I thought long and hard about my first tattoo. I got it about a year and a half ago, a simple script across my right arm reading “Life is Beautiful.”
I’ve already told most people the story behind the specific phrase. It’s part of a longer quote penned by a Jewish woman during the Holocaust: “It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful…And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful.” Of course, as is true for many others during that time, she died less than a year after writing that.
When I originally read that quotation, it struck me as incredibly wise. It’s not flippant or unwilling to face facts. It looks straight into the jaws of the very worst atrocities humankind can commit and dares to assert that life is still beautiful. A blind faith in the worthwhileness of this life we’ve all been given will never last as long as a belief held with eyes wide open.
But I haven’t told most people the deeper reason. I haven’t publicly admitted yet why I need the reminder “Life is Beautiful” etched into my skin.
A particularly boring guy tried to hit on me once by reading off my tattoo then asking, “Do you believe that?” I told him “Yes,” coupled with a dramatic eyeroll that caused him to duck away and avoid me for the rest of the evening. But the truth is, I don’t always.
To understand who I am today, you have to know the story of this girl:
That’s me when I was about fifteen. That’s the smile I showed to the few people I interacted with. But it was at that age that I really began living with a depression that has never fully gone away.
This wasn’t just a “my life kind of sucks” depression, though there certainly was that. Any fifteen year old who has no friends and is facing major life upheavals in the form of the death of family members and a parent’s dangerous life-or-death surgery will probably suffer from some kind of depression. But mine went much deeper than external circumstances. I literally hated myself. I would have given anything to get out of my own head. All of that, and a genetic predisposition to depression, made a very bad cocktail for me.
It was at that age that, one cold morning, after struggling with months of depression that felt like a giant black hole in my chest, I woke up and decided that life was not worth it. I was so depressed, however, that I literally could not move out of bed. That paralysis forced me to lie under my covers, staring at the ceiling, considering whether or not to kill myself. If I hadn’t had those hours of consideration which just barely came out on the side of “Ok I’ll keep living for the present” (mostly because I could not stand the thought of failing, which I knew was likely since the only method I could think of was taking pills), I might not be here today.
But what happened that morning, when I came within a hairs breadth of getting out of bed and walking to the medicine cabinet to attempt suicide instead of walking to the kitchen to make breakfast, has left an indelible scar in my psyche. Once suicide has been seriously considered, there is always that option. There is always that out. There is always that self-destructive impulse that strongly suggests that I do the exact opposite of what I know I should. When I run into another string of days when it feels absolutely impossible to put one foot in front of the other, there is always the temptation to just end everything for myself. Just go to sleep forever…
I’ve chosen not to dwell on the negative. Yes, there’s that little voice in my head that says, “You know you don’t have to do this. You know life is hard and it’s only going to get worse, so why not just opt out, right now? I’ll always be here to show you the way when you’re ready…” But I choose to understand that voice as the voice of an enemy who I’m defeating every day. Each day that I ignore that urge, that little voice, that self-destructive streak, is a day that I am alive on purpose. I’m not just here because I was born, I am here because I chose life over death, and because I continue to make that choice. It’s empowering. It’s also a lot of responsibility, and I’m pretty sure I am not yet optimizing the opportunities these last eight years have had to offer.
The tattoo, then, is at once a declaration of my choice to live and to believe that life is beautiful and worth the living, even when it doesn’t feel that way, and also a reminder. My past self is standing with my present self when I need an extra dose of faith (pun intended. You can laugh). Sometimes I don’t think life is beautiful, but I remember that I’ve been through that darkness before and it will pass, and I will once more find myself believing it so passionately I want to hold onto life forever. Realistically, I know someday I will die, but when that happens I need everyone to carry on this belief.
I’m choosing to live, in full faith that life is beautiful. And if you ever lose that faith, let me remind you. This tattoo is for everybody.
[Endnote: I am not saying that pure will-power is the solution to depression. I absolutely should have sought counsel as a teenager and if it weren’t prohibitively expensive I would probably be seeing a professional even now that I’m doing much better. Obviously if you’re going through depression and suicidal thoughts and deliberate self-destruction you should get help. That’s not a sign of weakness, it is one more way to choose life over death. It’s one more act of faith that life is worth living.]