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“Tattoo You? On Needles, Ink, and ADHD Sensitivities”

I’ve always had sensitive skin and jumped at the slightest touch. Still, I was determined to get my first tattoo. I thought it would be different. It wasn’t. The sensation was so overwhelming that I had a panic attack — and a harsh introduction to the reality that my ADHD is paired with Sensory Processing Disorder.

The following is a personal essay, and not a medical recommendation endorsed by ADDitude. For more information about ADHD treatment, speak with your physician.

Google ‘tattoos and ADHD’ and you’ll find forums full of parents concerned their teens will make a rash decision they will regret for the rest of their lives. For every 10 of those parents, you’ll find one or two adults concerned about how their medication for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) might impact their tattoo, or espousing the mental-health benefits of self-expression. What you don’t hear mentioned often enough are the assorted comorbid conditions that accompany ADHD, particularly Sensory Processing Disorder, and how that complicates the whole ritual of getting a tattoo.

Imagine fingers stroking your skin, gently tracing down your arm. For many people, this is harmless. Some may laugh as the tickling sensation tingles across the surface. Others may feel nothing. Pleasant or underwhelming, physical touch can be a comfort and a source of closeness. For people with Sensory Processing Disorder, it can be a minefield of uncontrollable sensations and reactions. Similarly, loud noises, certain tastes and smell, or bright lights may become so overpowering that we shut down in the face of them.

This is me. Physical touch, loud sounds, and smells make me feel overwhelmed or anxious. Dim street lights shining through curtains interrupt my sleep. The slightest sounds wake me up. A lover stroking my skin causes me to jump and jerk, unable to control my reactions. Diagnosis answered so many questions about the strange ways my body functioned. It also gave me the tools for a problem I’d never even known existed. But how would my Sensory Processing Disorder impact being tattooed?

My first tattoo was an impulsive one. It’s on my ribs and it started before I was diagnosed. I knew it would be painful, so I dutifully took a few anti-inflammatories and settled in. Yet, suddenly it all became too much. Lying down topless, I listened to the drone of my artist’s needle, and the other artist working and chatting two feet away from us. The pain was agony, the lights were blinding, each noise made me jump, and suddenly, panic began to rise. I was overwhelmed and I left suddenly, trying to stave off a panic attack.

Six months later, my ADHD diagnosis came as a relief. I wasn’t weak. I just experienced different sensations and needs than most people. Since then, I’ve had more tattoo work done and, with the right preparation, I have been able to relax and enjoy the process just as much as anyone else.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Sensory Processing Disorder?]

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, I’d advise you to consider the following

  • Consult your medical team. Your doctor or psychiatrist will have advice on timing your medication, muscle relaxants, and pain relief like numbing creams. While some may be reluctant to provide pain relief for tattoos, explain your Sensory Processing Disorder, and request advice.
  • Wait for your appointment. Book two to four weeks after you decide you want the tattoo. This is a for-life decision; if you really want to decorate your body immediately with needles, consider getting a piercing. They close up quickly and are cheaper and easier to reverse than a tattoo.
  • Get plenty of sleep. The less rested you are, the more likely you are to rely on stimulants like caffeine to get you through the day. Being tired also impacts your endurance during the session and may hinder healing.

[Better Than Counting Sheep! Your Free Guide to Better Sleep]

  • Time your meds. Consider changing your medication schedule so you don’t experience the usual side effects while getting tattooed. If you’re on amphetamines, they may cause heart palpitations and elevated anxiety; you don’t need the extra stress while your body is under strain
  • Skip your daily coffee. This may help reduce your blood pressure. Excess caffeine is also known to cause heart palpitations similar to those associated with certain medications.
  • Bring sound-proof headphones and a flight mask. Reduce external stimulus as much as possible when you’re getting a tattoo. Wear comfortable warm clothes, sound-proof headphones, and a flight mask to prevent becoming overwhelmed by temperature, sounds, and the bright lights your artist needs to see.
  • Fight the stigma. Remember: Pain is seen by many as part of the ritual of getting a tattoo. If you have Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, or a chronic illness, it doesn’t make you weak to admit what your body needs to undergo a physically altering process. Just like you need an inhaler to breathe, you may need muscle relaxants to not tense uncontrollably and ruin the tattoo.
  • Above all, make sure you love your design, and have fun. It’s an amazing thing to be able to safely alter your body in a way that makes you happy, and you should be able to enjoy the process just as much as results.

[What Does Sensory Processing Disorder Look Like in Adults?