Tattoosday 22: Super Ken & Emilio

Content warning: The following story contains references to losing a loved one to a drunk driver, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Super Ken & Emilio," Katy Hamm

I met my best friend Emily Kidwell in high school.

We both played percussion in the school band. We both loved pop-punk and metal music - attending every local show we could get ourselves to. We got our noses pierced together, and frequently drew up ideas for our future tattoos while ogling over members of My Chemical Romance. We both had the strange sense of humor that would lead us to inside jokes about the movie Muppets in Space and "beasts in stairwells." She was Emilio, and I was Ken.

Instead of writing notes to each other, we used to draw these tiny comic books of all the adventures we dreamed of going on as a duo, and occasionally with friends. From Warped Tour escapades, to escaping a R.O.U.S. at school, to traveling to the movie theatre with our friends from youth group - we battled everything as a super hero duo. I was Super Ken, a stick figure with a cape; and she was my sidekick squirrel Emilio... also with a cape.

I still have every single comic we made for each other, including one that we turned in as an assignment for our French class which I can no longer read without looking up the translation. So many memories and those hurt-your-gut laughs attached to those tiny pieces of paper. 

Even with her weird and sometimes dark sense of humor, Emily was one of the most genuinely accepting and loving human beings I have ever met. She was the first person who ever talked to me about being accepting of people of all races, sexualities, gender identities, physical and mental ability, weights, mental health status, and more. I owe a chunk of my drive for social justice and advocacy to her steering me in that direction years ago.



In 2008, Emily was killed by a drunk driver. 

I remember receiving the phone call from one of our mutual friends. I remember slowing falling to my knees in my grandmothers living room, feeling like I should be crying and also not being able to. It didn't feel real. How could she be gone just like that? 

Losing my best friend, and the only person I ever felt truly understood me at that point, was soul crushing. I consistently had nightmares about her crash, and the funeral following. I imagined all the things that could have saved her, and all the things that happened when they didn't.

Shortly after losing Emily, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This affected everything in my life, but especially school. I was going into my second year of college, and as a first-gen student, I really needed extra help surviving. My mother pushed me into counseling, and it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

I was able to channel my energy into planning local concerts with my school's programming board - where I found my home at UW Oshkosh. I was able to bring the love and drive Emily and I had for local music to new relationships with new friends. I was finding bits of Emily in new people, and it always made me smile.



I was extremely lucky to have Emily's older sister, Amanda, become a big part of my life during this time as well. Although this didn't happen immediately after losing Emily, when it did happen - it happened fast. We connected on such a deep level on so many things. She has been my shining light through all the rough patches, and I hope I have been the same for her. Amanda and Emily called each other "Skister," a name that Amanda and I have now adopted for our friendship. 

In June, we decided to get a "Skister" tattoo together. We had a goofy inside joke about hedgehogs, so we went on got ourselves each a cute little hedgehog. Hers, looking like it was throwing serious shade, fit her very well. Mine, on my left arm, serving as a constant reminder of one of the rocks in my life. Someone who inspires me daily. One of the most fierce and resilient humans I know. Someone I look up to.

Since losing Emily, I had spent years trying to figure out a way to keep her with me forever through a tattoo. I cycled through ideas, but nothing seemed right until this past July when I came up with the idea to get a squirrel. My sidekick squirrel, Emilio. Always right there on my arm when I need her.

One month later, my little furry super-friend has been inked into my skin. I smile every time I look at it, and it makes me especially happy that it is near the hedgehog I got with her sister. I know Emily would love it, and I am so thankful to have her by my side for the rest of my life.


Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.

Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.



About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

 

081: The Choices You Make Affect More Than You


Content warning: The following story references an incidence of drunk driving, and associated loss, and the grief thereafter, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"The Choices You Make Affect More Than You," Amanda Myers

There is one specific day in my life where absolutely everything changed. I don’t mean in a poetic sense where I had an epiphany, or in a reflective looking back, what I know now way. But in a truly life shattering way that caused a schism between my old self and who I am now that runs incredibly deep.

