Pain Sleeves

(A post from the archives - the first in a 10-post series)

(3.5 hours under the needle)

On Wednesday, Mere and I headed back to Crossroads for my first session with Steve. I've written about my first big tattoo, so this is really the continuation of that. I cannot believe it's been 6 years almost to the day already. So, everyone's big question is, "Does it hurt?" Of course it hurts, but pain is a funny thing. It is a very individual, personal thing, and there are many different flavors of pain, especially with tattoos. The outline is the worst, but shading on a sensitive area can be excruciating. Since I knew to expect so many different types of pain to be thrown my way, I re-read the best meditation book: Turning the Mind into an Ally (highly recommended to everyone). Even though I've had extensive tattooing done before, I felt like a rookie as soon as the needle touched my arm. I have either gotten soft in the last six years, or it's true that the body does its best to forget pain. Anyway, if you have never sat through an extended amount of pain, what I'm about to say may sound completely crazy. If you have, then you might understand, or you still might call me a wuss. I guess in going through this process I'm embracing my extremely repressed masochistic side. I don't like pain. At all. But how do you know you don't like pain unless you experience it from time to time? Without pain, there can't be any appreciation for life without it. Thankfully, my life has been pretty pain-free since my last tattoo. And, if this is the most amount of pain I have to experience in my life, I am the luckiest person in the world. My technique with coping with the pain is simple: focus on the breath. It's a meditation technique commonly used and helps you focus not just on the pain but your body's response to the pain. Without focus, it is so much worse. At first, I just focused on breathing through the worst parts and listened to some soothing music. Every now and then, I would visualize flying with the platypus Big Lebowski style. I may have gotten a little delirious once or twice. I began to imagine the tattoo session like a journey through a forest in the dark (I refuse to actually look at the needle hitting my skin, so I had my eyes closed for 90% of the session). I saw the outline of the tattoo as a path through the forest where I was riding a horse, Steve as my guide. As he hit less painful parts, it was just an easy stroll through the woods; I just focused on keeping the horse on the trail. As he hit more painful areas, the woods got darker, and I had to really focus on not letting the horse bolt off the trail. Sometimes, this took extreme concentration, but as I focused on breathing, I reined it in and was able to continue on the path with only a few whimpers and flinches. People always talk about the endorphin rush of a tattoo session, the runner's high. Yeah, I got one of those about 20 minutes in to the session. I felt great, king of the world. I wanted to leave the session, write a novel, make love to my wife, eat a hamburger, all those things. That lasted about 20 more minutes, which would have been great if I had gotten a little butterfly on my ankle. Instead, I had to come back down to reality and re-focus on my breathing. In a long session, it is important to focus on the now; otherwise, it is very easy to become overwhelmed and panic. Instead of a nice walk through the woods, the time starts to become a dark bottomless pit. What else is pain but fear of dying? If you allow your mind to give in to the fear, the body has no chance of coping. When you allow your mind to start focusing on the wrong things, how long I've been in the chair, or, more dangerously, how much longer do I have to sit, things start spiraling out of control very quickly. When I got an urge to punch Steve or yell at him, "What are you doing?!", I knew I had lost my focus. It is critical to focus on the now, nothing else. I kept repeating to myself, "Focus on your breathing." Sometimes, I had to yell this to myself to bring my mind back. I also had to remind myself to be pliable, not rigid - relax. I would find myself clinching my jaw or tensing the muscles in my legs and have to physically make myself relax. Being tense just wastes energy and distracts the focus away from the pain. It also left a few muscles sore, which adds to the discomfort. I had to get the horse back on the trail and focus on the now. Pain is a funny thing. At the first touch of the needle, I wanted to jump from the chair and run away, flee the pain; once I settled down into the pain, however, I could breathe and focus on it. It didn't alleviate the pain, but it made it less frightening which is the key. My horse had tried to bolt, but I guided it back to the path. This happened dozens of times; each time Steve would take the needle away and then come back. Over and over. Since I had my eyes closed or averted, sometimes it felt like he was stabbing through my arm; the pain was intense. I would look up to see what was finished, and the source of the pain would be a very small piece of skin, just a part of a rock or waterfall. It's funny what pain does to our perceptions. The whole world narrows down to the tip of a needle and one very small piece of skin, but it feels like everything is collapsing, burning. One difference I noticed from the tattoo on my back and this one was the added intimacy. That may sound strange, but as I was having my back done, I felt so much more isolated. I was out there all alone with the artist behind me. We seemed light years apart. With this tattoo, I felt less isolated because Steve was right there with me, holding my arm and maneuvering me. It doesn't sound like much, but when you're in the dark woods, any small amount of consoling helps. Apart from the first hour, which seemed like forever, the entire session went by like a blur. We were there from about 12:00 to 6:30, so I think I was exhausted and a bit delirious. I left pretty tired and light-headed. Plus, one of the great things about pain is that it fades. Or, at least the memory of pain fades. Right now, I'm still afraid of the next session, but I know that will fade each day. I'm happy with the overall progress we've made. I really like how my sleeve has joined up with what was in place on my back. My next session is in one month. The one drawback of Crossroads is their poor scheduling. I was supposed to have both sleeves outlined in the first session, heal for 3-4 weeks and return for the shading and coloring. I'm glad Steve is popular, but I hate having to jump through so many hoops to get scheduled. I have more appointments through July, but I hope we finish a little before that. I promise the next updates will be more photo-centric and not so much my altered state ramblings.

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