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President Of The Drowning Girls Club

With her popular series of designs symbolizing issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, tattoo artist Fidjit is helping people like her struggling with their mental health.

On the underside of her chin, tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle has the words “I don’t scare easy” inked in bold black letters. While most of the tattoos that cover her arms and legs reference things like loved ones, childhood memories and favorite films, her neck piece touches on another major part of her life: the debilitating phobia she’s struggled with since she was 8 years old.

The now 28-year-old artist, who only tattoos in black ink in a process known as blackwork, began her first tattoo apprenticeship at the age of 19, right at the tail end of an awful two-year period where her phobia was so intense she couldn’t leave the house due to intense panic attacks.

“It was very difficult in the very beginning,” she says, “There were a lot of times I would make excuses for not going in, leave suddenly, or just feel terrible the whole day while at work.” After the first year, things began to improve, which she credits in large part to hypnotherapy, and she became used to having to wait out feelings of panic and dealing with them after she left the studio.

Tattoo artist Fidjit Lavelle.

Today she’s based in Southend, England and frequently works in studios in London and abroad, having attracted a large following who often identify with the personal and feminist themes found in her work.

In talking about her own mental health, Fidjit points out that while she has Tourette’s, which is a neurological condition, it comes with a number of comorbid conditions like OCD, OCB and PTSD. She also experiences difficulty in social situations, sensitivity to sensory overload, dissociation and mixed personality problems.

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life.”

“A lot of my work is based around mental health problems because that’s really quite a big part of my life,” she says, describing her flash sheets (pre-drawn images that anyone can ask to have tattooed) as a visual diary. “I don’t have any interest in just drawing pieces that have nothing to do with my brain or me personally. I’m lucky in that a lot of my clients are on the same wavelength, so they’ve specifically picked me because something I’ve done has spoken to them in a certain way.”

One popular image that still strikes a chord with many of her clients first appeared three years ago in a flash sheet inspired by the suicides of female authors. Adapted from a painting Fidjit had made based on the death of Virginia Woolf, the drawing shows the top of a woman’s head peeking over stylized waves.

One of Fidjit’s blackwork tattoos, which often symbolize mental health issues.

Since then over 1,000 people have gotten variations of the tattoo, members of what she now calls “The Drowning Girls Club.” She says that while some versions are sarcastic or have light-hearted additions like party hats, many clients get them for reasons related to their mental illness or the struggle of keeping their heads above water. Whether people ask for the original drawing or add personalized details, she loves that the image has resonated with so many and that a community has formed around it. “I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have,” she says.

Recently she’s found herself working on a new series of custom tattoos based on mental health. Like with the drowning girls series, it began with a flash sheet, but this time with drawings inspired by her own experiences with dissociation, panic attacks and an eating disorder.

“One person got one of the pieces done and I wrote what it was about [on Instagram] and then someone asked me to do a custom piece about dissociative disorder,” she explains. After posting that second tattoo and a brief description online, more and more requests came pouring in from people wanting to have their own conditions turned into tattoos.

“I think that people really like feeling part of something, part of a united front despite whatever problems that they have.”

The tattoos, often framed with radiating lines that almost vibrate around the central figure, give viewers a sense of the full-body sensations that accompany many mental conditions. A tattoo depicting panic attacks, for example, recreates a feeling of claustrophobia as seven detached hands reach at a floating head, the character’s distressed face half in shadows as lines emanate along their profile.

“There’s obviously so many different reasons why people get them, but I think there’s an ownership element,” she muses, talking about how people often place their trust in her when coming up with a design but the process is still a collaboration and conversation about how they personally picture their condition.

Capturing often overwhelming experiences in simple visuals, each piece is a unique window into how a specific person experiences and understands their own mental health. Just as putting a name or diagnosis to a condition can be validating, so can creating a representation of your relationship to it.

There are over a thousand variations in the Drowning Girls Club series.

She says that for many, “It makes them feel more in power of something that’s maybe hindered their life in a certain way, because when it’s invisible and kind of floating about it seems a bit harder to take control of. If you have a visual representation you can look at it and remember that’s what it is. It’s just that. I think sometimes it’s quite a nice reminder that is just one part of you and it’s not something that necessarily that needs to rule you.”

