Content warning: This article discusses suicide and presents information that could be distressing to some readers. If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) for help and support. For immediate assistance, please call 000.
You’ve probably seen one on Instagram: a little tattoo of a semicolon, usually on someone’s wrist but occasionally somewhere else, like a finger or behind the ear. In 2015, these semicolon tattoos went viral. It was part of a broadly defined movement to raise awareness of mental health and suicide. “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to,” Project Semicolon’s website declared. “The author is you, and the sentence is your life.”
I decided to get one on a whim. I’d had an entire life’s worth of ‘traumas’ freshly validated with a diagnosis, and thought this movement was for me. I walked into a tattoo parlour, paid $100, and had the little punctuation mark permanently etched on my skin.
For the next few months, the tattoo served as an amulet through what was, objectively, a rough time. I was dealing with the breakdown of my parents’ marriage, an unhealthy relationship of my own, a toxic work situation, experiences of sexual harassment, and a job transition so brutal, I still experience flashes of PTSD. I had suicidal ideation threatening enough to have to be hospitalised for two days. As one therapist later described it, I was “going through the washing machine”.
The semicolon served as a daily reminder that I could keep going, because I’d managed to get through every day of my life so far. And as it turned out, my initial diagnosis of bipolar II was wrong. So was the next diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Months later, my psychologist, psychiatrist and I agreed that I didn’t have a mood disorder, I was just really going through some shit.
Because here’s the thing about periods of crisis: for most people, they tend to pass. My family settled into its post-divorce life, I found a new job I loved, and my relationship ended, which was painful but removed another huge source of stress. I found meds that worked for me, which I’ve been taking in some capacity ever since. With time (and a lot of therapy), the rest of the trauma…passed.
I’d moved on. But the tattoo was still there.
Amy Bleuel started Project Semicolon in 2013 to raise awareness of suicide and mental health in honour of her father, who died by suicide. At the time, awareness was sorely needed. Suicide was, and remains, one of the biggest killers of young people, and you can’t fix a problem you can’t see. (These days, however, we don’t need ‘awareness’ as much as funding for frontline services, raising people out of poverty, and tackling homelessness. Australian government, I’m looking at you.)
So why am I going through the painful, lengthy and expensive process of removing my tattoo, if it was for something so necessary?
It’s something I’ve been grappling with for years. Whenever somebody asks me about it, my insides squirm. They either know what it stands for, or they don’t, and I’m not sure which is worse. “Is it because you’re a writer?” some people ask, to which I say yes and quickly change the subject. Other people give me a knowing nod; that instant connection of two people who are immediately on the same page.
When in 2017, Amy Bleuel tragically also died by suicide, an acquaintance sent me an article about her death. I’d never spoken to this person about my tattoo, and I felt hideously, nauseatingly exposed. I wanted to scrub it off my skin. The ink on my wrist told a story about who I was, without any of the context. I felt branded — and stupid, knowing I’d done it to myself.
I’ve spent years hiding it in photographs, covering it up with watches, and trying to forget it’s there. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to be able to get through times of crisis. Being able to afford a psychologist, having a support network of friends and family, and finding the right medication were crucial. I was fortunate. Some people aren’t.
I’ll never judge someone for their semicolon tattoo. But since I’ve ‘come through the other side’, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to think about that crisis period every time I look at my own body. For me, tattoos are about remembering a time, or a place, or a version of yourself. And this is something I don’t want to remember.