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A tribute to Project Semicolon’s Amy Bleuel by Michael

By Michael Landsberg

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

I remember the exact time that my life changed.  It was the moment that suicide ceased to be someone else’s tragedy.  Until then, when I thought about suicide it was as if I was living in a beach house in Hawaii.  Suicide was a distant war that had little relevance in my life.  On that day, suicide became my Pearl Harbor.  I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  

It was 5:25PM on August 31st 2011. Up until that point, I knew of many people who had taken their lives; but I didn’t know anyone who had.  That little word of takes it from the macro to the micro, from a societal issue to a personal issue, and from brainfelt to heartfelt.  

At 5:25PM with the sun shining on me and in me – my world changed.  It was then that I learned that my friend Wade Belak, had taken his life.

Since that moment I have learned of a hundred suicides, spoken to dozens of survivors of attempts, and many, many who were left behind.  Parents and children, brothers, and sisters – I have spoken to them all.  It’s not that they are scarred – a scar is a healed wound.  These people are all still suffering the pain from an open wound.  The bleeding may have stopped, but the pain remains.

Suicide has one ally, one compadre, one accomplice – and that is silence.

Since that moment I have learned a lot about suicide, but nothing more important than this: suicide has one ally, one compadre, one accomplice – and that is silence.   Hear that?  That’s your father, mother, sister, brother, friend not crying out for help.

This conspiracy of silence needs to be broken.  Depression sufferers will often go to any lengths to not give up their secret.  Like spies with precious information, they will keep their secrets no matter how intolerable the pain gets.

No one has tried harder or done more to break the silence than someone named Amy Bleuel.  Do you know the name?  Likely not.  Being a mental health warrior is not exactly high profile.  But in the community that I often hang out in – Amy Bleuel is a giant.  For the past 4 years, she spoke about suicide in a way that few others have.  But even in that small group of warriors she stood out because Amy was 100% genuine.  She was to suicide what Ryan White was to AIDS, what Lou Gehrig has been to ALS, and what Michael J. Fox is to Parkinson’s.

 She was taken by the illness she fought to publicize.

Amy Bleuel’s strength as a leader was/is in part because she was one of us.  There is no place in this fight for 4 star generals in spiffy uniforms with medals and honors dripping off them.  This is a battle fought by the grunts – the foot soldiers who battle every day for every inch of their lives.  That was Amy.

On March 23rd 2017 Amy died.  She was taken by the illness she fought to publicize.  She died at her own hand – guided by an illness that can often be unrelenting and merciless.  The urge to end one’s life only fades when the pain fades.  Amy’s pain never faded.   

Amy started an initiative called Project Semicolon.  I wish it had been around in 2011 when my buddy Wade was faced with his battle for survival.  This initiative spread to every corner of the earth.  Earlier this week, people celebrated World Semicolon Day.

Allow me to defer briefly to the symbol that Amy made famous – the semicolon.

The 14 English language punctuation symbols all gathered in one room.  The room was jammed to hear one of their own give the eulogy for Amy Bleuel.  Row after row – like lines on a page, they filled the pews and like some kind of undecipherable code, the symbols filled the page.  

Once they had all filed in, it was obvious that there was tension.  First, there were the cliques; the apostrophes and the quotation marks all thought they were above everyone else.  The dashes and the hyphens all had some weird identity crisis happening – they hated being mistaken for each other.  The question marks and exclamation marks all hated the periods, because they knew they were nothing without them.   

But they were there because they owed it to Amy.  Each was offered a chance to speak, but all deferred to the semicolon.  

When the semicolon rose, the room turned silent.  Everyone knew the emotion and the pain that was to come.  You see the semicolon had become something none of the other punctuation marks had become.  The semicolon was more than a punctuation mark; the semicolon was a symbol with real meaning.  The rest were little more than grammatical traffic signs; stop, slowdown, pause, but the semicolon was a statement all by itself.  

The semicolon waited for the room to settle.  The apostrophes took a while to settle because they acted like they owned the place.  Of course the exclamation points were the last to shut up – everyone knew they couldn’t contain their excitement.

The semicolon began to speak, “Thank you all for coming.  We are here because we lost someone precious to all of us – but semicolons like me are particularly crushed by the loss of Amy Bleuel.  Amy changed the way the world viewed us.  She did the unthinkable – she lifted us off the page and gave us relevance.  Amy gave me a life, a purpose, and a meaning.”  