On July 10, 2008, I had gone to bed somewhat early after a day of running errands. A phone call on our apartment phone rang in the distance, and my husband came into the bedroom, and told me my dad was on the phone. It didn’t alarm me immediately- this was far from normal, but I was sleepy. After I said hello to my father, he told me my sister was dead. After a stunned moment of disbelief, he told me she had been killed in a car accident. That she was hit by a drunk driver, head-on, about two miles from my parent’s home, and was killed instantly. I told him I was coming home as soon as I could, and hung up the phone. And then I started screaming.

I had read the word “keening” before as a way to explain a profound grieving cry, and I realized in that moment that I understood what keening really meant. It was heartbreak leaving my body through my voice.

We left almost immediately, and drove for 15 hours to get back to my parents. Once the sun arose above the horizon, somewhere on the far side of Nebraska, I had to start making phone calls. I called friends. I called family connections. I called neighbors. And I listened as I broke their hearts, one by one. As they started crying and didn’t know what to say. I listened to their shock. And I hurt.

My sister was 18 years old when she died; it was just over two weeks before her 19th birthday. She had been out for dinner with her fiancee, and was killed on a Friday night by someone I vaguely knew from high school, who was incredibly drunk by 9 p.m. It was the other woman’s birthday, and she did not have a designated driver. She was leaving one bar and heading to another when she crossed the center lines, and hit my sister. The other woman died shortly after the accident and left behind a young son.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily was my only sibling, and was truly one of my best friends. We were very close throughout my time in high school and college, and I was lucky that we spent most weekends together my junior and senior years of college. Even though I had spent the last year in Denver, Colorado, quite a distance from home, we still talked regularly and saw each other as much as we could. I cannot fully describe the pain and grief the loss of my sister caused in my life. It changed everything. I no longer had my best friend. I was an only child. I was heartbroken. And it was someone else’s fault. Someone made the choice to drink and drive, and it didn’t only kill that person, but also killed my innocent sister who was trying to get home.

Emily’s death was also the first death I really experienced. I was too young to remember the loss of my grandfather or my infant cousin. I had no experience with death, and this was life altering change. Most of the first year after Emily died is foggy; I don’t have many memories. I know I felt disconnected, aloof, and overwhelmingly alone. I considered my own death, however, I never took any action toward it. I thought about how nice it would be if I was killed in an accident myself. I was so broken.

To cope with her death, I did find several things that worked for me. I wrote in a journal, and in the journal I not only wrote about my feelings and thoughts each day, but I also wrote down as many memories as I could think of about Emily. All the details about what she liked, adventures we had, music we sang to in the car, and what made us laugh together. Having that journal is a huge comfort to me now, as time marches on and I sometimes forget the details about certain events or things she liked. I go back and read about memories I have forgotten, and it makes my heart happy instead of sad.

My other major source for coping with Emily’s death was learning how to knit. I read a book about loss where a woman learned to knit after the death of her child (Comfort: A journey through grief by Ann Hood), and I signed up for a knitting class. I truly think that knitting saved my life. It was calming, and it gave me something to do that didn’t require a lot of energy or intense thought. I could just knit. In the book, it said that with knitting, “every stitch is a way to say I love you.” I would meditate on that as I knit, and would find some sanctuary in the repetitive motion as I created something from yarn.

It has been a little more than eight years since my sister was killed by a drunk driver. I am still passionate about driving sober. A choice to drink and drive doesn’t just impact you. It can potentially impact hundreds of others in profound ways that can never be repaired.

So I have two main messages:
1) Take an Uber. Call a cab. Get a friend to drive. Drink at home. I don’t care, just don’t drink and drive.
2) If you’re grieving, find what gives you some small semblance of peace. Write, read, knit, sing, write music, travel, get a tattoo, join a group, cry.

Take each day knowing that some days will better, and some will be impossibly hard. Eventually the hard days are fewer and further in between, although they never go away completely. Find a way to say ‘I love you.’

