Memorializing SurvivalPiercing the Chronic Pain Away

Photo credit: Sabrina May on Unsplash

Shortly after I had a second excision surgery for endometriosis in 2018, I decided to get some new piercings; I needed to purchase new jewelry to replace the pieces I’d removed for the procedure and figured I’d add a few new holes while I was at it. I settled on two cartilage piercings—my seventh and eighth piercings overall—in my right ear. I first began piercing up and down my ears in college—a second lobe or third lobe piercing here, a cartilage there. I’ve never been fazed by the pain of getting pierced, and I’ve been going to the same piercer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years, trekking into the city to be modified by someone I trust. By the time I sat on the leather tabletop for my seventh and eighth piercings, I was pretty familiar with the process: cleaning the ear off, marking the intended piercing spot with a black dot, and being asked “How does that look? A little lower? Higher? Just right.”

The piercer was calm as he instructed me to breathe in, walked me through what I was feeling as the needle went in, and let me know when the piercing was through and the jewelry was in so I’d know the worst was over. I laid down for the second one, and we repeated the process. As he braced me for the pain, I wanted to quip about how this was nothing compared to excision surgery, the pain paling in comparison to the years of agony I’d navigated. I wanted to share this as a sign of strength; I wanted to brag. It felt good to know I could breeze right through a pain that many others are afraid of. Both piercings hurt, but I didn’t flinch as the needle pushed through my cartilage and emerged on the other side. I felt empowered in that moment; I realized I’d made the choice to be in this pain, and the indifference I felt about it made me feel as tough as nails.

Since then, I’ve talked to a few friends with endometriosis about their experiences with body modification—tattoos and piercings—and surprisingly, they’ve all recounted similar moments of catharsis, empowerment, and comfort. Jill Schurr, the cofounder of Chicago Endo and a board member for Endometriosis Coalition, has undergone excision surgery and a hysterectomy to treat endometriosis and adenomyosis, respectively. After her 2017 hysterectomy, she had a friend tattoo her arm with an artistic rendering of a photo her doctor gave her of her uterus. “My main motivation was reminding [myself] of everything I’ve been through,” Schurr says of the decision to have her surgeries memorialized in ink. “This one organ tried to keep me from all of my life goals and dreams. [The tattoo reminds me of] the pain, and [of] all the emotions attached to those agonizing years.”

For Schurr, the tattoo is a reminder of both the good and the bad. “I’ll never be pregnant. I’ll have to spend thousands of dollars to have a family. But I have been pain-free since I had excision and my hysterectomy,” she says. “That’s also important to focus on. [I]t reminds me of how far I’ve come and how strong I really am.” Lara Parker, a deputy editorial director at BuzzFeed, also finds catharsis in her eight tattoos, which have helped her cope with endometriosis and pelvic trauma. “Getting tattoos that remind me of the pain and trauma I have gone through is a way to make them visible to me,” she says. Parker sees tattoo pain as a means of taking back a body that’s otherwise unruly. “I have control over getting tattoos. It’s a pain I choose for myself, [rather than a] pain I have no choice in during every other moment of my life. It makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel alive, like I am in control of my body—if only for a little bit.”

The catharsis of choosing this specific kind of pain came into focus for me a few days after I got my new piercings. I was talking to a friend who’d been through something similar and gotten a tattoo to commemorate it. We both joked about already wanting more body modifications. There’s something about that sting that’s enjoyable; knowing I endured it for purely cosmetic reasons is especially comforting when considering how our reproductive health can be so intrinsically linked to how we are viewed. Endometriosis made the most intimate, valued parts of me feel weak. My piercing made me feel badass.

Reina Sultan, a freelance writer living with endometriosis, has a number of tattoos and piercings for similar reasons. “It’s always just seemed like the perfect impulsive decision to help me cope with something that seemed too hard to tackle… There is definitely catharsis to it because no pain really compares to the pain I feel nearly daily as a result of my chronic illnesses.” She adds that because her modifications also serve as a reminder that pain is temporary, they help her cope with flares.When I decided to write about this experience, I asked people on Twitter about choosing to get tattoos or piercings as a way to cope with trauma. A flood of responses followed: People reported turning to body modification for reasons including surviving sexual violence, grieving a loved one, and commemorating other traumas.

Control, catharsis, and strength leads people facing chronic pain and other traumas to piercings and tattoos.

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The wide range of stories underscored that body modification as a form of catharsis is about a lot more than a base infliction of pain; it’s about reclaiming control of our bodies, our lives, and our narratives. It’s a permanent reminder of our resilience; our tolerance for pain allows us to turn life’s horrors into something beautiful. Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of a national nonprofit, has tattoos that memorialize, among other things, a divorce, deceased relatives, and a miscarriage. The works of art on her body are a reminder of how much love and hope she still has to give. “Some internal pain that no one can see becomes more visible and valid,” she says of the tattoos. “I can’t say I love the pain, but there is a part of it that feels like a transformative bloodletting. A physical release and a marker—something has passed, and something new has been born.”

Lane, a sexual-assault survivor who’s living with a form of blood cancer, says that getting tattoos and piercings has a “lot to do with resilience and how badass I felt getting it done knowing that this would be considered a big deal to a lot of people. Because I’ve experienced both daily pain and hugely traumatic pain from my bone-marrow biopsy, [body modifications weren’t] very painful at all.” Ali, a graduate student working in public health and medical research who lives with chronic pain, says she also finds comfort in taking care of her piercings. “A piercing requires daily care to heal, and that’s very attractive to me as someone with chronic pain. “[You can] care for and heal yourself in the long term, and tangibly see improvements each day.”

Caring for your body looks different when you’re sick or living with trauma; things that seem routine for everyone else, like food shopping, become chores. Something as simple as resting in the middle of the day, which might elsewhere be considered self-care, is necessary for our survival. There’s a therapeutic nature to the vanity, even the frivolity of tending to a part of our body for purely aesthetic reasons; at the same time watching a part of ourselves heal by our own hand is a vivid reminder that the other parts of us too, are capable of healing. Control, catharsis, and strength leads people facing chronic pain and other traumas to piercings and tattoos. It’s the pain itself, the body’s response to it, and what that symbolizes that empowers people to continue seeking out another place to pierce or another body part to cover in ink. These permanent marks and the processes that create them serve as reminders of how far we have come while also memorializing our strength. There’s real value in beautifying trauma, manifesting our survival in gold jewelry, in artwork, in the memory of an afternoon or an appointment where our bodies and our pain were ours.

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by Caroline Reilly
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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She has also written for Bust and Frontline (PBS). You can follower her on Twitter @ms_creilly, where she tweets about abortion rights, social justice, and being a feminist killjoy.