personal essay

Ink to paper is thoughtful Ink to flesh, hard-core. If Shakespeare were a tattooist We'd appreciate body art more. ― Terri Guillemets

“Wouldn’t it be cool if dragons existed?”  I blurted out to Alan as we quietly danced.

He stared at me; he was probably holding back his laughter. 

“Well wouldn’t it?  I mean, we could learn about them and how to interact with them and…”

Thoughts plagued my mind as he continued to dance in silence and I blabbed on and on about dragons and how interesting they are.  Emily, just shut up already!  I had asked Alan to the dance because I didn’t want to go alone, again.  Too bad he is a lousy date and won’t talk or anything.  Did I mention that he is also a very sweaty guy?  My hands, holding onto his shoulders as we slow danced, were getting soaked by the second.  I had thought earlier that Alan was interested in fantasy things, as I was, but I guess I was wrong about that since he seemed taken aback from my dragon question.  I finally stopped talking and, with a sigh, we went back to dancing silently until the slow song was done and over with.

⃰  ⃰  ⃰

Dragons are awesome and powerful creatures.  There are so many stories and tales about their caves and mountains of treasure, their pillaging of villages, and their stealing of young maidens.  Dragons were perceived as powerful, protective, and fearsome, and they were valued for their warlike qualities.  They were often protectors of a treasure, and from this, they can be symbolic of a most valiant defender.  One of the highest achievements of a hero in medieval legend was the slaying of a dragon, as in the story of St. George, where the victory over the dragon, was a symbolic victory of Christianity.  Dragons, though, are also intelligent beings, masters of the elements.  A dragon represents strength, courage, and fortitude; they are both creators and destroyers.


“Yah, so the nickname my friends gave you is ‘Dragon Girl’ because of what you said to Alan…”  Mike, my boyfriend from high school, stated as we watched TV.

“No, you can’t be serious.  Dragon girl?  How creative of them.  Here I thought your guy friends were on the honors track and had brains.”  I rolled my eyes, looked away from him, confused, and annoyed by my new nickname.

“Alan was freaked out whenever you asked him about dragons.  Why would you even bring them up?”

“Well he wasn’t talking!  It’s frustrating when you are dancing with someone and trying to have a conversation whenever the other person won’t say a gosh darn thing!”  I snapped as I stood and went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.  I went to the mirror, looking at my plain brown hair, my average body, and my “nerdy” shirt.  I liked how I looked, but Mike wants me to be ‘normal’ and skinny and pretty and girly and not talk about dragons.  Well I want to talk about dragons and be weird and be average and not be girly.

Knock, knock.

“Awe, c’mon Emily.  They only call you that sometimes and it’s not as if the name will even stick.  Come out so we can go on a walk.”

I shuddered at the thought of going on another walk with Mike.  They always led to things I didn’t want to do.  Every time we hung out outside of school, we had to go on a walk so that we could have ‘alone time.’

“I don’t like when people make fun of me.  You probably don’t even stick up for me around them.”  I stated through the door.

“It’s not even bad; you’ll get over it.  Now come on out, pleeeeeeeeeeeease.” He whined.

“Okay, fine.”  I grudgingly opened the door, he grabbed my hand, and we proceeded to put our shoes and coats on, preparing to go on a walk.


The earliest tattoos found are more than 5,000 years old.  In 1991, a 5,300 year-old mummy was discovered in the Alps who had more than 50 tattoos on various parts of his body.  This discovery made him the oldest human ever found to have tattoos.  The reasons behind getting tattoos have differed from one culture to another throughout the centuries.  According to history, Egyptians used tattoos to differentiate slaves and peasants.  Around 2,000 B.C., tattoos spread to China and Greece, being used as a mode of communication between spies.  In Japan and other Asian countries, tattooing has been practiced for thousands of years.  The first written record of tattooing in Japan was found in a history of the Chinese Dynasty dating back from 297 A.D.  Today, though, tattooing in Japan is considered taboo because many of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, wear tattoos.  America got its first taste of tattooing from Chatham Square, located in New York, when a man named Samuel O’Reilly set up his tattoo shop in the area.

