By: Dani Kessel
A few months back, I wrote an article on Love, Geeky Girl about my struggles with body image since my spine surgery. In it, I mentioned a phoenix tattoo on my thigh which I absolutely adore. It’s one of the biggest confidence boosts for me. I promised I’d later tell you the story behind it. In this post, I’m going to make good on that promise. Here we go!
Firstly, here is a picture of my phoenix tattoo:
Note: I understand that people often take inspiration from tattoos they see online, but I am asking you please don’t copy this tattoo. I commissioned the design. It is completely unique to me, and it holds a really specific meaning to my life experiences.
Most people look at it and automatically assume it’s Fawkes from Harry Potter. Though I’m a Harry Potter fanatic, have Harry Potter tattoos, and love Fawkes, that isn’t what this tattoo symbolizes.
This tattoo is a representation of my journey with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
A little background for you…
Since I was a little kid, I dreamed of being a performer. I wanted to sing, write songs, be on stage, act. I started learning to sing at 3, act at age 6, play piano at age 7, dance somewhere around age 8 or 9. I was professionally acting and modeling in Japan for three years. I paid for acting school once I got back stateside (mind you, this was after normal school and on the weekends). I fell completely in love. I spent every moment I could on stage and in music lessons.
I had my sights set on Broadway. This was my passion, and I was going to make it my life’s work. When I turned 18, I’d had over 30 productions and 5 instruments under my belt. At this point, I made the difficult decision to go to university in Colorado instead of heading straight for an acting career. I figured I could get a degree and then pursue my passion afterward. It didn’t feel right though. I spent my first year of university mulling over whether I made the right choice. I kept seeing open calls for off-Broadway and Broadway productions in New York. I couldn’t afford plane tickets back and forth. I needed to be there. So, I researched universities in New York City. I planned it out. I was going to finish my first year, then transfer to a university in NYC. I had everything ready. All the paperwork was filled out. I looked into possible apartments. I was extremely serious about this.
Six months before I was set to move to NYC and pursue Broadway, I had a work accident.
A coworker of mine wasn’t following safety restrictions. Because of her careless oversight, I ended up with an injury. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t stand correctly. I was in overwhelming pain with swelling and bruising. Doctors struggled to find anything physically wrong. They assumed it was just a bone bruise. With a little physical therapy, they said I’d be back on my feet. Needless to say, they were wrong.
It took a year to do the testing to diagnose my CRPS. I ended up on crutches with a knee brace for two and a half years. The next two and a half years after that, I walked with a cane. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t stand for extended periods of time. I couldn’t perform anymore.
I felt crushed. Absolutely destroyed. My whole life’s plan changed. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I lost myself.
For a long time after my accident, I had no identity. I felt like a shell of a person. Dancing, acting, singing, and performing were all central to my sense of self. In a single instant, they slipped away. Everything inside me burned to pieces. I cried almost every day. I spent a ton of time in therapy. It seemed like a major part of me died. I didn’t know how to handle any of it.
Eventually though, somehow, a fighter and a new drive emerged from within. I was going to get through this. Did I have any idea of how? NOPE! But I was going to find a way, any way, to move forward with my life. Fight Song by Rachel Platten, I Lived by One Republic, and A Little Bit Stronger by Sara Evans became my anthems. I shifted my focus towards writing music and recording. I channeled my emotions into lyrics. I put my energy towards university. I was constantly in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, so I had to shift to predominantly online classes. I decreased the number of courses in my semester which added more time to my degree plan. I wouldn’t finish in four years, but that was fine. I started my blog Old Soul, Young Heart. I researched all the possible treatments for my condition. I became a regular at open mic night–playing my guitar and singing while sitting on a stool.
I picked myself up. I put the pieces of my life back together. I still grieved my loss regularly but it stung a little less every day.
After going through this journey for years, I decided I wanted a tattoo that commemorated everything I’d experienced. I wanted something to remind me of my strength, something I could look at daily to keep myself going. I considered getting the CRPS ribbon. I didn’t want something so literal though. When people see awareness ribbon tattoos, they have a tendency to get nosy. It’s annoying. On my weaker emotional days, I knew I wouldn’t want to explain my condition to people. So, I went a different direction.
The official CRPS/RSD ribbon looks like this:
Given my own personal journey and the ribbon’s appearance, I decided with phoenix would be an appropriate representation. A fiery bird for a fiery ribbon. The phoenix transforms and grows from the ashes of its old life. That’s what I did. Though phoenixes traditionally are multi-colored (the combination depending on which culture being referenced), the tattoo keeps to the ribbon palette of yellow, red, and orange. Also, since I did want a direct reference to the ribbon itself, the phoenix’s bird has a red and yellow ribbon in its beak.
That is the story and meaning behind my beautiful phoenix tattoo.
While I love all of my tattoos and they each hold their own tale, my phoenix probably holds the most significance. I cried when I finally saw the completed tattoo. It means more to me than I could ever express in words. It is a beautiful depiction of my journey, my CRPS, and the person I became along the way.
I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about my life experiences.
P.S. Thank you to Leah Williams at Nomad Tattoo in Lakewood, Colorado, artist Melissa Dono, and artist Alex Ross for collaborating with me on the design of this tattoo.