“It’s odd, because it’s just a tattoo, but it really does help,” she adds, reflecting on her own piece. “Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control, that I’ve got power over it.”

Having the invisible made visible can other benefits as well. She knows of people who’ve gotten these tattoos partially as a conversation starter, a visual way of announcing and explaining their condition or simply showing that they aren’t ashamed.

“Sometimes if I feel very overwhelmed, I think about the tattoo for my phobia underneath my chin and it makes me feel like I’m more in control.”

Fidjit’s own openness about her experiences on Instagram is one reason for her major following, which she credits to changing trends in the tattooing industry. Whether it’s the movies they love or the social movements they support, she says social media has made it easier for people to seek out artists they identify with. “I think clients are really interested in the person behind the work and their lifestyle more than their actual work sometimes,” she observes.

Her own posts about things like an abusive ex-partner and the experience of having her rapist acquitted, along with participating in fundraisers for rape crisis and domestic violence charities, has helped her attract customers with similar stories who know her studio is a safe space, even if they might not want to specifically talk about their experiences.

Fidjit’s tattoos help people struggling with mental health issues remember that they are not alone.

Fidjit says that the greatest difficulty her conditions present in terms of tattooing are often social interactions, since talking is often a major part of the job but she can find making normal conversation difficult and doesn’t always know how she’s coming across. That doesn’t stop her from offering a sympathetic ear or calling out abuses she sees in the tattooing industry.

“I’m happy to tell anybody who to avoid – I’ve had tattoos on my body from people who are abusive and it’s a horrible feeling because it’s this thing on your body from a horrible person. I hate that feeling, and I hate other people to have that feeling.”

Because while a tattoo might just be an image on skin, the story of how that image got there can mean everything.

Q&As

Conducting In Colombia With Tourette’s

Conductor Eric Gault's music career almost passed him by because of his condition, until he embraced a new attitude.

Eric Gault looks like a shaved Viking, but instead of looting for a living, he’s an orchestral and choral conductor and music teacher. From Los Angeles to Nevada to Bogotá, he works with everyone: children, university students, and–of course–professional musicians.  And drawn by his loud, frequent, operatic laugh, Eric even attracts the occasional celebrity: he’s currently arranging his Colombian pop-star friend Cabas’ music for choir.

Eric Gault conducting in Colombia

Talking to Eric, you’d never guess he was once a textbook case of Tourette’s Syndrome. His symptoms were emblematic: the tics, the vocalizations, the immunodeficiencies. But his journey to wellness has been anything and everything but textbook. Instead, after suffering a serious decline in his health and realizing traditional meds weren’t working for him, Eric spent much of his adult life chucking the book on Tourette’s treatment out the window and writing his own.  

Folks sat down with Eric to talk about his journey to health and what it means to be “functional.”

 How were you first treated for your Tourette’s?

 I was diagnosed at the age of nine and immediately put on a major tranquilizer. I gained sixty pounds and suffered extreme lethargy and cognitive blunting. I felt like I was in a chemical straightjacket. I was such a frustrated, energetic kid. I was fighting back against this daily constraint though I may not have been able to articulate that at the time with constant thrashing around and violent fits. I became uneducable.

I felt like I was in a chemical straightjacket.

It got worse until I was twelve, when I was sent away to a treatment facility in New York for three years. Towards the end of my time there my medication was changed and I lost sixty pounds in three months. From this I realized you’re not supposed to be baseline depressed and fat and that much of my condition was, by that point, iatrogenic (a type of illness caused by medical treatment – ed.).  Other kids there were a mix of those with Tourette’s, those suffering with severe autism, violent kids who were wards of the state and those whose family life was so broken that they simply had to be removed. These kids had huge amounts of rage because of the traumas and structural inequalities they faced. I would go home for a week or two a year and that was difficult, but in retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it instilled in me an ability to contextualize my life so that when I went through trauma beyond that and living with a disability, which is enormously difficult, I was able to hold onto my wits and make decisions that benefit me.

  How did Tourette’s affect you later in life?  

