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A Johnny Cash (and Nine Inch Nails) tattoo tale

Amy Robertson shows off her Johnny Cash tattoo
Amy Robertson shows off her Johnny Cash tattoo
Adam DeGross

"I had been a cutter my entire life," says Amy Robertson. It all started in elementary school. She had a pet iguana named Spock -- a reference to his apparent lack of ears. "He would cut me all the time and I would make the cuts worse. He would scratch me, and I would make the scratches deeper. It kind of came out of nowhere."

What began as a compulsive behavior quickly grew into Robertson's trusted coping mechanism. Throughout high school, she was able to hide the mostly superficial cuts. In college, her habits of self-injury grew more dangerous. She began getting more creative with her disguises.

"I used to wear a sweatband. That was part of my fucking attire for like, years, because I was just ashamed of it. Even that didn't stop me from doing it. That was like, my thing. I was Amy the sweatband girl."

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Robertson backpacks in Kepler, New Zealand
Robertson backpacks in Kepler, New Zealand

At 23, after graduating from the University of Minnesota with dual-degrees in Global Studies and German, Robertson bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand. She stopped in Fiji on her way to receive a scuba-diving certification. Once in New Zealand, she completed a dive master course and spent much time in solitude, backpacking through the country and scuba-diving almost daily. She had fun, but was struggling to fight the ever-present monkey on her back -- her depression.

"The days where I got really depressed, I would sit and listen to my iPod, which hadn't come out in the rest of the world," she says. "I was like, the girl with this thing...this thing that music came out of." Robertson is a self-described technology nerd. She'd brought portable speakers on her journey, and an iPod, which in 2003 was a fairly new invention.

"I'd listen to Johnny Cash. I would listen to that album American IV: The Man Comes Around, with 'Hurt' on it," she says. "The first time I heard that song it just resonated with me." Listening to the song, she was often moved to tears.

When Robertson was 15, she spent a year as an exchange student in Germany. After high school, she backpacked through Europe, then returned to Germany to spend an additional year as an exchange student while in college. "Every time, I was by myself," she says. "It was just kind of what I did -- just go off by myself. I'll tell you what...when you're on the other side of the world, completely alone, it can get very lonely." Months would pass without encountering another American. In New Zealand, she experienced the same phenomenon. Johnny Cash was her constant companion.

 

A Johnny Cash (and Nine Inch Nails) tattoo tale

Upon returning to America, Robertson rekindled a relationship with a former flame and was quickly married. She was 25. "I was so madly in love with him," she says. Sadly, the union was not to last. She caught her then-husband cheating on her. "I walked in on that shit, in my own house," she says. "I flipped out." In hysterics, Robertson jumped into her car and began heading to her Mom's house. She didn't make it there, though. Police, notified by her husband of her "suicidal" behavior, stopped her en route to her Mother's and brought her to a hospital psychiatric ward.

It was after this traumatic event that her downward spiral gathered momentum and sent her hurtling into a dark depression. Her husband moved out, and the divorce process began. Robertson turned to drugs, alcohol, and cutting for comfort. She moved back in with her mother. "I was a mess," she says. "I couldn't do anything." The cutting worsened. One night after receiving some particularly unsettling news about her ex-husband, Robertson cut herself so deeply that the wound required 23 stitches. She was scared shitless. Something had to change.

"It really pissed me off that I had let somebody else get to me so bad that I hurt myself in that way," she says. "I was like, I want to stop doing this! How can I stop doing this?" She found the answer in a tattoo shop.

She'd been tattooed a couple of times before, but hadn't ever thought of it as a reasonable method of satisfying the urge to harm herself. She realized that to her, tattoos represented another form of the scars that she had been giving herself, but a prettier one. She decided to get the first lines of "Hurt" tattooed to her forearm, so that she would have a permanent reminder of the road to Hell down which she'd traveled and her resignation to break free from this self-destructive behavior pattern.

 

Her tattoo artist, Brent Bartel at Leviticus, is a big Nine Inch Nails fan. "He told me it was a NIN song. I decided I needed to go listen to it, just in case. I loved it. So I was like, okay, I can get the tattoo, because I like this version too," she says. Bartel designed the font: all capital letters, reminiscent of an antique typewriter's typeset.

"When I was getting it done it was very pleasurable, in that weird sort of way where it hurts but it felt like I was doing something proactive to help myself, and in the process I got the bonus of feeling some pain, and it went along with what I was getting tattooed," she says. Bartel asked her why she had chosen that particular lyric. "I can't remember if I told him the truth. I was excited, and I was like...I had this resolve that it was going to end the cutting," she says.

After getting the tattoo, Robertson found herself listening to the song less. It had lost most of its power. "Whenever I had the urge [to cut], I would look at the tattoo. It probably worked because I believed it was going to work," she says. DBT, a form of therapy, has helped her become more mindful of her thought process and given her new manners of responding to her depression.

"The only thing I have control over is myself, and my fucking attitude determines how I'm feeling. I make a conscious effort every day to have a pretty good attitude," she says. "That's what it all comes down to. However you are viewing the world is how you're going to feel. I was sick of viewing it from a dark, hopeless place. I got put on the right meds, and I got clean, and all the sudden, life happened. I was just like, you know what? This isn't me."

Today, she enjoys playing the piano. She had never regarded herself as a musician until revisiting the instrument later in life. "Playing the piano has been really cathartic," she says. A therapist once told her that the use of hand-eye coordination while reading and playing music helps to heal the brain more than any other activity.

A Johnny Cash (and Nine Inch Nails) tattoo tale

Life isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Last year, Robertson's fiancee succumbed to an illness and passed away very unexpectedly. She took a leave of absence from receiving her graduate degree after learning that he had been given just six months to live. She spent his last days with him, at his side.

Rather than being overtaken by her grief after his passing, Robertson has been leaning heavily on the support of sober friends for strength and motivation. "I had so many people say that what happened with Matt would give me a whole other realm of being able to connect with people who are going through loss like that," she says. This summer she will return to the University of Minnesota to continue working toward her graduate degree, which will allow her to be licensed as a mental health therapist and a drug counselor.

"I've thought about how my Johnny Cash tattoo would make patients perceive me, but I'm not there yet," she says. "I think, if anything, it will just make me seem more empathetic, hopefully. Besides, it worked."

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