On Suicide & Mental Health In The Piercing Industry
CW: Suicide, Mental Illness, Abuse, Sexual Assault
This blog post is really, more of a journal entry. Something deeply personal, introspective, and honest. It’s something I debated writing, and further debated sharing. But if this can help even one person, give even one person hope, then it was worthwhile to be so vulnerable and open online.
I am currently sitting in sunny, beautiful South California. It’s warm but breezy, the mountains watch over me from afar, and the smell of the ocean is on the wind. I am struck by weather and climate many would consider perfect. A beautiful, balmy, sunny day. I’m here on a guest spot- I get to travel all over the country and spend time in some of the most beautiful studios, doing a job I adore, surrounded by people I get to call friends and family. I’m happy- I’m overwhelmed with the sensation of joy that’s resonating in my very bones. The sun is warming my skin, the wind is in my hair, and I am fit to burst with joy.
And I’m crying.
Because I never thought I would be here. I never thought I would feel happiness like this. True, genuine joy with not only the moment I was living in- but life in general. For the first time in a very long time, I am struck by the fact I am excited to live. I see a beautiful future unfurling ahead of me filled with friends, fulfillment, and bliss. For once, the constant drone of suicidal thoughts that plays on repeat in my mind is silent. I am not thinking about ending my life. I’m thinking about living it.
I have experienced suicidal thoughts from a very young age. Much of this comes from childhood trauma- abuse and sexual assault at a young age from a trusted family member. It continued on through middle and high school, motivated by bullies, the complex experience of coming out and understanding both my sexuality and gender identity- and my unstable home life. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at 18, a disorder characterized by persistent suicidal ideation and unstable emotions. My childhood, and my BPD, undoubtedly played a huge role in my lifelong struggle with depression and mental health. But more than that, the very same thing that has helped me find joy, has also been the source of so much pain and difficulty for me through my entire adult life.
Body piercing, and the piercing industry.
I have such a fraught, love-hate relationship with the piercing industry. On one hand, I truly feel it is my passion and my calling. The magic we get to partake in inside the piercing room, the energy exchange with clients, and the way we are able to help people have agency and authority over their bodies. It’s incredible, it’s life-changing, it's something I will never be able to fully put into words. It makes me cry and sing and dance and fills me with love and hope until it is overflowing. But the industry is flawed, like anything else. It is rife with issues of abuse, racism, sexism, and transphobia. It is an industry built on the exploitation of black, brown, and queer cultures and communities. And it is an industry where, every single year, without fail, we lose more and more members to suicide.
Every few months there is another post on Facebook, another memorial on Instagram, and another go fund me for funeral costs. Someone else is gone. The same posts about wishing they reached out, wishing they spent more time together. The same empty care reacts.
Piercing is an industry that will destroy you if you let it. It starts before you are truly even in the industry, just looking to get your start. Apprenticeships are hard to find, and good ones are even harder. I’ve told my story many times- three separate apprenticeships. Starting off working with bad jewelry and bad techniques, poorly trained, and unpaid. When I realized I was doing things wrong, I left right away. I sought out a proper apprenticeship, with APP members, quality jewelry and safe training. My second apprenticeship wasn’t much of an apprenticeship at all- I managed the studio while my mentor slowly lost herself to drug addiction. I worked unpaid, almost 7 days a week, struggling to afford meals and sleeping at the studio between long days behind the counter and long nights stocking shelves. I was 19, trying to figure out how to pay the bills on a failing business- and avoid foreclosure from the bank for a woman who spent more time screaming at me and calling me worthless than she did teaching me. My third apprenticeship saw me finally training and living my dream, piercing, working with clients, and blossoming in the industry. The cost? 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, working unpaid for years. A mentor who screamed and broke things over any mistake. A mentor who controlled my social media, my phone, and even tracked my car. Who told me in detail how he would kill me if I ever left him. Who sexually assaulted me and other employees.
Beyond that, I was sexually assaulted at my first-ever APP conference. I told my conference mentor- a board member- about my assault. And this person covered it up. I can recall what it felt like, to have all the admiration, hope, and inspiration I had poured into the APP, and my dreams of APP membership, crumble around me. What it felt like to come to a board member, a highly admired leader of our industry, and be told perhaps my shorts were too short. My tank top too low cut. I was barely 20 years old.
