I want to tell you a story but don’t know where to start and know it will likely fall short of what the experience meant to me. This is not a story about me, but I am in it.
I need to start by saying I survived a suicide attempt in December 2010. Yes, I have talked about this before, but it is at the root of this story and something that shapes my life.
There are intersections in our lives, moments and events that make us who we are. Experiences that filter the rest of the world from that moment forward. Surviving the attempt on my own life is second now only to my birth and the births of my children.
The second character in this story is Amy Bleuel. I never met Amy. She founded Project Semicolon, a suicide and mental health awareness movement that has spread, organically, worldwide since 2013. To me, this movement made it OK to talk about mental illness and suicide. Many thousands of people who believe in the project get a semicolon tattoo.
“[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.” Your story isn’t over.
I have one on my right wrist. It is the only tattoo I have that is visible. I see it many times a day and it makes me think every time. Keep going, your story is not over. It has sparked questions and conversations, which is the intent. We need to talk about mental illness and the fact it is OK to be depressed. Remove the stigma. Let in the light.
Amy struggled most of her life with crippling depression and I believe multiple suicide attempts. On March 23rd 2017, the darkness won and Amy took her own life. This is an enormous loss to her family, friends and the world. She started a movement that has and will save countless lives. I have seen some comments deriding Amy because, as an advocate, how dare she commit suicide. These people do not understand depression and the inherent evil that lies within it. A friend of mine summed it up very well.
“When I hear a story like Amy’s death, it makes me wonder. What do we say about someone who had cancer, became a powerful advocate for cancer treatment and research, but died of the disease anyway? Whatever it is, it sure isn’t what many people say about someone who was suicidal, became a powerful advocate for suicide treatment and research, but died by suicide anyway.” — Cindy Sandstrom
Amy’s funeral was on April 1st, 2017 in Green Bay. WI. Living near Madison, it was easy for me to make the trip. I wanted to share with her family what Amy and her movement meant to me. What I believed it meant to so many others. I fully expected I would be one of many people there with similar stories. I was nervous about going and second guessed my choice often. I was worried I might be seen as an unwelcome intruder, an outsider trying to be somewhere I did not belong. I thought I would probably just tell them and head home again to avoid any intrusion. This feeling vanished the moment I met Amy’s mother and we held hands.
When I first arrived at the funeral home, I signed the guestbook, walked into the room where Amy was in an open casket. This threw me. I would have loved to have talked with Amy but the first time I met her it was too late. I found a chair near the back of the room, sat down and thought about why I was there. I tried to figure out which people were which and who I wanted to talk with. After about 30 minutes I stood up and moved to the front to talk to Amy’s mom.
She was sitting on a couch in front of the coffin. I crouched down in front of her and introduced myself. She grabbed my hand and held it tightly. I covered her hand with my other hand. I thanked her for raising an amazing daughter and sharing her with the world. I showed her my tattoo and told her what it meant to me, what Amy meant to me. I talked about my friends with similar tattoos. She then introduced me to Amy’s brother Josh sitting next to her. I shared the story of my attempt and recovery. We chatted for about 10 minutes.
Then she asked me to speak during the ceremony. I was floored. Overwhelmed. It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check.
I went out to the car to call Brett and tell her what happened. I needed help staying centered. She is my rock. I went back in and sat in the back again as I thought about what I might say. I thought about everyone affected by Amy and imagined all of their love channeling through me and into the room. As I was sitting there by myself, some people came back to talk to me. They all mentioned that Amy’s mom told them who I was and sent them back to keep me company. One of them was Amy’s mother-in-law. This show of kindness towards me, welcoming a stranger in the midst of such heartache, has floored me. It has me struggling to comprehend the difference between how the world should work and the way it actually works. I had many deep, meaningful conversations about life and our places in it. About Amy and how she changed the world. I learned so much about Amy and her struggles. What we know in the public arena is such a small portion of who she was. Conversations so open and honest.
The service started and when it got to the portion when people could speak, her brother Josh went first. It was hard and full of love. It contained anger, hope, confusion, longing and above all, grief.
When Josh was finished, I waited a couple of minutes and when no one else stood up, I figured it was my turn. I walked to the front and stood behind the lectern. I introduced myself and showed everyone the tattoo I wear with pride. Then I shared my story. Explained what Amy and Project Semicolon mean to me and to so many around the world. Expressed my love and condolences to all of her friends and family. I tried not to babble. A couple of people clapped. I was stunned. I felt I was carrying the world and saying what everyone with the tattoo wanted to say. Like the all the love in the world for Amy was pouring through me and out to her family.
After the service, many people approached me and thanked me for sharing. I didn’t know how to respond. So many hugs. So many tears. Then I said goodbye to her mom and brothers, to her husband and his parents.
Sometimes the darkness wins and a light goes out.
How? I am still struggling to explain it, but I feel different. Like the colors have all shifted just enough for me to notice but not describe. Like there was a small rock in my shoe that I finally found and put on the beach. Like there is so much more I could be doing to change the world.
I am feeling so much more deeply that everyone is a pebble making ripples that grow outward. Some pebbles are bigger, and the ripples become waves. We can choose to make positive or negative ripples every moment, every encounter, every word we speak. The world will only get better when we stop the negative.
RIP Amy. Your story is not over.