Twenty four years ago I walked into a tattoo parlour in London with absolutely no idea what I was going to get. All I knew is that my parents really didn’t want me to get (another) one, so of course, I had to get another one. And there I stood with a binder in hand, flipping through the most cliché and cookie-cutter collection of tattoos, my 17 year old mind trying to find one that would make me look worldly, deep and mysterious.
So of course, I got the Japanese Kanji for “Transformation”. Feel free to insert an eyeroll here. At least I really hoped that’s what it meant, because that’s how it was labelled in what should have been called their Binder of Regretful Tattoos. Looking back, I see it as equivalent to someone in Japan getting the English words “French Fries” inked on their forearm. This was before the days of smartphones and Siri (and apparently good taste in tattoos), and it was years later with sweet relief that a Japanese friend of mine confirmed that it did indeed say Transformation (or Change), which Google later confirmed a decade later (and that of course means it’s true. Because, well, Google).
It was timely. I was at the awkwardly fumbling stage of growing into myself, and already diving my way to the depressive depths of stolen homemade wine from my parents liquor cabinet every day. I’d dilute the remaining bottle with water so they wouldn’t notice until company was over, all of them sitting around the kitchen table discussing how that batch didn’t turn out so well. Meanwhile I sat sketching in notebooks and scribbling in journals, half pissed and alone in my bedroom, burning through packs of cigarettes that I’d smoke out the window, deluded into thinking my parents didn’t know.
You know, sort of like the wine.
The only thing I was transforming into was an insomniac teenage alcoholic, addicted to caffeine pills (I could go through a bottle of WakeUps™ in a few days), with anorexia and devoid of self-worth, who once showed up hallucinating and sky high to gym class 4 hours into an acid trip. I was spending a lot of what we’ll call “inappropriate” time with my English teacher, buying weed off the dude who taught math, dealing with the suicide of my close friend, and desperately trying to come to terms with my sexuality, and devastating and intimately dark family secrets that made me want nothing more than to be anywhere but where I was.
Miraculously my grades stayed top of the class (especially in English – ha!) and I graduated with honours, awkwardly accepting my certificate in front of my parents who I had just devastated in return, by moving out without any notice.
I just left.
My tattoo of course came along with me, worn like a battle flag on my forearm for twenty three years; a permanent reminder of being 17 and desperate to change everything about myself and my life. Of feeling like if I didn’t transform, nothing else ever would.
I fumbled my way through art school in Toronto (honestly, I barely went. Spent most days and nights drunk, high and hungover on our couch at the despair of my roommate) and moving no less than 10 times in as many years. I found a great gig at a trendy 24-hour cafe/club which fit perfectly with my continued insomnia and persistent drinking obsession; admittedly, I drank as much behind the bar as I served over it.
It was the holy grail of jobs for the addicted and downtrodden.
At least until I voluntarily left after getting caught smoking weed (again) in the bathroom.
I moved once more, this time back to London. I kept chasing change and transformation as though it were a train that left without me; I was always two seconds too late for boarding and everyone was on their way except for me.
I changed jobs, partners, cars, houses, drugs of choice and varieties of cheap wine like they were underwear. I kept changing everything around me, and all that did was create a cyclone of perpetual insecurity, spinning like a top I had whirled all by myself. This drove my parents mad since I was raised by the generation of The Stable & Responsible, where any change was bad change, and risks were akin to a deadly sin.
I was raised to follow my heart, but only if it led me to the same spot every time. There was no room for wandering in the big picture; you got one pick from the bucket and that was your lot, and if you didn’t like it you better learn to like it. (End quote, my Dad, almost every conversation ever until he died. I quoted him to his face many times in defence of whatever shit I had gotten myself into that we were arguing about that time). This obviously created conflict because The Stable & Responsible generation gave birth to the Unstable & Reckless generation, of which I was carrying the torch. Where their path looked drawn with a ruler, mine was more like a snake had a seizure in a sandpit.
I’m going to fast forward through the good times: finding love, getting married, getting promoted, buying my first luxury vehicle, buying my first home, the 24 doritos-smelling paws of the 6 dogs I adopted, building my business and finally being able to afford the good wine and a weed dealer that delivered. I was on The Today Show, and ABC World News with Diane Sawyer followed me to Las Vegas to document while I helped the dreams of kids with cancer come to life.
I was soaring.
Finally, things were changing, including how when my drinking problem became a “Drinking Problem” (air-quotes implied) I noticed a lot of what I had to managed to build and gather started falling through my fingers.
Like I was living in a sandcastle and the tide was rolling in.
