Quilt of Life [Guest Column - Stepping Back]

Quilt of Life

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Albert Einstein
Modifications allow some people to reclaim their bodies. Tired of letting other people take advantage of them, whether through sexual or physical abuse, the victims can take charge and alter and use their bodies in a way that they decide. Such is the case for Amy S. (IAM:piercednpainted) who, after years of hardships, is finally seeing who she really is — with help from her piercings and tattoos.

Amy grew up in the small town of Bloomington, Illinois. Her abuse started at age eleven, in 1971, and continued until she was twenty-five. In 1972, she was kidnapped and raped for 24 hours by someone she didn’t know. After escaping, she ran away to the Los Angeles area and was kidnapped again and held hostage for four months by a BDSM group. At about age thirteen, her mother put her in a mental ward because she was disobedient, and she was, again, molested — this time by other patients. For fourteen years, there were uncountable rapes and abusive situations carried out by family members, friends and strangers. She was married to an alcoholic at age sixteen, and was a mother before her eighteenth birthday. The abuse is something that’s extremely difficult for Amy to talk about, but is something that has shaped her into the person she is today.

At first glance, you may not think that Amy is heavily modified. She works in an office where she wears collared shirts and long skirts. She removes her septum and labret piercing every day before going to work out of respect for her employers. She’s forty-four years old, now happily married, and is a mother of two and a grandmother of one. She lives a simple life with her husband, cats, and dogs.

Her skin tells a different story though. Under her clothing lays design after design, brightly coloured in different styles, every tattoo telling a unique story or life lesson, each having a different meaning. She’s named it her “Quilt of Life,” and she’s been modifying her body for more than 25 years, and with each piece, she says she feels more like “herself.”

BME:  Let’s start at the beginning… when you were nine years old, you got your first piercings: standard lobes. This was in 1969, long before piercing studios existed, so how was it done?

AMY:  Well, I remember being totally fascinated with women who wore hoops in their ears. I asked my mother if I could get my ears pierced, and in an attempt to deter me, she told me that the only way I would be allowed was if I cut my beloved long, blonde hair. The thing she didn’t know was how much I wanted those earrings, and so I reluctantly agreed to the compromise.

After the traumatic haircut, we went to the doctor’s office (because that was the only option back then — there weren’t even piercing guns). I was very nervous as he asked me to lie down on the exam table and he placed a small cork behind my ear, then he took the eighteen gauge needle and he shoved it through my lobe. He then slipped in the gold stud that my mother had brought, as a small flow of tears slipped down my face as I braved myself for the next ear. Again the doctor put a cork behind the second ear and shoved the needle through. When I finally sat up and saw my new earrings, I knew the haircut and the pain was worth it. Even now, many years later, I think about that sacrifice whenever I get pierced.

BME:  You waited until you were of age to get your first tattoo though…

AMY:  Well, I can remember wanting tattoos and piercings ever since I was a tiny girl when I saw them in National Geographic. I lived in a very small town, and there weren’t very many tattoo artists in the area. Everybody knew everybody, and if they knew you were under twenty-one, they wouldn’t tattoo you — so as soon as I turned twenty-one, I got a little rose done on my wrist. After that, I just kind of held back on anything more because I just didn’t know where my life was going to take me. It turned out that for the next fifteen years or so, my life was about being a mother.

BME:  You got another tattoo when you were twenty-five, but it wasn’t until you were twenty-eight that you decided that little tattoos weren’t right for you anymore. After the divorce from your first husband, you got your biggest piece and one of the first official pieces of your Quilt of Life.

AMY:  Yes, when we divorced I decided that I wanted a body suit and I would start it with the “old school” style of two dragons fighting on my back. This symbolized the fight between good and evil. It was the total essence of my life living with an alcoholic. I topped off the top of my back piece with a bit of filigree tribal with two dragonflies. This was to signify that in the end, even though most my life was happy, it can disappear and change within hours, since the life span of most dragonflies is about 24 hours.

I have several tattoos signifying my current marriage. There’s a dragonfly on my thigh which represents my life with my husband and the freedom to be me, of being light and air, love and security, beauty and acceptance.

BME:  What exactly is your “Quilt of Life”?

AMY:  My Quilt of Life is the story of my life or maybe just the story of women in general. When something major happens, I mark it by getting tattooed. It makes me feel better physically and emotionally. I honestly think it releases something, like a hormone I’m missing that makes me feel better. Typically I get tattooed every three months if I can afford it. If I can’t, I am prone to bouts of depression and crying. All of my tattoos have some spiritual meaning and they show the stepping stones of my life. My goal is a body suit including facial ink. On my face, I want a lot of lines, rainbows and dots, mostly on my forehead, chin, and the sides of my eyes. Of course I won’t be able to do that until I retire. I’m a working woman, so unfortunately my arms and face will have to wait. It gives me something to look forward to, because I could be in a rush and get it all done quickly, but I want to be able to document my entire life.

