IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Semicolon Tattoo Has Nothing to Do with Project Semicolon

Several friends and my own stepmother had posted recently on my Facebook wall about it, as some sort of cross between “Hey, look at this” and “Hey, are you OK?”
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Kate Fussner
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Several friends and my own stepmother had posted recently on my Facebook wall about it, as some sort of cross between “Hey, look at this” and “Hey, are you OK?”

“Can I ask you something?” my older sister asked. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I have to ask.”

I knew what she wanted to ask. I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.

“The tattoo?” I replied.

“Yeah,” she continued. “I didn’t know if…”

She was referring to the semicolon on my left wrist, but what she really wanted to know was why I had gotten it in the first place.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not what you think it is.”

She was curious if it was my own part in Project Semicolon, a movement gaining popularity on social media in which survivors of suicide, addiction, depression and self-injury get tattoos of semicolons on their wrists in honor of the fact that they could have ended their lives (i.e., a period) but instead have chosen to pause and continue (hence the semicolon). 

Several friends and my own stepmother had posted recently on my Facebook wall about it, as some sort of cross between “Hey, look at this” and “Hey, are you OK?” It lingered awkwardly on my Facebook wall, unanswered.

Project Semicolon began in 2013, when the founder of the project got the tattoo to honor her father who had been lost to suicide. The Kate Fussner version of Project Semicolon began in 2008, months before my 21st birthday, when I wanted to honor my commitment to reading and writing.

I remember sitting on my Vassar College twin bed, poring over fonts, considering each version of the semicolon. This was to be my only tattoo, the tiniest rebellion I could think of for a person who never rebelled at all, and so it required a lot of consideration. 

With such a simple design, a semicolon alone, I had to consider just how it would be placed and just the right typeface, since I knew this was it for me. There would be no ellipsis to my tattooing phase. 

Vassar was just the right place for a bookworm like me.

Vassar was just the right place for a bookworm like me.

I had chosen the semicolon with all of the pretentious reasoning of a Vassar College English major: the semicolon signified not only a pause but as a linking symbol between two otherwise whole ideas: as a writer, I wanted to be the person who could show others the connections between whole ideas that they hadn’t considered before. I thought, at the time, that this was all very clever. 

With the company of my best friend, another English nerd, I went to the tattoo parlor on my 21st birthday with a printed design in hand.

“This is it?” the tattoo artist said. His sleeve tattoos seemed to glare at me, unimpressed by my commitment to tattooing.

“This is it,” I replied. Times New Roman. Size 72. It was classic, simple, and clear.

“I’m not even going to charge you for this,” he said. “I’ll charge you the seating price and no more.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but as long as the needles were clean and the job was quick, I was ready.

Afterward (i.e., 1 minute later), I stared at my reddened arm and thought, This is mine. Here is something that I have done. Here is something I will do.

Having had several surgeries as a kid, I knew what it meant to have scars. But this was a scar I had done to myself, rather than had done to me, and this was a symbol I’d chosen just for me. This was a tiny rebellion that was all mine.

I explained this all to my sister and to friends who asked.

“Do you regret it, now that it means something else?” they’ve asked.

At first, I had this immediate gut reaction: No, no, no! That isn’t what this is about! I felt almost defensive, like college Kate was coming back to make a declaration; that symbol had been mine and I was determined to keep it that way.

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But now, after months of having this conversation with various friends and family, I’ve felt myself shift. 

While my semicolon was never meant to represent my own personal struggles with mental health, it has opened me up to conversations that I haven’t had before. It’s allowed me to talk about my challenges with anxiety and my deep love for using semicolons in my writing. It’s allowed me to voice the pretentious reasoning of an English major and honor those who’ve committed to displaying a love and commitment to their own lives. 

In the end, I think my original intent (to find and make connections between whole ideas that hadn’t been considered) has come to pass in a way that I could never have anticipated. I feel grateful to be among those who have decided to wear this symbol.