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.***

Suicide: The End, and the Beginning

I think a lot of people who say they don’t think about suicide, think about suicide.

I’m not saying they think about committing suicide, but the idea, the notion, the concept, is pervasive in our culture, and frankly, our DNA. It’s there, bubbling underneath the surface. As I write in the opening lines of my book, “No Alternative”:

Suicide is a universally human phenomenon. It’s what separates us from the animals, despite the fact that people shun it and cloak it in taboo. Animals do not commit suicide, at least that’s the common wisdom. It is this received wisdom that reveals something about our attitudes on the subject, as suicide is most always painted in the light of shame and pity, something we reserve for lesser beings than ourselves. In actuality, suicide is a refined and selfless act, usually a result of many thoughtful hours, days, months, or years of meticulous and steadfast preparation. Suicide is not thoughtless; it’s precisely the opposite.

Perhaps I think about suicide more than others—I wrote an entire novel on the theme, in an attempt to prevent others from succumbing to self-harm. My idol killed himself when I was 15 years old. His death was the reason I picked up a guitar, because I wanted to learn all of his songs, perhaps in an attempt to somehow keep his spirit alive. His suicide not only united many alienated teens in 1994, but it also led tragically to a number of copycat suicides. In retrospect, every song on his band’s album, “In Utero,” reads like a suicide note. We didn’t realize it before—we rarely do realize it before—it’s only after one commits suicide that everything that came before, that led up to it, seems so patently obvious.

KC-Hell

While my parents and I believe the overdose that led to my sister’s death was accidental in nature, she had attempted suicide several times in the past. Two of those times were, seemingly, in direct response to me.

I live in Los Angeles, California, though my family still resides in Yonkers, New York—as did my sister while she was alive. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is a constant need, and consequent demand, for attention. Pay attention to me! in its most severe incarnation. If the sufferer of BPD perceives a lack of attention, it often leads to a concentrated feeling of abandonment, which can then metastasize into rage and recklessness, or worse, self-hate and self-harm. I only get to visit New York about twice a year; so understandably, my parents spend a lot of time with me while I’m there. Two of those times, in attempts to redirect their attention back to her, my sister tried to kill herself.

When she did try to kill herself, she always managed to do a pretty good job. She put herself into a coma on more than one occasion. I was by her side one of those times. When she awoke, the drugs having been eliminated from her system, I asked her, “Why are you doing this?” In one of her most sober of moments, she looked up at me and said: “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Suicide is the thing; the goal; the beginning and the end; the next big thing; the be all, end all; the eye in the sky – it’s the Tylenol bottle with the 20 bonus pills, because swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol can kill you.

Suicide is an option; it’s an alternative; it’s aqua seafoam shame; it’s dead of a shotgun blast to the head.

Suicide is the lyric of a song; packaged inside a gold record.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spin the black circle.

While I might be able to rationalize that my sister is in a better place—that she is finally free from the terrible yoke of mental illness and addiction around her neck—it is still impossible to accept. I alluded to this in a letter I wrote to her while she was in one of her comas, and within inches of her death, a letter that I also included in my novel. Here is an excerpt:

Dear Briana,

The moment I’m writing this, you’re unconscious in the hospital, a stomach full of charcoal, and you’re on a ventilator because you cannot breathe. They say you might not make it. I don’t know what I’d do if you don’t, because I can’t bear to think about living in this world without you in it.

You’re my little sister, and big brothers are supposed to protect their little sisters. And I’m weeping right now because of how incredibly helpless I feel—I’m right next to you, but still a thousand miles away. It tears me apart to think that I somehow failed you as a brother. Out of anyone else on this planet, you’re the person that most resembles me; genetically, we have the same make-up. By killing yourself, you would be, literally, killing a part of me. For you to leave this Earth is an abstraction my mind simply cannot accept.

Right now, I’m hoping for one thing, that you will be able to read this letter. I can’t bear the thought that you might not be able to—that you might not make it. That can’t happen. I love you so much, Bri, more than anything, much more than myself. I might not have ever said those words, but I’m writing them right now.

If you need a reason to live, and all you need is one, here it is: I want you to live.

I’ll be with you forever, whether you know it or not.

Love,
William

BrianaAndWilliam-NoFilter-Web

One thing that I am grateful for is that my sister did awaken from that coma, and she did get to read that letter. In fact, she apparently read it often at times when feeling the siren call of suicide reach out to her.

It did give me some consolation, in my grieving—a grieving that will continue until I, myself, am in the ground—to know that Briana read how much I loved her. There are many people who, for one reason or another, never get to convey their personal feelings to those who they love most. Then it’s often too late. At least it wasn’t too late for me. Not that time.

However, regret looms, and it looms large and it looms heavy.

Regret is a theme that weaves its way into all of my work, and that’s because it’s a theme that weaves its way through my life. I would often avoid communicating with my sister—when she called, I wouldn’t answer; when she texted or messaged me, my responses would be terse and included the phrase, “I’m really busy.” My dime store psychoanalysis of my behavior might be that I wanted to keep my interactions with her brief and dispassionate, for fear of saying the wrong thing and potentially setting her off, something siblings are experts at doing.

What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and pick up that phone, or write an overly verbose and emotional response, but I can’t go back in time. I ignored my sister; I ignored her while pursuing my often quixotic attempts of getting my movies made out here in Hollywood. Putting my work ahead of my family is something that concerns me greatly; it concerns me, because I’m sure I’m guilty of it. If I regret anything, I want to use that regret for the good. I don’t want to ignore it, I want to reroute its impact on me. The truth is the regrets will never go away. I can use it in my writing, and my filmmaking—that I can do. Does this make me feel better? I think in a lot of ways it does; even though I know it won’t erase them. It exposes me to the pain of these regrets; it forces me to relive them, since ignoring things doesn’t make those things go away. Those things must be dealt with.

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I honestly don’t know if my grief is changing. And I shouldn’t use the word honestly because that implies that other things I’ve written aren’t honest. I’m trying to be honest. Somehow, though, this inevitably leads to me beating up on myself. It’s easy to blame, and feels good to blame, because it makes things black and white, and it’s easiest to blame myself. Because I’m still here, I can hold myself accountable—there’s no need to issue a warrant for my arrest, I can lock myself up whenever I see fit.

My sister is gone, and in many ways I grieved for her before she died. I was told on two occasions that she wouldn’t make it through the comas she put herself in, when she tried to take her own life. I was told to be prepared for the worst. I grieved then, even though she ended up surviving; I also knew that as each day passed, there was a distinct possibility that she would not be there. Every call I received from my parents, just seeing their names on my phone, filled me with dread. Were they calling to tell me something had happened to Briana? This was always the first thought in my mind.

When my parents call now, that thought is no longer there. While that knee-jerk dread is gone, I wish it were still there, because that would mean that Briana was still there.

Perhaps this film is my way of giving her the attention I should have given her before; the attention she deserved as my sister. Perhaps it will do some good for those thinking about committing suicide, to see how suicide affects a family in this story. That is certainly my hope. Perhaps this will help alleviate some of the regret that weighs me down, that shames me on almost a daily basis.

One thing goes without question: I will regret not making this film. There is “No Alternative” but to make it.

And I need your help to make this film a reality: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

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