Yesterday I went and got a beer after work. The young woman pouring my IPA had a small tattoo on her wrist. It looked like a semicolon but I was unsure. I asked her if I could get a better look at it. She said, yeah.
“You know she died,” I said.
“Who,” said the young woman, her short blond pigtails jutting from her military patrol cap.
“Amy. The woman who started ProjectSemicolon.”
“What was it? Suicide?” the young woman retorted.
“Yeah, it was.”
“What is this some kind of joke?”
“No,” I said. “I’m serious… as serious as”
“So what does this mean? Was it all a lie then?” she asked, her confusion and her anger with me building.
“No. It’s not a lie, no. It’s a part of a struggle, her lifelong struggle. It’s uh… it’s something we have to deal with day in and day out.”
But she wasn’t listening anymore. She walked away, gone on an extended break that lasted till I drank my pint and left.
I learned of Amy’s work when I started to see the semicolon inked on so many people. But I didn’t know Amy’s name until I read the news of her recent death on Twitter. The movement she speared to change taboos regarding the topic of suicide and how people with mental illness are treated will be seen as no less impactful as the movement Dr. King speared to change white society’s treatment of blacks; I am not overstating her influence. Amy changed the world for us with punctuation.
When I was a child in the mid 1980s the only frank mention of mental illness and self harm I can remember is the Suicidal Tendencies song, “Institutionalized.” At its crux the angry narrator’s parents tell him, “we're afraid you're gonna hurt somebody and we're afraid you're gonna hurt yourself, so we decided that it would be in your best interest if we put you in a place where you could get the help that you need.” Of course, that suggestion was met with no shortage of outrage because it was the parents themselves who were the source of the narrator’s anguish. I could totally relate. But that was 1985 and the only people who knew about the song were metal heads like me. Open, realistic discussions surrounding the issue didn’t start until Dan Savage started his It Gets Better campaign followed a few years later by Amy’s Project Semicolon.
Up until then if you thought about or committed suicide you were weak. You were selfish. You were an ingrate who didn’t know how good you really had it. You were taking the “easy way out.” You were the recipient of overwhelming stigmatization and so you kept your mouth shut.
Now some are doubtful about the efficacy of the work, seeing how the most visible advocate for suicide awareness finally succumb to suicide. Her death is incredibly sad, not so much for us but for her; that unbearable pain she was trying to endure causes me to feel a deep sadness. I know that pain. But I’ve also learned the self care that will curb the suicidal pain. It is sad because Amy spent so much time engaged in the pursuit of helping others, she neglected to care for herself. She literally gave herself over to the cause, a cause that will not recede but grow in strength and importance. She’s gone but with her final act she taught us one last thing. She has reminded us of the importance of our daily mindfulness and self care. Amy's pain is over but her positive contribution to society will live on forever.