Project Semicolon: R.I.P. Amy Bleuel

Drug addiction, mental illness, and suicidal behavior—which is often a result of one of the two aforementioned issues—are among a handful of problems that our culture has traditionally viewed as moral failings, rather than from physiological disorders. While some progress has been made in this realm, it has not been nearly enough to effect substantive change. Approximately 1 out of 4 Americans suffer from mental illness—that’s roughly 80 million people. Not all health insurance plans cover mental illness; in fact, states have been pushing back against expanding the Medicaid portion of Obamacare that would cover the mentally ill. The Trump administration plans to push this back even farther, eliminating mental illness and drug addiction coverage as an “essential benefit” for Americans seeking insurance. This could translate to millions of mentally ill people not receiving the care that they need.

Drug addiction, mental illness, self-harm and suicidal tendencies must be destigmatized before we can adequately address the issues as a society. Amy Bleuel made it her life’s work to fight for this cause. It is with profound sadness that I learned of Amy’s death this past week. She was a friend of mine and she took her own life.

As the news of the death of Project Semicolon’s founder hit, I perused the internet, perhaps in an effort to engage in a form of communal electronic grieving. There were tributes, of course, as she did so much for so many, but I was disheartened to find numerous posts condemning her death as an affront to the cause—how could someone fighting for others to live, willingly choose to die? In fact, the inspiration behind the now iconic semicolon tattoo is: “In literature, an author uses a semicolon to not end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going.” These were Amy’s words, and she chose not to keep going.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a choice. Mental illness is not a choice.

My sister, Briana, was mentally ill. Her illness resulted in an addiction to drugs. She was addicted to drugs when she tried to throw herself out of a car I was driving at 60 miles per hour. She was addicted to drugs when she overdosed at my wedding. She was addicted to drugs when she died at thirty years of age.

Mental illness is a disease, and it killed my sister. It was a disease that not only detrimentally affected her, but also her family—my parents’ entire lives revolved around monitoring my sister’s illness and subsequent drug addiction. They know what it’s like. I know what it’s like. And lots of people know what it’s like. But there are also a lot of people who don’t want to acknowledge the seriousness of the illness. And when people do talk about it, it’s usually the people who know little to nothing about it—these people are largely under the impression that it’s not really a disease, or it’s the type of disease that can be talked out of someone. That’s just not how it works.

Just as you can’t talk someone out of terminal cancer, you can’t talk someone out of drug addiction, or out of suicidal ideation, or out of self-harm, or out of mental illness at large. These afflictions can be treated—there is hope, which Project Semicolon sought, and continues to seek, to bring sufferers—however, we don’t choose to be afflicted by such things. Sufferers are victims of these afflictions.

The people who live with these afflictions must push the boundaries of what is considered the “norm” and fight for drug addiction, mental illness and suicide to be included in the same conversations that include such life-threatening epidemics as cancer, AIDS, other deadly diseases. Those who believe the suicide of someone who fought so hard to prevent the suicide of others invalidates her cause, invalidates Project Semicolon, must ask themselves: If someone fighting to prevent cancer in others were to die of cancer, would that invalidate that person’s cause?

Guess what, it’s the same thing—the only thing separating the two diseases is stigma.

The issue of mental illness must be destigmatized. This is the impetus for making my film “No Alternative,” an endeavor that Amy and Project Semicolon supported wholeheartedly. I’m an indie filmmaker working in a business that has, as of late, marginalized personal filmmaking. The film is inspired by my sister’s story; her story isn’t over, because I’ve made it my mission to tell it.

I made this point clear when I got my semicolon tattoo in support of both my film and Project Semicolon’s campaign to end the stigma. It is a tattoo of a semicolon as part of a typewriter’s type-bar. I’m a writer, first and foremost. In the ensuing weeks after my sister died, I came across a journal of hers, which she kept as a patient in a long-term rehabilitation program for addiction. There was quite a bit of writing in its pages, but the only mention of me was a single line that read: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her tumultuous emotions into her art. It wasn’t until several months later, the grief worsening and my productivity hitting a brick wall, that I thought, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.

The semicolon tattoo on my arm is there to remind me of this realization, this post-mortem message from my sister to keep writing, to keep making movies, to keep creating art. It now also reminds me of Amy and her struggle and how we all must keep fighting everyday, not only for others, but for ourselves—until the stigma is lifted, we as a society will continue to suffer. My filmmaker friend, John Sandel, summed it up recently when he said: “History can be charted by our efforts to see the causes of disease. “Miasmas become microbes; demons become neurologies … what do we confront in suicide? What epoch of understanding must we enter, to see this for what it is? Who will live, into that new era, who would otherwise have been lost to the error of our misconception?” I’ve personally lost more people my age from mental illness, addiction and suicide than from any other illness. When will we collectively accept this reality, and furthermore, do something about it?

Our stories aren’t over; we continue to tell them—we must continue to tell them in order to end the stigma, and we must continue to tell them in honor of Amy.

***If you’re in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.***

Music Is A Drug

No, really, it is. Music can significantly increase the levels of serotonin in a listener’s brain, which, as a result, positively impacts mood, sexual desires and the physical manifestation of those desires, overall cognitive function, regulation of body temperature, sleep and memory. Plug in your headphones and prescribe yourself a song.

