The Life and Death of My Tattoo: Postscript

People keep talking about my tattoo.

Everyone has a different take on the story of how I considered getting a tattoo (for very concrete reasons having to do with my disability), went as far as choosing artwork, and then decided not to get a tattoo when my 8-year-old strenuously objected. (Here is the story for those who haven’t read it before.)

K and A and several others were disappointed and hope that I reconsider my decision down the road.

M  and another K admitted that they thought it was a cool idea but, yeah, they kind of regret one of their tattoos.

The image that I intended to be the basis of my tattoo. It is a symbol of growth that continues despite severe injury, and of wholeness arising from brokenness. Scars—the broken place in this tree, my external and internal scars—reveal that even though life continues after severe pain, that pain means we will never be the same again. Because of our scars, our very selves will take on a new shape and texture.

Lots of people said my idea for the artwork was perfect. J suggested I get someone to paint my broken tree instead and hang it in my house, especially given how I see my house as a symbol of resurrection.

T admitted that she had written me a long message, typed painstakingly on her iPhone, saying that I don’t need a tattoo. My scars, she said, are beautiful on their own. They already tell a story. They already tell my story. She didn’t send the message, but worried over my decision, finally breathing a sigh of relief upon learning that Meg said NO to the tattoo idea.

That—the gist of T’s unsent message—hit me hard. I am so grateful for her and all the friends who, over the years, have made me understand that my scars and limp and crooked places are both not at all important and also the most important and beautiful thing about me. I’m glad that Meg’s “no” to my tattoo eased T’s anxiety, because I know that anxiety arose from T’s abundant love and acceptance for me as I am.

But…right now? These scars of mine—not the outside ones that everyone can see but the inside ones, where cartilage no longer softens the meeting of bones, and ligaments have been stretched for too long in directions they weren’t meant to go—hurt. And I’m tired of hurting. I’m tired of realizing that the medication I take (for which I am grateful every single day—there is a too-often-hidden up side to the use of prescription pain medications, which so often make headlines solely for their addictive potential and danger when used improperly) cannot make the hurt go away. It can only lessen my pain enough that it’s not the only thing I think about as I go about my day, but is rather an undercurrent. Everpresent but usually hovering under the surface, allowing me to be preoccupied instead with the usual stuff—work and kids and house and marriage. I’m tired of thinking, “If I am like this now—barely able to walk when I first get out of bed or the car, reliant on a walking stick for any slightly longish walk—where will I be in 10 years? 20?”

So it’s hard right now to see my scars as beautiful, harder than it’s been since I was a teenager acutely aware of how my body made me different and, in both my and some notable others’ view, less desirable. It’s hard right now to see my scars as me. Because the scars still, and more and more, sometimes keep me from being the me I want to be. The healthy me. The energetic me. The me who is willing and able to be active and engaged with my children.

I’m working on this, on both my attitude and on practical ways of dealing with my pain and disability. Like continuing to lose some weight, and getting back to regular lap swimming now that the kids are in school.

I share the aftermath of my tattoo decision just to say these two things:

1) There is no decision we can make, from the mundane to the earth-shaking, that everyone we care about will agree with. This is so simple and obvious, but I forget it often. For my sanity, I have had to learn (am still learning) not to care overly much, beyond a detached professional interest, about what some random blog commenter thinks. But I care a lot about what my friends and family and colleagues think. I like approval. I want people to love every single thing I write. I want to hear nothing but support for how I raise my kids, and the food I feed them, and the opinions I spout here and elsewhere, and whether or not I’m getting a tattoo. But that’s not how it works. I need that reminder often, to both thicken my skin and to own my decisions as my responsibility, for better or worse.

2) God has given me friends like J, who reminded me that good ideas, like my tattoo artwork idea, don’t have to die. They can be re-envisioned. They can be transformed. They can be resurrected. (J herself might balk at this assertion, as she is a committed agnostic/atheist. But she believed enough in my resurrection/wholeness-from-brokenness blather to make her excellent suggestion. That’s good enough for me.). And God has given me friends like T, who is able to see my scars as beautiful even when I cannot.


Natural Family Planning Isn’t the Only Ethical Option for Christians: Why I Chose an IUD
I Have Three Things to Say About “The Dress”
Rethinking Margaret Sanger, Contraception, & How We are All a Moral “Mixed Bag”
Why “What Would Jesus Do?” Isn’t Exactly the Right Question
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Jen Schaefer

    Whatever I say will sound trite, so I’ll just say that I really, really, think the world of you. Scars and all.

  • Tim

    You say there are times when you see yourself as small and scarred and broken. Through your writings, I see you as huge and mighty and full of beauty.


  • Marcie

    Ellen, I had polio at 3 1/2 months old, the dr’s said I would never walk. My mother put me in my braces from the waist down, put my toys on a very sturdy coffee table my grandfather made (I have it now) and stood me up to play, if I fell, she had the love and courage to spank me. I learned to stand, I learned to walk albeit with crutches. I had 13 surgeries from age 6 to over 18. I have one leg that’s small and 2 1/2 inches shorter. I shattered my right femur 4 times by age 17, twice my rt hip and still have the plate, bolt and 3 screws from 1968. I used crutches until I was 55 when I lost my ability to walk. Now, I’m full time in an electric scooter. I thank God that inventors and researchers have made life so much better than it was in the 1950′s for crippled people. I have my internal scars but they don’t often happen from my physical state although I sometimes get frustrated at some difficulties. Most of my scars are “normal” scars from events or how friends/family treat me. I don’t even notice stares anymore. Those people don’t affect me, they’re not in my life. Although I do take pains to talk to children who ask “mommy, why is that lady in that thing.” I, too, have chronic pain and thank God that I discovered Physiatry (rehab drs). My daughter became one partly because of me. I thank God I’ve found a really good physical therapist who sort of has become the post polio specialist and is also a friend. I thank God I have a really good Physiatrist who has a magnificent touch with needles and gives me cortisone shots and has even done permanent nerve blocks on my back. I thank God I had polio and all the crap that came with it for it has made me a better person and a person I’m thankful to be. I figure that if God didn’t spare his son the pain, I can handle what I have — most of the time. Someone told me in the early 1970′s that I could be a crippled person or a person who is crippled. I think I’ve become a person who is crippled. Blessings.

  • Taffy Wilcox


    I don’t see your scars and broken bones. I see a bright young woman who is a wonderful mom, a great writer, a committed Christian and someone I would like to get to know. I look forward to being in your ethics course at church this fall.