This afternoon I’m heading out to have some more ink done on my sleeve (left arm is a work in-progress, right arm is finally complete, including my favourite quotes by the Dalai Lama and Rhonda Byrne).

I love my tattoos and wear them proudly like the skin they’re now a permanent part of. They’re no different than a scar that commemorates a time in my life or a place in my past, the quotes reminding me of where am I and who I strive to be.

Some tattoos you can’t see, tucked away on lower backs and shoulder blades, beautiful secrets known only to those you’re intimately close with.

Recovery is sometimes like that. A painful process with a lovely outcome, quietly hidden from view like a dirty secret only we know about, permanently inked as part of who we are, and where we’ve come from.

And no one is supposed to know about it.

I want to live my recovery out loud, like a tattoo you can’t cover up. But like so many in recovery, my shame-game is strong. I parade around the keyboard as transparent as glass, but it’s like I’m still stuck in the tattoo parlour. I haven’t quite left the building just yet to show anyone else. And when I do, I keep covering it up with long sleeves and coats – my own little secret, just for now. The only people who know are the ones who came along for the ride.

I want to shout it from the rooftops, but only loud enough for the birds to hear.

I want to tell my truths, but only quietly like whispered confessions on a Sunday morning.

I want to be proud of where I’ve come from, but I don’t want anyone to know where that is.

It’s easy to celebrate in the company of everyone at the tattoo shop. We all have something in common, and the why’s don’t need to be explained. The how-did-you-let-yourself-get-like-that’s are all too familiar. Our quiet, closed communities – online or in the rooms – offer a space where we can take our jackets off and wear our tattoos without judgement or shame.

A place where there is nothing but appreciation for the beautifully painful process that has now become a part of us; and appreciation for the healing that now needs to happen.

We hide our recovery like it’s something to be ashamed of instead of celebrated.

People are more what they hide than what they show.

It’s hard to walk into a crowd of death metal fans and start strumming John Lennon on your guitar. No one likes being the odd man out, especially when you aren’t sure how to reply to the barrage of Wow-I-Never-Knew’s when you’re standing there exposed with your dirty little secret finally on display.

Everyone close to me (a very small but irreplaceable circle) knows – they’ve been along for the ride since the beginning. They’re the ones who bit their tongues for decades. The ones who wanted to grab my arm and drag me into the tattoo parlour so I’d finally just get on with it already. They’re the ones who could always see what I needed, but were loving enough to allow me to reach that transformative place where I finally saw it for myself.

They’re the ones who knew I had to walk in there on my own.

If I had quit smoking (which I still haven’t, for the record) – I’d be raised up onto the shoulders of strangers and crowds.

If I escaped being held hostage in a prison for 20 years – there’d be a massive coming-home celebration.

If I announce that I’m in recovery from an overwhelming addiction to alcohol – crickets.

Suddenly, I’m “Shawn-The-Recovering-Alcoholic”. Shawn, who they never knew had a problem. Shawn, who you need to tip-toe around and stop inviting out because, well, he doesn’t drink and that’s awkward. Plus, what if he slips?

The way our world sees alcohol makes is incredibly difficult (or maybe not difficult, but intimidating) to recover out loud. Afterall, the number one support network for imbibing overachievers is called Alcoholics Anonymous.

No one is supposed to know.

I think what this world needs now more than ever are people who aren’t afraid to bare their truths like tattoos in the most obvious of places. People whose pride of their resilience in overcoming the world’s deadliest drug outweigh their fear of the shame labels that come slapped along with it. People who aren’t okay with being anonymous.

I really want to be one of those people.

I just started an Instagram profile for LifeInDetox and it is absolutely mind-boggling how many millions upon millions of people are out there in recovery, or wishing they were. MILLIONS. How many people are walking around with the ink of their battles below their skin but covered and hidden so no one can see? What if we (me?) approached recovering out loud with the understanding that there are probably more people than not who would admire the honesty and braveness of our truth – because maybe it’s something they want for themselves, too.

Wow, you got a tattoo? Didn’t that hurt? I’ve always wanted one, but I’m afraid…

How is that any different from:

Wow, you got sober? That must’ve been a hard and painful process! I wish I could drink less or not at all, too…

What if instead of assuming people will see being in recovery from alcohol as something that makes us somehow less than, we started to expect people to see it as something to be admired?

Luckily, we’re led by the brave. The Annie Grace‘s, Brené Brown‘s and Catherine Gray‘s of the world. People unashamed and unapologetic of wearing their ink where everyone can see, cutting down the stigma that has grown so tall and only throws shade. People just like us, but who have traded their shame for the absolute freedom that comes with fearlessly living and owning their truth.

As long as we keep our tattoos concealed, we’ll always be stuck living a half-life. It’s like winning the lottery but being unable to spend it, wanting to scream but only being able to squeak. Or wanting to dress yourself in the entire rainbow, but always dressing in blacks and greys.

I’m hoping the kind of raw courage where we allow ourselves to bare our scars without fear of judgement is waiting somewhere along this path for all of us.

I want the overcoming to be more important than what it is we overcame.

We’ve gone through a lot of pain for that beautiful ink, and I believe it’s something everyone should see.

Recovery is like a tattoo.A painful process with a lovely outcome, quietly hidden from view like a dirty secret only we know about, permanently inked as part of who we are, and where we've come from..jpeg
I’ve finally set up an Instagram account! Let’s be friends –> @lifeindetox


Written by SJ VanDee

Recovery Blogger. Sober AF. Photographer. Storyteller. Writer.


  1. I think the comfort of recovery is a process.
    I’m very open about my sobriety, but it took time. And along the way I started getting tattooed, something I never expected! I never hide them. I’m 46 years old. Who’s to judge?
    Part of it is us becoming familiar with ourselves. Once we do that, others follow suit.

    Picture of the tattoo?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just wow, Shawn! I’m right there with you as I’ve been hiding for much too long and I’m done hiding. It is time to recover out loud. Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “I want to be proud of where I’ve come from, but I don’t want anyone to know where that is.”
    Brene talks about having a shame spiral buddy. I liken that to my small, personal army of others alcoholics.
    Like you.
    love alwaz

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The very first thing I ever wanted to be (at 14) when I grew up was a tattoo artist. My dream wasn’t supported by those dearest to me and my ideas were put down and criticized. Because I was already drinking alcoholically and very much believed I was not good enough I went along with their theories. About 17 years later I walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I was told that there was this thing called self-love and that I could have it. That’s truly the only thing I have ever sought and wanted in life was to feel loved. Granted, it has taken a good amount of effort to let go of my past behaviors and overcome relapses, because as you all know Rome can’t be unbuilt in one day, but my sleeve is almost done now and amongst the other many scattered about my body I have a very dominant recovery triangle with a camel in it displayed loud and proud on my left arm … for anyone that says “do you smoke camel cigarettes?” (Hardy har har) I get to say back, “I am a recovering alcoholic. The triangle is a symbol of recovery and the camel to remind me that it can go 24hrs. without a drink and be ok.” Did I mention I’m pursuing my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur and fulfilling my artist calling? It’s funny how (God) things work out sometimes. ❤️


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