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Posts tagged ‘semicolon tattoo’

Talking to Ourselves

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Recently on Facebook I asked how many of my friends knew the meaning of the semicolon – other than as a mark of punctuation. About two-thirds of those who responded did. The rest either didn’t or had some vague idea but no real knowledge. But I’m pretty vocal about mental health issues and a fair number of my friends have similar problems and difficulties, so that two-thirds figure is likely not representative of the population at large.

Yet I see increasing numbers of t-shirts, bracelets, and other paraphernalia adorned with semicolons and sometimes colorful butterflies or the word “warriors.” But nowhere does it say what the semicolon stands for. For those of you who don’t know, the semicolon marks that place in a sentence where a writer could have stopped, but chose to go on. As such, it has become a symbol for suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

I have a semicolon tattoo myself. I don’t regret getting it. It reminds me, as the saying goes, that my story isn’t over. But when I got it, I also hoped it would be a tool for education – that I could explain to those who saw it and asked what the symbol meant.

Unfortunately, no one has asked.

I’d hate to think that the semicolon has become like a secret handshake that identifies members of our tribe to one another, but leaves out the rest of the world. As stigma-fighting symbols go, it doesn’t seem terribly effective.

The political conversation has become so fraught that no one talks to anyone who doesn’t believe in the same things. And I’m afraid that, like them, we’re largely talking to ourselves.

Self-talk is important – definitely something we should pay attention to and work on improving. But if we really want to fight stigma, we need to talk to other people about it.

I see a fair number of stigma-fighting memes and discussions, but unfortunately, most of them take place in mental health support groups, where the message is not as much needed as in the larger world outside our band of the mentally ill.

Of course, there are organizations such as NAMI, Bipolar Awareness – Stop the Stigma, and Stigma Fighters that dedicate effort to reducing stigma. And they are doing a good, necessary thing.

But what about the rest of us? What can we do to break out of our shells and involve the rest of the world in our cause?

One thing is to question other people’s assumptions when we see or hear them. When you read a post that calls the weather bipolar, answer it. Explain why that’s not a good comparison – that it trivializes a very real problem that millions of people face every day. And when someone assumes that a mass shooter or other terrorist must be mentally ill (or “off his meds”), remind them that those with mental illness are more often the victims of violence that they are the perpetrators of it.

Will people get the message, or will they just dismiss you as “politically correct” or a “social justice warrior”? Personally, I can think of worse names to be called, and many of us have been called them. But just as “retarded” and “gay” are no longer acceptable as synonyms for “weird” or “stupid,” we should try our best to make “crazy” and “mental” and “psycho” and that annoying little twirl of the finger by the temple no longer acceptable as shorthand for behavior that one doesn’t understand. (I still haven’t figured out how “dumb” and “lame,” both ableist language, have managed to skate by.)

What I’m saying is that to fight stigma we need to engage with the world outside. We need to explain why certain uses of language are hurtful and what the truth is about the many people who are affected by mental illness.

I’ve had to smack a few friends on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper when they get it wrong and I try to put my two cents into other discussions that are portraying the mentally ill insensitively. I think about what I’m going to say and even practice it before I speak or press send. (Sounding well-informed and reasonable is the way I want to express my message.) I post my blog entries to “public” as well as to friends and support groups. Sometimes I even talk to my family about stigma.

As a group, we need to do a whole lot better at not hiding from stigma but confronting it wherever we see it. We can live with stigma or we can fight it.

Bad Thoughts and Tattoos

Sometimes I have bad thoughts. We all do. I find that mine fall into three groups.

The first kind of bad thoughts are when I want to snap or snipe or snark at my husband, despite the fact that he is indispensable to me. He takes care of me, understands me, helps me, hugs me, feeds me in ways I can’t begin to describe.

When those bad thoughts arise, I have a brief internal chat with myself. (It looks like I’m thinking what to say because that’s exactly what I’m doing.) Then I choose not to say the nasty thing or I think of a less-nasty way of saying it. (I’ve written about the phenomenon before in “Managing My Anger” https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-kw.)

The skills involved are impulse control, the use of “I statements,” and the ability to rephrase. I try to say something that will get my point across without hurting or making things worse. These are techniques I have learned over the years, which makes me think they are things that can be developed with a little practice.

Learning to restrain myself has prevented many a fight. Some people find this style of communication inauthentic or wishy-washy – that I am tiptoeing around my husband instead of saying what I really think. All I can say to that is that it works for me and for our marriage.