The semicolon continued to speak – overcome at times by emotion.  “Amy took the most awkward and confusing of all the punctuation marks and gave us a purpose.  She found a way for us – the mixed offspring of a period and a comma – to find a place in the world.  She made us a symbol to all people who, like us semicolons, had been trying to find their own place in the world.  We semicolons never felt like we belonged with the periods or the commas.  Now we stand alone – upright and proud of our uniqueness in a world where the stigma of being an unusual punctuation mark can be pervasive.”

The semicolon continued.  “Amy Bleuel had it rough.  None of us live our lives on flat ground.  We all have hurdles and hills to climb and because they’re ours they can seem like they are higher than everyone else’s.  But learning about Amy’s, it’s clear that she had a monstrous accumulation of challenges, episodes, tragedies, and anything and everything else you can imagine.”  

“She didn’t hide her tortured past.  By the time she was 18 she had been physically abused, sexually abused, raped, had become a ward of the state, self-harmed, and had attempted suicide.  At 18 her father took his own life.  Between 18 and 30 she suffered more of the same – life was a boot camp every day for Amy – where just surviving was winning.”

“In 2013, as she put it – she ‘found a purpose for her pain.’  She founded a not-for-profit called Project Semicolon.  This project quickly became life saving for more people than anyone will ever know.  When asked why she chose us semicolons, Amy said simply, ‘A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to.  The author is you and the sentence is your life.’ ”

“Her using the semicolon made an instant statement that was simple, portable, and meaningful.  And it caught on.  People all over the world went to tattoo parlors and asked for one of us.  This, of course, included many who would never have considered a tattoo before and most would never have even considered entering the freakish looking world of the tattoo and piercing parlor.  The thought is bizarrely wonderful; what possessed the banker, the doctor, the school principal to bravely enter such a place?  I’m smiling just thinking about it.”

“What drove them there?  Amy.  Of course.  Amy Bleuel gave us all a way to make a statement that said ‘I am not ashamed.  I am not ashamed of my illness.  I am not ashamed of my son, my daughter, my wife, my father, my friend.’  We semicolons are a way to say all of that without saying all of that.”

Depression is impossible to understand if you haven’t felt it.

Here’s why Amy meant so much to so many.  Depression is impossible to understand if you haven’t felt it.  Living with depression is sometimes like living in Russia without speaking a word of Russian.

Depression is a language spoken only by those of us who have felt it.  Many wonderful people try to learn this language; few, if any of them, can.  The semicolon doesn’t explain to anyone what depression means.  What it says is “I am part of the fight.”  It’s a uniform that people can wear to be part of a revolution.

The semicolon continued.  “Amy knew that suicide was always hovering over her like a drone.  That’s why she said many times, ‘Just don’t let them forget why I was here, because that’s what’s important.’ ”

“We will not forget.  We semicolons will continue to silently remind people that your story isn’t over yet.  Your story will persevere in the hearts and minds of many – and on the calves and forearms and backsides of even more.  Sure, we lost our guide, but when the Sherpa falls, the climber doesn’t quit.  We continue the climb – even though it may be tougher.”

The lives you saved will forever mourn the life you couldn’t.

The semicolon stood upright, proud, and confident.  He finished his eulogy by inviting the parentheses up on stage.  Together the two of them stood side by side.  As they did all the punctuations smiled.  Together they made a wink.  Amy would have liked that.  

The semicolon was speaking for so many.  I never fought in a traditional war.  So when I say that Amy’s death made me feel like a soldier who lost a fellow warrior, I am only guessing.  I look at her death with the pragmatism of a soldier on the front lines where death is not uncommon.  We lost a wonderful friend and leader, but we will go on.  We will use our ammunition of sadness and anger, of pain and frustration, to motivate us to keep fighting this war.

Amy, I never met you, but I knew you.  I never spoke to you, but you spoke to me.  I never held your hand, but you held mine.

The lives you saved will forever mourn the life you couldn’t.

Comments

iam1in5
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This is such a beautiful tribute Michael. Thank you for writing and sharing. You do all those same things for all of us … you know us, you speak to us and you hold our hands. Thank you.

Lee_co1
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After my brother left us all I had for years was silence. I wanted to talk but nobody else did. I also suffered in silence. Nobody brings up his name. All but forgotten. No rememberacne because I think everyone is still hurting. And with the stigma attached to the death, makes ppl think it’s a family illness so they disassociate. This campaign is so important. My wish being it becoming more recognized for what it truly is. Society will learn to understand once ppl feel safe to open up and heal with the adequate support systems. For any of you contemplating please reconsider. It is a temporary solution for a permanent action. Stand up with others and change this. You can do it. Be proactive, because YOU matter.