IMG_0753.JPG

About the art:

Emily was my best friend in high school. Losing her was also a very huge shift for me, one that really affected the way I would live the rest of my life. She was literally the coolest person I have ever met, and had such a big heart for bettering the lives of others.

I met Amanda my senior year of high school, but we didn't become close until after losing Emily. We both found our own ways to cope, and eventually found a new normal together, years later. Amanda is now my closest friend, confidant, dance partner, inspiration, and most of all, my Skister - a title that had been held between Amanda and Emily growing up.

I've become a part of Amanda's family, but I always think about how things would be if Emily were still with us. I think about how much fun Emily would have with her nephew. I think about how much closer Amanda and Emily would have gotten over the years. I think about how I would fit into that picture.

With this piece, I wanted to be able to give Amanda a slice of that life by creating an image of Amanda, her son, and Emily were walking down a street together. I looked through old and new photos to make sure I created an accurate enough image that would make Amanda so happy she might cry (which she did). 

Although 'what ifs' can become a painful part of losing a loved one, sometimes imagining them as a part of your current life years later can be a rewarding experience. Thinking about how proud they would be of you, or how much they would love you regardless of where your life has gone, can be one of the most comforting things.

I like to think that Emily would be extremely proud of me, and I know with certainty, that she would be so proud of Amanda, thankful for her friendship and advice, supportive of the challenges she faces, and how much of a fun, loving aunt she would be to Amanda's son. 

I miss Emily every day, and I'm so thankful for Amanda. This project was really soothing to me in sort of a therapeutic way, and I'm so happy Amanda chose me to do this piece.

- Katy

078: Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist


Content Warning: This story contains some language pertaining to violent experiences that might be upsetting or triggering for some survivors. 


"Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist," Katy Hamm

So, I’m an atheist. I always have been. But in high school I went to a Christian youth group with my best friend from school, Emily. Mostly because many of the kids in the group were into the alternative music scene. We became close with a few of them, and a group of us even went to our first Warped Tour together. 

When a new group leader came along, I didn’t think much of it. I walked in wearing my black winged eyeliner, Silverstein hoodie, ripped jeans, and Avenged Sevenfold shoes as always ready to hang out with my friends. Instead I was sat down, and told that the skulls on my shoe were a sign of my sin, and that I would go to hell if I didn’t change my ways.

I left with a bitter taste for religion in my mouth, and never came back. 

On July 11th, 2008, I received a phone call from one of our friends from youth group. He asked if Emily’s parents had called me yet. I said no, and thought something might have been wrong with her mom. I told him I’d call Emily and find out what was going on. He said, “it’s Emily.” I stayed silent in confusion. “She was in a head on collision last night,” Adam said, “She didn’t make it.”

I lost focus and everything started buzzing.

Life was never going to be the same. 

After her funeral, I watched as so many found peace in God, and felt it was His decision to "bring her home." But I was angry. There was no reason for me. There was no higher power in which to look. There was just an end to a life that had been really important in mine.

I spent years grieving. My depression and anxiety spiraled out of control. I spent countless hours in therapy, suffered from panic attacks so intense I would be incapacitated any time I couldn't get in touch with a loved one. I felt a spot of emptiness in my heart that could never again be filled.

Luckily, I found my a wonderful sense of self and purpose while on my college programming board planning concerts featuring local musicians. Things were tough, but life was looking up. I found life-long friends, and someone I wanted to spend my life with in my partner Jon. We had started a clothing company together, and I was about to head into my fifth year of college.

After nine months of making things work with the distance, he left me, citing not being over his ex of 7 years. My soul felt crushed, but I still wanted him in my life - so we continued running the clothing company together, with my hopes that eventually we would be together and things would be perfect. 

Then on April 4, 2011, I received another phone call. This time it was 4:00 a.m., and I just missed answering it. “Lori Kwiatkowski,” my phone read right before the screen turned dark. I picked up the phone and began to text Jon, “why is your mother calling me?” Halfway through that message, it hit. This was THAT call. It was happening again.