Tattoos have become more and more common in the United States.  They used to have the stigma that people with tattoos are sailors, criminals, thugs, “greasers,” and just overall “bad” people who you would not want to be around.  Now, though, they have become an everyday thing.  Tattoos are known as body art, body bling, self-graffiti, and fashionable ink accessories; each of those words depicts the physical nature of the tattoo.  They are often conversation starters.  There is either a story attached, a “skin”-showing session, or an emotional response derived from the sight of ink art and the emotional response to the tattoo is what leads toward modern-day version of social branding.  Where you put the tattoo, how may tattoos you have, what the tattoos are, and the size of the tattoos all help shape the emotional response of the viewer.  Moreover, that observer could be anyone from a potential boss, a family member or a date.  Although the stigma remains with some people, according to research 15-38 percent of Americans have some type of long-term body art.  What was once considered self-mutilator behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become almost a normative behavior.

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It was my first year of college and I had finally picked out what tattoo I wanted.  I had wanted a tattoo ever since I realized they existed and especially ever since I found out my sister secretly had one.  Entering into my first year of college, I had finally turned 18, roughly moved out of my mom’s house until the summer, had a part-time job, had an awesome boyfriend, and had everything a girl could ask for.  Even though I “had it all,” I was still reminded of the year and three months I spent with my sexually and emotionally abusive high school boyfriend who introduced me to the nickname “Dragon Girl” every time I looked in the mirror or was alone in the dark.  What I finally decided on was a dragon.  A dragon would be my totem since it represents strength and courage.  Every time I would turn my back on my mirror, I would be reminded that a dragon rests on my shoulder, giving me its strength and courage to keep going.  “Wouldn’t it be cool if dragons existed?”  I remember the question I asked Alan, the question that marked me, as I searched pages upon pages of images for the dragon that would end up permanently etched on my skin.  Finally, I saw it, the dragon of my dreams: a Western dragon with butterfly-like wings and a spiked tail.  This was the dragon that would forever be stamped upon my back, the back of Dragon Girl.


“Kellie, I’m scared!”  I whined.

“Emily, you will be fine!  You know it will hurt, but it’s going to look awesome!”  My coworker told me.

“I know.  But it’s still scary.  Ugh.  I’m so nervous.”

“Well at least I’m here to hold your hand so you can make my hand turn purple.”  Kellie told me with a smile.

“Gee, thanks, Kellie.”

As we walk toward the green and black building holding Big Mojos Tattoo Parlor, beads of sweat begin forming on my face.  The clear blue September sky does nothing to help as the carnivorous sun beats its rays upon us, turning our skin red as our bodies try to cool us down.

“Why does it have to be so hot?  I’m ready for winter already, but by then I’ll probably be ready for summer.”  I say as I fan both Kellie and myself in Mojo’s.

“Can I help you?”  The man behind the counter asked.

“Hi, I have an appointment to get a tattoo with Justin?”  I nervously spoke.

“Right this way, ladies.”

I handed Justin the photograph of the dragon and, as he drew up the stencil, I sat nervously waiting.

“Just remember to breathe and you will be fine,” Kellie said as she noticed my nervousness.

“Okay, I can do this,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.

After the initial shock of having a needle jabbing into me hundreds of times, puking up my dinner because I forgot to breathe and ate too much before hand, and squeezing the life out of Kellie’s hand, I did it.  I got the tattoo I wanted and an experience that I would remember for the rest of my life.  I finally became “Dragon Girl.”


Writing this has proven to be difficult because of how extremely personal my tattoos are.  Each of my tattoos has a story behind them and, sometimes, I just don’t want to have to tell that story to someone so I simply respond by saying, “I just like it a lot” or “for personal reasons.”  Different people get tattoos for different reasons.  Different people have different views on tattoos.  When I asked a few of my friends about their views on tattoos and/or why they got tattoos, I received many different answers.  In the words of Ricky:

Tattoos … They have traditionally carried a stigma as rebellious and part of “counter-culture.”  However, that view is changing as each new generation approaches adulthood and I am the proud “owner” of two tattoos with a great desire to get more… a lot more.  Tattoos aren’t for everyone, though, and a lot of people take different approaches to them…  I firmly believe that a tattoo should hold some deep personal meaning or connection and all of mine present and future do/will.  Although I do try to keep them “hidden,” I don’t hide the fact that I have them and love showing them off.  They are works of art and should be viewed as such.  The stigma attached is changing and hopefully I won’t have to hide them to be successful, but I love them and will continue to get them and admire them.

