Tattoos and shaved heads are gateway drugs to saloon life in the 1800s.
Well, my “What little-known fact about me should be made into a blog post?” blog post has backfired. The ONE AND ONLY fact that I didn’t want to write about was the one that won the poll, with a whopping 42% of the vote. Ugh. Did my subconscious throw that one into the poll at the last minute or what?! Thanks a lot to those of you who voted for it, she says with a sneer.
The winning “little-known fact” was “I shaved my head and got a tattoo after a bad breakup at 18 (not Future Mr. Okayest).”
This little incident (i.e., defining moment) happened almost half my life ago. It will be very difficult to write, mostly out of concerns about respecting The Ex, as well as his family, whom I love very much. I have only ever loved two men in my life: one was The Ex and one is Mr. Okayest.
I have to use past tense on The Ex because…. he passed away. And, if I were to tell you that he died of a drug overdose, it would necessitate the fact that I use no identifying details about him.
We were high school sweethearts in a tiny high school- yes, the same high school where Mr. Okayest also attended. The Ex and I were opposites. “She’s a good girl, loved her mama,” to quote Tom Petty. We were seriously and deeply in love, drawn together by a love of good music, and perhaps from being old souls. He had some serious issues in his life, and I was a source of strength for him.
We dated for two years, and we were going to get married. He proposed. I had a ring and everything. We were going to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” at our wedding. “It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well.” We didn’t feel like teenagers, though. We felt like no one understood us – although that is probably just the most mundane thing to feel, since every teenager probably feels that way. Anyway, I think we really would have gotten married if the drugs hadn’t gotten in the way. And marrying him would not have been the best thing for me, no matter how much I loved him.
I really was a good girl. (I still am, ha!) I was a strong LDS girl. I went to church class (“Seminary”) every morning at 6:00 for one hour before school. I went to the hardest high school ever invented by man and had hours of homework every night. (Seriously, college was super easy.) I did every bit of homework. I got straight A’s. I had perfect attendance most of the time. I never drank or smoked or dabbled. I didn’t even drink caffeine back then! Nonetheless, I was a paradox, possibly because I myself was raised by a Mormon Good Girl and a Musician Bad Boy.
Things were starting to fall apart for The Ex before I left for college, but, when I did leave, he spiraled out of control. (Dang, I am reading that in my head with the VH1 “Behind the Music” guy’s voice. Sorry.) I am not extrapolating here. He told me that he couldn’t handle life without me. As an 18-year-old, it’s hard to understand how unhealthy codependence really is. And it’s hard to understand addiction, and all the devastating things in a person’s life that can lead to addiction. And it’s hard to understand that addiction – more specifically, controlling someone else’s addiction – isn’t actually the responsibility of said 18-year-old. (Perhaps that explains my choice of major: Psychology.)
I won’t go into specifics about the drugs, or The Ex, or the demise, out of respect for him and his family. Some of it can be summed up in the first two lines of Tom Petty’s “Listen to Her Heart”. (Go look it up if you can’t sing it off the top of your head. And then stop being friends with me.)
Our relationship ended during my freshman year of college because HE broke up with ME. Can you believe that? The addict is the one who was the break-up-er and the Good Girl is the break-up-ee? Probably like most teen girls, I believed I could “fix” him. A Bachelor’s degree in Psychology taught me that I was wrong – although you would think that the break-up would have been the deciding factor there. In retrospect, I now believe that he meant what he said: he broke up with me because he loved me and he wanted to spare me the ride on which he was stuck. It was a kind and selfless act, because he was giving me the gift I couldn’t give myself: the chance at a happy, normal, and healthy life. I would have ridden that ride with him forever, but he didn’t want that for me. I love him for that.
But, at the time, I couldn’t see past the pain, of course. It was the worst time of my short little life. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I cried so hard for so long that I burst blood vessels in my eyes and had some seriously zombie-fied eyes (before that was a trend). His family came all the way to my college to console me. Everything seemed so dramatic and so final. Mick Jagger once said something about how it’s hard to be a teenager because they just feel everything so much harder. Seriously, growing up is about putting on some sort of emotional blunting device. As my best friend once said, “Eventually we all put on some khakis and go get a job at The Gap.” (And she once wore a Barbie doll head on a dog collar around her neck.)
