On Saturday I went with three friends to get inked with semicolons in support of the mental health awareness movement. Project Semicolon is “a global non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire. Stay strong; love endlessly; change lives.” ( http://www.projectsemicolon.org/ )
I chose to get my semicolon on my middle finger. I’ve developed a pad on the finger from gripping a pen over the years and the semicolon represents all that I’ve feared as a writer about my lack of education, my inability to grasp basic grammar and how I’ve had to learn punctuation through the patience of my writer tribe. It is also my way of playfully giving the finger to all forces, external and internal, that I’ve ever allowed to silence me. In the last two years I’ve had to confront the unaddressed trauma of my past; trauma that had manifested itself in an exhausted nervous system, chronic anxiety, and what I didn’t recognize as panic attacks or what I like to refer to as ‘these little earthquakes’. I nearly lost my life to mental illness, only the mental illness was not my own, but that of someone primary to me. It is something I struggle to write about and try to do so only in vague terms out of respect.
I didn’t have any consistent support systems or relationships because we moved every few years and as a ‘mostly’ only child, I was alone to navigate an experience that wasn’t given a name or language to process. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was not this person’s true self but a battle with mental illness. At the age of nine, I had begun to experience the transformation of someone that had been my entire world into something angry, alien, dangerous, and whose spiritual unrest had been linked to my existence.
There were multiple suicide attempts by this person, starting when I was about ten and a long stage of hospitalization. Every attempt was linked to my existence and the way it had somehow failed or cost too much. As a child, I had no way of understanding any of it and I assumed that there must be something terrible inside of me. I look back at that time as when some part of my spirit gathered itself and retreated from the world. On and off, there were periods of fearing for my life, not just because of the destruction I would see in my environment, the rage acted out, but because I was told I was in danger. During times of bad medication combinations or lack of medication, this person put a lot of thought into ways to end the misery of our lives, once and for all.
Last night I began the first draft of this blog. It began with the memory of being told that if I wanted to commit suicide, I would be shown how to do it properly, so I wouldn’t f*ck it up, like I did everything else. I was fourteen years old and had started burning myself with a curling iron. I was crying out for help. I had begun to test myself to see how far I could go, to see if I was brave enough to take my spirit out of my body. I’m grateful that it wasn’t the time of the internet because if I’d access to Google and all of the information available, I might not be here writing this today. But if I were to pinpoint a moment when it became clear I was battling to stay on the planet, that would be the moment.
My life up until recently has been marked by recovering from the impact of the ongoing cycles of rage, ugly words spoken, and then absence, as the person would retreat into solitude for months at a time. These cycles were followed by the emergence of someone beautiful, loving, creative, and until recently, some part of me has held on with hope that maybe this time I’d broken through, my love had been received, and the cycle would end, releasing the person.
I’ve been looking back at my life with a sort of awe, an immense gratitude at the way I’ve been taken right to the edge, over and over again, but never allowed to step off. I didn’t see a future for myself other than trying to believe that if I was alive, it was because God had a purpose for me, and if I was living and taking resources, I needed to stick around to find out how I could give back.
It wasn’t until I met my husband that I understood; God was keeping me here and I was going to be a mother. It was terrifying. I knew I’d have to face all of my deepest fears but if nothing else, faith had brought me this far and so I walked to the edge and God let me leap.
Thirteen years later, having reached the mark of forty, I’m filled with a great compassion for my past. I’ve had to make some incredibly hard decisions and open a dialogue with my children about mental illness because it is the only way I know how to both heal and honor the story I’ve lived and the ones that have loved me as best they could.
My journey with getting tattoos has been about putting to rest any pattern of victimization in my life and owning my story. It is a beautiful, triumphant story and I am grateful to all that have participated in it, maybe especially those written into the painful parts, because I am unable to see my story without seeing God’s grace woven throughout. I can no longer claim hurt or pain because here I am. I am loved. I am blessed. I’m the author of my experience and I choose to write my life in the spirit of grace.