No. No. No.

I called back, and I was met with my worst nightmare. Jon had been murdered. He had been stabbed in the neck by a monster of a man who lived a few houses down from their family right in front of their eyes.

There it was again. The buzzing. Everything was spinning, and I fell to the floor. 

The years following were some of the hardest years of my life. I developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which was amplified after attending the trial. I feel like I remember every detail. The size and shape of the knife. The angle and place of which it entered and left his body. The sound of Jon's voice on the 911 call yelling, "he slit my throat!" The way his mother, father, and brother looked when they had to relive each horrifying moment with the monster who did it in the room. The explosion of anger I felt watching the lies and fake tears pouring out of the murderer to try and escape his punishment.

I found myself angry and frustrated daily as I was told by family and friends that Emily and Jon were in heaven meeting each other, and playing with their dogs again. That, “everything happens for a reason,” and it was their time to go. 

It SUCKS to deal with loss and trauma as an atheist. That comfort that others find in believing their loved ones are in a better place doesn’t exist. The comfort found in knowing your life is only the first adventure isn’t there. So what do you do?

Here’s what has worked (for the most part) for me.

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FUCKING BREATHE.

When you have lost someone, especially through senseless violence – you will often find yourself encountered with people who will think they are helping, but are in fact doing the exact opposite.

Maybe it’s a co-worker who says, “Oh no honey, my sister’s best friend’s cousin once knew a guy whose wife died from cancer. I feel you. So tragic.”  Or an acquaintance on Facebook who says, “Thoughts & prayers to you. She is in a better place now.”  Or even worse, a friend hits you square in the face with a big, “He’s in heaven now, and everything God does is for a reason.”

No. Your sister’s best friend’s cousin’s guy’s wife’s death from cancer is absolutely NOTHING like the murder of my partner. 

No. She isn’t in a better place. She’s in an urn because some irresponsible mess decided to get plastered before 9PM and drive home taking my best friend away from her family, friends, and a job she loved taking care of young adults with disabilities.
 
No. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. If it did, why is this so called God giving me, and so many other marginalized folks the short end of the stick? 

Muscles tensing up. Heartbeat increasing. Hands shaking. 
 
FUCKING BREATHE ALREADY. 

You need to do this to live. 

It seems silly and simple, but concentrated breathing is the only way I kept myself from unloading a ton of anger and swear words on anyone who said these things to me. They are trying to empathize, trying to give you comfort, trying to assure you that you’ll be okay.

They aren’t doing any of those things, and may very well be actively hurting you by trying.

Just breathe, and if and when you find it in yourself - share with that person how those things affect you. They will most likely understand.

 
Stop asking yourself “What If” questions

Yes. They are tempting. I’ve spent my fair share of time with them.
 
What if he hadn’t broken up with me? He would still be alive. He wouldn’t have been coming home from her house. He wouldn’t have been out that late. He probably would have been across the state with me.

What if he had just stayed in the house when he called the police? He’d still be alive.  His family wouldn’t have had to see their son killed in front of them. I wouldn’t have the ringing in my ear of his voice on the 911 call.

What if they hadn’t given up their big dog just a few days earlier? He would still be alive. The dog could have attacked the guy. He could have saved him.
 
What if I had been there? He’d still be alive. I would have convinced him to not interact with the guy. I could have told him to stay inside the house.  I could have saved him.
 
What if he was still alive?

What if.

 
Give up your what ifs. Don’t let them haunt you. It just causes more pain, more flashbacks, more panic. 

Maybe each time you find yourself thinking, “What if…” – instead, think of one thing the person you lost was really passionate about, and share that thing with someone. Think of something that made you smile each time you were with them. 

One thing I like to think about is  when Jon and I would listen to The Devil Wears Prada's Zombie EP, and each time the music paused for the "Oh my god, they're everywhere," line, he would instead yell, "Oh my god, Pokémon cards," while miming a motion for making it rain. Makes me smile every time.
 

