God is a Tattoo Artist

Trigger warning: contains re-telling of an experience with self-harm.

Diana Butler Bass recently asked me (and a room full of others) this question: Where is God? Then she went on to ask as series of other questions: Where is God when Black lives don’t matter? Where is God when children are gunned down in the classroom? 

As I listened, my mind began to wonder … Where is God when depression becomes severe enough that it sabotages the desire to live?

Meet Rylie Zimmerman. Rylie is a 20-year-old artist, and, like twenty percent of Americans, she navigates life with mental illness. I’m proud to be her aunt by marriage and have known her for a dozen years. I asked Rylie to share with us how she experiences God, even when this disease caused her to be hospitalized while a freshman in college.

Where was God when you were on the short stay crisis treatment psychiatric center last winter?

God was in my Ativan scribbling from February 2014 when I wrote, “Nobody here is violent toward anybody but themselves. They (we) are full of compassion for each other, at war with our own brains wanting to die and wanting our friends (our fellow prisoners, fellow patients, sufferers, and comrades) to live and to be happy and to have the lives we think we cannot have.”

I’m struck by the fact that God was present in your own creative writing, birthed by your brain, the very brain that was sick enough to land you in the hospital. Also, some Christians struggle to reconcile their faith in God’s power to heal us with the power of modern medicine to treat mental illness. As you know, God can show up in both prayer and in Ativan, using faith and science to bring healing. Where else did God show up in the psych ward?

God was in the grace of my fellow psychiatric patients, Renee and Jocelyn. When I confessed to them that I secretly wanted to be a tattoo artist, they did not laugh or mock my dream. Jocelyn smiled a big/hazy medicated smile and told me I am so talented, that I should do it. “You can definitely do it,” Renee added. It validated me to know that these women believed in me; when you are that sick for that long you don’t give anyone hope that you don’t believe in yourself.

One of the hardest things about brain diseases like severe depression is that it can lead to death, even accidentally. You are a survivor of self harm. Where was God in the midst of it?

God was there when I was 13 years old and watching my blood mixed with water turn the shower tile pink. God came to me as I was inadvertently dying, in a vision of my grandma Barb, who had died five months before. She promised me that if I turned around, I would live. God was there in the details, as Grandma Barb said, sipping from her ever-present tumbler, “Right now you’re in … limbo, or whatever. But you can’t go on.”

“Why not?!” I demanded. She raised one of her eyebrows at me and grinned, and her iced clinked against her glass as her hands shook. I felt as though I could stare at her forever, her rounded cheeks ridden of the cancer and refusal to quit drinking that had taken her life. 
“Because I said so, missy, that’s why. You have things to do, and my glass is empty and I need a refill, which I can’t get here talking to you. So turn around.”
She stood up, ice clinking some more, just as tall and gangly as I remembered her.


 “Yeah, kiddo?”

“I love you.” For the first time, she looked sad.

 “I love you more, Rye. Wake up.”

God was with me as I opened my eyes, wounds on my thighs gaping and my hands stained and sticky with my own blood.

What kind of God showed up in your near-death experience? 

A God of radical love. As I rinsed the blood from my shower, God told me, “I love you, daughter.” My thighs stung, and I crawled into sweatpants and then into my bed, He was the voice saying, “You have things to do. You are so young. Do not give up. You are so loved.”

God was in the hand of my tattoo artist, as she spent thirteen hours covering a decade of scar tissue with beauty. God is in this amazing, radical love that I strive to emulate — this gift of compassion and creativity that I want to give to others.

God is in my abilities to get out of bed and keep going, keep drawing and keep writing, hoping that someone, somewhere will read this or see my posts on Instagram, or see my scars under my tattoos, or one day read my journals, or see my art and think, “If she survived all of that, then I can too. If she is knocked to the ground over and over and over; and she keeps getting up; then I can too.”
 Rylie is a young woman seeking to restore her identity through creativity and compassion, while advocating for the erasure of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. She can be found on Instagram @manic.peach

If you’re not sure where to turn, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line in the U.S. at (800) 366-8288 for referrals and support for cutting and self-harm. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. Early detection of mental illness, treatment, and support can save lives. 

Help is available. Call (800) 273-TALK (8255). Or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “Go” to 741-741. More information about mental illness can be found at Nation Alliance on Mental Illness.

Published by Sarah Griffith Lund

Leader, preacher and author of *Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Church and Family*

3 thoughts on “God is a Tattoo Artist

  1. (Cross-posting from Facebook) Thank you so much for sharing this, Rylie! It takes amazing courage to share your story. May you see God’s renewing love and good news of second chances every time you look at your tattoo! I believe you will change lives with your story!

  2. Rylie, Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are so courageous, and undoubtedly, you will help so many people.

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