I will never do that. I’d be the only person in history to get one and then get Lyme disease, or worms. I’m sure I’d die from it.
Me for many years, on getting a tattoo. They’re just not for me. No thanks.
But then in circa 2016, I noticed one of the triathaloners at the Y had a little running stick figure on her shoulder blade. Small, plain, and so cool. I wanted it. But my body had long made me give up running, so it didn’t make sense on me.
Cue the life-changing brain illness and anything became possible. My world and mind totally opened up and I started saying, “What the hell, why not?” (Actually, I never say that, I should say it more though.)
Just like with the idea of my memoir, I don’t know when exactly the swimmer tattoo originated. I know that in August of 2018, Sean sent me pics of swimmer stick figure tattoos and I then sent them to Lacie, my artist bestie. A long time after, when I brought it up, Lacie admitted that she never designed one for me, fearing that I’d come to hate everything I thought about in those early days of recovery. She knows me all too well.
Yet I vividly remember people saying on my CaringBridge and Facebook, my only lifeline at the time, “Just keep swimming!” And you know what happened, I started saying it to myself. “Just keep swimming, Jackie.” It was a mumble at first, but then it became a roar. My mantra was born.
For almost exactly three years, I contemplated a swimmer girl on my right shoulder to commemorate the destruction. But I kept going back to how tattoos were not for me, and surely it would interact with my blood thinners, and again, I’d be the only person in ND to suffer from a tattoo-induced death. Yet I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And then I decided that I wanted it on my forearm. Why have a cool tattoo that you can’t see?
As I continued to volley the idea back and forth this spring, my sweet and always-wise husband saved the day. Me: “I really want to get the tattoo, but seriously, am I going to want that on my arm when I’m 65?” Sean: “Jackie, by the time you’re 65, they’ll be scrubbing them off at Walmart.” Poof – like magic, I decided I was all in. And I was going to do it on May 26, 2021, my third anniversary.
So I did what I do best: ran to Lacie in my time of need. “We’re doing this!” With one week left, we sat outside on a Sat. afternoon at Caribou coffee, and with a pen on my scratch paper, she drew the swimmer girl as we know her. It was perfect.
If you’ll recall from my previous writings, I began having panic attacks in mid-March. The “to be or not to be tattooed?” question was in the midst of my serious anxiety. As I got closer to my appointment, I wondered if I was making a permanent mistake. After all, I’d spent months feeling rattled. But I told myself, You have to, you said you were going to do it, now do it.
On May 26, 2021, I put on a #StebbinsStrong shirt, and got ready for my afternoon appointment at Larson’s in Mandan. I nearly puked with nerves. I talked myself out of it while putting on my makeup. I repeatedly told myself, It will be really cool. You’ll like it. Just do it. Sean had to accompany my son to an art day for his last day of school, and my mom had to take care of the baby, so I had to go alone.
Walking in the dimly lit, but very cool, tasteful, and eclectic tattoo parlor, I figured I was going to pass out. As I filled out the assumption of risk form and claimed to be in the right state of mind and not drunk, I knew it was my time to bolt. But then Tara, the fabulous permanent makeup artist, started chatting me up, and all systems were a go.
My artist, Trip Tipton (yip, that’s his legit cool name), came out and got me, and printed out a paper decal. I held it on my arm in front of the mirror and babbled all kinds of, “Oh my God! How does this look? Should I move it over?” to Tara, until I said I was ready. We did a quick test run of the decal with ink, and once again I begged Tara to come and hold my hand and assure me that it wasn’t positioned upside down or that I wasn’t tattooing someone else’s name on my arm. It was at that point a nice gentleman there (we’ll call him Lon Jarson) said from behind my curtain, “Hey, we got a whiner in here!” And I very kindly, in a nice indoor voice said, “SHUT THE HELL UP!” (We laughed about it later)
Trip was as precise as any artist or professional I’ve ever seen. His work space was impeccable, and he worked with his tools like he’s manned them for years, which he has. He’s been tattooing for nearly 40 years. He proudly told me that he recently had a client tell him he had tattooed three generations of his family. Everything was new, clean, neat, and not super scary (except the tiny torch he used to sterilize his things!).
We chatted a little while he worked (me not so much, I was watching like I was having the time of my life, but really I was holding my breath and preparing my eulogy). I remember hearing Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” playing as Trip’s little tattoo gun whizzed the ink across my arm, and seeing his Alice Cooper tickets on the wall. I wondered if an all Elton John-music tattoo parlor existed somewhere … And at my request, Tara took some pics. She had to act quickly, because once Trip was actually able to begin, it only took him about 10 mins.
When he was done, he covered it with a bandage, and I felt my stomach in my throat. Oh my God, did I just place it in the worst place ever? It’s probably crooked?! I figured I’d leave the bandage on for a good 10-15 years and then see how it turned out.
I rarely ever drink, but that evening Mom, Sean, and I had a glass of champagne to celebrate my anniversary and the new red, ointment covered tattoo on my right arm. The swimmer girl who no longer stood for destruction, but showed resilience. She is swimming past the high waters to smoother currents ahead. She is fearless. I raised my glass to that!
I had to wait to blog about the experience until I knew that my arm wasn’t going to fall off. Just kidding (sort of). As time went on, I not only accepted the permanent addition to my body, I absolutely fell in love with it. I can honestly say that the swimmer girl tattoo is one of my favorite parts of the new me. I even talk to her. If I’m nervous, I rub my left thumb over her, and think of her significance. Where she’s been and where she’s going. She will handle today and anything ahead.
You can’t see my disease or its aftermath, but you can see the swimmer girl. Instead of the terror, you can see the hope. And that’s what I hope I’m sharing with the world.
While I admit it was a bit nerve wracking getting there, I’m so happy I did it, and would gladly do it all again at Larson’s and with Tara and Trip! I cannot recommend them and that place enough. They were the perfect fit for me and my “this is my first and only tattoo”-jitters! They even made it fun!
Be brave. Be fearless. If you want something, go get it. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a new you. Do something you never thought you would do. I spent so much time being boring, I like this (very tiny, sometimes quite faint) edge I have now.
Raise your hand and say it with me warriors – “Thunder …. Thunder …. Thunder …!”
Rock on friends,
“I was caught In the middle of a railroad track (thunder) I looked ‘round And I knew there was no turning back (thunder) My mind raced And I thought, what could I do? (Thunder) And I knew There was no help, no help from you (thunder) Sound of the drums Beating in my heart The thunder of guns Tore me apart You’ve been Thunderstruck” ~ Thunderstruck by AC/DC
** Check out Larson's in Mandan, North Dakota @ Larson's Tattooing on FB and Instagram
** Check out Lacie's amazing art @ Loupine Design on FB and Instagram