Cry all the cries.

Self-explanatory. Don’t hold back those tears. Even if you have to be the weird kid crying on the train, or in the bathroom, or on the sidewalk, or in the park, or under your desk at work, or in class, or in an elevator, or at the printer when you can’t get it to work, or any number of other places I have found myself crying over the years. 

I know there is stigma with certain identities about showing sadness, depression, and anxiety. Do your best to not worry about what others think. Crying is good for you. 

I’m with you. You’re not alone. 


Therapy.

If you are lucky enough to have access and funding to go to therapy, go. I'm not going to lie, it sucks sometimes, because you’re reliving moments of your past you would rather keep buried, but doing so can help you process and have lasting benefits. 

There is a type of therapy called EMDR. I swear it is witchcraft, because it did wonders for my PTSD. I was only able to go once, but it helped immensely. I held these two vibrating things in my hand as I retold the traumatic event I wanted help reprocessing. My therapist would alternate the vibrations frequency and intensity throughout the story, and I guess it somehow helps rewire what parts of your brain fire when you recall that memory. Or something along those lines. I’m not a therapist. 

Either way. It can help.

Stigma is stupid. If you think you’re weaker because you go to therapy or take medication for your mental health, I’m happy to tell you that you’re wrong. It takes a strong person to take control of their health. This shit isn’t easy! Let’s be real, continuing to live after experiencing trauma is one of the strongest things you can do. 

And if you don’t have access to a therapist. Talk it out with someone. Find resources online for survivors of trauma. Never stop searching for something that could help improve your life.


Advocate for others.

Triggers are THE WORST. Those words, phrases or actions that send you spiraling into panic attacks, flashbacks, and tears. Those things that rip all the light from your eyes, and the energy from your body.

Don’t be silent. Don’t suffer to keep others comfortable. Tell those who use your triggers what they do to you. Anyone who cares about you as a person will quickly change their behavior. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to change, especially when they were doing something they didn’t even know was harmful.

Now that you’ve got the power to advocate for yourself, do it for others. Make the world a safer place for those who have experienced trauma. 

When you don’t believe in a higher power, karma, the good of the human race, or anything else; believe in yourself.

I believe in you.


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Things are honestly still tough. July is such a hard month for me with Jon’s birthday, the anniversary of losing Emily, and Emily’s birthday. It’s been years, but I still cry thinking about how Emily and I will never draw comic book notes to each other again, or how Jon and I will never smile at each other again. Or how neither will ever get to see their niece/nephew is as they grow up. 

In my victim impact statement for Jon’s trial, I wrote, “I feel as though I’ve had my one chance at lifelong happiness taken from me.” For years, I thought that was true. 

I’m really thankful it wasn’t. I’ve worked my butt off to make sure it didn’t. I made sure I surrounded myself with genuinely caring human beings. I’ve found a partner in someone who makes me a better person, and will never ever pressure me to do something I don’t want to. I made sure I landed a job that felt less like a job, and more like a calling. I made sure I discovered myself, and learned to be comfortable in my identities. I made sure to stay creative, and find an outlet for my expression. I've made sure to accept and embrace my mental health.

Happiness in the wake of trauma is not easy, but I promise it is worth it.
You are resilient. You are worthy.


katy breathe.jpg

About the art:

Nevan made this piece of art for Katy using massive amounts of sorcery and probably a computer because the man is an absolute wizard. No one truly understands the source of his craft, but we know that when he shares his magic with the world, we are meant to stare and take it in with awe and not question the methods by which it was created.

This image reads, "Breathe," which Nevan says was a reminder he needed more so now than ever. If you remember, he shared his coming out story last month. And he joined our artist team shortly thereafter. Since sharing the story, his life has been a bit chaotic, so Nevan said that this piece was actually incredibly therapeutic to create because needs this reminder when his brain gets all tangled up in itself.

And as you can tell from reading Katy's story, this is a perfect reminder for Katy as well.

- Craig & Nevan