 Later, I went to study music at Oberlin College. That’s also when I started taking meds that destroyed my health. The doctors would literally open books, turn the pages, and say, “Oh this one seems good, why don’t we try this?” I felt like a trashcan for experimentation. They’re well meaning, but they’re trained to diagnose and medicate. They’re not trained to treat a person so they can be functionally healthy.

I was playing college baseball at the time and I would see trails behind the ball sometimes like I was tripping on acid. Other drugs made me puff up like the incredible hulk, where my muscles were unusually defined. The antidepressants made me feel rage and physical and emotional pain. Every medication I took I would experience these very awkward and troubling symptoms. I was becoming increasingly physically ill, fatigue, nausea all the time, losing weight, losing hair, dark circles around my eyes. I was 22 and I would run into people I knew and not remember who they were.

Eric Gault on the streets of Bogotá.

And what was the tipping point when you decided that traditional treatment wasn’t for you? How did things start to turn around?

 Conventional doctors had no idea what to do for me or they would dismiss me and say I was crazy. But I was so sick I couldn’t tolerate it anymore so I had to stop and I did. I didn’t finish school at the time. My immune system broke down so badly, I couldn’t tolerate chemicals. Anywhere near paint and I would start vomiting.  I moved back to Chicago and I found a job at a health food store. Little by little I started learning about other people who had gone through similar experiences and were treating their illnesses holistically. Just by sheer luck, I ran into a woman who had begun seeing Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez in New York who treated cancer and other degenerative illnesses alternatively. Tragically, he passed away a year ago. I’ve been on his program since 1993.  It allowed me to go to grad school, be successful in my field, have girlfriends, and have good relationships with my friends.

Tourette’s may be partly genetic… but you have to treat your body in a way that functionally makes sense.

When you nourish your body and detoxify and get an understanding of nutrition in a functional way, it does marvelous things. Most of my ticks started going away. My cognitive functioning started improving, my hair started growing again. Tourette’s may be partly genetic, but in its expression it is thoroughly dependent on its environment. You have to treat your body in a way that functionally makes sense. Don’t eat crap. Don’t breathe crap. Don’t sleep next to crap—not with your cellphone next to your head nor with a person who doesn’t treat you well.

But also, I was left with a grieving period. I realized I’d suffered with something little understood and that I’d lost years. When my friends from Oberlin were going off to sing opera at the Met and have international careers, and I knew I was equally gifted but I was just too sick to do it, it was a deep sense of loss. I still sing and I intend to record and make my voice heard but life did get in the way. The positive part is that I went back to grad school and fell in love with conducting. So, I landed in the place that made the most sense for me.

You keep using the word “functional.” What does that mean to you?

 You know how sometimes you say something reasonable but people are so captive to their emotional state, so emotionally armored, they can’t hear what you’re telling them? Well, to be functional means you have the ability to respond to the world in front of you, the evidence before you, to respond to stimuli in an as spontaneous and natural a way as possible—an unarmored way. It comes from Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud’s. We are raised to run away from our feelings. We feel pressure to conform and that develops in us these secondary, anti-social impulses because that energy must go somewhere. Functionality means returning to one’s core as it functions in the world and tolerating the anxiety this produces without running away.

Part of staying healthy means choosing people with whom you are able to have nourishing relationships, says Gault.

Having gone through physical, social, and emotional struggles with my disability, I’ve developed a way of maintaining equilibrium. It means acknowledging my own rhythm, and deciding who and what I will allow to interrupt it. Sometimes I make mistakes in choosing the ‘who’s’ and ‘whats’ but from that I learn as well. We have to understand that people are going to behave irrationally because they’re dealing with trauma themselves by virtue of growing up in a damaged world, or not dealing with their traumas and expressing it in all the inappropriate ways. When you run into people who are basically rational and functional for the most part, it’s a rare and special treat.

When you run into people who are basically rational and functional for the most part, it’s a rare and special treat.

 Functionality for me is not about getting Tourette’s under control. If I want to control or manage Tourette’s, it’s about nourishing my health and life. We nourish our bodies when we nourish our environments, when we nourish our relationships, when we find work that nourishes us. When I don’t do that, I have immunodeficiency, ticks, all of it. When I do, Tourette’s is just a part of who I am.