I never told anyone else.
My story is not an uncommon one. I paid for my apprenticeship in blood and tears- enduring nearly a decade of abuse ranging from workplace bullying to actual attempts on my life. Many others have had the same experience, enduring untold abuses and violence in order to make it as a piercer. This has happened to men, women, and nonbinary people I know. It is an epidemic issue in our industry that many people are working on fixing, but the road to improving this is a long one. Making it in the industry, for many, also includes enduring abuse.
Some of this abuse is straightforward- it is raised voices and bruises and holes in the wall. But much of this abuse is hidden away under the guise of “working hard” and “earning it.” Abuse is also being made to work 6-7 days a week, to be forbidden from having a life outside of the studio. Abuse is also being paid unfairly low wages, having bosses take cuts of your tips and your jewelry, and making sure you never actually have enough money to survive. This industry will extract every single drop of labor from you it can under the guise of “you want it bad enough right?” Everywhere I see people giving up years and decades of their lives to work themselves to the bone, often unpaid as part of apprenticeships or underpaid as the newest employee. And make no mistake- this is also abuse.
And it doesn’t stop there. The industry itself struggles with issues of toxicity, pettiness, and bullying. I know because I have been on both sides of it. A lot of this comes from a genuine place- piercers who care about safe quality piercings and who care about clients getting good work. But from this care grows an anger, even a hatred of piercers who don’t use the best jewelry, the best techniques, or have the best education. And I get it- it’s supremely frustrating to see clients get hurt, often seriously hurt, by piercers who don’t know better or don’t care. Because of this emotion, many interactions and discourse online between piercers can often cross the line from helpful advice to harmful cruelty. “The person who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality as much as the honesty.” This rings very true in piercing for me, and it becomes easy to bask in feeling ‘better than’ or in delivering your feedback with a bluntness that crosses into cruelty. One of the first people who helped me realize my initial apprenticeship was bad told me I was “a fuck up, a failure, giving piercers a bad name, and should quit immediately if I even pretended to care about my clients.” He wasn’t wrong, but he also could have told me that in a kinder way. Years later, I would spend time online saying the same things to people, under the guise of caring about clients’ wellbeing. I thought working with good jewelry and in good studios had given me the right to deliver critique and feedback with a razor-sharp tongue. I was wrong, and in doing this I contributed to bullying in the industry and caused a lot of people harm.
It took me a long time to realize my brand of brutal honesty often only scared piercers and apprentices away from learning better. I was better served meeting those who needed education and growth with kind honesty, graceful honesty, gentle honesty, or caring honesty. The honesty factor is important- we must be honest when someone does something that hurts a client or endangers them. But we can do it without brutality. We can do it in ways that make folks more receptive to learning and growing, and not resistant to it. But that brutality persists in this industry, and it can be impossibly hard to feel like you belong or are “good enough”.
This leads to imposter syndrome, another element of piercing that can make this industry so difficult. I wrote an entire blog post about it a while ago, about how I struggled to overcome it. Imposter Syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities, feeling like a fraud, and feeling fake. And it often affects high-achieving people who find it difficult to accept achievements and milestones. In body piercing, I think imposter syndrome can be especially difficult to face given the intimate nature of our work. We work on people's bodies, and when we make a mistake or an error, the effects and consequences are far more severe. As piercers, we are always concerned with giving our clients the best, safest services, and it’s always so frustrating when mistakes or errors do happen (and they do.) Piercers are only human, and that means we will make mistakes. Doctors make mistakes, scientists make mistakes, and hair stylists make mistakes. It’s part of human nature.
Despite knowing this, and understanding the human nature of making mistakes, I always end up so much harder on myself when these things happen. I spend time after any mistake feeling like a failure. Telling myself that I was a fraud, a disappointment. I, like many of us, deeply struggle with a sense of personality responsibility to my clients. I want every single thing I do to always be perfect. And when mistakes do happen I take it deeply personally. Somehow, in my mind, one mistake manages to erase the last 11 years of growth, training, skills, and knowledge I’ve gotten.
