Belonging and the power of punctuation.

I’m not one to follow trends. I’m usually much happier doing my own thing, probably because I rarely feel accepted by society, communities or groups of people. It might be more accurate to say that I feel unacceptable but whatever the truth is, I’m definitely more comfortable walking my own path. Recently two events have challenged this view.

Back in March, I started art therapy and the group of women with whom I share one afternoon each week have become an incredibly important part of my life. They’re my most significant support network, given that however awesome my best friend is, one person cannot be called a network – our government may feel able to change the definition of words like poverty but that’s not what I’m about…

I’ve been thinking a lot about my art group and why, when it takes me half a lifetime to trust most people, they’ve become so important to me in such a short space of time. I love them, I really do.

People with mental health issues are pushed to the very edge of humanity by the prejudice of others. We are made to beg for understanding and acceptance when none is freely given. We must seek out hope and compassion from a society that readily turns its back on us. We need to be understood if we are to survive. We need to feel cared for if we are to make it to the end of yet another painful day devoid of meaning. So where do we find the basic human rights that are so often denied us? With each other.

These relationships are not necessarily easy (especially if they include me) but the connection we have and the shorthand we can use with each other are enough to make even the most challenging of days bearable. We understand and are understood. Our friendships take us out of our daily struggles and yet bring us home to ourselves in the most powerful of ways. We are accepted for who we are. We can grieve for who we had hoped we would become. We can find a fragile optimism for our future, even if the only future we can contemplate is tomorrow.

When I’m at art therapy I feel completely accepted and part of something much greater than the sum of its part – and the parts themselves are all pretty fabulous. It makes my heart swell with gratitude and ache with sadness, the latter because I’ve never felt part of a group before, not really. I’m just glad that I had no idea what I was missing for all these years.

The second event that’s challenged my feeling of otherness is the rise of the semi-colon tattoo. In case you’ve missed it, the semi-colon tattoo means “my story does not end here” – it’s the punctuation used when a writer could have ended their sentence but chose not to. Project Semicolon started as a faith-based social media movement “dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury”. I like tattoos and if I had the money I’d have far more than I do, but I don’t like following the crowd in my choice of inking – until now. I’m now the proud and slightly giddy owner of a semi-colon tattoo.

It could be said that my decision was made out of sheer rebellion and utterly spontaneous – unless you count spending a couple of hours with one drawn in Biro on my wrist as the basis for a considered decision. But it also feels like it’s the result of months of thought and reflection.

I’m not religious and so I did check that Project Semicolon didn’t exclude non-Christians but for me, the semi-colon tattoo is about belonging. It’s about being part of a movement that refuses to wear the shame of a society that tries so hard to ignore us. I will not be ignored any more.

In the three long years since my first formal diagnosis I’ve had the standard set of reactions from people whom I consider to be friends – some good, some bad, some downright ugly. What’s surprised me most is the relationships that initially seemed supportive but ended when I began to make the changes I needed to start my recovery. When I’m well I assert myself more, I won’t be shut up. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. It’s why I try to be upfront about my mental health issues, otherwise we’re all using too much energy trying not to look at the particularly large elephant that’s plonked itself in the corner of the room. Ignoring people might work for a while but then the ignored start getting together and comparing notes. Individual voices merge and become stronger. When we stand together we’re a little more difficult to brush aside.

I’ve always been slightly irritated by Chinua Achebe’s assertion that suffering can give rise to something beautiful. I’ve never been able to see past the end of Brief Encounter  – all politely pained expressions and Rachmaninoff at his romantic best. Suffering can be beautiful when it’s on the silver screen or when it’s somebody else’s – but for your own to act as catalyst for loveliness? That’s just crazy talk isn’t it? I’m not sure I think so anymore. Suffering can be a catalyst for beauty and people can create the most wondrous things – artwork, movements for social change, friendships – from the direst of circumstances. Together they can forge an abundance of hope and joy, even in places where there was none to be found.

My story does not end here.

With thanks to Zac at Skinzophrenic.

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