Tattoo therapy: How ink helps sexual assault survivors heal
9:05 AM EDT, Tue March 12, 2019
Billie Jean Poteet, 34, has completed three arm tattoos in the past year "as a step in my road to recovery from sexual assault," she wrote in an email. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child, she said, but her "issues came to a head" only recently.
She said she is in a much healthier place now, both mentally and physically. "I know a great deal of that healing came from my tattoos and the healing they brought me."
Poteet is not ashamed of what happened to her. She shared her story because she believes that "the need for anonymity only furthers the cycle of shaming survivors."
Photography By Billie Jean
Olivia Adamson, 24, has multiple tattoos. The "unbreakable" tattoo pictured here symbolizes her overcoming sexual assault. "It was exciting and powerful because they had so much meaning behind them," she said. Getting a tattoo, for her, is like a therapy session that is always with her.
Martha Ferraioli, 45, was sexually assaulted by a family member as a child. Once she turned 40, she was no longer able to "stuff" the emotional flashbacks, panic attacks and anxiety. At that age, the loss of her mother, uncle and a dear friend within months led to her being prescribed antidepressants, which made her "extremely suicidal," she wrote in an email.
Van Morrison's song "Brand New Day" was particularly helpful to get Ferraioli "through the darkest times." In September, she got her tattoo by Sean Holland. "I am thankful for this piece of body art that serves as reminder to me when things are going rough, when recovery seems out of reach, that I have lived through the worst and hopefully, the best is yet to come," she said.
"If anything I say or do let's someone in their youth reclaim their power, self respect, confidence and sense of safety then I owe it to speak out," Ferraioli explained about her desire to share her story.
Cierra Barefoot, 22, was sexually assaulted at 13. This tattoo gives her power over her story, she said. "And it means something: being a survivor instead of being a victim." Barefoot was inspired by pop star Lady Gaga, who invited 50 survivors on stage during her 2016 Oscar performance of "Till It Happens to You," a song she co-wrote for the CNN documentary on sex assaults, "The Hunting Ground." Lady Gaga and some of the survivors got matching tattoos as a sign of unity. Since then, the geometric rose design has become a symbol for sexual assault survivors.
Haley, 19, who does not want to share her last name because of safety concerns, was raped at age 4. At Sunflower House, children who have been abused are seen for therapy and questioned by police. She received a toy to ease her nerves and has looked to her stuffed pink Pegasus for comfort. "I decided to get a tattoo of a Pegasus to remind me that I carry my own strength and that even as my original toy gets older and torn that I still have everything I need within me," she wrote in an email.
Haley knows how widespread sexual assault is, but actually knowing someone personally "helped me feel better about my own," she shared. She wants to be that person to someone else, so she is open about her story. Haley has also posted on social media about her assault, "in hopes that someone who is afraid to share their story from shame or guilt or they just don't want to admit it happened, I want to show them that I have been there and I have been able to make it to the 'other side'."
December Maxwell, 38, is a survivor of childhood sexual trauma. When she was with adults, she realized how little in control of her own body she felt and realized she had low self-esteem, so she decided to get a tattoo that would better represent her personality, "detached from that victim role."
Since getting her body art, she said, she has felt more in control and like she could speak with confidence about her body. The tattoo "symbolizes my growth into something new," Maxwell said.
Maxwell refuses to feel shame about the assault anymore. If sharing her experience can help others feel less shame and encourage people to seek out some kind of help, she is "happy to share it at this point."
Luanne Nelson, 28, got this tattoo when she was 26. The mountains represent her love for nature. The stars and dots symbolize her friends and family, who supported and believed in her, and the moon represents a new beginning.
The tattoo has helped her with her healing process after domestic violence and sexual assault.
Once the tattoo was completed, Nelson felt as if it "had always been a part of me, that it just appeared. It felt like it belonged on me," she wrote in an email.
Nelson believes in the healing nature of tattoos. She wants people to understand that survivors are everywhere. "A part of the healing process is not being afraid to live your truth and to understand that these events may help shape you, but they do not define you," she added.