I was homesick. I was heartsick. My whole future seemed blacked out. I hated myself. I hated him. I wanted to hurt myself, but seeing as how I’m not a “cutter” or a drinker or a dabbler, I decided the best course of action would be to get a tattoo.
For a Mormon Good Girl, this is not a good choice. We believe our bodies are temples to our souls. We are borrowing these bodies as vessels for our spirits. Harming them or disfiguring them is just not a good idea – it is considered disrespectful to the parents and the God who gave you that body on loan. “While it may not be a sin, it’s a mistake.” I did it anyway.
I took a good friend with me. She had graduated from that same small school that The Ex, Future Mr. Okayest, and I had attended together, and then she had gone to the same (huge) college. She understood the depths of my teenage maudlin heart. We were freshmen, so we had no cars, and our college was in a rural area. This meant that, in order to permanently disfigure our bodies, we would have to really work at it. I think we used a combination of public bus routes and large amounts of walking to get to the “downtown” area where we could find a Gruff Old Tattoo Man.
I wasn’t even scared. I picked a part of my body that could hide a tattoo in a one-piece bathing suit, and that wouldn’t stretch out during pregnancy. (Despite my heartbroken state, I still knew I would have children someday.) (Oh, and I guess I picked well, because an 80-pound twin pregnancy hasn’t marred that tattoo.) Gruff Old Tattoo Man started that needle. I was holding my friend’s hand, and it didn’t even hurt as much as I expected. Nonetheless, my body decided that that moment would be the best time to faint for the first time.
Hey, it wasn’t my fault, okay? A teenager, away from home for the first time, drowning in the depths of her sorrow, doesn’t exactly remember to eat much in the days leading up to a hike to the tattoo shop, okay?
I remember that The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” was playing on Gruff Old Tattoo Man’s radio. She’s walking down the street, blind to every eye she meets. I felt like I was in a tunnel, and I got sweaty, and that was that. They revived me and we finished the tattoo. Her arms are wicked and her legs are long.
That tattoo got showed off a good bit in the next few years, but after I got married and became more buttoned down (buttoned up?), it’s been for Mr. Okayest’s eyes only. I should not have gotten a tattoo, that’s true, but I have made peace with marring my body. I see it as a scar. It’s a scar from a very painful time in my life. It’s a sign of what I did to survive – same as the scars on my throat, abdomen, and wrists that saved my life during the birth of the twins. Of course we would rather not have the scars in the first place, but who gets through life completely (literally) smoothly? And who regrets scars that save one’s life? It may sound overly dramatic to compare a tattoo to a life-saving port in my carotid artery, but I didn’t cut myself, start drinking, or turn to any of The Ex’s vices. I dealt.
But, to get back to 1997, I wasn’t quite finished with my breakup transformation. I marched my long-blonde-haired head to the nearest cheapo hair cutter, and chopped that beautiful stuff off. I think I can actually say that I shaved my head. I probably had about an inch of non-flattering hair left. Since I am 5’9” and slender now, we can safely assume that I was 5’9” and skinny back then….so that is probably why my uncle told me I looked like a Q-Tip after that little haircut.
I couldn’t have explained it then, but now I understand that I did it because I felt unattractive. I wanted to be unattractive. I wanted to keep guys away. I wanted to wallow in my sorrow. However, having a shaved head and a tattoo eventually backfired: I cultivated quite a confident attitude that seemed to attract some (yucky) guys. No matter, though. I could just use my army-surplus boots to kick them away.
