Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tattoo me: Religious markings could actually be a cry for help

By Vicki Polin and Michael J. Salamon
Cliffview Pilot - September 5, 2010
Besides the fact that it’s trendy, many young adults today feel that having tattoos is a way to define who they are as a person. But that declaration of individuality could contain an ominous message, one that requires we all pay attention. 

Although once part of everyday popular culture, the trend has blossomed among those from extremely religious backgrounds. 
Sometimes it’s a call for help.

In a recent case, a 14-year-old boy‘s father became livid when the teen had a dove professionally etched in blue and white on his thigh. The father was understandably upset and wanted to ground his son for life. He also threatened to sue the tattoo artist for proceeding without adult permission.

According to his son, he completely missed the point.

“I am telling my father in a very rebellious way that I want peace in the house,” the son said. “I am so tired of his anger and shouting.” 

At a kosher butcher’s shop recently, a teenage girl on line pushed the hair off the nape of her neck to reveal a small Star of David inked onto her skin. Who knows what motivated her to tattoo herself with that symbol at that place? A reasonable guess is that she was proud of her heritage but did not want many people to see the “art.”

After all, tattoos aren’t permitted in the Jewish faith.

Here’s where it gets sticky:
Self-mutilation is often a symptom of unresolved psychological issues, usually associated with those who’ve been physically or sexually abused. In its worst stages, youngsters cut or burn themselves until they bleed.

Those who’ve done it have said they felt numb or in such severe emotional pain that the physical pain they cause themselves helps relieve some of the emotional distress.

No one is saying that getting a tattoo falls under that category. For one thing, it’s done in one location and, in most places, not repeatedly. At the same time, research shows that we cannot ignore it as a POSSIBLE indicator of trouble.

A recent study of 236 college students at a Catholic liberal arts school found a correlation among sexual activity, tattoos and body piercing — but none between body modifications and religious beliefs or practice. One possible explanation is that those who tattooed themselves were rebelling against their childhood lifestyles. 

Over the years we’ve seen victims of abuse move from Torah-observant, Orthodox households into more secular surroundings. At the same time, many abuse victims from secular backgrounds have shifted from what they grew up with and headed on a journey of becoming more observant. 

Both groups of survivors have one thing in common: They are searching for a deeper meaning, reason and or purpose to why they were targeted to be victimized.

In the Orthodox world, a woman wouldn’t be caught dead in short sleeves in public, let alone wearing a bathing suit.  Yet one survivor, who was sexually abused by an older brother for four years, beginning when she was 11, disclosed that she had the words “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” (holy, holy, holy) tattooed in Hebrew on her back in her thirties.

She deliberately labeled herself, she said, so that both she and the world would know that no one could ever abuse her again.

We’ve encountered all types of ethical dilemmas working with Jewish survivors of childhood abuse. But this now is a trend that carries severe implications for those who submit to the tattoo gun. Raising the ethical stakes, youngsters tend to have various prayers that have great meaning to them tattooed on their arms, backs, legs and chests.

One had Torah verses inked into her skin: “Hear oh Israel the L-rd is G-d the L-rd is one”, “Hashem shall bless you and watch over you. Hashem shall shine the light of His/her face upon you and make you favorable. Hashem shall raise his face towards you and make peace for you.”

The Torah often tells us — figuratively — to “write these words on your heart,” not on the vessel that conveys you through life.

Which brings us to another serious drawback:
According to Jewish law, these words are not allowed in a bathroom or in view of a naked body. One halachic advisor has told survivors to cover those areas of their bodies when going to the bathroom or taking a shower. Yet there are times when this is impossible to do, depending on where the tattoos are.   

Growing up Jewish and being sexually abused as a child — especially in the ultra-Orthodox world — becomes a greater nightmare when no one believes the survivor or gets him or her the necessary help from a qualified mental health provider.

All too often, nothing is done at all. Either the victims feel so much shame that either they don’t tell anyone or it takes years to do so, or they‘re simply not believed when they do.

As children, and even as young adults, many of these survivors had no idea how to deal with or process the thoughts and emotions that go along with being sexually victimized.  When a survivor lacks words or is disbelieved, the emotional pain intensifies. All too often, they turn to drugs or food as a coping mechanism to anesthetize the pain.

Or they attack the “thing” that caused them pain in the first place: their bodies.

In many ways, people look upon these symbols as cool or hip. Unfortunately, they can also represent a cry for help, not unlike certain other forms of self-mutilation. It’s important that those of us whose loved ones take to the tattoo needle make it our business to find out the REAL story behind the markings, just in case.