The next kind of bad thought is the kind that comes with depression: I’m useless. I’m pathetic. I can’t do anything right. I’m worthless. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) talks about these thoughts in her book Furiously Happy, and she has one thing to say about them: Depression lies. These are the thoughts of a biochemically influenced brain that makes you miserable and sometimes wants to kill you, or at least kill your possibility of happiness.

Fortunately, my husband has read Jenny Lawson too. When I express these bad self-thoughts – and it’s best if you have a safe person to tell them to – he reminds me. He doesn’t try to deny the thoughts (You know you’re not worthless. You do lots of things right). He tells me, “That’s depression lying to you.” I used to get stuck in these cycles a lot before I was properly medicated and before I had his help and that of my therapist.

Then there are the really bad thoughts, those of self-harm or worse. Most of the time I don’t have these anymore, but when I do, there is one thing I can do. (Actually, there are more things I can do, but this is one that works for me.) I look at my tattoos.

The one on the right wrist is a symbol for bipolar disorder made up of punctuation : ) :  in the form of a smiley face/frowny face. This reminds me that my brain isn’t working right and is sometimes out to get me.

The other is on my left wrist, near my scars from self-harm. It is a semicolon. You may have heard about the Semicolon Project or seen the semicolon symbol on t-shirts or jewelry.

The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark. It comes at the place in a sentence where a writer could choose to put a period and stop; instead, she continues the sentence. The semicolon says, “My story isn’t over,” something you’ll also see on t-shirts and such. (I’m thinking of making that sentence my third tattoo.)

Recently I had a bout of those really bad thoughts. But I looked at my tattoos and told myself, “My story isn’t over yet. I still have things I need to do.” One of them is to tell my story, in this blog and in a book I’m trying to write.

My tattoos helped me get over the bad thoughts. They have paid for themselves many times over. I never regret getting them. They may have saved my life.

A Tattoo Is for Life…

…this one, especially so.

As soon as I learned about the semicolon tattoo, I knew I had to get one – and not just because I’m a huge grammar nerd. Because I’m bipolar and want to spread the word about mental health issues.

In writing, the semicolon indicates a place where a writer could have finished a sentence, but instead chose to go on. This makes the semicolon an effective and beautiful symbol for suicide prevention efforts and those who struggle with mental disorders.

Every day we choose to get out of bed; choose to take our medications; choose to make and go to our therapist appointments; choose to live another day; and choose to go on with our story.

This is not something I invented. Here are the people behind it: http://www.projectsemicolon.com/. And here are some stories about the phenomenon that have been working their way through the media and around the internet.

http://www.upworthy.com/have-you-seen-anyone-with-a-semicolon-tattoo-heres-what-its-about?c=ufb1

http://www.upworthy.com/9-beautiful-semicolon-tattoos-our-readers-shared-to-destigmatize-mental-health-challenges?c=ufb1

Here is my story.

I am possibly the last person you would ever expect to get a tattoo. I am probably the last person I would ever expect to get a tattoo. I’m in my 50s, a former English teacher, married for over 30 years, fond of reading and word puzzles and cats.

Nevertheless, the professionals at Monkey Bones Tattoos in Beavercreek, OH, did not seem surprised when I showed up one day and presented my wrist.

The naked wrist.

The naked wrist.

When I explained what I wanted – to put down a deposit and book an appointment to get a semicolon tattoo – I learned that they had a cancellation and could ink me right away.

What the hell, I thought. Might as well. I had learned about the tattoos about a month before and had thought it over plenty. It was by no means a spur-of-the-moment (or drunken) impulse.

Mike Guidone showed me into his studio and explained the procedure.

The tattoo artists work station.

The tattoo artist’s work station.

He presented me with stencils of three different sizes of semicolons. I chose the in-between one. My wrist is fairly small, so the big one would have looked out of place, but the small one wasn’t noticeable enough. The idea is for people to see it and ask, so you can share the meaning and talk to them about mental health and combatting the stigma.

I sat in the dentist-type chair, listened to a brief explanation, got answers to some questions, and was ready to start.

In progress.

Did it hurt? Not particularly. It was a feeling between a scratch and a sting, and took only about ten minutes. Some aftercare instructions and I was done.

finished1

Success!

Then I paid ($80, the shop minimum), tipped Mike, and was on my way. Now I care for the tattoo while it heals, anointing it with unscented lotion several times a day, avoiding sunlight or soaking, and trying my very best not to scratch or pick at it.

The results.

The results.

Am I happy with it? You bet!

And, like I said, it’s for life! My story isn’t finished yet.

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