote itself – so provocatively steeped in meaning – was as likely to elicit questions as the marks it covered.

At her Salem, Massachusetts studio, the Helheim Gallery, Doty tattoos a lot of cutters. “A tattoo normally covers up regular skin, but tattooing over cutting scars, you still have a story underneath it. You’re not erasing the past, you’re adding another layer,” she says.

With the first tattoo, I acknowledged that I could never pass for someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a psych ward. That, in light of what I’d learned about access to mental health resources, it was incredibly lucky I had.

I finally understood that recovery is a spectrum, not a final destination. I learned to be okay with the bad days that still come around now and then, instead of worrying that it could all come crashing down again.

It took five years, seven tattoos and five different artists to finish my sleeve. Most of them asked about my scars at some point, even if they weren’t tattooing over them. But with each new addition, I felt a little bit more at peace with the past.

Doty, who has been a vocal advocate for mental health, thinks it’s important to showcase scar-covering tattoos “as something really beautiful.”

She adds, “It’s more important than ever not to be ashamed about the things that make you different.”

Christopher Maslen
Christopher Maslen

And she’s right. Without the experiences of my past, I wouldn’t be the same person today. What’s past is prologue. I am finally comfortable in my own skin, and my story is just beginning.

It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 25, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health programs. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, posting on Instagram using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk video on Facebook, or sending a Snapchat using the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.