freedom stories

How a tattoo reminds me of freedom- Heather’s Story

Yesterday, I celebrated my 31st birthday. This week I’ve been reflecting a lot on my 30th year, and the amazing healing, hope, and freedom I now cherish. So this week… I’m sharing my own Freedom Story. A story about my 30th birthday and the significance of a tattoo. In many ways, this is part of my heart for this series.
I’m grateful to celebrate with you here.

Tattoo Parlors and a Birthday Present

This wasn’t an impulse decision. It was an intentional, prayerful choice.

For my 30th birthday, I decided it was time to seal my freedom as a reminder to myself. Last December, I planned a trip to Baltimore to visit my best friend Char. We researched tattoo parlors, and I asked Char to write out an important phrase in her beautiful calligraphy to incorporate into the special design that I dreamt of for nine years. We sat across from each other in the tattoo parlor, taking in the bright blue paint and looking at framed images on the walls. I was wearing my favorite scarf and filled to the brim with excitement. Char sat cradling her belly, at seven and a half months pregnant. I remember thinking we probably looked a little out of place, but I didn’t care. As the artist I chose took me back to the chair, I didn’t feel nervous. My cheeks hurt from smiling, and I felt an anchoring sense of peace.

This was a day I wanted to remember.

Italy and Peppermint Tea

When I was 21, I studied in Italy for four months. Our group stayed in Orvieto, an ancient town carved out of the top of a rock cliff in the region of Umbria. My favorite features of the town were its beautiful cathedral, the rolling hills and vineyards below our cliff, the lemon trees in the library courtyard, and the kind families I often saw at the market on Saturday mornings. Those four months signified self-exploration, my wrestling attempts towards independence, the savoring of the slower pace of Europe, and a marked turning point in my life.

We lived in an old monastery, no longer in use by monks but inhabited by Christian college students on one side and retired nuns on the other. Often, we looked out the windows to the gardens below to see the nuns waving up at us, “Ciao!”

One spring afternoon, I sat in the kitchen with our program director’s wife, Sharona. I loved spending time with Sharona and her young kids. They reminded me to laugh and slowed me down from my normal whirl of activity. That day, we opened the windows and had peppermint tea from a special ceramic jar on her window sill. There was a vast difference between the cozy tea, the smell of Italy after a rain, Sharona’s peaceful presence, and the tumbling anxiety I carried inside. She asked me to tell her my story. I took a deep breath and shared while I held my mug of tea close.

When I was finished, she looked me in the eyes and said something I will never forget.

“It seems like all your life you’ve been a bird. You’ve wanted to fly but you’ve had your wings held down and held down… I think you’re ready to fly.”

I’m not sure why, but the image of the bird unable to fly struck me deeply. I imagined one day I might fly, but I knew I wasn’t there yet.

The Bird Cage

When I think of freedom, I do picture a bird. Not a bird in a cage or with its wings pinned down, but a bird soaring against a bright blue sky or a gorgeous sunset. I picture joy.

For a good portion of my life though, I was more like the bird with pinned wings. I had debilitating anxiety, and I struggled with striving and people pleasing. I lived in fear of letting others down or hurting their feelings, and my highest aim was to make sure others were happy. The peace-keeper, the straight-A student, the good girl with a constant smile on her face.

I imagined sky-high expectations from others and feared I would never live up to those ideals. My extreme perfectionism led me into obsessive compulsive thinking and behaviors. I didn’t believe I was worthy of good things or healthy relationships, and often settled into relationships that reflected my poor self-esteem. I had terrible boundaries and said “yes” to everything and everyone, because “no” felt selfish.

The breaking point came at 25. I was a new mother, wrestling with life–not just the life of my little boy and providing for him, but my own life. I didn’t want to live the way I was living, but I couldn’t picture another way. I had so many questions about how I had gotten lost, how I had strayed this far off track. The birdcage was suffocating. I was losing my fight… part of me didn’t even care if I ever flew or got out. I lost much of my faith, and I realized I lost myself too.

Learning to Fly

Then, a light.

I went to a meeting- a support group. I was there to “help” someone else, but as I looked around the room and listened to stories of hope and healing, I recognized that I was in desperate need of help myself. The thing was, I couldn’t help myself anymore. No amount of reading from self-help books or journaling could pull me out of the pit or the darkness. I needed others. And I needed God.

Gently, lovingly, He patched my wings. He helped me shed the weights pinning me down. He focused my eyes on Him instead of worrying about everything going on around me. He started to heal me from the inside out.

I entered counseling and began to cull through wounds. The Lord taught me about forgiveness.

I found true, authentic community in my support group. No longer was fear of judgment the driving force for my behavior. My desire for change was finally greater than my people pleasing. I let my new friends open the door to the bird cage for me.

I came to understand who God really is. As I read more of the New Testament (particularly John, Matthew, 1, 2, and 3 John, and 1 and 2 Corinthians), I learned more about His grace.

I memorized Psalms and spoke His Truth to myself daily, instead of dwelling on my negative self-talk and criticism.

I learned what brought me joy: serving others without expectation. Running. Hiking. Baking. Painting. WRITING. Worshiping. Mothering my son. Connecting bravely with others who have hard stories but have found hope in Jesus.

I started to understand more of who God made me to be: He made me with a heart that loves deeply. He gave me creativity, depth, and zest for life. An empathetic and compassionate spirit. A quirky sense of humor. An ability to lead others with grace and gentleness.

Christ didn’t come to bring a nebulous, unattainable idea of freedom, but to give His children a true, deep, soul-level deliverance.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

“I am set free”

With pin pricks of ink, I heard the buzzing sound of the tattoo artist working on my rib cage.

My eyes stung and I breathed deep, relaxing into the table. As the artist carefully brought my vision to life, I prayed. I closed my eyes and thanked God for all of the work He has done in my life. I am set free FROM:

  • Fear
  • Hiding
  • OCD and trichotillomania
  • Debilitating anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Abuse
  • Toxic relationships
  • Doubt about my faith; bitterness towards God
  • Depression and suicidal thinking
  • Extreme people pleasing
  • Perfectionism and control
  • Trying to live up to the expectations of others

Now, I live in freedom. God has brought me freedom to:

  • Establish healthy boundaries.
  • Forgive those who have hurt me.
  • Take responsibility for my part, and let go of shame and self-condemnation.
  • Carry JOY; this is not a fake smile to cover up my scars and my pain, but lasting, deep joy.
  • Live in authentic community with others.
  • Walk in the calling He has placed on my life to empower and encourage others who are hurting.
  • Know His Word as truth. I know God is loving, merciful, steadfast. I believe He created me in His image, has His mighty hand on my life, and loves me fiercely.

As I prayed and thought about all of these areas in my life, the tattoo artist etched my best friend’s writing beneath an open bird cage on my side. It says:

On my left shoulder, there’s a silhouette of a flying bird. My freedom bird.

As Char and I left, I told her the significance of my time on the table, and the depth of my prayers and gratitude for how God has protected and guided me. She told me that while she watched me with my eyes closed, she prayed for me too. She thought about all of the amazing things God has done in my life. Who knew that getting a tattoo could be such a spiritual experience 🙂 I am immensely thankful for the work God has done in my life. Even on my dark days or difficult times, I know that the Lord is with me.

In Him, I am set free.

– – –

What are some things God set you free FROM in your life? What are the ways you walk in freedom now?

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