            The only person who did not have tattoos was my friend Paige who believes:

 Personally, tattoos don't bother me and I wish they weren't as big a deal in the workplace.  I mean, excepting if the tattoo was especially offensive, but any tattoo is "offensive" nowadays no matter how inoffensive the actual content is.  I have considered getting a tattoo before, but decided not to mostly because I present my body as-is in any other context.  I don't wear make-up; I rarely use any product in my hair; my ears have never been pierced; etc.  While others use tattoos to reinforce their identity, which I think is cool and valid, I just prefer to have my body be the visual representation of my identity with minimal adaptations.

Therefore, as we can see, getting a tattoo and having something painfully put onto your body that will last for the rest of your life is a personal choice.  Some people choose to get them, others choose not to.  As Ricky said, tattoos are not for everyone.  Those who get tattoos usually have their reasons behind getting a specific tattoo, and sometimes they have reasons as to the placement of the tattoo.  Some people mark themselves to remind them of past family members or ancient sayings or religious scriptures or names of their current family/love interest.  Others use tattoos to feed their exhibitionist side and many people use tattoos to visually promote their identity and what they stand for.  For whatever reason a person gets a tattoo, as Johnny Depp says, “My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.”


“It was an effort to pull himself out of it, to remember why he did what he did.  It was in the midst of such an effort that he'd carved nil desperandum into the back of his prefect's badge.  So he wouldn't forget.”  I was reading a new Harry Potter fan fiction called “Bad Faith” when I came across the phrase ‘nil desperandum.’  What an interesting phrase!  I thought to myself.  Not knowing what this Latin term meant, I did a search for it.  Never despair.  Nil desperandum means never despair.

⃰  ⃰  ⃰

I want to die, I thought to myself as I lay on my bed in my dorm room.  This unbearable pain was throbbing through my system, weakening my legs and arms until I could barely move.  What is wrong with me?  I asked myself as I moaned in agony.  This had been going on for 3 months; I had missed too many classes, but lacked the energy to get out of bed, shower, and walk to my classes.  I think it is finally time that I tell my mum what has been going on.  Maybe she will know what to do.  As I dial her number, my fingers loose grip on the phone and I try desperately to keep the hand holding my phone by my ear.

            “Yes?”  She answered the phone and I start to cry.

            “Mum, I hurt so much.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  I tried Tylenol, Ibuprofen, everything I could think of, none of it works on me for more than an hour, and I don’t know what to do because I hurt and it hurts to move and it hurts to hold my phone up by my ear.  Mum, I don’t know what’s wrong with me and I hurt so much…”  I sob and ramble as my mom listens.

            “Emily, I don’t know what to tell you except to make an appointment with the doctor and maybe they can figure it out.”

⃰  ⃰  ⃰

            Sitting in the waiting room of my family doctor, I found it hard not to squirm or moan in pain.  My legs felt as if ants were crawling through their veins, making them restless and achy.

“Emily?”  The nurse called out the door.

I slowly got up and moved across the room, a 19-year-old trapped in the body of a 90-year-old trapped in the body of a 19-year-old. 

“Step up on the scale” the nurse said as she jotted down some notes.  We moved to the exam room and the nurse took my temperature and my blood pressure and then stated that the doctor would be in soon.  Left on my own for a few minutes, I was able to release my stoic expression and grimace in pain.

Knock, knock.

The Dr. Lee walked into the room asking, “And what seems to be the problem today?”

I tell him how my whole body hurts and feels like a steamroller has gone over me repeatedly.  I tell him how I have to take the maximum dosage of Ibuprofen a day just so that I can get a couple hours of sleep when the pain is gone.  I tell him how I have no clue what is happening to me and why I hurt so much.

“Okay, okay.  Let me give you this prescription for Mobic and it is also recommended that you lose some weight.  You call me if you need something,” and he walked out the door.

