I got my first tattoo when I was 22. I was feeling lost, like I had fallen into a dark pit and couldn’t get out. So what did I do? I got the tattoo I had wanted since the third grade (yes, I was that young when I decided I wanted one). The decision before me was, what was I going to get? Tattoos are forever, after all, so I needed to make sure this was something I would want on me for the rest of my life. I chose a picture I had been drawing for ten years. It was a picture I used to describe a significant moment in my life, something that happened that had forever changed me, that changes me still. I needed to be reminded of that moment, that it had not changed, that this drawing still represented a truth in my life despite how I felt or what my circumstances told me. Here is the story of that moment:
I had grown up always knowing about God. I would say that I’ve always known Him, even loved Him. He was and remains the most significant person in my life. However, knowing about God and growing up in church will never save anyone from heartbreak or the challenges of life. My childhood faith, though pure and innocent, did not have an understanding of suffering and God. So when suffering entered the picture, I had no idea how to deal with it. My mom had fallen ill and there was no explanation. No one knew why and no one knew what would happen. My eleven-year-old mind began asking grown-up questions that no one seemed to have the answers to. I remember telling my friend one day, “I think my mom is going to die,” to which she replied, “Have you seen the new Pokemon cards?” I don’t blame her. What eleven year old knows how to respond to such a statement?
In my pain and questioning, I felt there needed to be blame placed on someone, so I decided that this must be all God’s fault. He is sovereign after all, so He must be the one to blame for all of this. I decided that I must hate God, then. How could He allow such pain to enter my life, my family’s lives? I still remember vividly the day I told God I hated Him. I was in my room, anger was filling my heart and I wanted a release. Through my tears, I told my Father just how much I hated Him and that I was done with Him. Thoughts of ending my own life began there, in that room.
Suicide is like a boa constrictor in a cold dark room. It wraps you in it’s warm embrace and promises comfort, all the while, squeezing the life out of you. It whispers sweet lies into your ear, telling you it will all be better if you just ended it, that no one will miss you, that it will be better for everyone else if you aren’t there anymore. When there is uncertainty all around and the feeling of lost control, such promises sound incredibly enticing. These thoughts began to bombard my mind at all hours of the day and night. I had removed the One who had breathed life into me, and in His place, death had taken residence in my mind and heart.
Over the course of a year, the thoughts had become overwhelming. I began looking for ways I could follow through. I was becoming desperate. A part of me knew I had a purpose, and I believe it is this part of my heart always anchored in my Father that kept me from following through (parents, raising your kids to know God and their worth is vital).
One day, in my desperation, I called out to God. I asked Him, in the same place I’d told Him I hated Him, to show me He was real, that His love was real. “Prove it!” I cried. I told Him I would be going to a youth conference and I wanted Him to show Himself to me there (I don’t know why I waited…God only shows up at conferences?!).
The first day of the conference came and went but the pain and anger remained. There had been no encounter. “Maybe He really doesn’t care, or worse, doesn’t actually exist,” I thought as the night came to an end. Here’s something I love about God…He never does what we expect, but He cannot pass up a heart that has asked Him to show up. Just read the Gospels.
The next day, worship began and I don’t remember anything else. All I remember is the feeling of liquid love pouring over me. I suddenly felt free of pain and anger, and in its place was a peace I had never known before. I was completely known and completely loved in that moment. The feeling drove me to my face and I laid on the floor weeping until there were no tears left. All I could say was “You can have all of me. You are worth living for,” over and over. The bird had just been released from her cage. That moment changed me, forever.
I went home and things were still difficult. My mom had finally been diagnosed and was on the road to recovery, but she had a long road ahead. This meant we all did. The thoughts of suicide didn’t stop either. They continued but had less power over me, until, one night, four years later, I was sitting in my room “battling” the suicidal thoughts that had come once again. I was about to embark on an adventure that would forever change the course of my life (a story for the next tattoo) and I was reminding myself of all I had to live for when I heard God’s gentle voice over the others.
“Tell them to leave Chels, He said.
“Tell who to leave?” I asked.
“These voices telling you these lies. You can tell them to leave and they have to go.”
“Ok,” I said and I proceeded to tell the voices that they couldn’t stay, they had to leave and in that moment, they left! I have been free for eleven years and counting, all because I have a Father who loves me more than I can comprehend and His love sets me free.
Walking into the tattoo parlor holding a picture of a bird flying out of a cage, these memories filled my heart. I was in another “dark night of the soul” and I was going to strengthen myself in the Lord. I was going to build an altar of remembrance to my God who hadn’t left me in my darkness then, and He certainly wasn’t going to leave me in my darkness now. I was still that freed bird, no matter how trapped I felt.
To this day, my first tattoo is my favorite. I have had God speak to me of my destiny through it in prophetic words from others on multiple occasions. When anyone asks me about it or comments on how beautiful it is (it’s pretty amazing), I get to tell them of the extraordinary love of a Father who has never given up on me. And, if He won’t leave me in my brokenness, you can bet He won’t leave you in yours.