My mother is in the unfortunate position of being differently intelligent than her children and her ex-husband. Let me be clear: she is fiercely intelligent in ways that we are not. But in the ways that allow you to show off while watching Jeopardy, in the ways that genuinely enjoy intellectual pursuits for their own sakes, in the ways that allow you to write brilliant books and papers and achieve good grades without effort and have your intelligence be immediately apparent to anyone who meets you, she is lacking. And there's nothing wrong with that, except that it can be a little awkward at times.
For my mother, it is more than awkward. She is dismissive and contemptuous of us one moment and jealous the next. For years, she praised my intelligence, so that even in the depths of my high school depression, even when i planned my suicide, even when i felt that almost nothing about me was redeemable or worthy of notice or interesting or in any way mattered, i knew that i was intelligent. I knew that i was more intelligent than most, and that if all else failed, i could cling to that. It was the one thing i was sure of, the one part of me the value of which i never doubted. And then she began to tell me that intelligence was not enough, that i needed to change who i was to succeed in the world. She told me that my type of intelligence, like my dad's, was one that she did not understand and did not always like. She disparaged my accomplishments and dismissed my efforts.
She accelerated this with my sister, telling her that she had no reason to be proud of straight As, because she didn't have to study. Accomplishments only mattered, only had any worth, if you had to work for them. Things that came naturally didn't count.
Any time that any of us find something in ourselves to be proud of, she finds a way to devalue it. And we are not a naturally confident bunch with lots of things we like about ourselves. We mostly don't like ourselves very much, so when we finally find something we're okay with, that is something to celebrate and cherish.
But my mother has a very hard time looking favorably on anything that is different from her, especially if it's not something she can readily understand. She has no patience with or understanding of mental illness (despite having been surrounded by it, experiencing it herself, and taking many psych classes while attaining her three post-graduate degrees). She thinks that people who are good and smart and beautiful, people who are healthy and loved, people who have a lot going for them, have no reason to be mentally ill. She thinks that depression only happens to people who don't have anything else to distinguish them, people whose lives are empty and difficult. She thinks that anyone who has a good, full, happy life has no reason to be depressed, and that the chemical imbalance in their brains can be corrected through a determination to be happy and the simple decision to "get over it".
She is her own standard of correctness and perfection, her own yardstick of health and normalcy. If someone disagrees with her, they are wrong. If someone thinks differently from her, they are weird. If someone's skill set is different from hers, they need to adapt and change in order to succeed. If someone has accomplished more than her, they were lucky. If someone is happier than her, they are lying to themselves.
I was fed a steady stream of these messages for twenty years. When i got my first tattoo, in addition to all of the beautiful and uplifting messages about family and heritage and goals and love and connections and roots and wings, it was my way of saying that i was done with all that bullshit. When i turned twenty, i turned a corner in my life. I decided that no one else got to decide my worth, that only i got to place any kind of value on my self. I decided that it was time to pick up the parts of my mother that were uplifting and encouraging, the parts that i loved and felt connected to, and leave the rest behind.
A tattoo is like a scar, but it is not accidental and it does not come from someone else. A tattoo is a sign that you will accept no one else's marks on yourself, that only you will decide what will stay with you and what will be brushed off. A tattoo is a reminder that you have the final say in who you are.
There are still things that are beyond my control. The scars from my mother are still healing, still bleeding, still hurting. I still have weeks and months where i fall from the high wire. But now, my mother is not my partner or my safety net. I have built my own arena, my own circus ring. I have choreographed my own act, chosen my own partners. I am dancing above the abyss, and while i know that i may fall, i also know i will not be falling forever. There is rest to be found. There are places of safety. There are times of stability. And in the meantime, i am learning to dance, free and fearless, on the tightrope of my sanity. Because if you're going to be up there anyway, you might as well make something beautiful of it.