When my son, Austin, said he wanted a semi-colon tattoo on his wrist, I said two things:
1) You have to be able to cover it up. Some of your clients are very conservative and don’t want to see any tattoos; and
2) If you put it where it’s visible, you have to be willing to talk about it.
His response? “That’s the point.”
Why a semi-colon? “A semicolon is used when an author could have chosen to end their sentence but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life,” explained the late Amy Bleuel, founder of Project Semicolon, an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide.
His tattoo can be covered by a watch, but it’s most often visible. More and more he’ll come home and say, “My tattoo was noticed today.” It’s become a conversation starter and an opportunity for him to share his experience.
Stopping the stigma
He doesn’t look depressed, he doesn’t look like someone who might try to take his own life. But then again, what does that really look like? He’s personable and well-spoken, valuable traits as a golf professional and personal trainer. Speaking to a suicide awareness round table group, he said, “I don’t know how many of you noticed me when I came in, but this is what depression looks like.” I don’t think anyone would meet him and think he was troubled. Maybe that’s a testament to how well he hides it.
For years, we’ve kept our story to ourselves, only talking about it in private. Most of our friends and family are unaware of his struggle. He wasn’t ready to tell his story, so he didn’t. It wasn’t my story to tell, so I kept quiet.
Even now, almost 20 years later, the stigma remains and there is great trepidation to telling his story. Suicide is an uncomfortable subject. People are afraid of it, they don’t know how to react or what to say. Will people judge him? Will they understand? Will they treat him differently when they hear his story? Will it cost him jobs?
Unfortunately, his fear that it could affect him professionally is with good reason. Shame on the employer who said if he didn’t quit posting suicide prevention messages to his personal Facebook page, he’d never get another job! They didn’t ask if he was OK or if he needed help – they just told him to stop.
Signs, symptoms and getting help
When he was young, there were little clues that told me there might be issues. He was very exacting about time. He had to have the right clothes, or his day would be ruined. He only felt safe at a certain location.
The official diagnosis was anxiety, depression and OCD. It took two tries, but we found a counselor he clicked with, and they’ve worked together for nearly 18 years. I truly believe the wrong counselor won’t help, and the right counselor can be a lifesaver. We both will tell you that without this person, he wouldn’t still be breathing.
Once we found the right counselor, I’d read in the waiting room while he had his session. Not being in the room gave him the freedom to speak without worrying about hurting my feelings, being judged, feeling guilty, etc. By law the counselor must report if the person is a danger to himself or to others. But barring those circumstances, counseling is more effective if confidentiality is maintained.
Because my kids don’t like surprises, and to ease his anxiety of the unknown, I kept a calendar on the refrigerator. In my mind, it was better if he could see what was planned for the week, so he could be prepared. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what that calendar meant to him. If there was something on the calendar, that meant he had to stay – he couldn’t kill himself. If there was something scheduled, he knew he was expected to be there.
I’ve learned – the hard way – that he needs a safe space. A place where he can be himself, regardless of what that looks like on any given day. Someplace without judgement, someplace where he can let down his guard. His job requires him to interact with people constantly, and he is often exhausted by having to wear his “public face” for hours on end. Home is the place where he can hide or participate in activities as he’s able. It’s a place to just be.
You don’t know what you don’t know
Because suicide is a taboo subject, information was very limited when we started on this journey nearly 20 years ago. It’s gotten better, but there is still a lack of resources particularly for suicide attempt survivors and those supporting them. Clinical-based resources are available online – studies, articles, etc. – and they’re helpful. But to really understand, look for people with lived experience sharing their stories. Some great resources are NAMI, Live Through This and The Mighty. All offer good insight that goes beyond clinical information.
Supporting someone with suicidal thoughts is complicated. It’s tiring, frustrating and scary. Most often you won’t really understand what they’re going through. I remind myself that he didn’t choose this for himself, he can’t help it, and he doesn’t want to be this way. He gets frustrated by it, just as anyone would.
We have a good relationship, and he tries to educate me. He answers my endless, clueless questions and sends me the occasional article when he finds one that resonates with him. When I think he’s in danger, I ask, “Do you need help?” “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” He doesn’t expect me to understand exactly what he’s going through – and it’s OK that I don’t. I just need to be there for him.
Right now, we’re in a good spot. Remission, if you will. But for how long? We never know. Bad days and bad thoughts come and go – and probably will forever. It’s challenging, but with treatment and support, he’s managing his condition. And even better, he’s striving for healing and he’s reaching out to help others.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.