"If you can love endlessly, you can change lives."
More than 1 million people commit suicide every year. So I wanted to start a conversation that couldn’t be stopped. I wanted to start a conversation about mental illness.
Authors use semicolons when a sentence could end, but they choose to continue it. Through the Semicolon project, we are saying you are the author, the sentence is your life, and you are choosing to continue.
We're encouraging people to choose a semicolon and continue their story. In fact, create the longest run-on sentence you possibly can, because you ain't being graded.
Every year on April 16, our supporters celebrate National Semicolon Day and they'll post a picture of a semicolon on their social media using our hashtags. It's a giant awareness day for suicide prevention. Now people get the semicolon mark as a tattoo, and I’ve heard how people are seeing it and coming up to people and hugging them and saying ‘I’m glad you’re still here. I’m glad you’re still fighting.’
We want people to know that they’re loved and cared for, and that they’re not alone. We're doing that to help people who struggle with depression, suicide, addiction, self-injury, to overcome those barriers in their life, those things that when you struggle you feel are holding you back. If they know that they're not alone, they can keep on pushing forward.
“I live in Green Bay now, but I was born in Wausau and grew up in Antigo.
Antigo was a hard place for me to grow up. Sometimes I hated it. My best memories from my childhood were of my father. I always felt really connected to him and we were alike in so many ways.
My father was really compassionate. He had empathy. He had caring. He felt strongly, but he was also depressed. My guess is that he struggled for a long time with mental illness, and that he felt the pain of others while feeling the pain of his own.
When I was young, my dad and I were in a church group, and we were creating those little derby mobiles for races. I didn't want to create my derby car for speed, I wanted to create a little truck that resembled my father's truck, and we built it together.
It failed to race. But I made it because it was something of his; it's something that resembles him. I still have that truck, and when I look at it, I remember how we used to sit in the garage while he was woodworking. I remember laying on the driveway listening to the crickets and looking for the Big and Little dippers. Those are the young memories I have with him and those are really the only memories I have of him. People have told me that when I was younger, he used to chase me down the road and scoop me up and just hold on tight. He was a loving father.
My parents divorced when I was very young, at the age of 6. I had to make the hard choice of which parent to go with. Even though there was a new step-mom that I didn’t know very well, I knew I wanted to be with my dad. So I moved to Arizona to be with him.
But this new step-mom, when I got there, she was extremely abusive. Both physically and verbally, and she was very controlling of my dad. She would hit me, lock me up. Finally one day, I hit her back. She called the police.
The police took me away to juvenile detention. This was my first time in the system; I went into a shelter home. My mom was notified, and she came from Wisconsin to Arizona to pick me up. When we went to a court hearing, they asked if I wanted to go live with my mom or go into foster care. I still wanted to stay with my dad, but they said that wasn’t an option. So I went back to Antigo with my mom.
Things in Antigo didn’t go well for me. As a teenager, I was raped and it wasn’t investigated. I had become this enraged kid. I was in LD classes and I was just a rebel, honestly. There was so much trouble at school they decided to put me into a treatment facility called the Eau Claire Academy. I was very abusive towards myself, self-harming, suicidal. Eventually, they transferred me to Southern Oaks, a juvenile correctional facility in Racine for girls. I stayed there until I was 18.
While I was in there, I was very self-destructive. I got into altercations, which led to another charge. Things were feeling pretty hopeless, but here's where a small miracle happened: I got out when I was 18, and actually was able to get my HSED and graduate on time with my original high school class.
That gave me a bit of confidence, and best of all I thought: now that I’m out, I’m finally going to get to see my dad again.”
“My last conversation with my dad was on the phone when I was about 16. He told me he loved me. I told him that when I turned 18, I'm coming to see him, that his wife couldn’t stop me, and that’s where we left it. We hung up. He sent me a letter. He sent me a picture. And on September 9th of 2003, after my 18th birthday, his struggle with mental health caught up with him, and he took his life. I never made it back to see him.
After he died, I really just wanted to be with him. I felt I failed. I felt maybe if I kept my promise and I was good and got out of the system earlier, he would have been around. I think that tied in a lot to my struggle. My mental struggle was always there since I was a young kid, but having a clear mind and being an adult, I could see that my struggle was more so my choices after that.
There was still pain, but I chose to continue to self-medicate or do whatever I needed to do to survive.
The passion and connection I have with my dad goes hand in hand with the pain I live with because of his choice.”
“After spending five years in a cell, I didn't know how to socialize, how to interact, and more or less how to live a life.
I struggled throughout college. I was raped two more times, and I was in an abusive relationship that caused me to lose a pregnancy.
It was just too much, and I started getting into drugs, starting with prescription pain pills. I struggled to survive, to hide the pain of a brutal 19 years. I realized, like my Dad, I had a mental illness, and drugs were just the cover up.
