April 16th may not be a significant date for some of you. But if I mention Project Semicolon, or show you the semicolon incorporated into my phoenix tattoo, it may ring a bell. You see, in the English language, a semicolon is most commonly used to link (in a single sentence) two independent clauses that are closely related in thought. When a semicolon joins two or more ideas in one sentence, those ideas are then given equal rank or weight. Drawing a parallel to mental illness, “a semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life,” (quote taken from https://projectsemicolon.com/about-project-semicolon/).
Project Semicolon (a non-profit organization) was founded by Amy Buell as a tribute to her father who died by suicide. She faced bullying, rejection, suicide, self-injury, addiction, abuse and rape. She was no stranger to mental illness – and despite battling her own demons she used her past to launch The Semicolon Project, to bring hope and support to others who were also dealing with any of those same issues,
“Despite the wounds of a dark past I was able to rise from the ashes, proving that the best is yet to come. When my life was filled with the pain of rejection, bullying, suicide, self-injury, addiction, abuse and even rape, I kept on fighting. I didn’t have a lot of people in my corner, but the ones I did have kept me going. In my 20 years of personally struggling with mental health I experienced many stigmas associated with it. Through the pain came inspiration and a deeper love for others. God wants us to love one another despite the label we wear. I do pray my story inspires others. Please remember there is hope for a better tomorrow.”
— Amy Buell, founder of Project Semicolon
Unfortunately, despite her efforts to provide support to others, she succumbed to her own darkness, and also died by suicide in 2017, and as fate would have it – a mere week before I got my tattoo.
I have spent much of my life living with suicidal ideation – aka thoughts of suicide. Thankfully, in my case it is almost always “passive” suicidal ideation. That means for the most part they remain as thoughts, with little to no actual desire to put them into action. And please note I said for the most part. That means that yes, there were periods where I was wanting to die. I had a loose plan, and at times, desperately wanted to go through with it. But I do want to be clear that the vast majority of those thoughts were passive. Incredibly frustrating and exhausting?Absolutely. But I try to explain it like this: Think about the last time you had a bad head cold. You know that stage where your sinuses are plugged, but your nose drips like a leaky faucet? Is that drippy nose dangerous? Hardly. Frustrating and annoying? Absolutely. But hardly dangerous in itself. And for me, that’s about the best parallel I can offer. I’m not saying they’re the same. And yes, suicidal thoughts definitely have a much higher risk than the common cold, and certainly need to be taken seriously. Some people wake up with a thumping headache, and get up and go to work anyway. Me? Kinda the same thing… wake up, and the first coherent thoughts are of doom and self harm, and off to work I go anyway.
I won’t imply that I’m speaking for everyone, but for me it wasn’t actually death itself I was seeking. I just wanted the internal and external chaos to stop. Medication didn’t stop it. Counselling didn’t stop it. Exercise didn’t stop it. Those things did help to varying degrees, but they didn’t stop the noise and chaos. And I desperately wanted it to stop. I wanted peace. I wanted rest. I wanted to stop feeling so overwhelmed and drained. Death would solve all that. And so, I wasn’t seeking death in those times – I was seeking what death would bring.
But I chose to live. Instead of closing the book with a period, or an emphatic exclamation mark, I continued to write my story. It hasn’t always been easy to keep the story going. There have been times where even though I didn’t want to bring the story to an end, I wasn’t sure how to keep the tale going. There were times where nearly every fibre in my body wanted to stab the paper with an angry period and slam the cover closed. But somehow, I’ve found the courage or strength to writing the chapters.
And I know not everyone does. Not everyone has the courage or strength to keep writing. Maybe it’s as benign as fate, maybe it’s something spiritual, maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s parts of all of those and even more than that. I know very recently another young person in my community lost this fight. They loudly and clearly ended the sentence and the book of their life. And the shockwaves are still being strongly felt in that person’s circle of family and friends. They’re all at a loss. They’re hurting, they’re grieving, and a semicolon tattoo on my arm won’t change that.
Today is Project Semicolon Day. A day where you can make a difference. A day where you can remember that not everyone knows how to keep writing their story. They might want to keep writing but feel so overwhelmed that they are on the verge of giving up. Chances are good if they knew how to stop the chaos that they’re facing, or if they didn’t have to face it alone, they wouldn’t seek to permanently end their story. I’m not saying you have to know exactly what they’re facing. I’m not saying you have to agree with their life choices, or anything else. All you have to do is genuinely care about another human being that deep down wants to find a way to live. Asking someone if they’re thinking about suicide will not suddenly give them the idea. And they might not tell you anyway. But show them you genuinely care and want to help them face their darkness, and mean it, you might just save their life.