A Sword Through the Skull

At the age of 43, during a time of debilitating terror, I built myself a suit of armor.

It was less a decision than a base urge. A man I called Hank the Blank—who’d hurt me as a boy—had come back into my life and hurt me again. The fear now filling my blood was less a grown man’s fear than the fear of a kid, or of a gazelle limping across an open savanna.  I craved protection, beyond the hunting knife I’d begun to carry in my pocket.

In just a few months I built a suit from gear that would have repulsed Hank. I covered my arms in ink.

It was—like most of my actions—a gesture of mixed motives. Tattooing my skin was the kind of thing Hank would find disgusting, troubling, and pointless.

A perfectly bland member of the widest and least offensive sector of society (aside from his pedophilia, of course), he found tattoos disturbing and transgressive. Driven by money and greed, he also found them a waste of income. 

A layer of Ink between us, keeping him from “getting me,” in every sense. It would push us further apart, and mark me as anything but his property. They say trauma is stored in the body. I wanted to brand that container with pain of my own making—pain that’d leave color in its wake.

But this was more than just Hank.

Though I’d had one shoulder tattoo since the age of 19, I now wanted more. I wanted to look like the kind of man I’d always wanted to be. Wanted to dump the chains of dull convention and inhibition that had kept me, for 43 years, stuffed in a box marked “agreeable.” I wanted to get marked permanently so I couldn’t easily disguise, for long, the dude underneath.

I dove down a million online rabbit holes, following local tattoo artists, clicking through their portfolios, booking sessions. I spent cash I probably didn’t have on hours of painful, meditative endurance.

I picked a script artist who inked “Still Here” on the outside of my left forearm, because I considered it a minor miracle that all the crap inside me hadn’t propelled me off the Golden Gate Bridge. In the mirror, the inked words looked like a gauntlet.

Crammed with feelings I couldn’t express, coping with my pain through stoic withdrawal, I had a skull and roses tattooed on the inside of the same forearm, asking the artist if he could give the skull a cigar and one single tear. “He’s learning how to cry,” I said.

Finally, I booked several hours over several sessions with a Japanese-American artist named Yutaro, to design and ink a full sleeve on my right arm. I told him I wanted a skull with a sword thrust through it, and when he asked me why, I told him it was because the man’s biggest battle was with his own head. Yutaro nodded at this and went to work.

Though during this time I also went to twice-a-week sessions with a shrink who specialized in PTSD, though I felt myself making incremental advances, the pain and the fear and the social withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, and an involuntary exile from the city I’d called home for 18 years. I was an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning through space.

I fled the city with an unfinished sleeve.

It’s still incomplete. The sword is just an outline conforming to the muscles and bones of my arm. Yutaro has moved to London. Maybe someday I’ll have the cash to complete it. For now it’s as unfinished as the man it marks.

In the years since I built the suit, a full sleeve has become commonplace, practically a requirement for a certain segment of a certain part of society. But I have no regrets. I love my ink, the beautiful collaborations with talented artists, etched across my skin, the permanent scars I don’t care to hide.

I don’t need the armor anymore, though I wear it like a soldier who’s endured the worst, and rests now in a pool of cool shade, smoking a cigar. Looking back at the fight with weary relief. It’s only here that I have the distance to see my own arms, and see that it was armor I’d been building.

The battle of my life is still the one with my own head, but it’s no longer a battle I’m losing. I keep Hank at a safe distance. Safe for him, that is. Safe from my weaponry. A million tiny actions I’ve taken over a long, slow slog have begun to pay off, and I’m back in the world, swinging the imperfect sword with a clumsy grace.

7 Replies to “A Sword Through the Skull”

  1. This is so amazingly written. I’m sure one way or the other we can all relate to this story. Thank you for sharing such an intimate and painful part of your life. Let the healing continue.

  2. Have you ever faced your father on you’re own terms? The best shrink I ever had asked me to do that with my abusive parents… and I did it… and it changed my life,

    1. I did. People with narcissistic personality disorders aren’t capable of owning up to their part in anything, so it didn’t really help. But I’ve worked on myself a ton and am no longer in thrall to PTSD.

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