The Part of My Mental Health Journey I've Kept Hidden for 30 Years

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, a nationally recognized time to raise awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues and to help reduce the stigma so many of us experience.

So… let’s talk about it.

For those of you who know some of my pre-“Just Shake It Off” story, you know I’ve struggled with my own mental health issues. I’ve fought, and still do fight, my own battle with depression. I first was required to seek the counsel of a mental health professional 30 years ago. Knowing the stigma mental health issues tend to carry today, in 2021, just imagine what that was like 30 years ago, in 1991.

You see, I  have a story to share and I don’t know quite how to go about it. I’m hoping to swiftly work my way through this writer’s block … which should actually more correctly be referred to as a bravery block. In sharing this story, I’m asking myself to be more raw and more authentic than ever before, and the truth is, I’m scared.

Deep down, I think I always knew it was inevitable I would share this story, I just didn’t know when. I came so close to sharing it a couple of months ago on a significant date in March, but I lost my courage. And I regret that. I regret that because I will always wonder if I had worked through that fear and found the courage to share this story three months ago on that day in March … could I have changed another story two months ago on a day in April?

Project Semicolon ;

Have you ever heard of Project Semicolon? It is an American nonprofit organization founded in 2013 and known for its advocacy of mental health wellness and its focus as an anti-suicide initiative. But why did the organization choose such a seemingly random name and symbol for their identity? I’m glad you asked, because the word-nerd writer in me loves this creative connection. And it is not random at all.

An author uses a semicolon when they could’ve used a period and chosen to end their sentence, but instead … chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life. The semicolon symbolizes you, deciding your life, your sentence, your story, is not over yet. And I think that’s a pretty cool connection. So, now when you see a semicolon used outside of a traditional piece of writing, you’ll understand the significance of that semicolon.

Inked.

The author's tattoo "Cont;nue" with bracelets

That photo up there? That’s me. That’s my arm and my tattoo. My semicolon tattoo. I got my semicolon tattoo in 2015 after finding my way through a dark time. I got it as a reminder that, as the author of my story, I chose to continue my story.

I got it as a reminder.

Because on March 19, 1991 … I made a different choice.

As the author of my story, I chose, on that day, to end my story.

Cont;nue

I am a survivor of a suicide attempt.

Wow.

That is the first time in 30 years I’ve said those words “out loud” to more than one person at a time. And it terrifies me.

Very, very few people who did not know me in 1991 know this about me. Well, they didn’t.

I was 18 years old. I was in my freshman year of college at Northern Michigan University in Marquette on scholarship. It was a Tuesday. It was Wednesday before doctors could say with any confidence I would survive.

This is so hard. I can close my eyes, 30 years later, and be back to that day in an instant. Everything is right there … the sights, the smells, the sounds — everything. But, I don’t know how much to share. I don’t want my story to be a trigger for anyone. But, I also don’t want to disguise the reality of what this is, what this looks like, and what this feels like. Bob Goff, a well-known author and public speaker I admire says, “We can’t fix what we don’t take the time to understand.” So, I guess I’ll just start trying to help us all understand and I’ll see where the words lead.

Where it started.

I absolutely loved high school! I know, I can hear so many of your groans from here. I recognize I’m in the minority, but I really did love high school and would do it again in a heartbeat.

I had a summer job. I had a car. I had friends. I had sports. I had excellent grades. And I had a plan. I knew where I was going after high school and what I was going to study.

3 photos of the author at her graduation, a tall, white woman with curly blonde hair smiling

I know how to work hard. My parents instilled that in me and they led by example. That summer job — I started when I was 12 and worked there until I was nearly 19. That car — I made biweekly payments to my parents. The sports — as a softball pitcher, I challenged myself to throw 100 pitches a day. I wanted to be faster and stronger and that wasn’t going to happen without hard work. As a basketball player — I played for Ike, no further explanation about hard work needed. But the excellent grades. I loved academics and the grades came easily. I still worked hard to stay on top of things and I still had to study, but none of this was a struggle. I never really needed to ask for help. Except trigonometry. We’re not going to talk about trigonometry.

What happened?

In August of 1990, our moms helped me and my best friend since kindergarten move into our dorm. It was all there, right in front of me. My plan. My dream. In real life. I was starting college with my best friend and I loved everything about it. Campus was easy to navigate and there was always something fun to do. We got along quickly and easily with our suitemates. I liked my flexible schedule, my professors and (almost) all of my classes. There was that one class, a math class, that had me redeclaring my major only one month in, but, other than that, things really were just how I had pictured them.

Until they weren’t.

