Making peace with the past, and its scars

In the process of writing last week’s post about transformation I started thinking about my phoenix tattoo, which got me thinking about regret and acceptance.
The phoenix is, of course, a potent symbol of transformation. It’s the mythical bird that rises from the ashes after adversity. The caterpillar emerging from its cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. You get the idea. 
I was certainly making a statement when I chose to get a phoenix tattooed on my upper back at the age of 22. I was also ahead of my time, as Ben Affleck has just done the very same (although his is more colourful and impressive).

To give you some background, at the time I got inked, I had come through the other side of a battle with depression and a redundancy. I wanted to carry a mark that would symbolise my resilience and inner strength. I hoped it would give me something to draw on in challenging times. I believed, in the naïve way that only a 22-year-old could, that I was through my biggest personal crisis. I did not then understand that life is a series of challenges and strength building, and that we are reborn again and again and again (unless, of course, we choose to stay stuck).
Instead of being a badge of honour, the tattoo became a source of regret. It didn’t remind me of my transformation, it only reminded me of the misery that had permeated that chapter of my life. I felt disappointed that I had not grown enough to become the person I had believed I could be on day in a dingy Auckland tattoo studio. Plus, it was kinda ugly. 
So, in my early 30s I decided to have it removed. Unfortunately the laser treatment process was excruciating (vastly more painful that the tattooing process), and was predicted to become more so as treatment progressed. It was also costly. So after five treatments I decided to make peace with the now slightly faded bird, and quit treatment. 
My tattoo removal story in Women's Health magazine
I totally understand how people who have tattoos of their ex’s name on their forearms, or Kermit the Frog tattoos on their butt (I actually know someone in this situation), would want to have those removed. But my tattoo wasn’t that awful. So why had I wanted it erased so badly?
What I’d been trying to do was the equivalent of what people do on Instagram every day – edit out the ugly side and present only the elements of myself that I wanted to be seen. I knew that getting rid of the tattoo would not alter the course of my history, but at least it would mean I wouldn’t have to keep reflecting on it – because every time someone saw the tattoo I had had to explain (in the vaguest of terms) that I had been through “a rough period”. In doing so I was invoking the heavy energy around that period once again. I felt a whiff of the despair and, just like a dementor in Harry Potter, its darkness loomed large. I didn’t want to be dragged down by that chapter any longer. I wanted to put that behind me once and for all. 

So very idealistic.
The past is ugly. It has shadows and it leaves scars. It cannot be erased – even with the heat of a laser. The challenge for me has been in finding a middle ground between acceptance and regret. More than a tattoo could, it was in writing about my battle with depression that I finally made peace with the parts of myself from which I had bled so profusely (read that post here). I now neither embrace nor recoil from reminders of my past struggles. I have taken the lessons and am doing my best to gently move on. I have regrets, but I no longer ruminate on them.

We are all better off for what we’ve been through, good and bad. That’s the unsightly truth.