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The ability of music to impact, and indelibly mark, our lives cannot be underestimated. Melody, and the infinite ways of conveying melody, has a way of bypassing left-brain modes of communication and injecting itself directly into our bloodstreams. Music, for me, is a roadmap to my memories. I often mark moments in my life by the songs I was listening to at the time—for some reason, I can almost always remember the music associated with the happenings in my life, which then helps me place the moment, reconstruct the event, and relive the memory with some semblance of context.

Here are just a few examples:

Nirvana’s “Drain You;” circa 1995: I played over-and-over-again while pumping myself up to call my first girlfriend and ask her out on our first date.

Weezer’s “Only In Dreams;” circa 1995: The first song I crowd-surfed to while listening to it live as Weezer played at Roseland Ballroom.

Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Blue Moon;” circa 1999: Used as an aid for sense memory (actor lingo) in preparing for my first stage performance in college, where I had to cry in a scene.

Metallica’s “Don’t Tread On Me;” September 11, 2001: In an effort to get my mind off the tragedy that was befalling the country, and the world, just a few blocks away from the skyscraper I was sitting in, I turned on the Opie & Anthony radio show on 102.7 and listened to them play this song. It was an unabashed appeal to those listeners looking for revenge, the immediate and swift kind, as the song preaches “settling the score….and preparing for war.” It’s a song that at that moment, for better or worse, appealed to the salivary glands of a nation scorned. It epitomized the knee-jerk reaction to a tremendously complex situation that no doubt led many to initially justify the unending quagmire we got ourselves into.

Radiohead’s “All I Need;” April 30, 2010: The song that I danced to with my wife, Rachel, at our wedding. It’s difficult to put the importance of this particular merger of song and moment into words. However, what I can say is that beyond sealing our love for each other, the moment proved that you can dance to Radiohead.

Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me” and Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli;” July 1, 2014 and July 5, 2014, respectively. When my sister, Briana, sunk into her coma, my wife rushed home to be with me. This was perhaps the worst twelve hours of my life—my parents had just gone on their first vacation in years; they were overseas, and thus unable to be reached until they woke up in the morning, which due to the time difference, was still a number of hours away. On her car ride home, the first song to play on my wife’s iPod was “Hear You Me,” which, under the circumstances, made her think of Briana. I didn’t know this until several days later. The day Briana died, July 1, 2014, I asked her husband—who was also a musician, like I was—if there were any songs she had been listening to recently, which had been special to her, which meant something. If so, we should learn it and play it at her funeral. He said, without thinking too long about it: “Hear You Me,” by Jimmy Eat World. When I told my wife this, she then told me how this song played in her car the other day, the day it happened, and she’d been thinking of that song ever since.

Perhaps it was Briana requesting the song. That’s certainly how it felt.

The next several days I spent learning the song and writing Briana’s eulogy and reflecting on her life, and my life with her. The minutes leading up to having to leave for her funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I felt like I was stuck. The only thing that could unstick me was Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli.” I played it on repeat, as loud as I possibly could through the miniscule speakers in my laptop, while I tied my tie, over and over again, in search of the perfect knot and proportional length.

The song is a tribute to Mykel and Carli Allan, the co-founders of Weezer’s Fan Club who were killed in a car crash on their way back from a Weezer concert.

Back in Wilson High/
Said I had these two best friends/
Till the school bus came/
And took my friends away/
Now I’m left alone at home/
To sit and think all day.

Hear you me, Mykel/
Hear you me, Carli.

The members of Jimmy Eat World were also friends with Mykel and Carli, and their song “Hear You Me” was both a tribute to them, and also an homage to the Weezer song, in which the phrase “Hear You Me” is sung to the two sisters, as though it’s trying to reach them beyond the grave. In Jimmy Eat World’s version, it’s less burning, and more mournful, with its chorus ringing:

May angels lead you in/
Hear you me my friends.
On sleepless roads the sleepless go/
May angels lead you in.

Briana’s husband, Anthony, my band, Latterday Saints (aka Guy Smiley), my wife, and Briana’s friends, Jillian and Allison, formed a group. We called ourselves “The Sleepless” and performed this song for my sister beside her coffin before she was lowered into the ground.

Music connects the dots; and we are all just dots on this planet, a wide and caustic spectrum of terra firma that is, more than often, unforgiving.

It’s music that I used as a framework for “No Alternative.” The landscape is the grunge era of the early 90’s, a milieu in which teenagers never felt more alone—this, at the very least, was the standard set by their moniker: Generation X. However, it was through music, which seemed to reflect that loneliness, disaffection and angst that brought an army of teenagers together. This movement in music, in my opinion, has never been matched—it was a cultural phenomenon, in both the worlds of alternative and rap music. It was a time when teenagers felt alienated, whether as a result of their place in the world or the hormones whirling inharmoniously inside their bodies. However, at this moment in 1994, teens were able to harness what is often uncontrollable energy through the music they played and listened to.

Music can do more than just mark one’s life, and through those markings, enhance the quality of it. If music is a drug, then life is, arguably, its active ingredient. While it’s not a cure for our shared disease of death, it gives us solace as we make our inevitable march towards it.

Music is the drug in “No Alternative”: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

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