The IML weekend festivities climax (so to speak) with the Black and Blue Ball, which takes place on the evening of Memorial Day. Everything I’d heard about this particular to-do made it sound like a bacchanalia of mythic proportions, and I’d been looking forward to it for well over a year, especially since IML contestants receive free tickets. I mean, debaucherous and patriotic and budget-friendly? Bring on the dancing boys! Literally!
I woke up that Monday at a decent hour, ate a hearty breakfast, bummed around the hotel, cruised through the Leather Market, and generally took it easy, wanting to conserve energy for the big night ahead of me. Later in the afternoon, one of my IML brothers sent out a message announcing a show tune sing-along at a video bar in Boystown, which sounded like a lot of fun on paper, although something in the back of my brain started twinging at the thought of it. Regardless, I hopped in an Uber with a group of friends and headed to the venue.
Once there, I understood that I’d made a calculated error. Running around Chicago in combat boots for four days had taken a toll on my sciatica, and I had some trouble navigating the stairs up to the rooftop lounge where all of the IML people had gathered. Additionally, the place was crowded as all get-out, and the dense horde of raucous strangers was murder on my panic disorder. Being determined, I socialized to the best of my ability, then hobbled back to the first floor and found an out-of-the-way corner booth in which to try to relax and stretch out my lower back, but I finally had to admit defeat. Everyone else was planning on going straight to Black and Blue, so I let a couple of the guys know that I’d be there in an hour or so and caught a cab back to the hotel. I crawled up the stairs to my floor, let myself into my room, collapsed on the bed, and, as anxious waves started crashing against the eroded shore of my psyche, realized I was not going the fuck anywhere.
Are you familiar with Spoon Theory? If not, it’s basically a method of quantifying physical and psychological resources. Any given task to be completed requires the sacrifice of a metaphorical spoon: Most people have drawers and dishwashers full of spoons, but those of us who deal with chronic illness and/or “neurodiversity” (as the kids call it these days) are limited in the number of spoons we’re allotted. I was running low on spoons by the time I got to the sing-along, cashed in way too many of them trying to act normal while I was there, then used up my last two returning to the hotel and making it all the way to my room. As badly as I wanted to go to the Black and Blue Ball, I was just… spoonless.
I messaged the guys to let them know I wasn’t going to attend, and they were all completely sympathetic, which honestly made me feel worse. Logically, I knew that they were glad I was taking care of myself and doing what I needed to do to preserve my well-being, but in my head this translated to admitting, “I’m a differently-sane wussy,” and my brothers averring, “Yes. Yes, in fact you are.” And yeah, that’s a skewed perspective on the situation, but it’s hard to see things realistically when the goop in my skull that exists specifically to help me discern truth from fiction starts fibbing.
I lay on my bed and watched Cartoon Network until the anxiety died down and the sense of failure faded (so, y’know, time passed), and as I slowly began to feel human again, an even more differently-sane idea coalesced. I grabbed a Sharpie and some paper and started doodling, and the next day, with a design firmly set, I wandered around until I found a tattoo parlor.
An hour and a half later, I walked out with three alchemical symbols etched on the inside of my forearm.
The first is the symbol for blood, to represent family — specifically chosen family, like my 70 new brothers, who were nothing but supportive during my lapse in invulnerability, even if I wasn’t able to process it at the time. The second symbol is a crescent moon, to remind me that I have spiritual resources to fall back on during moments of anxiety or depression. (The Moon is also associated with the number 9, which was my number during the competition.) And the third, a continuous line of zig-zags and curly-ques, is the symbol for half an ounce; in other words, a tablespoon.
From here on out, no matter what stunts my broken brain tries to pull, I will always have one spoon left.
Alchemy, whether material or metaphysical, is all about change for the better. Having a few archaic squiggles inked into my skin is not by any means the solution to my mental health issues, but it is an outward sign that I’m going to keep working until I’m better, too. And it’s a handy note-to-self that no matter what my mind is trying to make me believe, the truth is that I’m a lot more okay than I think I am.
So here it is, in all its overthought glory: Oddly placed, hard to explain, imperfect, and still healing. Just like me.
And that’s exactly how we’re supposed to be.