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.***

Eulogy For My Sister

Last week, my little sister, Briana, passed away. While this site is primarily a vehicle for my professional pursuits, I felt it was an appropriate canvas upon which to pay tribute to not only my blood, but also a fallen artist.

BrianaAndWilliam-NoFilter-Web

Briana has long been an artistic inspiration to me—she has inspired both my writing and filmmaking. My novel, “No Alternative,” would not have been possible without Briana—she is the genius behind the lyrics of Bri Da B and her personage was a springboard from which the life of the fictional character Bridget Harrison sprung. Bridget is the character I admire the most. When my parents asked me to deliver the eulogy at her funeral, I embraced the task—as best as I could under the circumstances—because I knew my sister would want me to write it as though it was, itself, a piece of art. It’s a tall order, and I’m not sure I succeeded, but I know she would have liked me to try. I consider this the most important writing assignment I’ve ever had, and I can only hope she’s happy with the finished product.

I delivered the following eulogy at St. Joseph’s Church in Bronxville, New York, on the morning of July 5th, 2014:

BRIANA DICKERSON CARDONE – September 24th, 1983 to July 1st, 2014

First and foremost, thank you all for coming today and being here for my sister, Briana. It means so much to me and to our family. I’ll ask you to forgive the somewhat scattered nature of this address, but such is the nature of life, of memory, of the bits and pieces of the everyday that both distinguish ourselves as individuals, and tie us all together as one.

These words I’m reading were written in Briana’s room—the room where she grew up when we were kids. It has since become the room I occupy when I visit the East Coast, and that’s because the moment I moved out, my father turned my old room into his office. I’m not sure I’m even allowed in it anymore. Her drafting table, where she created a lot of her artwork, has become my desk away from home. I wrote my novel there. And there was a reason for that: she had left her artistic mark upon the surface of that table, her residue of creativity, and I had always hoped I’d be able to harness just a little bit of her talent and funnel it into my own artistic pursuits.

Briana-Self-Portrait

There’s a beginning to every story and this story begins something like this: when my mother was pregnant for the second time, she was lounging by the pool at my grandparents’ house, dipping her feet in the water, and my dad was videotaping it. He zoomed in on my mom’s belly and asked what was in it. I was five years old, scampering around the yard, and chimed in: “That’s Bri!” “Bri!” My dad responded: “Yes…after the cheese!” Until just last week, I would have sworn my sister was named after a hunk of coagulated milk curd, a cheese that was perhaps the object of my mother’s prenatal cravings.

In truth, Briana was named “Briana” because it’s Gaelic for “The Strong One.” And strong she was. Strongheaded. What can I say? She was Irish.

Briana was one of a kind; she not only loved art, but was also an extremely talented artist herself. I’m not just saying this because she dabbled here and there; I’m saying it because she was a true artist. She put her heart and soul into her art—her entire life was a canvas on which she asserted a style, a personality, and a truly unique way of looking at the world that not only affected me, but I’m sure affected a lot of the people sitting in this room.

She loved paintings, and she herself was a painter; she loved photography, and she herself was a photographer; she loved music, and she herself was a musician. She loved movies, too, but perhaps that was the one art form she’d let her brother have all to himself. Briana had been drawing for as long as she could remember, and as a child when she was asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Her answer was always, “an artist.”

Her paintings remind me of Edward Hopper’s: a distinct rendering of lighting, cropped compositions, and a stillness that was both unsettling and calming. She was a huge fan of Hopper’s, but I imagine her saying something like, “Oh, don’t compare me to him, I’m no way near as good as him.” To that, I would respond, “You’re wrong.”

Anything Briana put her mind to and decided to learn, she did, and did herself…except for the guitar; I’ll take some credit there. I taught her the power chord. For those who don’t play guitar, if you know one power chord, you know them all. We would both practice together—when I’d play Nirvana songs, she’d play Hole songs.

But ultimately, the guitar wasn’t for her. It was too conventional. While my band pursued the spoils of alternative rock, Briana decided to rebel against the mainstream and become a gangsta’ rapper.

BriDaB

Briana recorded as Bri Da B and made two albums, “Around The Motherf***ing World” and “Hittin’ The Streets With My New LP.” She toured locally, performing at venues in Westchester and New York City. Her songs, “Gravy On Top,” “Print It” and “Pimptooth” were bonafide underground hits; at Fordham University, bootleg tapes and CD’s of her music circulated around campus and the buzz caught on. I can’t quote the majority of her lyrics here, unfortunately, for fear of being struck by lightning.

When I said Briana was one of a kind, it wasn’t just a platitude.

Several years later, a version of “Pimptooth” was covered by the cyberpunk collective ORDER44 and produced by the producer of the bands Interpol and The National.

