How Getting Tattooed Helped Me Open Up About My Mental Illness

Bipolar disorder robbed me of moments in my life where there could have been great experiences. That only inspires me to make more memories as I go along my journey.
Publish date:
July 14, 2015
bipolar disorder, mental health, tattoos, Project Semicolon

People say I’m unique. I notice details others don’t see—a spiderweb on a stained-glass church window, a white bird in winter. The way someone’s eyes might be comparable to a planet that is not our own. Uniqueness comes from the chaos of chemicals in a person’s brain. And for me, those chemicals just don’t add up.

Flash back to February 2014, my senior year of high school, the day I turn 18. I am sitting in a locked, maximum security psychiatric hospital. For the past two months, my life has been a slew of endless sobbing, self-harm to cool the sudden numbness that washed over my body, and spending every waking moment wishing for death. Three days before my birthday, I approached my school counselor, telling her I was not safe. I had a plan to jump off the school’s roof and put an end to the misery that had seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere. Promptly, I was admitted to a hospital out of state, eyes red and hands shaking. A blue plastic bracelet was slapped onto my wrist, and I was officially declared a psychiatric patient.

By the end of a week-long stay, I was declared clinically—or “seriously”—depressed on a slip of white paper. For the next eleven months, I struggled—but not only with sadness. My best friend, my father, passed away. I grieved. I cried. Then there were periods of four to five days when I felt euphoric, grandiose, on-top-of-the-world feelings. They were unusual—I felt connected to religions I had never explored, I spoke fast, I started impossible projects, and I believed that my ideas were the best. That the world didn’t know what it was missing… because I existed.

Then, all of that would disappear, leaving me stranded with myself, worn and tired and searching for a way out of the very world I had felt I ruled just days before. This was it. I was going crazy.

As it turned out, I was re-admitted to the hospital in January of my freshman year of college, but it was unclear what was “wrong” with me. Frustrated, angry, and scared, I was released after a while and sent into the world to face an unknown monster that raged inside me. I began to feel paranoid in my low points, as though people were watching me through hidden cameras. My highs got worse gradually, until I nearly jeopardized my college career by applying to four other schools in the middle of the semester, abandoning my coursework and classes.

When the rocky school semester finally came to a close and summer arrived, I headed back home and saw the psychiatrist I’d been seeing since the fourth grade. He listened to me describe with great frustration all the pain that I’d been through, all the awful trials and tribulations that had gotten me nowhere. All of the suffering for nothing.

He looked me in the eyes.

“Marissa,” he said softly, “what you’re experiencing is called bipolar disorder. There are two types, type one and type two. This is a classic case of bipolar disorder type two.”

That was it, the moment I truly believed that I was crazy. At the same time, however, there was a strange weight that was lifted from my shoulders. The world was being removed from my arms, and I was light again. There were no monsters in the dark. I learned that my high points were called hypomania, in contrast to my low points: clinical depression.

For a while, I grappled with myself, trying to figure out where I stood: was I crazy, or was I relieved? Would I live a life of endless hospitalizations? But the biggest question on my mind was: What if I forgot how valuable my life was?

Settling in at home, I stared at my computer. I had the itch to write about my experiences, to put them somewhere other than the dark parts of my mind. I sat in that position for hours, hesitating, approaching everything with trepidation.

And then I had an idea. It seemed rash at first. It seemed like a stupid idea, something I would never do in a million years: I went to Facebook. And I wrote down everything—from my experience in the hospital, to facts on mental health and how to get help. I wrote down hotlines. I explained the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder and major depression. I bared my soul on a huge social media platform—and what followed was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Within a half an hour, I received countless messages from my peers telling me how much of an inspiration I had become to them, how I had motivated them to seek help, and how brave I was for fighting against myself for all these years. But despite the messages and the thanks that I received, that question of whether or not I would forget how valuable my life was still lingered in my mind.

I wasn’t done yet.

I wanted something on my body permanently to remind me that I had a purpose. I wanted something to look down at when I was in a time of need, a time of crisis. I knew that I had to get a symbolic tattoo to remind me that while the waters may get rough, the tide always goes down again and again.

Surfing the internet, I considered tattoos of song lyrics, smiley faces, and even brain chemicals. I spent months searching aimlessly until I came across a website called Project Semicolon. It was a non-profit organization that began when a young woman was tattooed with a semicolon to honor her father, who had passed away like mine. She wanted to show that it was a new beginning and not an ending.

Project Semicolon’s idea was that a semicolon represented your story. It was a sentence an author could have ended, but didn’t. The sentence was your life. You were the author.

It did not take me a long time to realize that this is what I wanted. In fact, in only took me a matter of minutes to say, “Yes. This is what I want to remind myself that I was and will again be in times of darkness, but that I continued. Through anxiety, through bipolar disorder—I continued.” And when I had that in mind, suddenly “bipolar” didn’t seem so scary anymore. It wasn’t a label. It was a part of my life—but it wasn’t me, and it didn’t control me.

Now, flash forward a month later. The scene: a shiny tattoo parlor in my own town, my disgruntled mother smiling tightly and offering to hold my hand as I sit on a blue stool, left arm outstretched. I am overcome with sweet emotion as the tattoo artist brings the needle to my skin. When it’s over after three glorious minutes, she draws away and I lean in to admire the fresh ink embedded into my skin: a single period, held up by a tiny black comma.

It was then that I realized how important it was to get rid of the phrase “attention-seeker” from our vocabularies as I snapped a picture and returned to Facebook to show the world. Was I seeking attention if I told my story loud and clear to everyone? Was I seeking attention if my aim was to get my peers to speak openly and without taboo about mental illnesses? All my life I’d heard the words “attention-seeker” used for those who struggle with self harm, those who disclose their struggles to other people, and those who decide to share their stories openly. Certainly, we as humans need attention. And that isn’t a bad thing. But when it comes to mental health, the stigma is even worse.

I used the photo of my tattoo to show that everyone struggles to different degrees. I told my story again, this time more boldly and more explicitly. One girl in particular saw my post and messaged me, telling me I was her inspiration for speaking so candidly about something so intimate and personal. Telling me that I was her hero, that my story made her gain the courage to seek treatment for her own mental health.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. And frankly, neither is talking about it. If what you want is to open up to the world, then by all means do not let outdated terms such as “attention-seeker” hinder you or hold you back. Because that just isn’t true.

Bipolar disorder robbed me of moments in my life where there could have been great experiences. That only inspires me to make more memories as I go along my journey. I have learned that faith and resilience will get you through just about anything. Speaking up about your mental health is one of the most important things you can do in life. Embrace your best qualities and your best abilities, and embrace your flaws and your faults. That is what makes you uniquely yourself, not your illness. Although it may be a part of your life and a part of your brain, it is never you. You are made of incredible things, and there is plenty of time for first kisses, stargazing, feeling like a child again, and laughing until you’re sick to your stomach. Don’t ever let the darkness inside your head fool you into thinking there’s not.

Because there’s always time to be you.