A Rite of Passage At Both Ends

See that tiny little bar of metal in my hand? That was embedded in the upper edge of my navel for a decade, the one remaining piercing of a trio I got (navel, both ears) in 2004. These days getting your belly button pierced is a fairly benign modification; here in Portland even facial piercings often don’t register as odd. But for the person I was ten years ago, it was part of a personal revolution.

Everyone’s life goes through transformative periods, some longer and/or bumpier than others. I’m not talking the full onset of lycanthropy, of course, but the times that try souls–and personal resilience. Sometimes one event sets off a cascade of effects that brings a person’s whole life crashing down; any built-up stagnation comes pouring out in a series of messy floods. Eventually, out of this slippery mess slides not so much a phoenix reborn as a brand-new foal still coated in amniotic fluid, not quite sure what leg goes where, and in danger of being eaten by predators–but if the cards are right, that foal’s a unicorn and is going to go some great places once it figures those legs out.

That was my 2004, back when I was still living in Pittsburgh. In a space of about eight months I was dumped twice, moved three times, switched from a third shift job to a very early first shift one with a totally different skill set, and had the first really bad spike of anxiety in my independent adult life. Amid all that I decided that I needed to explore all the crazy things I never did as a fairly sheltered teenager years before, when I was isolated and friendless in a small town. I won’t go into too much detail about my much-delayed rebellion; suffice it to say the main things I retain from it today are a better understanding of Things Not To Do, my first tattoo, my preference for classic black high-top Chuck Taylors as everyday footwear*, and a hole at the top of my navel.

Everything but the shoes could be considered rites of passage to one degree or another. The piercing was probably the toughest of all in some ways, and certainly the most deliberate. I am not a fan of needles at all, and while I’m better than I used to be (I no longer panic while having blood drawn), at the time sharp things were a source of great fear. In order to confront that fear, I decided to get my ears and navel pierced. I figured they were the least likely places to experience nerve damage, and I’d already had my ears done once when I was a child (I eventually got tired of earrings and took them out) so the navel would be an additional challenge. Suffice it to say I went into the piercing parlor all by myself and survived the ordeal with nothing more than a chorus of “Ow, ow, ow”, but it was worth it for the adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. I had survived something I had thought I’d never do, and I felt pretty damned brave. I used that experience to help me get through other tough times and to challenge myself further; there were literally situations in which I told myself “Look, you had a piece of metal shoved through your skin and got through that just fine. You can totally handle this, too.”

Up until this past Saturday, my navel had the aforementioned (and pictured) little banana bar of steel through it. It was the original piece of jewelry I got when I had the piercing done. I kept it in because by the time it healed completely, I’d already had my ear piercings close up after less than a week of having to take them out at work. I was reading utility meters at the time, and my manager, who had aspirations of being a petty dictator (emphasis on the “petty”) had told everyone that no ear jewelry was allowed, not even tiny studs, in case they got caught on underbrush or other hazards while playing “Find the Meter” in people’s landscaping. My mutant healing factor must have kicked in, and by day three of this policy, I was no longer able to force the earrings back into the holes at the end of an eight-hour shift.

But I still had my navel piercing, and I hung onto it like the last remnant of my freedom. It lasted longer than that job did, longer than my time in Pittsburgh (plus a year in Seattle), even longer than my ill-fated marriage. As I continued to move from apartment to apartment, dealt with divorce and learning healthier relationship practices, survived graduate school, and settled into self-employment, the piercing remained as a link to a younger, more chaotic self. Not in any bad way, mind you; I was quite fond of it, and still appreciated my bravery even a decade later.

It was not to remain that way, though. I’ve been prone in the last few years to assorted problems in my digestive system, some of which are probably genetic and others–well, who knows where the hell they came from? So I got pretty good at paying attention to any pains in my midsection. Every so often I’d have a little twinge of discomfort right around the piercing that would last anywhere from an hour to a day. I never thought much of it; maybe it was just getting caught on my clothing. But this past week I had pain there that, although it registered around a two on my pain scale, didn’t go away, and I decided that in order to help in a potential diagnosis, the jewelry had to be taken out. Maybe I had developed an allergy to the metal, or perhaps my body was just sick of it. But if I wanted to be sure that was all it was, I needed to eliminate the possibility entirely.

Now, I’d been wearing this thing for so long that the ball had gotten stuck on the end; try as I might, I couldn’t remove it. For a moment I had nightmare visions of having to snip off the end with a pair of bolt cutters and then file the edges so it wouldn’t tear me up on the way out–and then I had the brilliant idea of seeing if a professional piercer might have a better idea. So my partner and I headed down to Ritual Arts in the Hollywood District, where resident piercer Shane 7 Wolfe somehow sweet-talked that tiny, stubborn piece of steel into cooperating. (Seriously, if that’s not the mark of a good magician I don’t know what is.)

As it turned out, removing the piercing didn’t make the pain go away, and as it got worse, I made the decision Saturday night to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to wait until Monday in case it got worse, even though I wasn’t running a fever or showing other serious symptoms; I figured if I caught it early enough that at the worst I’d be sent home with some antibiotics. (The last time I waited on having abdominal pain checked out I ended up in the hospital for two days under IV antibiotics and the threat of surgery if I didn’t get better. Lesson learned.) It turned out to just be a mild intestinal virus from who knows where (maybe I didn’t rinse the dirt off the radishes I ate from my garden well enough?), and I was sent home with nothing more than a prescription to help with the pain if it got worse and instructions to just let it work its way through my system.

At this point I had the option to put the bar back in my navel. And I did seriously consider it for a moment. But then I thought back to all those times that I was worried by pain, and the confounding factor that the piercing entered into any potential assessment of the cause. I’m not likely to have my digestive system miraculously recover its intestinal fortitude (ha!), and it’s almost certain that as I get older (and especially now that the warranty has expired on my body, drivetrain and all) there’ll be more random flareups. So it’s more prudent to not complicate the matter any more than I need to.

And that choice became a rite of passage in and of itself. Whereas a decade ago the message was about bravery and facing scary things head-on, now that I’m well into my thirties I have more experience with those scary things. Rather than leaping in to engage them in battle, it’s a wiser choice for me to prepare for them if they make an advance. I’ve proven to myself time and again now that I’m more resilient than I sometimes think. I don’t need to look down at that little piece of metal to remind myself of that any more.

But I did hang onto it as a memento. It has a safe place in my home, and I’ll run across it every so often and remember. It’ll be a while before the hole in my skin closes up, too, and there’ll always be a scar to remind me of my brave act. I must admit that I prefer not having that constant feeling, ever so small, of something being there, moving around., filling up space. Even with today’s challenges, comfort has become more of a priority than ever, and I’ll take this little bit of comfort that moves me a little more into a new stage of life.

* I’ve been trying to find a sweatshop-free alternative that’s available consistently in the U.S. ever since No Sweat Apparel discontinued their lookalikes a few years ago and went wholesale-only. I’m aware of Autonomie’s Ethletics, which are a good option, except none of the distributors seem to ship to the states, and gods know how much that would cost even if they did. Suggestions are appreciated.

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