Tattoos and Tramadol

I love traditional Japanese art and folklore and have two finished tattoos in this style – one is a phoenix and peony and the other is two sparrows amongst cherry blossom. The tattoo project that is underway at the moment is my biggest yet – a full back piece that goes all the way from the top of my back down onto my thighs of a dragon and peonies. I’ve had five sessions of 3-4 hours each on it so far and I’m not sure how many more will be needed yet but it will definitely be a considerable number of hours.

Being tattooed is painful and some areas are more painful than others. I’ve discovered that my back is a whole world of varied types of pain. Underneath the skin of the back lie various internal organs and a whole heap of nerve endings along the spine so it’s not surprising that there are many painful areas. Even the butt cheeks, which are just muscle were surprisingly painful to be tattooed and amusingly the muscles would clench involuntarily as soon as the needle touched them! I couldn’t even release my own muscles!

With my other tattoos I have not really batted an eyelid at 3 hours of pain but this back piece has been different and has led me to explore pain and how to become more resilient to it. By the three-hour mark of the sessions I am undergoing to birth this mighty dragon on my back I am usually querulously asking my tattoo artist when he will finish the section he is working on, because by that time I am really gritting my teeth against the pain and desperate for it to end because my pain endorphins have run-out and mentally I have run out of resilience. During a previous session when I was feeling particularly pained (probably because I was pre-menstrual meaning that I was more sensitive to pain) my tattoo artist discussed pain relief options with me.

He suggested taking paracetamol to help with it a little and also mentioned that he was aware of other clients taking tramadol to get them through a session; he said that he had also taken tramadol for his own back piece and that it helped. My grandmother takes tramadol to help with arthritic pain and I knew that she would give me some of hers if I asked.

Now I will say at this point that I am not recommending anyone to take a drug that they have not been prescribed by their doctor. As for me personally, I have a problem with authority and am a little gung-ho about these things, so I rely on my own informed judgment before anyone else’s. I decided to do some research into tramadol and found that it is a narcotic-type drug that is used to treat moderate to severe pain; however, it can also cause addiction, overdose or death if not used appropriately. I gathered what I thought to be sufficient information to use the drug safely for a tattoo session and then decided to take one of the 50mg capsules half an hour before the next session.

It was an interesting experience and I was pleased with the results. What I observed was that while the pain seemed to feel the same as a sensation, I just didn’t care as much and I lay there being aware of the pain but not feeling any mental distress, which enabled me to relax into it and not end up a quivering wreck after 3 hours.

In the week before that session, I had listened to a speech by Eckhart Tolle about transcending the ego by separating oneself from one’s thoughts. One comment that he makes early on in that speech really grabbed me, which was “reality is relatively benign compared to what your mind is saying about it”. As an integrative counsellor trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, I am well-versed in theoretical approaches which illustrate for clients the concept that it is not necessarily an event that causes them emotional suffering but rather, their thoughts about the event i.e. what their mind is saying about it. When we judge a situation, emotional reactions are created within us, which may feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

If under the influence of tramadol I could still feel the pain but I didn’t care, what did that mean was going on with me internally? It wasn’t physical but mental. It was as if the tramadol helped to partially detach my mind from the pain; I stopped judging it as ‘bad’.

Casting my mind back to previous sessions when I had been struggling to manage the pain, I considered what my thoughts about the pain had been. These were the sorts of things that had been running through my mind:

“I can’t take much more”

“It hurts so much”

“I hope it ends soon”

These were bullying thoughts that brought me down; they encouraged a sense of agony by creating a laser focus on the pain and how unpleasant it was, which then meant that I became tense and resisted the sensations. Since the tramadol experience, I have concluded that pain and agony do not necessarily have to go together. How we describe pain depends upon our thoughts about the pain. The effect of tramadol on my experience of pain was that I became an observer of the pain, rather than judging it; I wasn’t attaching qualitative values to it and as a result, I felt more peaceful and therefore better equipped to deal with it.

Perhaps by cultivating an observer state of mind through regular meditation practise and endeavouring to be mindful, we can create a tramadol-type experience of the moving picture of day-to-day events that we call life – wouldn’t that be great? To float through life simply watching what happens on the screen without getting embroiled in any agonising judgments about events that occur?

I’m not saying that we should become emotionless automatons but rather, that taking a step back from what happens in our lives and seeing it as an observer is likely to help us manage emotional triggers more effectively.

How is this done? Well for me, immersing myself in my breathing helps a lot and its actually something else that I utilise for tattoo-pain management i.e. a count of 4 seconds on the in-breath, followed by a count of 8 on the out-breathe, which lowers blood pressure. On a day-to-day basis, if I feel tension, a few big deep breaths and a sigh on the out-breathe brings me out of my head and back to my centre quite rapidly, as well as releasing pent-up emotional affect inside me. When we decide to follow our breath, we are with the breath and not with our thoughts; occasionally a thought will pass by and we can choose to let it pass, returning to the breath.

Being more present by separating ourselves from our thoughts is an incredibly liberating experience.

Let’s free ourselves from the tyranny of our thoughts and choose what we engage with!

It’s not something that happens overnight but its surely something that we can make a commitment to cultivating if we value peace.

With love,


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