BME:  There have been several main events in your life that you’ve documented on your body with your tattoos. Your first large piece was the one symbolizing the divorce from your alcoholic husband. Next there was…

AMY:  …the pelvic belt of Celtic knots, runic circle, yin yang, eye of Odin and a dragon head. This was a symbol of my study of different religions and the reclaiming of my spirit and soul. Most of that tattoo is very Norse oriented. For my whole life I have felt like an outsider. When I was very young I had Christianity forced on me, but when I was about ten-years-old my uncles came back from visiting India, and they taught me all about Maher Baba. He is a spin-off of Hindu/Buddhism, which was ultimately the religion that influenced me throughout my life.

BME:  Next you got tattooed on your feet, to symbolize an illness you suffer from. Can you explain those tattoos?

AMY:  Back in 1995, I started having extreme pain in my feet and legs. I was diagnosed with Sensory Neuropathy, which means the nerves in my extremities are dying. I decided to have tattoos at the tops of both my feet, one with an evil skull with flames and the other foot has a dragon skull. These tattoos symbolize all the pain and suffering in my life due to neuropathy.

BME:  You met Guy Atchison and fell in love with his work because you think it’s bright, lifelike and three-dimensional. You try to get a piece done by him every year. Which tattoos of yours did he do?

AMY:  Well, we started with a small tattoo because it’s often hard for me to come up with a lot of cash for a big piece. I had him do a seahorse and a comical fish from a Dr. Seuss book on my hips to fill in a couple spaces in between my pelvic belt pieces.

After I graduated with my AA (Associate in Arts — Liberal Science) degree, which I’d been working on for ten years, I wanted something very special, so I got Guy to do some bright “new school” tattoos on my shoulders and arms: one side is a lotus blossom with an eyeball in the center, and the other side is an abstract tentacle blossom with another eyeball in the middle. To me, this symbolizes that no matter what, someone is always watching over me keeping me safe.

Once I got Guy to do my chest piece, which included another eyeball, the meaning behind the eyeballs transformed slightly. Now I see them representing the past, present and future and how they all watch over me. The way I look at it, during all the abuse, things could have been worse: I could have been murdered as well. Something or someone is always watching over me and helping me live.

BME:  There’s one tattoo that I especially like, and its meaning brings us into other parts of your body modification experiences. You have a tattoo on your thigh of a woman in bondage. Can you explain her?

AMY:  My bondage lady is being held by a gray work dragon, which symbolizes how women are held in bondage by their hormones and their youth. When I was younger, I felt bonded to my youth and beauty: I was cute and thin, perky and sexy, and guys liked me. Then, getting older, just like other women, your hormones deplete, you wrinkle, you gain weight, your metabolism slows down, your skin texture changes, your sex drive goes down, and you become menopausal, it can be sad to see all of those changes.

BME:  But you went through menopause at a very early age — when you were thirty-two, that’s very young to go through menopause.

AMY:  My uterus was in a precancerous stage and I had to get a hysterectomy when I was thirty-five. I went though everything, hot flashes, bitchiness, and weird periods. Since they did the hysterectomy, I haven’t felt like I’m a woman.

BME:  You got your outer labia pierced, partially for sexual reasons, but also because you’ve heard that many girls get labia piercings to take back control of their bodies after abuse.

AMY:  I always wondered why they felt this way, and now I know. It came as somewhat of a surprise, but after having it done I realized it also made me change the way I viewed my menopause and I actually started feeling like a woman again. I knew that I had some issues I had to work through, but didn’t truly realize it until I got these piercings.

BME:  You were pierced by Leon (IAM:Abyss Piercer), with a six-gauge needle, and you bled a lot, there was even a walnut-sized blood clot morning after the piercing. For a lot of people, that would be a bad experience, but for you, it was opposite — the blood ended up having a wonderful effect on you.

AMY:  I’m telling you, I honestly thought, “Am I going to die?” because of the amount of blood. The feeling of the blood was so amazing because it reminded me of my period. I hadn’t had a period in almost ten years due to my hysterectomy, and it made me feel like a woman again, even though I was bleeding from my outer labia and not my uterus. Maybe it’s because a male did my hysterectomy, I don’t know, but it was like I took back control of my body. I felt that the bleeding was cleansing me of all the negativity in my life. It brought a peace within me that I had never attained before from the abuse. So yes, now I know what the girls mean when they say this piercing has helped them take back control of their bodies.

And they feel good too. After the operation, and for ten years, I had no sexual drive. That is until I got the piercings. Almost immediately, I noticed that I was thinking about sex and that I had the warm feeling “down there” that most women get when they are sexually excited. I really feel that the healing process awakened my sexual drive again. Although it was short-lived, the sensation was so amazing that it made me consider getting more genital modifications. After four years of researching it and thinking about it, I decided to split my hood.

BME:  And you did it yourself! What made you decide to split your hood?