Imposter syndrome is vicious. It keeps you up at night. It sends you home crying in your car over being a bad piercer. It gives you nightmares about lost transfers and bad angles. It’s worse because so many of us do care, we care so much our hearts break when we do a bad piercing. It feels like an affront on our very selves. Couple that with the brutality that online discourse can have in this industry, and it’s very easy to feel isolated, alone, never good enough, and never “cool” enough.
So we have an entire industry of people who, statistically, often experience extreme forms of abuse in their formative years getting into the industry, who go on to struggle with persistent fears of failure, of feeling not good enough, in an industry that often prides itself on scathing, brutal interactions online and in person. Add to that the lack of studios providing health insurance, access to mental health care, low wages, and the presence of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the industry. And suddenly, it’s no surprise we see such a struggle with suicidality amongst piercers.
If I am being honest, somewhere years ago I accepted that as part of my reality. I accepted that I would always feel, somewhere in me, like life wasn’t worth living. I made peace with the fact that finding momentary blips of happiness between the depression and the doubt was the best I could hope for. Somewhere along the way, piercing broke something inside me. I could do a day full of good piercings, great client interactions, and happy moments. But if a single septum came out a hair off, I would go home and cry about it and beat myself up about it. I would tell myself I was the worst piercer to exist- I didn’t deserve this career. Social media became a toxic tool to fuel my imposter syndrome. Not enough likes on a post? Feel guilty. See something beautiful someone else did, feel bad you didn’t do it, and tell yourself you couldn’t do it. I love my job, I truly always did. But I did not love my life.
This anxiety and imposter syndrome combined with the abuse I had experienced kept me in unsafe situations. People often asked why I stayed with my abuser for 5 years. And a huge part of it was that I didn’t feel good enough to leave. His harsh words about my skills combined with the climate of the industry online convinced me that I was worthless, a bad piercer, and I would never get a job at any of the studios I admired online. I would never be good enough for that. This meant I stayed in bad situations at bad studios because my own fear held me back from even considering I could make it somewhere better. Not only was I falling apart under the abuse- I was beginning to believe I deserved it. Even when I did eventually leave, the anxiety and the imposter syndrome never fully left me. I would come to my future boss nearly in tears about admitting I’d done a nostril at a bad angle. I would make a bad judgment call on a piercing or a jewelry size and feel my heart stop in my chest. I got so upset I would go home and cut myself over my failures and my fears. As recently as two years ago, I wanted to kill myself. I had plans. I had even written some notes.
But as much as piercing has taken from me, and as much as I have paid to it to be where I am in the industry, it has also healed me. I wish I could pinpoint where the change happened- between statim cycles or over an actually scheduled lunch break. But a change started to happen. I was able to leave my abusive situation and move to an amazing new studio- with a boss who was kind and caring when I was broken and scared. I eventually took a hiatus from piercing for a few months, and I spent that time in therapy and exploring new medications that worked well for me. I came out and was able to begin receiving gender-affirming care. I began to travel full-time, and see how all sorts of studios and piercers worked. I learned more than I ever could have imagined. I have been honored to spend the last year traveling and working alongside some genuinely amazing, skilled, and incredible piercers. And you know what? They made mistakes. They lost transfers. They did crooked septums.
No one yelled at me. No one berated me. Mistakes were met with kindness and advice on how to manage them. Suggestions of techniques and methods that worked better for that individual. Honesty was delivered with kindness, not harshness. I could make the same suggestions in kind, and offer advice about how I handled things. I saw a side of piercing I previously hadn’t. People who wanted to see the industry grow and thrive. People who would give you critique and tell you where you needed improvement but with care rather than coldness. I got to reconnect with clients in the piercing room, without my previous anxieties and fears built up. I was more present and in the moment for my clients, than I had ever been, and I was able to connect with them on new levels as my own walls came down. I began to truly enjoy piercing- even when I made mistakes or things didn’t go as planned. When I no longer lived in fear of being yelled at for a mistake, I was able to focus on learning from them. I was able to see how other piercers worked and learned new ideas and techniques from them. Even having other piercers and apprentices shadowing me, I learned from showing them things. There was a genuine sense of community and mutual growth, something I had never experienced in most of the forums I spent time in online. Something I certainly hadn’t experienced in the abusive studios I had worked in in the past.
