A hasty act of defiance turned into a symbol of freedom I can?t quit
Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash
I wasn?t much prone to rebellion as a kid, though I had plenty of reasons to rebel. Mostly, I did the things I was supposed to do. I went to school and brought home good grades. I went to work and brought home decent money. I paid my speeding tickets and my pager bill, and I didn?t break curfew.
My parents kept me on a very short leash; it was their way of keeping me safe, I guess. If I didn?t go anywhere, didn?t see anybody, didn?t do anything ? then surely I would keep out of trouble.
It?s only fitting that when I did rebel, I chose carefully those acts of defiance I could perform right under my parents? roof ? ones they wouldn?t discover until the deed had been done, if they discovered them at all.
I was always fascinated by piercings
When I was little, it seemed that all the coolest girls had earrings trailing up their earlobes. When I got a little older, cartilage piercings came into fashion, and shortly thereafter, other body piercings became all the rage. I had a season ticket to all the body modification trends.
Throughout my life, everyone I looked up to had something sticking out of her body ? a nose ring, a lip ring, a navel ring, one of those little ear doohickey piercings whose name I can?t remember.
I needed some, too, I thought. The more the better.
The more piercings I had, I reasoned, the cooler I?d be. And I was desperate to be cool. The problem was that I only had one lousy hole in each ear, a fact which wouldn?t be changing anytime soon.
I began relentlessly begging my parents for more piercings when I was ten ? at first, just a second pair of earrings ? and was met with resistance from day one.
My parents ? the same ones who smoked pot and drank daily, in case you?re keeping track? seemed to believe that putting decorations on my body would somehow negate all my accomplishments and turn me into?into what, exactly? I was never clear on that part.
When my parents finally allowed me to obtain my second ear piercing at the age of twelve, I was sure the new jewelry would fill the hollowness inside me.
Instead, I craved more.
But, alas, my parents? flexibility had reached its limit. Their resistance only made my desire all the more unbearable.
That?s when I began piercing myself
One day, I was being a bored only child, doing bored only-child things in my bedroom, and I came across one of my old sharp-tipped piercing studs ? the kind they use in the piercing guns.
Hmmm, I thought to myself.
Soon, I?d retrieved the stapler from the kitchen junk drawer and fashioned a piercing gun out of it. By the end of the day I had a third earring in each earlobe; within a year, I had two cartilage piercings as well.
I welcomed the pop of pain and the rush of adrenaline with each insertion of the gold stud into my body. For a time afterward, the storms in my mind would drift out to sea and I would be at peace, basking in the warm glow of freedom.
I wore my defiance proudly, satisfied finally to be able to exert some control over my self.
Now that I could give myself what I wanted, it wasn?t enough
After the honeymoon period wore off with each new piercing, I began itching for more. If I wanted to venture away from ears, however, my options were nonexistent.
Since my parents wouldn?t consent to my obtaining a professional piercing, I used my makeshift gun and, later, bare needles, to experiment with different piercings. My nose, my navel, and even my lip were treated to sporadic piercing parties.
I wasn?t in possession of any body jewelry at the time, nothing to fill in these holes I?d made. I would push the needle in, and then move it out the other side and remove it. The flesh would close back up painlessly in a day or two, filling the physical hole but failing to displace the emotional vacancy that drove me to create it.
In the moment, it felt nice to have this secret, to exercise this clandestine defiance, even if it left me with nothing tangible in the end.
By the time I was sixteen, though, these temporary modifications lost their allure and I desired something more permanent.
I became convinced I desperately needed a tongue piercing.
I begged my parents. Of course, they wouldn?t allow it.
Ears are one thing, they said, having grown over time to accept my quadrupled earring count. Tongue piercing, though, is trashy, for sure. The more I was denied, the stronger my need became ?the need to prove their preconceptions wrong, as well as the drive to have control over something, anything, in my life.
I couldn?t have articulated at the time why this thing had become so important to me, but I simply could not wait two more years to get it.
Once again, I took matters into my own hands
I rummaged through my father?s sewing box one evening, careful not to make any noise, and pulled out a sewing machine needle. They hadn?t used the sewing machine in years; there was no way they?d miss the needle. And, anyway, I?d put it back when I was finished.
After tidying the box and returning it to its place, I went into the bathroom, washed my hands, and used rubbing alcohol and a cotton ball to disinfect my beautiful and impressive new tool.
Upon returning to my own bedroom, I closed the door, turned off every light except for the one in my closet, and stood in front of my brass-rimmed mirror. I looked at my tongue in the dim light? a curious and ugly little thing when viewed up close.
I poked at it from the top, and then from the bottom. Since the bottom was the most painful, I reasoned, I?d start there. I grasped my tongue. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and then I plunged the needle upward through my own flesh.
Or, at least, that?s how I like to imagine it happening.
A tongue is different from an earlobe. There are many layers to get through, and I couldn?t rely on my old standby stapler-gun to speed it along. There was also something about doing it on my own that made it even more difficult, because I knew what was coming and was bracing myself. So, what might take less than a minute in the studio took me probably about forty in my bedroom.
But, in the end, I got what I wanted and, at least for a short time, I was satisfied once more.
Okay, so it?s more than just a decoration
It?s now been two decades since I poked that hole in my tongue and, dozens of barbells later, here it still sits. I?ve tried taking it out numerous times ? sometimes because it bugs me and I need a break, other times because I think I?m ?too old? to have a tongue piercing (whatever that means).
Always, though, it calls to me from wherever I?ve left it and, whether it?s been out for a day or a month, it slides right back into place like it belongs there. Because it does.
It?s not just a decoration, I realize now. It?s a part of me.
I couldn?t articulate why I needed a tongue piercing so badly when I was a teenager, just as I couldn?t have told you why I continually poked myself with needles in all those other places, or why I needed a tattoo so badly a year or two later.
If you?d suggested it had anything to do with my parents, I?d have said you were out of your mind.
But as I reflect back on my behavior at the time, it?s clear as day. I needed to control something in my life, and this was one of the only things I could control. It?s a repeating pattern: I did the same thing with sex, and with food.
And poking a needle through my skin was by far the least destructive of the three.
My tongue piercing is more than just a decoration. It?s a symbol of my first move to break free from the tethers that would otherwise have held me hostage to my family?s cycle of codependency and abuse.
It took nearly a month for my parents to notice my tongue piercing, and I?ll never forget my father?s reaction when they finally did. ?We just don?t have any control over what you do anymore, do we?? he asked, shaking his head. The statement was just as dramatic as the preoccupation that piercings somehow made a person less of a person.
?Guess not,? I said with a shrug before retreating to my room.
As I walked away, I ran the barbell along the roof of my mouth and smiled. I?m in control of this one.
For more observations about how childhood experiences can affect mental health, follow Messy Mind and check out the Myths About Me series.
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