Gary Robinson
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Thank you Michael . I’m sitting here with tears streaming down my face , but I at the very least I know that I’m not alone . I’ve lost friends and at times lost hope . Help me to fight this and help me to help others . I know that I’ve done nothing to cause this and yet it’s there most days . Why ? Heard explanations about seratonin imbalances etc . Doesn’t help . What helps is knowing that people are aware of this tragic decease and will fight it . Thanks Michael !

Donns
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;

Jude
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I know depression like I know my own face, but it still can surprise me. Coming up slowly, or drowning me suddenly, it is there. Ready. Waiting. The battle rages every day. I did not know Amy or of the Semi-Colon movement she started, but I applaud her. I celebrate her. And I mourn her. This eulogy hit me in the heart, and strengthened my resolve to continue using my experience to make a difference for someone else. Thank you Amy, and thank you to all those out there who share this disease. Depression is a potentially terminal illness – and needs to be treated as such.

Brenda
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I’m a 58 year old woman, who was diagnosed with bi-polar, after trying to commit suicide 20 years earlier, the same day my first grand son was being born in the same hospital, I was in. After many different combinations of cocktails, The Dr,s still can’t get it right. I have been diagnosed by 5 different phsychiatrist’s. Your friends all try to help but they have know idea, why you want to stay in bed for days, or not shower,or go out. Besides my suffering with my black cloud so has my family. They didn’t sign on for this but they all stuck by me. In that respect I am lucky I have a husband who understands. Along with bi-polar, I suffer from PTSD, due to physical, mental, and verbal abuse from my first husband. Then I was held up with a gun pointed at my head at the bank I worked at. I also suffer with anxiety. Because of this illness I am on Long Term Disability from a job I loved and now make half the income. Suicidal thoughts creep into my life more often then not. I see my phsychiatrist every other Tuesday for the last 20 years. We tried electro convulsive therapy, which worked for about a year. I do not keep my mental illness a secret, I want people to know I look just like them, mental illness does not pick one type of person. The worst is when people say snap out of it. Do they honestly think we like living day to day and how are we going to feel. I have been thinking for about a year to get a semi colon tattoo, I wish I didn’t wait this long, l am going next week. People that don’t suffer mental illness need to know how serious it is. NO MORE SECRETS.
R.I.P. Amy you will not be forgotten. You did not die in vain. I propose any one suffering, any type of mental illness get the semi-colon tattoo for Amy, so we can spread the word, as a symbol of mental illness. ;

Pat
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Thankyou Amy is all I can say. What a brace woman you were.
For years I’ve been misunderstood.
I am a 69 yr. old. Also I am a Christian.
Over & over folks say, ” you can’t be a Christian and be so Depressed.” ( anxiety) whatever you want to call it.
” You just don’t have enough faith.”
Well we Christians are no different than others in that way. Sickness, suffering & pain Rain on the just & the unjust.
Anyways, my story started many years ago. I thank God I’m still here to tell it.
God Bless You All as you continue to fight this daily battle. We will make it.
~ Pat Watkins-Stoddard ~ 💗🙏🏻🙏🏻

Dawnie
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Uhhh “heavy sigh”
So eloquent and the eulogy tugs at the heartstrings…going to design a beautiful semi colon tattoo now!♡

Sandra
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Thank you for sharing

Raymond’s Mom
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Thank for this beautiful tribute to Amy.

KimC
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Thank you for this beautiful tribute to my Cousin Amy ♡

Kim
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Thank you for this beautiful tribute to my Cousin Amy.

sua
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A beautiful way to explain the semi colon meaning and tell Amy’s story. I am getting my semi colon tattoo at a fundraiser for mental health on June 18 2017. I will always think of this story when I look at it. I am placing it on my hand so everyone sees it and so I can look at it when I am in crisis to remind me to not go there.

jen0828
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Thank you for sharing this Michael. I know about the semicolon tattoo. I didn’t know until recently about Amy. What a beautiful soul to try to help us while suffering from her own pain. R.I.P Amy…God Bless You xo

Br;guy
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Thank you Michael, this has really, really touched my heart.

6 weeks ago I lost a good friend, unfortunately he took his own life. I too am feeling an awakening, through my sorrow. I have BP and once seriously considered taking my life.
I am at a point right now in my life that I feel I need to do something, something Big, we need to slow down this train.
Only 2 weeks ago I got a tattoo: Grat;tude on my right arm. Amy’s incredible courage and perseverance has been a tremendous inspiration.
Michael, if you are aware of Project Semicolon operating organizationally in Canada I would appreciate it if you could contact me. 15 people a day, 4800 people a year in Canada…far too much Love to lose.
I hope you will be able point me in the right direction.

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