Drinking escalated, everything else receded. The more the tide rolled in, the more everything I had built started to roll out.
My family and friends were dropping like flies; dying like dominoes one after the next. My tattoos began piling up as fast as my regrets, with sleeves of quotes from the Dalai Lama to Rhonda Byrne, tall pines and the silhouettes of flying birds, mandalas and lotus buds. In the heart of them all, my transformation tattoo, now with an altar of ink around it showcasing all the things I was longing for.
Peace. Serenity. Calm. Balance.
I wore them like S.O.S. messages written on a beach.
It was on a random, ridiculously drunken trip to New Orleans in 2016 (oh wait, it’s the time I pissed myself) where I had a ginormous crow?…eagle?…falcon?…bird tattooed on my upper arm. I was so drunk I would’ve let him tattoo profanities on my forehead. The bird’s talons are clenched a couple inches from my transformation tattoo, as though he’s seconds from plucking it like a field mouse for lunch.
I ended up loving it. It’s the opposite of what screams “me” and it’s nothing I would have picked out for myself. It’s twice the size of what I wanted, and it’s the perfect reflection of where I was at that time in my life.
Especially considering I had no clue that just 3 months later I’d be flying to rehab.
And it was after rehab where I came home, transformed, at last. Well, at least for a little while (insert relapse story here). While my sobriety lasted, I was calm. I felt balanced and serene. And, I wanted more ink, starting with a cover-up of the now vintage transformation tattoo I had shared with my skin for 22 years. I wanted to let it go, and pigeon-hole it in one of my newly carved out blocks of time, which will forever be known as “before rehab”, “at rehab”, or “after rehab”.
It’s covered up to look like smoke and flames (trust me, it works with the whole sleeve though it sounds weird on it’s own) – unintentionally symbolic of my quest for change giving up and burning itself alive, or more poetically, maybe of it finally actualizing itself after all those years.
Transformation, transformed at last.
Sometimes, you have to leave things behind. Or at least cover them up, so you don’t have to look at them every day.
Memories don’t work like that, nor does trauma, depression or addiction, I’ve discovered. You’ll always know they’re there, just below the ink, still in your skin. I notice my now-smoke-and-flames transformation tattoo more now that it’s covered than I ever did before. I forgot about it for years – until it was gone, having turned into something new.
I have days I wish I could uncover it; remorseful over wishing a time of my life away. And I have days where I admire the flames; grateful for the reminder of when I took things for granted and almost burnt it all down alongside all the smouldering bridges in my path.
I came to learn that I didn’t want to change myself; I only wanted to change how I was feeling. I wanted the hollowness of grief to go away, the immobility of trauma to go away, to resurrect and make peace with my dead and to somehow transform all of my ugly feelings so the confused, 17 year old teenage me could finally rest. I tried to bury his battle flag but I could always still hear it flap-flap-flapping behind the flames. I tried to drown his childhood trauma in red wine and cheap beer, and bury his teen angst and disappointment beneath mountains of weed, partners and cigarettes.
If I couldn’t transform, I could self-destruct.
It’s the backwards nature of avoidance, that the deeper and more earnestly I tried to cover up what I really needed to transform, the more apparent and in my face things became. The more I tried to put my trauma to sleep, the more it would walk through my halls at night.
There was not enough ink in the world to cover up the transformation I needed to have.
The paradox is in how the most transformative step was coming to understand that in order to change, I had to stop wanting to change.
I know, sounds easy right? Good luck. Being okay with things as they are, as they happened, and as they haunt you is about as easy as swimming the English Channel. It’s hard but it’s possible, lots of people have done it, plus it feels damn good once you reach the other side. What I had to do was transform all my unpleasant memories and disappointments into something useful and valuable; to carve something wonderful out of all the dead fallen trees in my forest.
To let them be what they are, only more beautiful for having fell.
To transform not myself or my situation, but to change the way I looked at them.
For the longest time I felt as though I was stumbling about in a dark room, my hands sliding over empty walls in search of a light switch that was never there, never looking in my own pocket for the flashlight that was always with me.
I learned that my Dad had been right all along. That if I didn’t like it, I had better learn to like it. It’s the only card any of us have to play with our unchangeable past, to find the treasure in the trash, or the flashlight in our pocket.
To channel my challenges into inspiration for writing and art, like little flashlights to tuck into other people’s pockets.
To find a reason why I wouldn’t wish things had happened any other way, so I can numb the pain with point of view, instead of the pouring of Pinot Grigio.
To transform how I was seeing, not what I was seeing.
To transform the crumbled bricks of my foundation into a sturdy staircase, rising up, instead of covered up.