My Markings as Therapeutic Pain

This November marks two years since I’ve started both my traditional birthing tattoo and intensive therapy journeys. I received my first intake session just days before my first marking session.

There’s a pretty long story behind my experience with therapy. It started as I majored in psychology when I left Kotzebue for college thinking I wanted to be a therapist. I actually didn’t really know I was smart back then even though I maintained a 4.0 grade point average. But my GPA started dropping as I went into the higher level classes because I was capable of applying the textbook lessons and lectures onto myself, my loved ones and my community at large. I never really allowed myself to process what I was learning and the emotional baggage started to become a distraction. Well, I guess that’s when I started writing as an outlet.

I wouldn’t say that writing is my therapy, though. It’s therapeutic, yes. But it is not therapy. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of things titled as therapy online. Exercise. Netflix. Avocado toast. Buying new books. Flying to a new place. Learning a new musical instrument. Dancing. All of these things are therapeutic. They support our wellbeing. However, they do not address generational trauma and they cannot analyze behavioral patterns. They just make us feel good. I believe actual therapy is necessary and that it needs to become more accessible, specifically for Natives.

During my fourth year of college, I realized that I wanted to be a writer instead. At this point, my psychology major got the best of me. Instead of switching majors, I decided to move back home and that’s when I finally committed myself to therapy. However, the services are kind of complicated in rural Alaska. I had three different therapists because the first two left Kotzebue without notice when it got too hard in the winter. Then, I left town to live in Anchorage when I was seeing the third one. In addition to them, I saw a psychiatrist who prescribed me medication via video conference while someone sat in the room with me. There were a couple times I had to correct him with my diagnoses because I knew just enough from college to advocate for myself. There wasn’t any room to help me unpack the baggage of what’s actually wrong. But the pills basically allowed me to pretend it all didn’t exist.

The Native hospital here in Anchorage was able to immediately match me with a psychiatrist since I had records from Kotzebue already. Even though I had the privilege to finally sit with a professional, the deeper trauma was never processed. He listened to my current issues for about twenty minutes and gave me even more pills to pretend nothing is wrong. I eventually decided that the medication was making it worse and oh my god, the consequences were intense as fuck! I went through withdrawal after 2 full years of using pills to hide everything. Reality started sinking in as I felt the veil of medication slip out of my system. It was a really hard transition.

One November night two years ago, I was laying on my bathroom floor in the total darkness. Defeat was exhausting me. The depth of my grief during that time in my life still scares me. There was a lot that contributed to this dark emotion but the main thing happening was post-traumatic stress. I majored in psychology and I still read a lot of information about behavioral health on my own. I knew that my symptoms aligned with PTSD but I also didn’t have a lot of trust in my brain nor did I have the tools to address it.

No words can describe the overwhelming relief when my therapist confirmed my complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I wish I knew the Inupiaq way of describing how much comfort came with receiving my first birthing tattoo session just days after knowing everything will be okay.

The traditional purpose of these tattoos is to welcome a baby into the world. They’re so a baby knows who and where they are as soon as they are born. At first, I thought the emphasis was on the moment of giving birth. I thought the focus of these tattoos was about being in labor and having a child. Now, still childless two years later, I know it’s a lot more about womanhood on its own, too. It’s about the depth our bodies can carry as Inuit women.

We all come from our mother’s womb and when a woman is developing a baby girl in her belly, eggs begin to form in the fetus. So, the egg that made me, for instance, was developed while my mother was a fetus in my grandmother’s belly. My grandmother was in her grandmother’s belly, too. Like I said in my post about the meaning of my tattoos, Inuit women have bodies that hold a lot of history. They are spiritual beings from their Ancestral past right down to their bones, blood and atoms. I’ve learned more about this depth through the process of receiving my markings.

At the same time, I learned a lot in therapy and processed a lot of trauma that existed before and while I was alive. There’s a lot of trauma in our history as Native people and it’s passed down through generations if it isn’t addressed. There was a study done on lady lab rats before they got pregnant. Scientists sprayed cherry blossom then immediately hit the rat with a bb gun. It didn’t take long for them to learn that the smell of cherry blossom is associated with a hit. They eventually experienced anxiety just based off of the smell, even if they weren’t getting hit anymore. Then, the lady lab rats had babies. Generational trauma reached these babies because all they had to do was sense cherry blossoms to become anxious, too. They were feeling the emotions of their mothers without any use of a bb gun. This is how we inherit our issues, especially if they aren’t processed. Especially if the pain is suppressed.

This is why we receive our tattoos. Our bodies remember the past a lot more than we do. They know when something is missing from our history. For a few generations, these tattoos weren’t around. I do not know the full therapeutic purpose of these traditional markings, but I do know the present sensation of relief that comes with them. I fully committed myself into intensive therapy (without the pills) two years ago and my thighs now hold a million dots of hand poked poetry and stories of skin.

Interesting, isn’t it? Western culture taught me how to suppress and hide the pain away. Inuit culture taught me how to welcome and engage with my pain, which is how I was relieved from it.

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