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"How my tattoo saved me from suicide"

Cosmopolitan (UK) logo Cosmopolitan (UK) 10/10/2019 Katie Conibear
After a deep period of depression, Katie Conibear was ready to take her own life. But then, everything changed. © Stevica Mrdja / EyeEm - Getty Images After a deep period of depression, Katie Conibear was ready to take her own life. But then, everything changed.

This time last year was rough. I was going through a really bad patch. Not just feeling "a bit down", or "sorry for myself". It wasn't something a pint of ice cream and a night on the sofa watching trashy telly would fix. I was depressed in a way I'd never felt before.

I live with bipolar disorder, and my symptoms can include periods of severe depression. During this particular low point I was too ill to work, I was barely able to speak and I was making plans to end my life.

a tattoo on their face: Katie’s tattoo © Courtesy of Katie Conibear Katie’s tattoo I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I would sit for hours, unable to move. It felt like my mind was screaming in pain. The hours morphed into a muddied state of tears and dread. The only escape I could find was going to bed, and as I lay there, I wondered if dying was like falling asleep. I wished that it could be that easy; that I didn’t ever have to wake up from sleep. 

Mental illness at its worst makes me feel like my life is imploding. From the outside, everything was going well; I was happily married, had wonderful family and friends, and was embarking on a career in mental health writing that I was passionate about. But while, externally, things appeared perfect, inside I felt broken, shattered to pieces.

Gallery: Celebs raising awareness about mental health (Star Insider)

It crept up on me without me noticing. I felt desperate and wanted a way out. I felt like there was no hope for me, like I had to keep fighting when I had no fight left. I felt devoid of life, in a haze between life and death. My mind no longer felt connected to my body. The world around me felt ethereal, and I in a trance. A trance that could only be broken by ending my life.

In the months before this dark episode, I’d been contemplating getting a new tattoo. My first tattoo was of great significance to me, being based on a patch embroidered on my wedding dress. This second tattoo was less meaningful - it was just a design I’d doodled - but together with my tattoo artist we created a concept I was happy with. It was an intricate side profile of a woman with flowing hair, a swallow in flight in her hair.

I woke up on the day of my appointment feeling suicidal. In my mind, I’d made the decision to end my life. I couldn’t cope with the constant negative thoughts; it was overwhelming. I was being crushed by an invisible force that I would never escape. I’d kept my plans a secret and had been contemplating carefully how to say goodbye to everyone.

Somehow, I felt calm. I think it was because I’d made a decision. Feeling like I had nothing to lose I got up, dressed and made my way to the tattoo parlour.

For the two hours of my appointment, I lay on my side, trying to keep as still as possible. With the tattoo being on my upper arm, the process didn't leave me in too much pain, and I became transfixed by the sounds around me; the buzzing of the needle as it jagged my skin. Eventually, I noticed something; a sense of calm and peace. It was the first time in a month that I hadn’t had any intrusive thoughts. I had temporarily been spared the incessant thoughts about dying that I’d had for weeks. I felt free.

After the appointment, I kept thinking about my new tattoo. I wanted to know what it would look like when it was fully healed. 'Maybe I should stick around for a few more days', I thought.

The depression was still there, looming over me and, at times, causing my body to physically shake under the weight of my mind. But caring for my skin gave me something tangible to focus on. I was responsible for it; checking on it and moisturising it regularly. It was a soothing process that, somehow, gave me the power to switch off my mind. I could recreate the sense of calm I’d felt in the tattoo parlour; I could remember the sensations on my skin and focus on my breathing.

Gallery: What tattoo you should get, according to your zodiac sign (Insider)

When my tattoo was healed, I admired it. It was beautiful; bright, with hues of red, orange, yellow and dashes of blue. Almost like a light switch, something clicked in my mind. I began thinking about the future, making plans for the coming weeks. I felt lighter, like a great pressure had been released. The haze I’d been trapped in suddenly lifted. In the months that followed, I became more like myself again.

When I look at the tattoo now, it has meaning. It was never meant to, but it's taken on a powerful significance I could never have imagined.

Now, it reminds me of how courageous I am. There is power in the way I managed to find my way through the depression, enjoy life again and thrive. I’ve just celebrated ten years with my partner and four years married. My writing career is blossoming.

Something my Dad said to me sticks in my mind. "Katie, you don’t realise how strong you really are. To battle through what you did makes you the strongest person I know."

I know I have the resilience to battle what my mind throws at me. I know this could happen again, but I feel more prepared to deal with it now. My strength means I’m still here, and that life is worth living.

A word from the expert:

Dr Natasha Bijlani, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Roehampton, explains how distractions can help with suicidal thoughts:

"Some 'distraction' from negative or self-destructive thoughts might prove helpful while you continue with your recommended treatment. A safe and helpful distraction might help with transient enjoyment and pleasure, which could instil a feel of hope of recovery, especially in a person who has been feeling very low and pessimistic about their outlook.

"A distraction chosen by the person who is affected by mental ill health also allows them to make a choice, to select something they can feel pleasure about, and can help remind them that they are not completely passive in all aspects of their life."

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues contact a GP or freephone Samaritans for confidential support 24 hours a day, on 116 123.

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