This post was originally published on June 26, 2014.
How many recovering addicts do you know that have just one tattoo? Probably not many. The average Hollywood 12-step meeting looks like the waiting room at Kat Von D’s, and much of the ink on display is a sobriety tattoo. But even though I got my first (and so far only) tattoo long before I began thinking about getting sober, somehow it transformed along with me and became the recovery emblem I’d never originally intended it to be.
I got my tattoo in college, having chosen (don’t laugh) to study South American archaeology for a living. During my second excavation in Peru, I decided my left ankle would look better emblazoned with the hummingbird design from the Nazca lines. Today these enormous ground drawings are best seen from a hot air balloon, which didn’t exactly exist in 200 B.C. So unless you subscribe to theories about aliens, there’s really only one possible audience these pre-Inca folks could have had in mind for these images. Broadly speaking, they were trying to connect with God. I could have chosen the condor (a bird I have much more affinity with), or even a monkey or a spider. But the hummingbird is what popped into my head out of the thin Andean air, so I went with it.
After that I didn’t get any more tattoos, though I thought of a few I would like. My developing addiction played a role in this: once I was hooked on drugs, that $80 was going up my nose, not on my skin. And when I quit most drugs but hadn’t really bought into active recovery, my fear of commitment kicked in. Tattoos were supposed to represent things that matter, and I really had trouble knowing what mattered to me. The tattoo I already had was proof of this.
The thing is, it wasn’t an impulse buy. I waited a solid two months after inspiration struck before taking the plunge. Like the young Johnny Depp inking Winona’s name on his arm, I believed my commitment was real. True, I was running on celery, Oreos, cheap wine and Adderall, but my academic career was the one measly thing I thought I was on top of. I mean, my lifelong dream of being a writer? Ha! That was never going to happen. Whereas with archaeology, all I had to do was keep studying hard. At the rate I was going, I could get into a top Ph.D. program, be one of five people who got a tenured job, and play in dead people’s sandboxes for the rest of my life.
Well, that didn’t pan out for a whole bunch of reasons—one being that there was something else from South America I found way more compelling than its ancient art. After dropping out of grad school not once but twice, any commitment I made was obviously suspect. All future tattoos, logic assured me, would be pretty much cursed. If I got my clean date on my wrist, I was bound to relapse. Even if I tattooed something I could never imagine not loving—like a cat, or Robert Downey Jr.—I’d morph into a dog person with a passion for James Franco. Branded onto my ankle was a great big reminder not to trust my gut.
It wasn’t that I regretted the tattoo itself. I liked the way it looked, and simply having one made me feel marginally cooler. But once I’d left the field, explaining the design often dredged up feelings of failure. Telling people “I used to be an archaeologist” again and again got pretty depressing, especially when they’d respond along the lines of, “Wow, that’s so cool!” and couldn’t figure out why I’d abandoned the path of badassery to shelve lotions at Bath & Body Works and help kids with their SATs.
Then, seven years after getting inked, I got clean and sober for real. That’s when I finally learned what my tattoo means.
I’ve always loved hiking, so one of the good habits I’ve cultivated in recovery is taking long walks through Beverlywood (the greenest place I can get to without driving). During these walks I try to practice mindfulness and meditation. One day, while I was struggling to get out of my troubled head and into mindful presence, a hummingbird darted across my field of vision. Hummingbirds are a pretty common sight in the neighborhood, so I decided to watch the trees and keep a count of all the ones I saw. Eventually I forgot all about counting. Watching the treetops fan across the sky, the warm light filtering through their leaves, I slipped into an almost meditative state. Hummingbirds kept my eyes up, away from the Mustangs and trash bins lining the curb and away from my anxiety. Like little sherpas of the sky, they were actually guiding me to a place of spiritual awareness where I could feel the presence of a higher power.
Admittedly, hummingbirds aren’t exactly poster children for serenity. They’re as frantic as creatures come. I’ve always fantasized about flying, but not like a hummingbird. Hummingbirds can’t soar. They can’t even physically walk. They just keep flapping their wings at an amphetamine pace. But there’s something magical about them too, darting and hovering like little iridescent fairies, and watching them somehow reinforced the idea that the universe is way more beautiful than I’d been giving it credit for.
After that, whenever I had trouble getting in the zone, I’d start looking for hummingbirds. I continued for several weeks before remembering that I actually had a hummingbird on my ankle. I don’t know why it took so long to make the connection, but when I did I saw my Nazca lines in a whole new light. My tattoo didn’t have to be a reminder of my questionable career choices. If a person could transform as radically as I’d been doing in recovery, then a tattoo could, too.
Now that it’s summer again, my tattoo spends more time on display. Just the other day, a new acquaintance asked about it. Instead of the usual preamble about mysterious geoglyphs and my failed stint in academe, I paused. “It’s a hummingbird,” I said simply. “In an ancient Peruvian art style.”
“That’s awesome,” he replied, and I realized he really didn’t care that I’d thwarted my own half-assed dreams of being Indiana Jones. Come to think of it, I didn’t much care either, not anymore. I’d found something much more meaningful than a Ph.D. or a Discovery Channel special. Not only had I found a more fulfilling career path; I’d found a whole new way of life in recovery. Like the ancient Andeans etching out the cosmos on the desert floor, I’ve been striving to get in touch with the higher powers of the universe. And thanks in part to the hummingbirds, it’s working.
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