AMY:  I heard about it, of course, on BME, and I talked to a lot of girls who have done it. I did it because the girls said that you get more sensitive, and that it was easier to orgasm. I’ve never had sensitivity; I’ve never been one to orgasm at all, with anyone, ever. I think I’m shaped funny, that the skin of my hood is twirled all around my clitoris, and there just isn’t enough exposure.

BME:  Can you explain the splitting process?

AMY:  I got a vertical hood piercing five years ago, and I had it for about six months, but it wouldn’t heal, so I took it out. I had been reading about other girls’ experiences, and they said it was easier if you had the vertical hood piercing, so about two months ago, I tried to put the barbell back in the hole, and it worked! It slid right in!

BME:  Even after five years? It slid in the same hole?

AMY:  Yep! There was a little tingle on the exit, where the clitoris is, but that was it. It was 14 gauge jewelry, and then I stretched to 10 about two weeks later. I got my supplies, EMLA cream [a numbing agent] from BMEshop, surgical scissors, non-stick gauze, rubber gloves, everything.

I put the EMLA on, spread it around the jewelry and put it in the hole so that both sides were covered. I was a bit nervous and wondered if I was going to be able to go through with it. I had decided that a scalpel wasn’t right for me, because from reading other experiences, the girls had to cut four or five times to get through the skin, and I wasn’t up for that. The quickest, smartest way for me was with a pair of surgical scissors.

After ten minutes, I wiped off the EMLA cream, because you can’t leave it on mucus membranes for any longer than that. So I took it and I snipped, and I thought, “is this even going through?” and I looked and it was bleeding, and I’m like, “oh shit” and so I snipped a little bit further, and that’s when I could feel the pinch, and I said “okay, you have do it, you’re halfway there.” Another snip, and I was done.

(Click thumbnails to zoom in)
Tools, Before, and with EMLA
After doing the split
The first day of healing
Five days later
After doing the second split

BME:  And that was it?

AMY:  And that was it.

BME:  Did you have problems with bleeding this time?

AMY:  I did bleed, but not much. I put the non-stick gauze between the two sides of the split hood to try to stop the bleeding. I probably bled for ten hours, but it wasn’t heavy. The next day, it was almost healed. It was just a bit scabbed, but it didn’t bother me at all.

BME:  You’ve said that the cut isn’t deep enough yet, and a couple of weeks after your first splitting session, you did another one. Is it deep enough yet?

AMY:  No, not yet. I’m going to cut it as close as I can go. I tried to use the scissors again and they worked okay, but it’s not a smooth cut; it’s a bit jagged, and they didn’t cut as deep as I had wanted. I’m going to need a scalpel to get through the scar tissue left from my vertical hood piercing. I have a lot more hood than average woman, but I know I need some protection down there, so that’s why I’m going to leave the split skin instead of slicing it all off.

BME:  Was splitting your hood primarily for sexual purposes?

AMY:  Not entirely. This modification also made me feel like I had control of my body. It was spiritual and cleansing and so because of that I’m looking forward to splitting it again.

On the other hand, after doing the split I definitely have more feeling down there, so I’m happy with the outcome for that reason too.

BME:  Do you think that modifications have made you a stronger person? Have they made it easier to accept your, I suppose, new body (after the hysterectomy)?

AMY:  Yeah, that’s very true. My modifications make me feel beautiful, like a woman again, they make me feel like me. I’ve always felt like I was not me when I was growing up. I never fit in a crowd, I never fit in a clique, and I just went from group to group. I never found myself until I started modifying my body. So now I’m evolving into me. Though I don’t get modified because of the things that have happened in my past, they do help me overcome the negativity from bad experiences and allow me to feel that I have control of my body, physically and psychologically.

Tattoos and piercings obviously give different people different things, whether it’s simply for aesthetic reasons, fitting in or standing out, and in this case, healing. I can’t think of a better reason to get modified.

Amy is an extremely strong woman who gains her strength from a pretty unconventional method. It’s a tried and true way for Amy to deal with her negative emotions; it’s a way for her to never forget the events that have shaped her into who she is today. Her past is now etched into her body with colourful symbols, and what’s most important about it is that she feels like herself. She’s the one who’s in complete control of her body and her life — and she’s doing something to her physical self that no one can ever take away from her.

“I look at myself and I still see bare spots. I don’t feel heavily modified, I just feel like I’m me.”

- Gillian Hyde (IAM:typealice)

Gillian Hyde (IAM:typealice) is a vagabond, though her roots run deep into Nova Scotian soil. She’s lived and worked on three continents since 2001, and has never lived anywhere for longer than eight months since the age of sixteen. She loves fonts, puns, being barefoot, and office supplies. Calm to her is the roar of the ocean.

Online presentation copyright © 2005 BMEzine.com LLC. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published online May 13, 2005 by BMEzine.com LLC from La Paz, BCS, Mexico.

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