I thought maybe it would give me a new start to get out of Wisconsin. So in 2008, I went into a treatment facility in New Jersey. I wasn’t there long, but afterwards I went off to Bible college. That college didn’t work out, so I left and went to Minnesota, where I enrolled in Bible college again and was accepted. Internally I was a mess - I was homeless, living out of shelters, but I was still getting good grades.
The school got report that I was suicidal and self-harming and said that I was a liability to their college, so they kicked me out two days before finals. It was a terrible disappointment. I came back to Wisconsin and continued to struggle with homelessness. I lived in Appleton at that time. Suddenly, despite being at my lowest point in life, I met someone.
I met David through some mutual friends of ours. From the get go, we liked each other but I kept assuming he would leave me. I kept asking ‘When are you going to walk away like everybody else?’ He told me he’s not walking away, and he never has.
Suddenly I had somebody rooting for me, and somebody that counted on me to get my life together. I moved from Appleton to Green Bay, where I started attending college and graduated with my associates degree in graphic design and a technical degree in crank technology. I could actually get a house. We got married in 2014.
After meeting DavidI was able to level out and pull myself together some. I started thinking about how I really benefited from having someone rooting for me, and started wondering if I could create something that would do that for others.
In April 2013 the Semicolon Project was born. I started it as a campaign online where I encouraged people to share their story of how they overcame depression how they found hope to continue on. I chose the semicolon as a metaphor: Authors use semicolons when a sentence could end, but they choose to continue it. The project says you are the author, the sentence is your life, and you are choosing to continue. I encouraged people to draw the semicolon on their wrist and to use the#semicolonproject hashtag.
The idea caught on and this one girl wrote a very well-written blog post about what depression took from her life and why she chose to get the semicolon tattoo and how she now has hope. That blog had reached over a million people and spurred fast growth. A lot of media reached out and the project spread fast.
I keep on describing it as a perfect storm. At first I knew it was going to be big, I just didn't know it was going to be this big.”
“I wasn’t ready for the spotlight. In July of 2015, the media picked up Project Semicolon. It started overseas. Ireland was my first interview, then New Zealand, Australia, Canada. New York was the first place in the U.S. to pick it up, and within six months, over 200 media outlets covered the project.
I became this public figure and every person I stood next to was this skinny, healthy, health nut. I was like what in the hell did I get myself into? Here comes the fat kid from Wisconsin all filled with cheese and beer. I became so self-conscious on the stage. I struggled with self-medicating, and there were some suicide attempts as well. I couldn't handle it. There was so much hate with the fame.
Now, I've grown the confidence to stand in the spotlight. I've always had the passion, but the passion's growing deeper. I'm still battling my demons from my past, but life is a constant journey, overcoming obstacles to become who you are. If you don't have those obstacles, you will never be the person you were meant to be.
Project Semicolon has now reached over 20 million people in 100 different countries. Over a million people have the semicolon tattoo and it continues to grow through speaking, through social media. Despite my personal struggles, it has been awesome.
Last year, we had our logo painted on the hood of a NASCAR driven by Thomas Praytor. His sister, Hayley, has struggled with depression. They had a connection with the project, so they kept it on the hood for several races, and I assume we’ll be on there next season, too. We’re also now on Forbes’ non-profit council and were named one of the Rodale 100.
So many young people have come to me in their pain and their darkness, wanting to give up. Now I've seen amazing success stories because people have the encouragement they were searching for that they couldn't find elsewhere.
There was this girl from Wyoming who came to me. She was self-harming and suicidal and really didn't like who she was. She just wanted to call it quits. After spending hours and hours with her, now she's doing great. She took Project Semicolon to her high school and she told her story in front of the school. She wrote me a letter and said thank you, because without you I wouldn't have been able to have my first heartbreak, to see my godson born, to have my first flat tire, to take my pottery class, to have the friends I have now, and most importantly to see that my father got sober.
Millions of people now have semicolon tattoos. There are thousands of stories I get saying that people have carried on. I wish to God my father was here to see it. I wish he would have known how much I loved him and what I created in his memory.”
- Amy, Green Bay, WI
[Editor's Note: We met and interviewed Amy in September of 2016, and with her input planned for her story to run in advance of National Semicolon Project Day, April 16, 2017.
Just two weeks before her story was due to run, Amy lost her long battle for mental health and took her life in March of 2017. We decided to share her story as planned - in advance of National Semicolon Day - to honor Amy and the legacy of what she built. Her story is a fierce testament to the power of what love can create, even in crisis, and the continuing need for mental health issue awareness and support. Amy’s life's work was to reduce stigma so others may find a way to continue their lives.
For anyone who needs help right now, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
Thank you, Amy.]