⃰  ⃰  ⃰

The Mobic wasn’t working.  I would be fine for an hour and then BAM, the pain came back, full force.  At work, I would go into the stock room or cooler, double over in pain, and then go back out as if nothing was wrong.  Only some people could tell by looking at my face that I was in constant pain.  Some days I could barely stand or use my hands.  I missed a lot of class because of this.  I just couldn't make myself work through the pain.  I didn't want to have to walk across campus, limping and almost in tears.  I just wanted to lie in my bed and die.  Since Dr. Lee had no idea what was happening, he sent me to the rheumatologist, Dr. Kim.  Once again, I went through the initial weighing in, blood pressure and temperature taking, and the “you need to lose weight” talk.  This time though, the doctor actually knew what he was doing.  Since they were unsure of what I had, I had to get blood work done to test for all different types of potential problems.  On that day, I had 16 tubes of blood taken from me.  Three weeks later, I had eight more taken.  They still could not pinpoint what was causing me to be in so much pain.  Since I had different symptoms of multiple diseases, they diagnosed me with Undifferentiated Spondyloarthropathy.  To me, that diagnosis just means they still don’t know what is going on.  Every three to six months since my diagnosis, my doctor has to put me on steroids for two weeks, due to the pain not responding to my medications.  Every three to six months, I have to get blood work done, to check and see if my counts are still good.  Every three to six months, I am supposed to visit my rheumatologist.

⃰  ⃰  ⃰

Nil Desperandum.  The words had begun to haunt me as I found more and more reasons in my life to despair.  My life seemed to be going more and more downhill as my sophomore year was ending.  My life was spinning out of control and I was becoming more and more depressed.  Up late reading one night, I remembered the phrase and searched for the fan fiction again.  Rereading it, I realized that I wanted the words ‘nil desperandum’ to be my next tattoo and that those words would be placed on my ribs.  Although I knew a rib tattoo would hurt like hell and cost more, I knew that my ribs were the perfect place to remind me to “Never Despair.”  Every day, I would have a constant reminder to not feed my misery and to make the best of my disease and the rest of my life.  Too bad that cheery outlook didn’t last very long and was about to end.


The semicolon and the ellipsis are two of the most misused punctuation marks.  The semicolon comes with three rules and the ellipsis comes with two rules.  The first rule of the semicolon is to use it in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.  As an example:  She sliced her wrist; the crimson blood flowed down the drain.  Semicolons also prefer to be used before introductory words such as namely, however, that is, for example, or for instance, when they introduce a complete sentence.  Example: As I thought, I will need two items; i.e., painkillers and a blade.  The third use of the semicolon is when two sentences are joining with a conjunction, but one or more commas is used in the first, adding the semicolon between the two sentences.  Example: After she swallowed the pills, she decided she wanted to live; and ran to the bathroom to puke.  The first rule of an ellipsis is to use no more than three marks whether the omission occurs in the middle of a sentence or between sentences.  Example without an ellipsis: She looked in the mirror and, hating what she saw, decided that even though she wanted to live, she could not live without feeling.  Now, example with ellipsis: She looked in the mirror and … decided that even though she wanted to live, she could not live without feeling.  The second rule is that an ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in the flow of a sentence.  Example: Trust me … I do.  You just have to stop.


            I lay on my bed; thoughts are swirling through my head.  The tears are freely falling from my eyes as I feel the cold hand squeezing at my heart.  I claw at my chest as I try to ease away the pain: the pain of loneliness, the pain of being in pain, and the pain of every moment I have ever felt in my life.  I got up from my bed and opened the door, glancing out to make sure my roommates had gone to bed.  Once the coast was clear, I wiped the still trickling tears from my eyes and walked to the bathroom.  My light purple razor sat peacefully on the shelf in the shower.  I stared at it in contempt, as I knew it would alleviate the pain; but only for a bit.  For the first time, I decided to cause physical harm to my body.  I slowly tested the razor against my skin and then pressed down, hard enough to make me bleed.  After cutting across my skin several times, I reached for the medicine drawer, the drawer where I kept my sleeping pills for nights that the thoughts wouldn’t stop.  My body was shaking uncontrollably while tears streamed down my face.  I took a gulp of water as I shoved at least 15 little yellow pills down my throat.  After swallowing the pills, I sat on the toilet and thought. 

What would my mom think?

Who will take care of her?

What would my roommates think when they opened the bathroom door in the morning?

What will my classmates say?

