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My New Mental Health Tattoo

Once again I have gotten a tattoo, supporting the cause of mental health.

A few months ago, I became a part of what’s called the semicolon project and wrote about it in this post: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G. For those of you who aren’t up on the terminology, a semicolon tattoo represents mental health awareness, especially erasing the stigma, and suicide prevention.

The semicolon was chosen as the symbol because in writing, a semicolon indicates a place where a writer could have completed – or stopped – a sentence, but chose to go on. The semicolon says, in effect, “My story isn’t over.” The idea is to have the tattoo someplace visible – in my case, on my left wrist – and use it as a conversation starter.

Most people will assume that since I am a huge grammar nerd, my semicolon tattoo is some weird manifestation of love for punctuation. Then I can tell them that it’s a whole lot more. You can find out more about the semicolon project at http://www.projectsemicolon.org/.

My new tattoo represents bipolar disorder. Again it’s made up of punctuation: two colons and a paren. These symbols, unlike the semicolon, have no special meaning in writing and are never seen together in that order. Instead they make up a double emoticon: looked at one way, the colon and paren make up a smiley face. Looked at the other way, a frowny face.

New mental health tattoo

New mental health tattoo

This symbolism is easier for anyone seeing the tattoo to grasp. In a way, it’s a minimalist version of the comedy and tragedy masks you often see in theaters.

Again, it’s a conversation starter. Bipolar disorder is not well understood by the general public. This is particularly true of bipolar disorder type 2 – the kind I have – which many people have never even heard of.

Since I have gone public with having a mental illness, it seems only appropriate to introduce people to the disorder in a way that’s creative, nonthreatening, and understandable.  It’s a lot less abrupt than blurting out, “Hey, I have a mental illness!” Even my mother-in-law recognizes that these tattoos are not just a whim, but for a good cause.

The second tattoo is on my right wrist, so no matter which hand I extend, I can open up new understanding about a very real problem that many people live with daily.

A number of articles have come out lately questioning whether a person who gets a tattoo will regret it when they grow older. I think I can say with complete confidence that I will never regret these tattoos. They say something about who I am, something that will not change as I grow older. The disorder will always be with me and so will these symbols. For the rest of my life I can use them to educate, identify with other bipolar people, and remind myself that wrists are not for cutting.

I will say, however, that whoever thinks of these things had better put the brakes on new mental health-related tattoo designs – especially those made of punctuation – or I will soon become the illustrated editor/blogger. At the moment I have no plans for any further ink. My friends, however, tell me that tattoos are addictive. So we’ll see.

A few notes, since everyone asks: These simple tattoos take 10 minutes or less to apply. They hurt a little bit, but not much – a stinging sensation. They may fade a bit at first and need a touch-up. Because they are so quick and simple, you will not pay a lot to have them done. After you get the tattoo you have to take care of it while it heals, moisturizing it regularly for the first 3-6 weeks or so.

If you decide to get a tattoo, check out the studio before you have it done. It should be a professional operation, with high standards of cleanliness and concern for health. Tattoo artists should wear surgical gloves and change them frequently. There may be a consent form to fill out, indicating that you know what you are getting into, and even indicating whether you have various medical conditions or allergies, or have drunk alcohol within the previous eight hours. A reputable tattoo studio will not work on a drunken client.

Do you have a tattoo related to mental health? I’d love to hear about it. But don’t tell me if it’s more punctuation. I only have two wrists.

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