The mental health community has been reeling the last few days as we learned of the passing of one of our fiercest, and most recognizable warriors, Project Semicolon Founder Amy Bleuel. Amy took her life late last week at the age of 31 after battling with severe depression most of her life. After surviving her father’s suicide, and years of her own suicide attempts, Amy started Project Semicolon in 2013. Amy chose this particular punctuation as the trademark to her movement, noting that the semicolon is a point in a sentence where you can either place a period and end the sentence, or use a semicolon and continue. She used this as a metaphor for life, that the sentence is your life, and “you’re story isn’t over yet”.
Over the last few years, semicolon tattoos have been popping up by the thousands. For many, the semicolon tattoo is a concrete symbol to not give up hope, not give up life. For others, it is a show of support for those who are struggling. I fall in the latter category, and got mine the summer of 2015, 9 months before I met Amy. As a therapist, I wanted to a visible way to let anyone know who saw my tattoo that I understand, that I care, and that their life is worth saving. I also wanted to have an opportunity to spread awareness and reduce stigma, by having people who hadn’t heard of the movement to ask me about my tattoo.
I met Amy on May 6, 2016 when we invited her and Joseph Penola of the You Rock Foundation to be guest speakers at several events for our First Friday kick-off of Mental Health Awareness Month in downtown State College, PA. As my business was one of the sponsors and coordinators of the event, I had the opportunity to chaperone Amy and Joseph from one event to the next, share lunch and dinner with them, and during some downtime, take them to our downtown office to create their own masks for our mental health awareness month mask painting project. The theme was “the many faces of mental health”. We hosted several events throughout the month of April where people from both the Penn State community and the State College community created the most extraordinary masks, which were unveiled at local businesses downtown that day. Amy let us keep the one she painted, in retrospect both beautiful and haunting.
Amy was to appear at the downtown tattoo shops, which had agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds for semicolon tattoos to a local mental health nonprofit, the JanaMarie Foundation, named after the founder’s sister, who lost her battle with depression in 2011. Amy decided she wanted a new tattoo to add to her collection, and was looking for a partner in crime. I had been contemplating getting a new tattoo, and who better to get it with than the very person who had inspired my last tattoo, a person I was getting to know well over the course of a day and evening, and found myself connecting to. We decided on the infinity symbol, mine on the back of my neck, hers on her forearm, and dubbed ourselves “infinity sisters for life”.
Photo credit: Laura Desantis-Olsson
Our friendship continued to blossom over the next few months, over long distance. I was beyond honored when she asked me to be the Secretary of Project Semicolon’s Board of Directors. Due to my other commitments, I agreed to come on as an interim secretary to see the board through some transition, and left the board at the beginning of this year. We remained friends, and I was so thrilled to hear about her plans of moving the Project forward and upward.
And then came Wednesday, March 29th. Joseph sent me a panicked message asking if it was true about Amy. I had no idea what he was talking about. Within minutes we learned the truth, that she had taken her life several days ago. We were stunned, shocked, and deeply saddened. We were sad we lost a friend. We were sad her family lost a wife, a daughter, a sister. We were saddened for all of the many, many friends Amy had. She was the kind of person you could instantly connect with. She was non-judgmental and kind. She had a warmth that drew you in. And then we thought about the thousands and thousands of people she had inspired through her message. The people for whose semicolon tattoo was their touchstone to the land of the living, a place of hope. How could the person who started an anti-suicide movement take their own life? She had family, she had friends, she had resources at her disposal, she knew better. She knew from losing her father how painful a suicide is to those left behind. We feared that the people she touched would think, if Amy, with all of her knowledge and resources took her life, what chance do I have?
Death is something none of us want to think about, and when it touches us, we want someone, something to blame for our pain. If we lose a loved one in a car accident, we can blame the other driver; to cancer, we blame the disease. The blame can be easily placed anywhere else but the person who died. Suicide is different. The person who takes their life seemingly had a choice, and chose not to live. They chose to leave us. We can blame them; we can call them selfish (for another perspective, see Mesa Fama’s article, Please Stop Saying Suicide is Selfish).
As a therapist, I am not inclined to invalidate anyone’s feelings. I understand that when loved ones call people selfish for purposefully dying, they are saying this out of pain and grief, and looking for somewhere to place those feelings. I also understand that for people who are suicidal, calling them selfish is unwarranted and not particularly helpful. They are not ending their life to hurt others; they are in intolerable amounts of pain and looking for a relief that has thus far been out of reach. Writer David Foster Wallace, who lost his battle with depression, and took his life in 2008 at age 46, gives us an inside glimpse into the mind of someone walking the tightrope of depression and suicidality: “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
I have worked with suicidal people, and understand that terror is just as real for them as a room engulfed in flames. I also know that the terror is fleeting, and what feels like a situation with only one possible solution – death, has many alternatives, and sometimes what they need is a caring person willing to walk through the fire to bring them to safety. For those struggling today who lost their beacon of hope in Amy, who feel hopeless and helpless in the wake of her death, remember her message and what that has meant to you. Remember she was human, and flawed, but try not to blame her for leaving us way too soon. I know how much she cared about each and every person she encountered and whose lives she touched. Reach out to your family, your friends, your therapist, a hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or their online chat. We are out here and willing to walk through that fire for you. Because you are worth it. Because you matter. Because we love you. Because we are not afraid of your flames; our greatest fear is losing you.
Amy’s life work was helping others, that was her calling, that is where she felt most alive. Her death is a sober reminder to those of us who spend our time helping others, whether in a professional capacity and/or in our personal life, to ask for help when we need it. We don’t always have to be the pillars of strength – it is okay to be on the receiving end of love and support. I frequently say to my patients who shudder at the thought of asking others for help, fearing they will be perceived as weak: asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. It means you are willing and ready to fight, and just realize you need some more people on your side. Look around, we are here and we have your back. You’re story isn’t over yet.