Anyway, after the tattoo and the haircut and the fainting and the zombie-eyes, I wasn’t doing too well. I eventually asked my grandparents pick me up and take me to their home in the mountains. They lived an hour from the nearest grocery store or hospital, so it seemed like the ideal place to hole up and heal. Their house in the woods had no air conditioning or cable, and this was before the age of internet and cell phones, so no one would bother me there. I was a good student, and college was easy for me, so missing a week or more of school didn’t hurt me. My grandparents let me sleep for days. It was a shocking act of compassion for the hardworking grandfather who yelled at vacationing grandkids for being lazy if they slept past 7AM. I guess they took one look at my broken skinny Q-Tip self and knew that I needed to hide for long while. I don’t remember what they said or did or fed to me, but they must have gotten me on my feet. I do remember that my grandma let me read her binders of old love letters from the 1940s, and I loved that. They fattened me up and took me back to school when I was ready.
I somewhat righted myself, and, while still getting good grades, I befriended some (yucky) boyfriends and probably kicked some other (yucky) boyfriends with my boots. My college roommate got sick of me and traded me. I don’t think that I was her type. (I mean, come on, she wore real eyeliner every day. I, on the other hand, didn’t shave and brought my record player to college. Yep.) Getting traded, however, was the best thing that ever happened to me. My New Roomie had also gotten traded, probably because she also was blonde, skinny, and a Chucks-wearer – but I do think she shaved.
New Roomie helped me feel not so bad about my hair-growing-out phase.
New Roomie and I were a match made in heaven. She is still one of my very closest friends and favorite people in the whole world. I think God gave her to me to save me that year. She taught me to have fun again. She taught me to see beauty again, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds! She would open the tiny window of our 8×10 cinderblock cell, and say, “Just look at that beautiful lake. Hear the ducks?” Also, she would type a paper with a gummy bear stuck to her forehead for no reason, other than to make me smile. I had found a kindred spirit. She helped me heal.
Then I got mono. This time, my mother picked me up and took me home to heal. I was home for a looooong time. I remember very little from this time, but I do remember being tired enough to have to rest my cheek on the sink counter every time I peed. I couldn’t even sit up long enough to pee.
Then, somehow, miraculously, it was finally spring. My mother took me back to college, and I would weakly walk to class with New Roomie, and I felt the warm sun on my shoulders. It felt like the first spring I had ever seen. Those daffodils were the first daffodils I had ever really seen. I felt like I could breathe again. I felt like I had finally finally survived the breakup. The Ex and I had finally made the breakup “stick” and we were no longer communicating. I could see my future, and it was sunny.
Springtime. Mono is ending, my hair is growing out, and I feel like a new woman!
I went home that summer as a new woman. I had a best friend: New Roomie. I had righted myself emotionally and spiritually. I was back to church. I was taking charge of my spiritual life and feeling stronger than ever. I finally understood that The Ex had done me a kindness by letting me go. I had kicked the last of the (yucky) guys to the curb. I was ready to wait for my future husband, whomever that would be.
Enter Mr. Okayest. He deserves his own blog post. I will simply say here, in this blog post about someone else, that I fell in love with Mr. Okayest that summer I turned 19 – the summer that I was my strongest, truest self. He had been there all along, waiting.
Mr. Okayest and I had been married for seven years when The Ex found me online. I immediately told Mr. Okayest about the contact, and told him that I would be writing back. He was “okayest” with it. I was completely transparent with him: I promised to show him all the correspondence, but I needed closure with The Ex. I needed to know he was okay. I still cared about him. We wrote to each other just a handful of times. His last ten years had been filled with so much pain and addiction. It hurt to hear. But he was genuinely happy for me, and that I had married one of his friends from our tiny school. I am so thankful we got to apologize to each other and share what we had meant to each other.
Two months later, I got the call that he had died. He overdosed while in rehab. That last contact with him had been a gift from above. Mr. Okayest and my parents went to the funeral services with me. My tattoo scar was in attendance, and so was my regrown very long hair. My mom held one hand and my husband held my other hand as pictures of me and The Ex flashed on the slideshow. Even ten years later, I knew that he had loved me. He had set me free and given me a normal life. I will always love him for that.
Thus, the story about shaving my head and getting a tattoo is really the story of a remarkable man who lost his life to addiction. He was my first love.
(This blog post is brought to you by Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album.)