I thought being academically strong and moving smoothly through high school meant I was well-prepared for college-level academics. I had the tools I needed. I was a diligent note-taker. I would study and restudy exam content. I always loved turning in a well marked-up and crossed-out rough draft. And I had survived multiple peer reviews. It wasn’t until I started struggling in one of my college classes that I realized there was one tool I was lacking. One very important tool. In high school, I had never had to ask for help. And now that I needed it, I had no idea how to ask for it. And things got out of control. Quickly.

I was stuck on an assignment and needed to ask for help. But, I didn’t know how to do that. So, I didn’t finish my assignment. And, in my mind, I couldn’t go to class with an incomplete assignment. So, I skipped class. Just this once. But, when I looked at the syllabus and saw the topic of the next lecture, I knew I would have trouble comprehending it because it piggybacked off the assignment I didn’t complete. And, again, in my mind, I couldn’t go to class unprepared. So, I skipped class… again. I promised myself that was the last time. But it wasn’t the last time, far from it. My lack of participation snowballed to another class, then another class, and another… until I was barely going to class at all. What was the point? There was no way I would catch up now.

I went home for Christmas break and pretended everything was OK. No — more than OK. I pretended everything was great! I feigned pride over my (in)completed fall classes. I falsely proclaimed an equal level of excitement over my class schedule for the upcoming spring semester. And I intercepted the mail when fall semester grades were sent home. There was absolutely no way my parents could see those grades. No way I could face my parents and tell them I was on academic probation. I couldn’t face myself. Salutatorian, there on scholarship, turned failing student, there on academic probation. Awesome.

Back to school.

I returned to campus in January and was actually a teeny bit excited about a fresh start. Christmas break had given me the time to reset and reprioritize… or so I thought. Upon my return to campus, I swiftly found out I had officially lost my scholarships. No more NMU Presidential Scholarship and no more Medusa Corporation Outstanding Scholar Award. In my rational, healthy mind, I knew this was going to happen. But in my irrational, unhealthy mind, I felt like I had been sucker-punched. And to top it off, I had also ruined my sister’s opportunity to apply for and actually make deserved use of the Medusa Scholarship.

It wasn’t just because of the grades and the scholarships. Sure, that was the catalyst for the downward spiral. But, there were plenty of other challenges that felt unbearable, insurmountable. I’m choosing not to share all of those details. Although not everyone who was a part of my life back then is currently an active part of my life, I greatly respect all of them and their privacy is important to me.

I didn’t tell my parents, or my best friend, or my suitemates, or any of my friends how deeply I was hurting.

And I never asked for help.

I gave up.

I no longer went to any of my classes. I didn’t go to any sporting events or movie nights or dorm parties. I began losing all of the friends I had made.

And still, I never, not once, asked for help.

And now, things had gone on for too long. There was no way I could admit to my parents how terribly I had messed up. There was no way I could return to my little hometown for the summer and face the friends and family and community I knew I had let down. Hell, I could barely face myself in the mirror. There was nothing I could do.

Except… there was one thing I could do.

So, on that Tuesday afternoon in March, I did what I saw as the only way out.

I waited until all three of my roommates had left for class.

Then, I waited a little while longer to make sure none of them came back for anything forgotten.

I started writing a letter I couldn’t find the words to finish.

And then, I tried to take my own life.

I attempted suicide.

And I survived.

Afterword.

While this may seem like the appropriate spot to say “the end” and sign off of this part of the story, it’s really only the beginning. As hard as this has been to write, and as exposed as I feel right now, there is so much more I need to tell you.

Suicide — completed, attempted, interrupted — suicide on any level leaves in its wake so much collateral damage, so much heartbreak. And we need to talk about it. If we’re ever going to fix this, we need to take the time to understand this.

I’m adding a new category to my blog focusing on mental health awareness and suicide prevention. In that space, I will continue sharing more of this part of my story with anyone who wants to learn more. If you have questions, please don’t be afraid to ask them. We don’t know what we don’t know. If it’s something I’m not comfortable answering, I’ll respectfully let you know. But if answering the hard questions, if sharing the raw details, helps just one person feel less alone and less desperate, then it will be worth it.

I wish this didn’t feel so urgent and necessary. I wish I didn’t feel like I needed to do this. But, it does and I do. I feel this pull, this responsibility to do more.

Back of a person clicking their heels together jumping

As I said at the beginning of this, I lost the courage to write and share this part of my story back in March. And I will always wonder if I had just been brave enough… could I have reached Tanner…

I need to do more. I need to do better. For myself, for Tanner and for all those I love. I don’t know with any measure of certainty exactly what more or better looks like right now, but I’m going to be brave enough to try to figure it out.

Opportunity to help.

As a way to bring attention to the importance of suicide awareness and to honor all those affected by suicide, I’ve designed a new semicolon t-shirt and added it to the Just Shake It Off Store. Profits from the sales of this shirt will be gifted to the Michigan Association For Suicide Prevention (MASP) in Tanner’s name.

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