While Bri Da B was a form of musical expression for my sister, it was also performance art. She was inspired by Surrealism at a young age. To quote my sister, “I was never one to run with the crowd, and the oddness and curiosity of the genre just really hit me hard and gave me the idea that I could express my feelings into my art, no matter how odd or abstract they were, and people could make whatever they wanted out of it.”

At the age of eleven, Briana started painting with oils, and later mastered several mediums. Ultimately, pastels became her favorite means of artistic expression. She painted landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. As a student at the Ursuline School in New Rochelle, she was awarded First Prize at her senior year Art Show. She created many works, both for her pleasure and professionally on commission. She admired the work of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Hopper and the images of Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton and David Lynch. She was able to harness her emotions, which were at times unstable, and channel them into her art.

The way Briana saw the world wasn’t like the way others see the world, which is the gift and the burden, of a great artist.

Her favorite painting was Claude Monet’s “The Four Trees.” He painted the poplars from the limited perspective of a boat in the middle of a river. If he had painted them on the land from the opposite bank, the perspective would have been much greater. This has the effect of denying us the view of the tops of the four trees. Furthermore, were it not for his depiction of the riverbank, the tree trunks would be indistinguishable from their reflections in the water.

TheFourTrees-Web

In college, Briana wrote a fifteen-page paper on this one painting; I’ve never read the paper, nor do I know where it is today. But she certainly thought the painting merited such an analysis and it was clear that she loved it. When I look at the painting, and try to imagine how my sister saw it, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t a complete picture. Perhaps it’s a suitable analogy of life, and in this case, her life: we will never have a complete understanding of it. However, we must embrace the parts we don’t see, because those are the parts we will miss, the parts that matter, the parts that, through faith and love, we know are true and pure and real. We cannot see below the trees—the roots, the dirt, the elements that give life to the trees. We cannot see the treetops, nor do we know where they end—they may end shortly beyond the edge of the painting, or they may extend further than we think. And what’s above the end of the trees; well, that’s a question as old as time.

The importance of the painting lies in its focus on the middle. There is comfort in the middle—there are no highs, but there are no lows—there is stability, there is symmetry, there is equality.

Our lives are limited, in length and in perspective—we can only see so much—but our lives extend beyond the scope of our limited resources. Briana’s life extends beyond her own into each and every one of you. Her life extends beyond her own and into her family, into her beloved husband, Anthony. When asked about Anthony, Briana would often respond quite simply: “He is not only the love of my life; he is my life.” Anthony, you meant the world to my sister; and my family and I couldn’t be happier you both found each other—I have no doubt you will find each other again.

Perhaps the four trees in Monet’s painting are Anthony, my mother, my father and myself—the past below us and the future above us—and this is the perspective through which my sister can see us now: she is with us in the present, and her presence extends to us boundlessly into the past and boundlessly into the future. We have become the impression that is perceived by my sister wherever she is now—or that’s how I’d like to think of it. I’d like to think of myself as the way she would paint me on the canvas of her perpetual imagination.

This Monet painting never meant a lot to me, but now it has become a symbol of Briana, and it means so much more.

Briana often had trouble realizing that people loved her as much as they did. Today is a testament of how much people really do love her. She had a hard time seeing and accepting what was so obvious to me and everyone else. But my family and I take great solace in the fact that there is so much love around her, and it’s this love that will keep her memory alive on this earth.

As a writer, I contemplate death a lot. My death, the deaths of my family members, including the death of my sister. It has fueled my art. My novel, while a work of fiction, was born from what I imagined my worst nightmare to be; I wanted to write about what scared me the most. And what scared me the most was losing my sister. Now, tragically, my worst nightmare has come true. However, in writing about it while my sister was alive, she had the opportunity to understand how very much I loved and cared for her—she said she looked up to me as an artist, but the truth is: it was actually me who looked up to her. She was, and will continue to be, my artistic inspiration. And I got to tell her that. For that opportunity, I am supremely grateful.

I wish I had another chance to say to my sister how much she means to me and to our family. But now this is my last chance, my one remaining opportunity, to say to all of you what I would like to say to her:

I love you so very much, Bri, and like I said to you in the hospital: “Goodbye, but just for now.”

***

As a tribute to my sister, I, along with her husband, Anthony, my wife, Rachel, and our brothers-and-sister-in-song, Jay, Alli, Liam and Andreas, recorded one of her favorite songs—the song we performed at her funeral—“Hear You Me,” by Jimmy Eat World.

Here is a link to it on SoundCloud:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/157805700″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Please feel free to listen and share and celebrate the life of Briana Dickerson Cardone.

“May angels lead you in…”

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache