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The Semicolon Tattoo

4 Mar

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I heard about Project Semicolon a few years ago and read the story of the founder, as well as some of the submission stories on the website. It was impossible not to be touched by the heart-wrenching tales of struggle, loss, conflict, and sadness. Each story ended on a high note, with the protagonist learning something about him or herself, and finding a way to exist and contribute in the societies that we find ourselves thrown into.

Every person who wrote in was linked by some struggle with mental illness, either in themselves or manifesting in their loved ones.

PROJECT SEMICOLON IS A GLOBAL NON-PROFIT MOVEMENT DEDICATED TO PRESENTING HOPE AND LOVE FOR THOSE WHO ARE STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS, SUICIDE, ADDICTION AND SELF-INJURY. PROJECT SEMICOLON EXISTS TO ENCOURAGE, LOVE AND INSPIRE.

Throughout my life, I’ve known many people who struggled with mental illness. Some of those stories end in tragedy, others in violence, and some end with hope and a commitment to move forward. My own personal struggle is one that I will continue to battle for the duration of my life. It affects every facet of my daily routine, my parenting, my marriage, and my relationships with my friends and family. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows. To quote Grey’s Anatomy, “I’m all dark and twisty.” But in the midst of the darkness and the twists, there have been serious, shining moments when I’ve been happier than I ever could have dreamed and I hang on to those memories, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to create more of them, not just for me, but for my kids, for my husband, for my family and friends. Everyone should have those moments when they laugh so hard they’re sore the next day, or you’ve done something so scary but so awesome that your body fills with adrenaline and you can’t stop talking about it even though it’s annoying everyone around you, or you accomplish something after six years that you’d almost given up on but gave one last push for.

how do you make the face for yay

There are moments in life when we feel so sad we aren’t sure how we could possibly go on and moments when we are so happy we couldn’t imagine not being present for every, single, moment of that happiness.

Merriam-Webster defines the semicolon as:

a punctuation mark (;) indicating a pause, typically between two main clauses, that is more pronounced than that indicated by a comma.

It doesn’t seem like much, but for the people involved in Project Semicolon, it means a continuation of their stories. It means that the stories of all of the individuals who struggle with mental illness and feel like giving up don’t need to end with a period…they can change. It’s still your life, your story, but it’s a little different than how it began. They story becomes hopeful, optimistic, and full of love. Project Semicolon gave people a chance to come together in a community and lean on one another for support. They share their stories and feel heard, accepted and loved. They find help if they want it. They find other people with incomplete, staggered stories and a sense of solidarity.

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A common denominator when it comes to mental illness is that often those afflicted feel very alone. Parents are frightened when they can’t help their children, spouses are hurt and confused, children wonder why they don’t feel loved, and all the while there is a struggle to retain the appearance of normalcy lest we be judged and deemed unworthy in the eyes of our peers, our families, and our friends. To be struggling and afraid and at times completely desperate and then to find ourselves physically alone and abandoned because of a lack of awareness and support for OUR support network is disheartening at best and fatal at its worst. The unthinkable is that in moments of vulnerability, when we ask for help, we find ourselves met with derision, mockery, disbelief, and a general consensus that we should “toughen up” or “get over it”. (For a list of things not to say, there’s a BuzzFeed article for that…of course. ;P)

It's just something that's happening

So…the semicolon tattoo.

A visual reminder that though you can’t see my internal struggle, it’s still there. That every day I have to make a choice to get out of bed or give up. That every day each situation requires the extra effort of sorting through my own feelings and instincts. Should I trust myself or should I ask for help? Is this a real feeling, or is it my illness? Where am I sitting on a rating scale of functional to dysfunctional? Am I causing irreparable damage to the people that I love? Is it better to be alone or should I trust my social network to soldier on in spite of how I may be feeling or acting? Is it too much pressure on them? How can I help them, help me? How can I teach my children that I love them unconditionally but there will be days when it might seem like I don’t? How do I treat this illness seriously while also not becoming a total drama queen?

