Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I got a semicolon tattoo so I’d be honest about my mental illness

Chatting at the bus stop with my five-year-old, volunteering at my three-year-old’s preschool, and hopping in my minivan for groceries, it’s always there:

A little black semicolon tattooed on the edge of my right wrist.


When I heard about #ProjectSemicolon, which involves displaying a semicolon (usually on your wrist, but it can be anywhere) to symbolize that the author could have ended a sentence but chose to continue (i.e. your story, your life, is not over yet), I knew I had to get one. It would be there to show support to other people struggling with mental illness ...

... but mostly so I would stop lying to everyone around me.

I second-guessed myself during the weeks leading up to the appointment. I wondered if I would regret getting such a personal tattoo in a place where people were sure to ask me about it. I was nervous about what I would say. I didn't know if I wanted to be an ambassador for mental health.

I know, I know. It’s terrible that even the people with depression can be shy about talking about depression. But if we don’t start, how is the stigma ever going to go away?

I’ve battled depression and anxiety since I was a teenager, but only a handful of people knew. I talked with several doctors who encouraged me to try medication, but I refused because I didn’t want to feel like a different person. I can handle it, I told them. I’ve handled it so far.

I had whooping bouts of postpartum depression after having our son and daughter, but I didn’t accept medication then either. Our children gave me a newfound will to live because I knew they needed me, but they also filled me with a paralyzing fear that I wouldn’t be good enough for them. I knew I was horribly broken, but I was afraid that in “fixing” myself I would lose myself and become a drugged-out zombie.

I rarely hinted about my depression on my parenting blog, and when I did it was with the topic tag “Hard times” because I couldn’t type the word. Depressing people are depressing! Everybody feels sad sometimes! Nobody likes to talk about it! Just stop -- it’s fine.

I put pressure on myself to “suck it up,” both personally and professionally, but I was dying inside.

Over time, I learned how to somewhat manage without medication. I knew I found joy in making things, so I threw myself into projects. Time alone was critical, but so was socialization. Exercising a few times a week in Zumba classes eased my anxiety and made me happier. Eating like crap and not getting enough sleep was bad for me, so I began making real efforts to be healthy. I read books and articles on managing depression and anxiety, and felt perversely proud of myself for not “needing” to be on any medication.

But it wasn’t enough.

I dipped to an all-time low in March after having a surprise hysterectomy at the age of 31. I sobbed in bed and mourned the babies I would absolutely, positively never be able to have.

The light went out of my eyes

I missed my regular life, and taking care of the kids. I became convinced I didn’t have any real friends, despite the care packages and cards. Without my usual “fixes” like sewing and painting and creating, I felt useless and hollow.

I couldn’t pull myself back all of the way, even after fully recovering from the surgery. Everything was falling apart. I hated myself. I felt like an awful mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. My career felt meaningless and empty. At the gentle urging of a good friend, I broke down and told my doctor I was finally ready to try medication.

Hours after filling the dreaded prescription, I was smiling at the T-ball field and acting like nothing was wrong.

I was, after all, The Mom Who Has Her Act Together. The Mom Who Is Always Early. The Mom Who Always Brings Snacks and Hosts The Best Playdates. Hardly anybody knew what was happening inside my head, because I never told them. I excelled at living on the surface.

Mental illness isn’t always obvious. 

It’s not always the inability to get out of bed, or gaining weight, or withdrawing, or losing interest in what you like to do. Sometimes it’s struggling to breathe while you panic about all of the balls you’re juggling, and wondering how you can possibly get through another day. Sometimes it’s looking at the people you love and feeling like you are completely, utterly failing them. Sometimes it’s laughing and making small talk when you’re not sure you want to be alive.

I was terrified the medication would cloud my thoughts and affect my work. I started with one pill and followed the instructions to gradually work up to two, and then three. What if it was harder to write? What if I acted spacey around my children? What if I couldn’t focus or meet my deadlines?

I had worked up to my full dose, four pills, on exactly the same day as my tattoo appointment. I jingled the little yellow capsules in my hand and gulped them down with a sip of water. I printed out a photo of a semicolon tattoo I liked, and marched into the studio to “come out” as a person with mental illness.



Never one to half-ass something, I also got a tiny dotted bow on my left wrist, because bows are a symbol of strength -- I think of it as “a best friends necklace with myself” and a reminder to be kind to myself.

The word “Create” is now scrawled along my right forearm, in my own handwriting, as a nod to my ongoing “cure” of survival by making beautiful things.

I’ve heard people describe depression as feeling like they were moving through life underwater or in a fog, and they said taking antidepressants helped them feel like themselves again -- helped them feel clearer.

What I learned was that I wasn’t in a fog or under water. I was clinging to the edge of a shore -- just my head and shoulders in the heat of the sand, and freezing water rushing over the rest of my body.

Taking antidepressants has allowed more of my body to crawl up onto the sand. To feel the warmth of the sun. To feel like myself again.

I’m doing really well these days, but who’s to say how I will feel in the future? Yes, I am a happy mom, wife, and professional. But the icy water is always going to be there, washing over my feet, just like the black ink on my wrist. That little semicolon is a quiet reminder that I’m a fighter, and I can get through the darkness.

I'm proud of what I've gone through, and that little semicolon won’t let me forget that my story isn’t over yet.

I’ve gotten hold of a sturdy rock and wrapped my arms around it. I’m happy and grateful to be living life on the shore, and I’m kicking as hard as I can to keep that tide from dragging me back under.

7 comments:

Krista said...

Heather - thanks for sharing. I'm glad the medication is working and that life feels good again. I had the same feelings when I was diagnosed with depression - that I could handle it without pills. After realizing I needed more help, I started them. It was wonderful when one day I realized I was feeling like my true self again. Something I hadn't felt like in years. I wish you the best of luck.

Shannon Cleary said...

Thank you for sharing, Heather. You are also The Mom Who Is Kind, Strong And Brave xx

Liz J. said...

Bless you for this post. I've always thought you were a rock star. You always show compassion for others, and i am glad to see that extends to yourself. Good luck on your journey.

Anonymous said...

Heather,

This was an extremely moving article. Many years ago I lost my brother to depression, and my father struggled all his life. I had my own problems in my 20s and 30s as well. At that time I was an unbeliever and thought that religion was a hopelessly outdated relic of a bygone era. Over the years that changed dramatically, and now I don't know how I could possibly live without a strong spiritual foundation. I know first hand that real, permanent healing is possible, but for me it took divine power to accomplish it.

We are praying for you and your family.

Steve (Lisa's husband)

Janet Nielsen said...

What a brave post Heather - good for you. I'm sorry to hear you've gone through this but so glad you now feel you can talk about it and are taking steps to feel better. Sending you a big virtual hug :)

Little Sis said...

You have always put everyone else's needs before your own. I'm so happy that you've been strong enough to take all these steps for yourself. I am also so proud of you for being courageous enough to share your story - because you're right, no one with mental illness wants to talk about it. You are a role model for me and everyone else who has struggled with these issues, and the world needs more people like you!

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