The *Real* Story Behind the Semicolon Tattoo

semicolon tattoo
Credit: Kheila Cruz

As a writer, I’ve never cared for the semicolon. It doesn’t match my pattern of speech or punctuate my work with the same force of a period, halting pause on an em dash, or mindful lingering of an ellipsis. The semicolon represents a short pause in between two connected thoughts–a gasp for air, perhaps. But, like most writers, I find them awkward. Why not just construct two separate sentences or combine the two thoughts into one? In A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut instructs writers to never use the semicolon. He writes, “[a]ll they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Outside of writing, the semicolon is a symbol of mental health–more specifically, a conscious choice to move forward when suffering from mental illness. Its symbolism was likely unknown to Vonnegut, whose mother died by suicide in 1944 and attempted it himself in 1984, so he may never have known why this short pause or continuance is now a seen as a beacon of hope to those suffering as he once did. Though there are various forums and hashtags to follow and engage with in safe spaces, the stigma of mental illness still weighs heavily on those living with it and their caregivers, which pushes them further into obscurity.

In writing about mental illness and experience various types of it myself, I understand feeling silenced or judged, even by those closest to you, and not wanting to tell someone you’re hurting in the same way you’d tell them you have the flu. For the past few years, I’ve been lost in my own battle with depression and anxiety and finding help complicated matters further. Unable to explain why I lost interest in seeing friends or filed assignments late–if at all–my relationships grew strained and I lost work and professional respect. But I’d already seen how poorly someone you love and trust could react when you confide in them and I did not want to face that empathyless judgement again.

When I fell into my first major depressive episode, I told a friend why I kept skipping our plans, cancelling at the last minute, by explaining how I felt pinned to my bed and overcome not with sadness, but with nothingness. I felt empty and, rightly so, scared. My friend, who I’d known for nearly a decade and trusted, said how a run or a shower always makes her feel better, that maybe some movement would help. I agreed, but was unable to explain how impossible either of those things felt in a way that made sense to someone who has never experienced the anguish of clinical depression. After that, I stopped sharing with people who I wasn’t certain would understand my pain. This left my circle of confidants small and, mostly, based online.

This not knowing or fear of judgement is why the semicolon is so powerful. People who have struggled with mental illness, either on their own or while caring for a loved one, began tattooing semicolons on themselves. It’s difficult to pinpoint when this movement and its silent nod of empathy began but it was given new life in 2013 when Amy Bleuel founded Project Semicolon. Bleuel struggled early in life. Her parents were divorced when she was 4 and, at age 6, her stepmother began abusing her. At 13, she was raped and began harming herself. When she was 18, a time when so many teens are looking forward to their future, Bleuel’s father died by suicide. Her struggle did not end there and, eventually, Bleuel found help and with that, created Project Semicolon, which aims to prevent suicide through storytelling, education, and treatment. She used the semicolon to say that rather than ending your story by suicide, you are choosing to pause and continue. In getting a semicolon tattoo, someone is silently letting those around them know their an ally and someone who will understand their struggle.

Despite having many small tattoos, I never considered a semicolon tattoo until recently. Perhaps it’s my penchant toward the em dash that steered me away from this particular punctuation mark living permanently on my body or not fully understanding how much a small tattoo on my body could help someone else. Through a friend, I recently met Sophie, an epidemiologist working in suicide prevention and has a semicolon tattoo. Like most of us, Sophie struggled to put her thoughts around suicide and the semicolon and allyship on paper. She fell down the internet rabbit hole of mental health, which in her opinion does the “adverse of prevention work,” and learned how the semicolon tattoo is now linked to the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, making it more mainstream. “[The show is] not why I got the tattoo. For me, it’s the symbol that means it’s better not to stop. You can pause but keep going.”

Sophie’s days are are spent studying the data behind suicide. She spoke of the dramatic rise in death by suicide in the United States, the fetishization of the act with respect to celebrity deaths, and how schools are developing different symbols teachers and trusted adults can wear to show they’re trained and can talk to a student about mental health or feeling low. According to the CDC, suicide rates rose by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017 and, Sophie explains it, “we don’t exactly know what we’re doing or we’re just not doing everything.” When I asked if she got the tattoo because of its connection to her work or perhaps her own experience with suicide, she was quick to remind me it’s always more complicated than that.

“I’ve had a lot of people think that if you have this tattoo that you have struggled and that’s not my experience. I think it’s just so interesting how we always try to take something, especially in suicide prevention or with mental health, and put it in a perfect little box and define it by something and give it these four borders and that’s how we discuss it. But I think that this tattoo is really different for a lot of different people and I think it’s more of a symbol to help destigmatize further talking about mental health.”

Sophie’s best friend died by suicide and his death added to the burden she already bore from the data she reviewed as part of her work. She was overwhelmed and frustration, describing the time as “seeking” someone to relate to. It was then she noticed one of her colleagues, whom she’d always admired, has a semicolon tattoo on her wrist. “I made the connection that it was probably okay to approach her.” Before she did, Sophie went to a suicide survivor support group meeting and her colleague was there as the main speaker. Her assumption about the tattoo was correct: it was an invitation to speak up.

Rather than being an opportunity for someone to reach out, I lamented to Sophie that the semicolon tattoo could become fetishize suicide in the way some critics felt 13 Reasons Why did. “We know that suicide in teens increases after media coverage of high-profile suicides, so I see a connection between the two but they’re also so different.” She said if the focus and glorification was on the tattoo rather than the act the tattoo represents, that’s fine and may even help with prevention. “If [the tattoo] is reducing stigma around talking about when you’re feeling sad then that’s okay.”

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Today was a magical day. Another day to be grateful to be alive. Alisha, Selena, and I went together to get ; tattoos. The ; symbol stands for an end of one thought and a beginning of another. Instead of a period, authors use the semicolon to continue a sentence. For us, it means a beginning of another chapter in life, in lieu of ending your life. I struggled with addiction and depression issues through high school and early college. I reached out and asked for help. At the time, I thought my life was over, I thought I’d never live past the age of 21. Today I’m grateful to be alive, in this new chapter of life in recovery, standing with my colleagues and friends, making art that helps other people. If you’re struggling, if you feel suicidal, I urge you to click the link in my bio. Ask for help. Start a new chapter with the support of others. 🌧⛅️🌤☀️and RIP Amy Bleul, who started the semicolon movement.

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Shifting the conversation from celebrity suicide to mental health treatment are people like Selena Gomez, the executive producer of the Netflix show, whose candor around her own mental illness is well-known. Gomez and cast members from the hit show showed off their semicolon tattoos before the second season aired.

Sophie didn’t have an answer for my next question: if more details about high-profile suicides cause rates to increase, can more details around high-profile treatment for mental health cause rates to decrease? This is the kind of data she’s studying, but could only anecdotally speak to its impact. “[The tattoo is] sort of a way of tagging yourself. It’s sent many people my way already. That’s what did it for me, so that’s all I can hope it would do for someone else.”

As a writer, my narrow-minded view of helping people relates to what I can put into words. It’s why I write about health and am willing to share some of my darkest moments in public. But, like Sophie, not everyone has the words to fully express the enormity of what they’re feeling. Up to this point, all of my tattoos are discrete and invisible to the untrained eye. I consciously wanted to keep my tattoos and the stories behind them to myself and those I invited in. However, I chose to put my semicolon where anyone can catch sight of it. Because sometimes words fail. And other times you just need pause.

Related: Why I Decided to Cover Up a Meaningful Tattoo

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