I spent thousands covering my body in tattoos during a bipolar mania episode – but I don’t regret it

Hattie Gladwell

In April 2016, I started covering myself in tattoos. I have bipolar disorder, and I was at the start of a manic episode – something which often happens to me around this time of year. Bipolar disorder is categorised by two episodes: mania, and depression. Each can last from weeks to months, and both can be just as debilitating.

I was experiencing something called hypomania – a lesser form of mania, but I still felt as though my mind was racing a mile a minute. Mania often includes symptoms such as feeling on top of the world, euphoric, even. However, there are some downsides – such as feeling quick to anger, being very irritable and snapping easily.

Acting impulsively, recklessly, having huge ideas that never quite pan out – such as writing books, applying for jobs, or spending a huge amount of money on something that you later come to regret, are other symptoms. It can also give you problems sleeping, and a constant feeling of adrenaline.

That’s what I felt when I went into the tattoo shop. Adrenaline. The type you’d get when you reached the top of a super high roller coaster, ready to go down to the bottom. I’d already had three tattoos – but over the course of two months, I was covered in 26. I covered my legs, my stomach, my back, my neck and my arms. It was almost like an addiction, an addiction to the high and adrenaline I was feeling when the needle hit my skin.

It started when I made friends with a girl who was also covered in tattoos – I’d always thought she looked amazing but wasn’t sure if I could go through with that myself, dedicating a lifetime to ink on my body. I’d considered it, and there were times where I was tempted to head to the tattoo studio, but I always chickened out, thinking more rationally: Would I regret this?

But when I was manic, I didn’t think about those things. I looked at my friend and thought, I want that. I was self-conscious and insecure, I’d always struggled with my body image, but I saw how people looked at her – they were interested in her, they would compliment her on her ink and she had, in turn, become more confident. I wanted that.

I remember heading into the studio in spring, and asking for a wolf to be tattooed on my leg. I had found the design on Pinterest, and I’d fallen in love with it. I was very happy with the finished piece. I felt immediately more confident – I’d always had a problem showing my legs due to being nicknamed “tree trunk legs” at school for my thick thighs, but this time I wanted to show them off. I was in love with that feeling.

I went back the next week and got the other leg tattooed. And a few days after, my thigh. It didn’t turn out great, I was quite unhappy with it, but even with this mishap, it didn’t stop me wanting more. It was like the feeling of ink sinking into my skin was making me high. I succumbed to the rush of it.

I would scour the internet daily for more and more designs – but as I got more I stopped doing so. Instead, I found an amazing tattoo artist who would regularly post her designs on Instagram, custom to those who wanted it – and I would get inked that way, with original works all over my body. This fed the mania even more, knowing I was covering my body with beautiful, original artwork.

By July 2016 I was covered. And I was happy with what I had done. This was a first for me – mania had often left me feeling negative. In other episodes I had written books which would go on to be rejected, pitched stories which hadn’t been thought through, and I would sign up to things like classes and go on reckless weekends away spending lots of money.

I did have one regret though: I had spent £3,000 of my savings. Savings which I had been building up for a long time. I’d lost it all on covering my body. This did get to me, because I couldn’t help but think if I had just been tattooed over time – and perhaps thought through some of the designs and costs a little more, I could have achieved the desired look while having money to spend on other meaningful things. This was a constant habit of mine during mania: Spending a ridiculous amount of money and feeling guilty and ashamed afterwards.

But overall, I don’t regret what I did during that episode – I just know I should have thought it through more clearly, but when you are manic, nothing is clear. Everything in your head is just a big jumbled mess of ideas begging to come to life.

Because they were drawn for me and nobody else, I am more confident in my body. I love showing it off because I love displaying my art. And, in turn, I have become more confident with my size – having gone from never showing off my body to flaunting my ink during the warmer weather. I have grown more comfortable to accepting my shape, and loving who I am.

I do get stares from time to time – mainly from older people who wonder what I’ll look like when I’m older – but I’m happy with my ink and the way I look. Manic episodes can be dangerous, and I would never, ever recommend doing what I did – you may not be as lucky as to only regret the spending of the money.

But that episode, and my decisions to cover my body in ink, made me the self-loving and self-accepting person I am today.

If you have been affected by the issues in this article, you can contact the following organisations for support:

mind.org.uk

mentalhealth.org.uk

samaritans.org

nhs.uk/livewell/mentalhealth