Today I went to a tattoo artist, and for $60 I let a man with a giant Jesus-tattoo on his head ink a semi-colon onto my wrist where it will stay until the day I die. By now, enough people have started asking questions that it made sense for me to start talking, and talking about things that aren’t particularly easy.
We’ll start here: a semi-colon is a place in a sentence where the author has the decision to stop with a period, but chooses not to. A semi-colon is a reminder to pause and then keep going.
In April I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. By the beginning of May I was popping anti-depressents every morning with a breakfast I could barely stomach. In June, I had to leave a job I’d wanted since I first set foot on this campus as an incoming freshmen because of my mental health. Depression took a lot from me, but one of the most difficult things that my mental illness snatched from me was the title of Summer Welcome Leader.
I got this tattoo as a promise to myself that I would never willingly end my sentence. I got it as a reminder to take this summer as a pause, and then to keep going strong next year. I also got this this tattoo to open up conversations between myself and other humans about mental illness, because as difficult as mental illness is, what’s more difficult is feeling stigmatized. Or like you failed. Or like people are feeling sorry for you. There’s no question that the stigma surrounding mental illness inhibits struggling humans from finding the help that they need, and I find this absolutely heartbreaking because I know I am not alone when I say that depression destroyed my GPA, my relationships with my friends, my involvement on campus, and much, much more.
So if one out of every four people struggle with mental illness, then why did I feel like I was they only person who had ever experienced this before? If 25 of every hundred people I pass on the street have a clinical need for psychiatric care, then why did I feel like I had to hide my shaky hands every time the panic hit my harder than a train or feel like I had to shove every suicidal thought on a shelf behind old dictionaries and behind classic novels where no one could find them? 30,000 people die from suicide every year and that’s more than twice that of HIV and AIDS but still I am embarrassed to tell you that I can’t get out of bed in the mornings.
Let me make this clear for those who don’t know me well: I am not who you would expect to be depressed. Let me say this louder for those in the back: you cannot put me in a box decorated with black nail polish and frequent trips to Hot Topic because you don’t wear depression like a necklace or put on anxiety like a hat. You cannot spot depression because you become depression.
I am depression and I am not the silent girl dressed in all black hiding in the back row of your lecture hall. I am depression and I the perfect picture of a 20 year old sorority girl at an SEC school. I am depression and I am oversized fraternity formal t-shirts and Nike shorts that hang off my frail, starved hips that the Greek town girls envy so much. I am depression and I am the shining face on my sorority’s executive board and the bright smile touring high school seniors around my beautiful, botanical garden of a college campus. I am depression and behind stylish sunglasses too big for my face and a resume too long for a college sophomore, no one ever knew that my illness had crippled me so severely that I spent 20 hours a day wrapped in blankets in my bed, trying desperately to fight away the bitter cold that had taken residence in my heart and mind.
I hid myself away in my 7 million dollar sorority house, tucked somewhere between “you bought your friends” and “can’t daddy’s credit card fix your problems?”. I called 250 women on my campus by the name of sister but I was still lying at the bottom of a lake, unable to breathe while, effortlessly, everyone around me grew gills. Because no one tells you what to do when your life becomes a ten-car pile up during rush hour traffic. Because no one tells you how to tell the very people who framed your life and hung it up on the wall for everyone to admire the girl who has it all together that nothing is going right anymore. No one tells you what to do when the good days dwindle so severely that you can’t remember the last time you woke up and didn’t want to die.
I was 13-year old the first time someone told me that suicide was a selfish act. I was 15 the first time someone I knew killed themselves. I was 20 years old when suicide started to make sense.
Every 16.2 minutes, someone takes their life. In the time you’ve been reading about the crippling disease that made me want to take my own life, someone just took theirs. And still, we shame and stereotype and stigmatize the people who need the most help and teach our children that having to ask for help is something we should feel bad about, when in fact sometimes strength is admitting that you don’t have any left.
Oftentimes I feel like depression ruined my life. It took so much that it’s become a desperate desire for something good to come from this horrible experience. My hope is that, because of my experience, I can be an advocate and champion for mental health awareness. That I can start conversations with girls in my chapter and students on this campus and hopefully influence someone’s life for the better.
I am lucky. I am lucky because I live on a campus where my therapy visits are free and my antidepressants only cost $10 and there’s a disability center that will help me get through my classes. I am lucky because I have a mother who believed me and supported me when I said I was depressed and never made it sound like my fault. I am lucky because I have a sister who drives all the way to Columbia to see me when I need it. I am lucky because I have a job with Mizzou Tour Team and bosses that aren’t afraid to sit me down and make sure I’m eating and sleeping and doing okay. I am lucky because I have Carter and Jackson and Esther and Jordan and Kenzie and Erin and Brittany and Jim and Grace and so many others who in their own individual way have weaved a support network so caring and strong that there was no chance of me ever falling through the cracks.
The problem is that people struggling far worse than me don’t have half the support I do. Mizzou saved my life. Not everyone has a “Mizzou”.
So I will show my tattoo proudly and champion for the people who cannot champion for themselves. Every day that I say no to the dark thoughts depression tries to tangle my mind with, I am winning a battle that society has not made easy to win. I’ve learned a lot from my struggle with depression. Every day is another day of riotous and endless waves of transformation and as much as I wish it didn’t hurt so bad when it hit me, I can’t say that I’d change who I am or the struggles I went through.
Another thing: my tattoo is just slightly crooked. At first that bothered me. And then I remembered that life’s a little crooked, too. And now I love it even more.
It’s hard to find a place to end this think piece, but I’ll end it with the quote that I keep on my computer screen at all times, so I never forget. I hope anyone that’s ever struggled with their mental health never forgets, either:
“You are worthy of breathing. Someday you will learn that.
So don’t ask yourself why you can’t be
Because depression took a lot from you and you are still fighting to take it back.”
For more information on the tattoo I got, please visit http://www.projectsemicolon.com. If you need help, please check out online resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
And as always, ask for help. Never fear admitting you need more than you can give yourself.
This story originally appeared on HPWritesBlog on June 18, 2015.