A few people have told me I shouldn’t share this story. Some fear it will give people ideas. Others think it is too shameful to share. But my reason for sharing is simple – I wish I hadn’t felt so alone all those years ago.
The picture is of my newest tattoo. Call it a “stylized semicolon” if you will.
Project Semicolon is a non-profit initiative focused on promoting mental health and preventing suicide. Semicolon tattoos are worn by those who have lost someone to suicide, those who love someone who battles suicidal thoughts because of mental illness, those who battle mental illness themselves, or those who themselves have survived suicide.
Why a semicolon? It’s a punctuation mark used in place of a period when a writer chooses not to end a sentence. The semicolon joins two sentences into a longer sentence. As for the stylized portion of my tattoo – an eighth note in place of the dot – there’s a very simple answer. Music became my lifeline during a very, very dark period.
We’ll call my bully “Oscar” (not going to use his real name because he doesn’t deserve that much respect).
I was about halfway through my 8th grade year the first time he walked up behind me in the hallway and muttered, just loud enough for only me to hear, “You know you’re worthless, right?”
I was stunned.
I stopped walking. He went around me and continued down the hallway like nothing had happened. It was the first time I’d ever had that kind of encounter with him. But it was certainly not the last.
“Oscar” and I attended a small school – about 25 kids per graduating class – but we didn’t really spend much time around each other. He preferred to play sports while I was already a committed performing arts geek.
To this day, I have no clue why he chose me.
From that first encounter, it just got worse. Multiple times a day, he’d find a way to get behind me in the hall, close enough to say horrible things that only I could hear –
“Nobody actually thinks of you as a friend. They are just pretending.”
“The world would be perfect if you weren’t in it.”
“Do us all a favor. Just kill yourself.”
“Religious freak music nerds like you have no right to go on living.”
You get the idea. At this point in my story, someone usually asks, “Why didn’t you tell someone?!” I tried to. Once. I hinted that really cruel, hateful things were being said to me on a regular basis by a fellow student. I was told that I needed to sit down and talk to the student so I could find out what I had done that made him angry. It was the first time I entertained the thought that it might be my fault. (Side note – I never again went to that particular teacher for advice.)
I was on my own. I knew that “Oscar” wasn’t the least bit interested in a sit-down. And, after a moment’s reflection, I knew that nothing I might have done warranted his behavior.
Summer offered a reprieve and I started my freshman year, hopeful that he had moved on. Or forgotten.
No such luck.
Every day. Multiple times a day. A fellow high school freshman “encouraged” me to end my own life.
Three different times during my freshman year, I made plans to give “Oscar” what he wanted.
Let me be crystal clear – I made three different attempts to end my own life because I knew it would finally get him to shut up.
But I survived. The “how” doesn’t matter much. The fact that I’m still here 30+ years later is what’s important.
With about six weeks left in the school year, “Oscar” goofed. I had started walking so close to the wall that my arm was practically brushing against the wall. The hope was “Oscar” might back off if he had to risk others hearing. His verbal attacks lessened but didn’t end.
Then it happened. He leaned in over my shoulder, risking having someone else hear as they walked by –
“You should do us all a favor and just end it.”
Her name – real name, this time – was Carla –
“Are you kidding me?! Did you really just say that to her?!”
“Oscar” nearly ran down the hall. Carla stopped me and asked how long “Oscar” had been saying those kinds of things to me. I started to cry. The next few moments are a blur. Carla and I were headed to the same class so she walked me as far as the door, got the teacher’s attention and asked her to meet us in the hall. I don’t remember what Carla’s explanation was, but the teacher gave us permission to be a few minutes late so I could go compose myself. As I was in the bathroom drying my tears and splashing water on my face, the story spilled out. Carla promised that she was going to make sure it all stopped.
Carla grabbed some mutual friends and simply told them “Oscar” had been messing with my head and asked them to help her make sure that I wasn’t left alone long enough for him to start up again. Walking to class, eating lunch, even heading to after-school rehearsals . . . I never had to worry about running into “Oscar” alone. They continued their companionship into the next school year.
I would change high schools at the end of football season the following school year. With the change of location, I got a chance to decide exactly who I was going to be.
So I got reacquainted with myself. True, “Oscar’s” verbal assaults had ended, but his words had stuck. They ran on a loop in my head that I couldn’t silence completely. The only way to fight them was to drown them out with the things that brought me joy. I remembered how much I loved music. How much I cherished playing the piano. So I poured my time and energy into that. Music became my life-line and the means by which I returned to a more realistic sense of myself.
In other words, I chose to be me.
Don’t get me wrong – life hasn’t been perfect. There have been really dark moments when I forgot who I was and allowed others to try and write my story. But I choose to keep moving forward. Sometimes it’s only a baby step and there are still times I fight with the ugly words that keep creeping back into my head. But my story isn’t over.
This new tattoo is a reminder of the whole experience. A reminder that I have the strength to make a better choice. And, hopefully, it’s a conversation starter. A chance to encourage those fighting their own dark battles; a chance to encourage them to keep looking for a reason to take one more step forward. The another . . . and another . . . and another . . .
Because the story isn’t over.