Will anyone miss me?

Who would take care of my cat?

 What would everyone at work think? 

Why am I doing this?

            Once again, I came to the realization that I did not want to die.  I jumped off the toilet seat, opened the lid, stuck two fingers down my throat, and vomited up a yellow jumble of half digested pills.  This was the second time I had tried and this was also the second time I didn’t succeed.  I definitely would be skipping class in the morning.


            A month later, my roommates got into a fight.  I shut myself in the bathroom, tired of all the fighting; tired of being tired.  My razor was calling to me.  The sting of a new cut opened my eyes as I watch crimson droplets seep out from my wrist.  I wasn’t trying to kill myself; no, I was trying to feel.  I flushed the toilet in the hopes that my roommates would think I was just using the bathroom.  Rinsing off the blood, I walked out of the bathroom, holding my shirt to my wrist.

            “Let me see you wrist!” my one roommate screamed at me.

            “Why?  I was just going to the bathroom.”

            “Emily, I’m not stupid.  Show me your wrist!”

            “It is none of your business.  This is the first time I’ve done it in a week!”  I lied through my teeth.

            “That’s still too much!  I’m not stupid!  You need to stop!  Cutting is stupid and you should know better!  You are smarter than this!”  She was still yelling at me.

            “Okay.”  I said as I walked into my bedroom, shut the door, and proceeded to curl up on my bed, tears streaming down my face.  The bad part was I knew what I was doing was stupid, but I couldn’t stop.  What I didn’t understand is that the person who I thought was my best friend just yelled at me, not caring to ask why I was doing what I was doing.  Not caring, just screaming.  After that incident, I started using a knife and my thigh.


            I wanted to live, yes, but sometimes my heart would grow so heavy that the only thing that would end the heaviness was focusing the pain elsewhere.  I was addicted to the feeling.  I was ashamed that I had become one of those people.  I also knew that I didn’t need someone yelling at me when all I ever did was yell at myself for cutting, for eating, for being lazy, for being stupid, for everything I did.  I had needed a friend, but all I got was another attack from another part of my life.


            I was talking to a great guy and he believed he was talking to a great girl, but then, he wanted to get physical.  I was too embarrassed to take my pants off, for fear of judgment by the scars on my skin.  Later that night, we began to talk over Facebook.

            “We don’t have to hang out anymore if you don’t want to,” he started.

            “I don’t know.  I want to hang out, but I’m messed up,” I revealed.


            “I just am…”

            “Well if you don’t want to that’s up to you.”

            “I want to, I do.  But if you see the cuts on my leg, you aren’t allowed to comment or say anything to me or anyone else about them.”  It was a good thing we were conversing over chat or I would have never been able to reveal this.

            “Why not just stop?” he asked.

            “I don’t know.”

            “I’m sure you can.”

            “I tried.”

            “Just do it.”

            “It’s not that simple!”  I exclaimed both aloud and on the keyboard.

            “I understand how it is, you know.”


            “Trust me … I do.  You just have to stop.”

            “I can’t.”

            “Yes you can.”

            “I try.”

            “Try more.”

            I was starting to feel like he was backing me into a corner.  I really was trying to stop.  “I don’t need someone else telling me that I’m not trying hard enough.  I’m trying and that’s enough for now, even if I slip up every once in a while.  At least I haven’t killed myself.  Plus one.”  I stated.

            “I’m not trying to be an ass, I am just saying.”

            “I know, but whatever.  Sorry.”  There I go apologizing for nothing again.

            “It’s fine.”

            “If you say so.”

            “You worry too much.”

            “I know.”

            Somehow, that conversation changed my life.  Since the night of my talk with Zeke, I have not held a blade to my wrist or a knife to my thigh.  Instead, I got two new tattoos, one on each wrist.  On my left wrist now lies an ellipsis and on my right, right beside my scars, lies a semicolon.


            You see, a semi colon represents a sentence that the author could have ended but chose not to.  An ellipsis represents a pause in a sentence and then the sentence keeps going.  The author is me; the sentence is my life.  Through my struggles, I have learned that even when I feel my weakest, I know that within me lays a dragon who doesn’t want to give in and who doesn’t want to despair; a dragon who doesn’t want to end the sentence just yet.  

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