Invisible Darkness

So…the semicolon tattoo.

A reminder to myself that my story is awesome, and continuing, and ever-changing. A reminder that I have a responsibility to help myself and to help others if I can. A commitment to being open and honest and  accountable for my experiences and struggles. An invitation for hugs. (Because sometimes that’s all you need.)

It’s easy to pretend that mental illness isn’t real, or isn’t as bad as you think, or can’t possibly be THAT terrible. You can’t see it. It’s devious. It can make you look and act as if everything is better than it ever has been, until it isn’t. It can make a mirror image look like a stranger. It makes your friend or sister or parent or child into someone you don’t recognize. I can guarantee you that the “tough love” approach rarely works.

So…the semicolon tattoo.

What do you do when someone you love is struggling with mental illness? Research. Lots of it. If they are unwilling to see someone who can help them, you can. You can learn how to be a support person, and a safe place for your loved one to be honest about how they are feeling without worrying that it is too much of a burden or that you “can’t handle it”. Listen. Listen. Listen. Ask questions. Kind questions. Questions that make it obvious that you don’t care about changing them, or pushing them, or rushing them. Questions that encourage them to keep talking. Questions that make them feel loved, cared for, and supported. Questions like, “How are you feeling? Is there anything you want to talk about? Shall we go with distraction or reality today?” Join them in their distraction. If they’re stuck in bed watching movies for three days, bring popcorn and jump in with them. Sometimes all it takes is another human being in the same room at the same time without any words exchanged at all. Sometimes it takes a good friend to say, “I’m worried about you. I’m coming over.”

The things that you can do vary from person to person, from perspective to perspective, and from experience to experience. The best thing you can do is learn as much as you can about mental illness and apply it to your interactions with the person that you love and care about.

A great place to start is here: 

The Canadian Mental Health Association: 
https://www.cmha.bc.ca/get-informed/mental-health-information/families-friends-help

From the American Psychological Association: 
http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/improving-care.aspx

The Self-Help Guides on 7 Cups of Tea (a free, anonymous website where you can talk to an actual person who will listen to you, no strings attached):
https://www.7cups.com/supportGuides/selfHelpGuides.php

Donate to Mental Health Organizations like:

The Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation:
https://bbrfoundation.org/

Kids Help Phone: 
https://www.kidshelpphone.ca/Teens/home.aspx

And on a lighter note, read all of the many helpful and informative illustrated cartoons available:

Hyperbole and a Half (where I’ve been getting most of these excellent images from, thank you Alli Brosh) 

This comic by Ryan Pequin:
Depression Parkour

My particular brand of mental illness LOVES it when people crack jokes. I love to laugh and if you can get me laughing, even through that hazy curtain of uncertainty, I will love you for it forever.

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So it makes sense that I wanted to be laughing when I made the decision to get my tattoo. I asked my sister to get one with me. To my surprise and delight, she agreed! Not only did I get to be there for her first ever tattoo (something that I REALLY love), we get to share this meaning between us. (Ideally EVERYONE I’m related to would get a semicolon tattoo and we’ll all be linked forever and ever…but that seems unrealistic. ;))

We found a tattoo parlour, booked our appointments, and to celebrate our birthdays (which are both in December) got our semicolon tattoos. They don’t match exactly, because like mental illness I liked the idea of each tattoo being representative of each of us. Each has meaning in its placement and design and I love that we were able to keep something so unifying still so individual. I’m so grateful to my sister for her support and love even while I have had some terrible lows, and I’m thankful that she feels like she can lean on me when she needs to.

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Everyone’s story is unique. It’s not my place to speak for everyone who struggles with any illness. All I can do is tell my own story and how I deal with it on a daily basis. Finding a community, showing support, educating myself, and reaching out to others either by being more authentic or, more frighteningly, risking pushing someone’s boundary by asking them what I can do for them.

My goal every day is to make someone else feel loved, and to give myself permission to let someone else love me. It’s going pretty well so far.

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