‘I replaced self hate, with pure love’: Woman covers self-inflicted scars with ‘mama bear’ tattoo for her autistic son

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“Until a few days ago, I felt defined and labeled by my decade old, self-inflicted scars. I considered them to be permanent, constant and painful reminders of who I used to be. They puff up when it’s cold and are highlighted gouges on my arms in the sunlight. And yet, many years after I began to self harm, I was able to have a permanent bandage of ink, put over visible inner pain.

It was hard to identify the feelings of extreme self-hate, especially as an outwardly pretty and vivacious 12-year-old girl in the mid ‘90s. I didn’t know how to make sense of the wild storm in my mind, and I still don’t know what ignited the urge to start cutting myself. I do, however, remember the relentless grasp of clinical depression. How I hated life and couldn’t find a reason to be alive. How I would cry for days on end. How I didn’t think anything would ever change for the better. After three years of self-mutilation and suicidal ideation, I was placed in a psychiatric hospital at 15 years old — prime age to be a target of gossip and rumors at my upper middle-class high school. Through four different high schools, being self-destructive all along the way, I became an expert at brushing off questions regarding what happened to my arms. I was so self-conscious of who had seen my wounds that I would wear concealing clothing, even in the summer. It was painful and exhausting — both psychologically and physically, and yet I continued.

High school ID of woman who used to inflict self-harm as a teen
Lizzie Boss Lewis

My dad, who I adored, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when I was 19. Little did I know, caring for him would change me for the better. Along with his debilitating Parkinson’s, dementia began to ravage his brilliant mind. In my early 20s, I was in a heavy self-destructive cycle — actively cutting, drinking too much and dating the wrong guys — yet I was able to care for my dad. By my mid 20s, I had become his legal guardian. I wanted to stay by his side to the end of his days, and despite my self-destructive behavior, I fortunately was able to. My dad passed away in March of 2015, at the age of 69.

Woman who would inflict self harm as a teen hands over baby for her father with parkinson's to hold
Lizzie Boss Lewis

In December 2013, at the age of 31, I became pregnant with my son, by a man whom I had been dating for only three months (now, my loving and devoted husband).  All through my complicated pregnancy, I knew I was going to love the child fiercely, no matter what. My son was born during an emergency induction at 36 weeks, weighing 5 pounds. My husband and I named our son’s middle name after my dad. The first time I held my tiny baby, I knew something was different. Not wrong. Different. He would never catch my stare. He never latched (I pumped for nine months). He did not coo and babble, and his movements and behaviors were different from other babies his age. His speech developed late, and at about two years old, completely regressed and he lost all of his words. Red flags went off… a mama’s instincts are strong. I was aggressive with getting him in speech therapy and occupational therapy, and even more adamant about having him evaluated. Just before his third birthday, he was medically diagnosed with Autism.

Here we are in 2018, and I hear nasty comments in public about my beautiful and sweet boy, that no mother should ever have to hear about her child. I get dirty looks, snide remarks and snickering from other adults in public… simply because an external stimuli set my Autistic son off, and he ‘stims’ to self-regulate. Being in the general public is emotionally taxing. What people don’t know, is it takes us hours, literally, to get out the door and some days he simply cannot tolerate to leave the house at all — for reasons we don’t always understand. And no, I do not understand what it’s like to have a 4-year-old child that is able and wanting to dress themselves, feed themselves, tell you about their day, brush their teeth, groom themselves, or change activity without incident. We simply do not have those experiences at our house… and that’s okay. We do have, however, visual timers and schedules, countdowns for ending everything we do, constant use of the phrase ‘eye contact,’ food presented in a particular manner, weekly therapies and in-home visits… and never-ending paper work and ever growing medical bills. And everyday, and in every way, he’s worth it. A million times over, worth it.

Husband and wife who inflicted self-harm as a teen sit with their toddler son in their laps
Kitta Bodmer Photography

To say I’ve been humbled by the hand I’ve been dealt is an understatement. I’ve been able to find a calm within the storm in my mind — with help from a medley of carefully prescribed medication, a stable and kind husband, supportive family and friends, and mostly, letting go of things in my past outside of my control. For years now, I have felt like the scars on my arms have portrayed an image of a person I no longer am, and I could not stand the thought of my son asking what happened. I am now able to feel that I am worthy, I am loved, and that my purpose is to care for those I love — my dad for a third of my life, and now, an amazing boy with Autism, for as long as he needs.

I am a fierce mama bear, and will protect, defend, advocate for, and love my son for the rest of my days. I wanted to replace an image of self hate, with an image of pure love. And a talented tattoo artist helped me achieve that. He completely understood what I was wanting, and more importantly, why. He hand drew the anatomical heart with a mama and baby bear, and a rose, to represent the only place I’ve ever lived — Portland, Oregon, ‘city of roses.’ The leaves purposefully placed to cover the scars, while having amazing attention to detail. I now want people to see my arm, and that’s a good feeling.

At the end of the day, and in the grand scheme of things, it takes nothing to be kind, considerate, and to take a step back and see we’re all just doing our best. Be gentle to one another. Spread love. Be selfless. We’re all in this together.”

Side by side of woman's arm with scars from when she would cut herself as teen next to arm covered in tattoo
Lizzie Boss Lewis

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lizzie Boss Lewis, 35, of Portland, Oregon. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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