I’m not a tattoo guy but I really like the idea behind the semicolon tattoo. It is the superhero story of punctuation; the humble semicolon called to greater purpose.
It began with the Semicolon Project, an American movement wanting to launch an ongoing conversation about depression and mental illness.
The idea is that the semicolon represents a point where the author could have ended their sentence but chose not to. As a tattoo, the semicolon becomes a symbol of hope and determination.
This little tattoo evidently carries more weight than a mere passing trend for those who get it. One description I read said that the tattoo is a reminder to pause, breathe, and keep going.
I think it is incredibly powerful; a simple punctuation mark that is being used to drag depression out of the darkness and into the light.
Depression is not a logical illness. It doesn’t care if you’ve won Lotto or just scored a date with an All Black. It is a chemical rebellion in the brain that has utter disregard for anything good that might be going on outside.
One of the most unhelpful things we can say to someone who is depressed is: “Why? What do you have to be depressed about?” They probably can’t answer those questions because depression is its own boss and doesn’t need a reason.
Depression is not sadness. Sadness is what happens when something sad happens. People get sad all the time for all sorts of valid reasons.
Depression is more about feeling mysteriously drained of vitality. It is a lack of momentum. It is gumboots filled with porridge. It is living on dial-up in a world of ultra-fast.
Depression makes everything bland. It is a mono earplug. It is fish and chips with no salt.
In the secret world of the depressed person, death can become a morbid preoccupation. A bit like buying a new car; if you’ve been looking at Hondas, you start to notice Hondas at every intersection. In the same way, the depressed mind goes shopping for gloom and notices darkness at every corner.
It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wanting to die; it is simply a detached curiosity, a dull fascination.
It is not until people are clear of the fog that they realise in retrospect just how opposite of normal that dark thinking was.
If you ever find yourself in such a space, be assured that it is not normal but that the sunlight will return. You just need to get some help; it’s not something you can easily navigate on your own.
This is why the semicolon symbol has the potential to be so powerful. Whether it thrives as a tattoo or ends up on T-shirts doesn’t really matter. It is a mark of solidarity and a note of encouragement, a reminder that the grey weather is not permanently fixed in place.
I read a fascinating account of a West African exorcism, as told by Andrew Solomon in an excellent book of true stories called The Moth. Partly for research, Solomon submitted himself to the ndeup, a ritual that casts out the evil spirits of depression with ram intestines and chicken blood and drumming and spitting and dancing. The whole thing sounds completely bonkers.
As part of the ritual, an entire village took the day off to offer him raucous support. Solomon didn’t buy into any of the spiritualism but he did experience the cathartic power that came with being cheered on by the community in the sunshine.
The best treatment for darkness is a dose of light. If a simple semicolon can help draw back the curtains, even a tiny bit, so much the better.
Fly, little semicolon. Save the world.
First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.