There’s been a lot written about September as Suicide Prevention Month. There are walks scheduled, grassroots support movements growing…in particular Project Semicolon, a brilliant step toward reframing the question in a way that warms this grammarian’s heart…
It’s been a passionate topic for me for a long time: I’ve seen friends teeter on the edge and – thankfully – pull themselves back, or allow themselves to be pulled back. Other classmates, sadly, were not so fortunate.
And I also spent a long, long time in my 20s and 30s teetering on that drop-edge of yonder, often getting just close enough to draw blood, at one point making desperate flesh-offerings to propitiate the gods of shame, guilt and helplessness that kept me incapable of changing my past or present.
Those physical wounds were slow to heal…and their scars, like the forces that drove them, remained in my body and psyche. Like an alcoholic always hyper-aware of the location of the nearest bottle, I was always conscious that the drop-edge still awaited should I choose it…and if I forgot, the scars were there to remind me.
Yes, a whale of a lot of personal work took place in the twenty or so years that followed…and I can’t begin to say how grateful I am to the teachers and friends who stood by and supported with their wisdom and their prayers. Sometimes it seemed to take a village just to keep this woman topside.
What caused the anguish and rage? – do I really need to go into that? Every woman who’s been there – and probably many men – can recite the litany: Not-enoughness. Self-doubt. Shame. Self-hatred. Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of being seen. Perfectionism. Self-judgment. The whole Pandora’s box unleashed by a Depression-raised father from a small town with shame/inadequacy/rage issues of his own and an eternal need to be right….followed by a husband whose deep childhood conditioning led him to see women by default as authoritarian abusers. Between the internalized echoes of his mother, and my father, didn’t we have fun…
No. When those echoes started ringing in our minds, it wasn’t fun. We were lucky in that we were deeply involved in parallel men’s and women’s personal-growth organizations, so we were somewhat more conscious than we might otherwise have been, but processes and scripts can only have so much effect when generations of epigenetic trauma are pulsing in one’s DNA and nervous system.
Lots of regrets there. Lots of work to heal, lots of conversations in spirit with a husband nearly 10 years dead. And I would still occasionally lean over that drop-edge and consider…And then pull back.
When did it shift? In the months after my father, after six months’ sharp decline in which we both struggled to reach some kind of reconciliation, passed in my arms, I began realizing – I was no longer obligated to be the good daughter, limiting myself to fit his projected standards, overcome his disapproval. It was over; I was free to be myself.
But while he may have passed, his internalized voice had not…nor had the family shadows. One night’s plunge into the darkness, miraculously allowing Spirit to speak once the convulsions of tears had passed, let me see: if I take that leap off the drop-edge, the darkness wins…for me, and for everyone who knows me. There’s no coming back from that choice. In surrendering to the darkness, I’d bring it closer to those I love.
Previously I’d just waited out the storms – choosing sleep, choosing books or videos or Internet-surfing or other distractions – but that night was different: I chose life. Not out of guilt – what a horrible, selfish person I was to think of ending it all! – but as an active, conscious vote against surrender to the darkness.
As the Project Semicolon people say: A semicolon represents the place where a writer might have ended a sentence, but chose to pause and continue. You are the author; the sentence is your life.
I started looking again at those scars that night – my flesh-offering to the gods of darkness and despair – thinking of some way to shift the energy they held in my body. And the idea of the semicolon kept returning…transforming the energy of the scars with a semicolon…?
Over the next weeks and months the idea grew…perhaps to call priestess-friends to join and bear witness in an Equinox (balance of dark and light) ritual tattooing over the scars, with a semicolon butterfly? The friends I invited were supportive, but their schedules were booked, and how would I get an artist to come and do the tattoo at my home? The idea was shelved, while I supported other friends through their own drop-edge struggles.
That was a hard couple of months. Meanwhile my own self-doubts resurfaced as I worked to birth a deeper vision for my life and work: who did I think I was? All the internalized lessons from my father came roaring out…how could I exorcise these inner demons?
Finally, Andrew Harvey gave me the key in a spiritual-direction session that shook me to the bones. Tonglen practice was the tool I could use, he said, describing a variation on the ancient Tibetan meditation: to sit naked in front of a mirror, tapping deeply into the compassion of the Cosmic Christ/Great Mother Goddess as I viewed myself. To see the place in my reflection where the blackness lived, open it up and see the dark, viscous, smoggy smoke come pouring out, and to open the Sacred Heart in me to receive it, transmute it into Light, and send it up to the stars. I should do that daily for a month, he said….and yes, most definitely get the tattoo! As I felt the hope and enthusiasm rising in response to his words, I realized – a butterfly was a lovely image, but I needed something stronger.
We agreed: a phoenix. And it should be my personal ritual, in the company of an artist who could support an individual ritual. I began that day to find the image and the artist…and to begin the practice.
My first attempt at the meditation was like draining an abscess. I felt deeply empty and clear afterwards – the shame and self-doubt for once not knotted at the pit of my stomach. Browsing Pinterest in the afterglow, I found the phoenix image I was seeking: stylized, tribal, a dance of flaming flourishes for the bird’s head, wings, and tail. I found the shop: a Steampunk establishment in Frederick, highly recommended by Witchy friends for its spiritual sensibility. I set an appointment to chat with the artist, Miranda; if the energy felt right, I would schedule the appointment for Equinox day.
The meeting went well…the art and the feel of the place resonated; Miranda was friendly, respectful of the ritual element, and powerfully supportive of my intent for transformation. Could she do it on Wednesday? No – that was her day off, but we could do it in the days before…or we could do it that same day. After a meditation in a nearby park, I was clear: this was the day. I set the circle in the work area Miranda screened off; I called in guides and protectors and stated intent; Miranda stated her intent to support, and the process began.
In the weeks since that day, I’ve been coming to realize the depth of magic worked in that glorious tattoo. The scars are completely hidden, one under a flame-feather of the phoenix’s wing, the other in a flourish of her tail; their energy of death and despair is completely gone. I look at the dance of red and gold on my arm, the semicolon that forms the bird’s eye and beak, and my heart lifts. A door has opened in my soul to the voice of hope and change, the ability to make new decisions, dare new ventures, reach for new connections. The Tonglen practice, like radiation, is dealing with the tentacles of generational trauma deep in my soul, and – as Andrew Harvey predicted – the tattoo and its intent started the process of healing.
Would Dad, during his life, have approved of his daughter becoming a Tattooed Lady (as he would say)? Most certainly not. I can say that now, thanks be, without the internalized child-sense that I am wrong for venturing outside his approval (where I’ve lived my life anyway); without the need to flaunt my pushback; with a sense of release that that cowering, self-effacing element of the code I learned from him is no longer mine. I am free to live by my lights, to rise, reborn, from the pyre of burning shame.
I have marked myself as my own woman, in my own integrity, making my own choices. choosing my life. And it is good.