My thoughts of killing myself had been a track on repeat in the back of my brain for so long, that when it slowly went quiet, I didn’t originally notice its silence. It wasn’t until I was here, sitting under the sun and enjoying the breeze that it struck me. I felt happy to my core. And what’s more, I was excited about what came next. I was excited about the new things coming into my life, and I wanted to live it. I was struck with so much gratitude for those in my life who had walked along this journey with me and helped me find this place of happiness. People who had shown me that this industry could be more than what I had known of it before. Studios that were safe spaces, where the staff was treated with dignity and respect. Coworkers and bosses who cared about you genuinely, and wanted you to succeed. Environments where mistakes were a learning experience, not something to be punished for. And people who made me feel happy to be here, folks I looked forward to seeing.
I decided to write this because I know I am not alone in feeling this way. This industry has a way of making people feel hopeless and very lonely. Many of us are in the middle of bad apprenticeships, bad studio situations, or just feeling inadequate about our skills as a piercer. The dark thoughts can sneak up on your quickly, and leave you feeling like you will never end up in a better situation, and will never end up where you want to be in this industry. That was me, for years. I felt exactly that way. Like a failure, a fraud, someone who could never be a real piercer. Never be worth working at good studios. I constantly struggled with feeling like I belonged in this industry at all. Even when I got my APP membership, started working with the best brands, and did new piercings successfully. My brain always chanted “Not enough, not enough.” If you feel this way, you are not alone. Many of us, dare I say most of us, have struggled with feeling this way at one point or another in this industry. But it will get better, and there is hope. I will have been in this industry for 12 years soon, and it is really only in the last year or two that I have found this hope.
I wanted to write this piece because I know how meaningful it would have been to me, at 18, 19, 20, struggling through bad studios and bad apprenticeships and depression to have seen someone who was in a position I dreamed of speaking out about this. To know they had been where I was once and struggled with the same thoughts, feelings, and doubts. To see a path to the industry goals I wanted to reach. I feel it is important that those of us with platforms and a larger presence in the industry to speak out about the realities of this industry. To not pretend we didn’t also come from questionable apprenticeships and bad situations. But also to speak out about the abuse, the toxicity, and the isolation that can happen in this industry. We can not begin to do meaningful work without acknowledging what it is we need to fix in this industry- and also acknowledging our role in these systems. I hope others can learn from my mistakes, and remember to practice more kindness and compassion in their interactions with others.
But mostly, I wanted to write this to say there is a place for you in this industry. There is a path for you to achieve everything you dream of and more here. You are not worthless, and you are not a failure. You deserve to work in a safe studio, with quality materials and supplies. You deserve to be treated with compassion and kindness when you make a mistake- and mistakes do not make you a bad piercer. You are worth a workplace where you work reasonable hours, are paid a living wage, and are physically, financially, and emotionally supported. You are strong enough to overcome any abuse you endured- and we need you here to help keep the next generations of piercers and front of house safe from that same abuse. You will become a piercer you are proud of. And you are so much more than how many followers you have or likes your posts get.
We are every moment our client gets up and looks in the mirror and a grin breaks out across their face. We are every healed piercing our clients will wear with pride and love for decades. We are the magic contained in every breath we guide our clients through and we are the alchemy of gold and gems and blood. We are so much more than just piercers- we our the sum total of our lives, our friends, our families, our hobbies, the music we listen to, the food we enjoy, the books we read, the stories we tell. The lives we lead.
If you are still here, I am so proud of you.
Please stay a little longer, there is so much light and joy waiting for you.
To everyone who has walked this path with me, supported me, and held space for me. To Margo, for seeing the best and worst of me and sticking around. To Karl, for putting up with me across decades. To Eduardo, for always believing in me. To Luis, for throwing me a lifeline without knowing it. To Jeremy, Vicky, Kyle and Sam, for being a family I can always come home to. To Ian and everyone at Icon, for showing me what a safe studio could be. To everyone at Cowpok, for teaching me what it meant to have hope again. To everyone at Laughing Buddha, for bringing me laughter and excitement for the future. To Rachel, for calling me in when I needed it. To everyone at Above and Beyond, for reminding me to live life to the fullest. And to all of my clients, you are the reason I pierce and the reason I am here. Thank you for trusting me with your bodies, your dreams, and your experiences. The magic we share together has gotten me through my darkest nights.