The day after Christmas, I lay on a padded table, left arm outstretched, ready to allow my skin to be pierced by a needle 80 to 150 times a second while my daughter stood next to me, holding my hand.
“Are you ready?” the tattoo artist asked.
I inhaled deeply and nodded. A soft whirring filled the tall-ceilinged room as he began to inject dark dye into the stenciled outline of a feather below the simple script I’d chosen. Focus on the breath, I reminded myself as the pinpricks alternated between a sharp sensation and an almost pleasant vibration.
“Does it hurt?” My daughter documented the first few minutes of my tattoo by shooting a video on her iPhone.
“Not too bad … about what I expected.” My teeth were chattering, though. I was wearing a down vest, but the stress of anticipating pain had chilled me. She brought my oversize jacket from the hook on the wall and placed it over the right side of my body, tucking it up close to my chin.
Along the other part of the wall, adjacent to drawings and images of intricate tattoo art, hung a red plastic biohazards sharps container, similar to the one I helped my daughter fill seven years ago.
We’d collected used needles throughout her apartment the weekend after she told me of her heroin addiction. She didn’t want me to see all the places where she’d stashed them: under couch cushions, in laundry baskets beneath dirty clothes, tucked in the back of drawers where her boyfriend wouldn’t find them and realize she had been using more than he was. We needed to clear them out before she started an outpatient rehab program the following day.
On that day, I’d listened to the first hollow thuds as the needles fell to the bottom of the bin we had picked up from the pharmacy. The thumps grew more muffled as they piled on one another in twos and threes, in dozens. Until the bin was full.
Before we were finished, I pulled out my Nikon to document a used needle perched against a blackened teaspoon on the glass-topped coffee table. If I could approach this more as a journalist than a mother who wanted to scream into the sky, maybe I could jam my emotions into a dark place where they couldn’t escape either.
After about 30 minutes, the whirring stopped and I was done. It was my daughter’s turn on the table. She chose to have her matching ink placed across the inside of her left wrist, below the group of seven ravens that ascend her inner forearm, taking flight. The outer part of her arm is already covered by a delicate weave of poppy flowers on stems and lush serrated leaves.
Papaver somniferum. Somniferum meaning “sleep-bringing” in Latin. The plant’s seeds are used in baked goods, and the latex collected from its immature seed pods is used to produce opium, which is modified to produce heroin.
When I had picked my daughter up 24 hours earlier for Christmas, the first thing I’d noticed had been the bruises on her hands. She had pulled long sleeves down to her fingers, but I could still make out swollen dark purple lumps along her skin.
I tried not to stare at her hands as I drove past a grove of walnut trees on the outskirts of town.
“Yeah, but it hasn’t done this before, I mean stayed bruised for so long.” She pulled up her sleeve to show me old injection sites atop her hands, along the side of her wrist just below her thumb. Some have healed from abscesses; others have scarred. Delicate fingers that once played Elgar’s Cello Concerto were now puffy and swollen.
The last time I’d seen anyone puncture my daughter’s skin was two years ago in the emergency room. A urine test had ruled out a kidney infection, so the doctor had ordered a CT scan to determine the source of the pain that brought her there.
She was lying in the hospital bed covered in several blankets, still wearing her black boots, waiting for the nurse to start an IV. She’d been wearing a beanie when I picked her up, but with her hat off, she looked disheveled, hair tangled and matted in the back. I wanted to brush it out.
“Mom, I need to tell you something before the nurse comes back in.” She was shaking with chills.
I glanced at her arms almost as a reflex. There was a small pinpoint bruise in the crook of her left arm, a swollen bruise on her hand, another bruise on her right arm.
“I used last night.” She looked down at her hands and I reached out to hold them.
I fought to keep tears from building. After three years of numbing her need for heroin with methadone, my daughter had just spent the past 10 weeks weaning off it. She was tired of all the side effects and visiting the clinic daily. She had come so far, and yet I knew the months immediately after getting off methadone were dangerous territory.
Relapse is part of recovery. How many times had the counselor at the treatment center told us that? But I wanted to know how many times it would take before she could stay clean and I could get a decent night’s sleep again.
After 20 minutes of trying to find a vein, the nurse called for help. A second nurse finally landed a spot she could work with and hooked up a bag with fluids, an anti-nausea drug, an NSAID and a dose of fentanyl.
“Wait, isn’t that the same drug being added to heroin sold on the street and causing overdoses?” I couldn’t believe the doctor had approved this. They knew my daughter was an opioid addict and had struggled recently to get clean. Now they were shooting her up. The nurse assured me it was a small dose, had a short half-life and was just for immediate pain relief. She didn’t seem concerned that she was giving my daughter more of the drugs from which she had just struggled so hard to get clean.
My daughter looked completely in her zone on the tattoo artist’s table, eyes closed, the comfort of feeling her skin pierced. He brushed the vibrating needle against her flesh, re-creating the contoured flight feather of a juvenile red-tailed hawk that I had pulled from a Ziploc bag. A symbol of vulnerability, of learning to fly. Marking her the same way I was now marked.
He shaded the alternating dark and light bands until he reached the whisper-fine filaments at the base of the feather. These downy barbs help a bird stay warm by trapping air close to its body. With the lightest touch of the needle, the artist made them appear as if they were floating on her wrist.
Above our matching feathers, we both had inscribed “stammi vicino,” or “stay close to me.” If I’ve learned anything over the past seven years of this journey with her through addiction, it’s that I have no control. I cannot fix the situation. I cannot save her. My greatest hope remains in holding her close to my heart.
Trina J. Wood is a writer living in Davis, Calif. She is working on a memoir about her journey through her daughter’s heroin addiction. Find her on Twitter @trinajwood.