National Suicide Prevention Week is observed in the U.S. through the week following or including September 10th, recognized as World Suicide Prevention Day. I had meant to write this post last week, but I was sick all week, so I guess this is something that needed to percolate.
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts or feelings, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255. The hotline also has an online chat option.
You are not alone. Your story isn't over.
|My new tattoo: "My grace is sufficient for you;"|
This summer, I got a tattoo on my left forearm.
I've been thinking about getting it for a long time. People who knew me while I was going through a particularly hard time a few years back might recognize the words. I used to write them on my arm in Sharpie marker, over and over again. For the past five years, by the grace of God, I haven't had to write them. But for those five years, I've thought about getting them tattooed over -- but not fully concealing -- the underlying scars, the criss-crossed white line reminders of hurt.
I put those scars there myself. I had run out of words, or so it seemed to me. So I cut and burned those scars onto myself because somehow, having that pain on my skin seemed better than having it locked up inside of me. Because somehow, if I was going to feel so hurt and jagged and cut-up inside, I wanted the outside of me to show it. I wished those cuts were deep enough to kill. But then I was ashamed, and hid my arms in hoodies in the anvil heat of D.C. summer.
One night, by some intervention of grace, I picked up a Sharpie instead of a blade. What I had intended to write on my arm was more shame, more anger. I intended to write, "You should be over this."And by that same gracious intervention, instead, I wrote a snippet of a Bible verse, a line remembered from a sermon in the hospital, from 2 Corinthians 12, verse 9: "My grace is sufficient for you," the apostle Paul recounts hearing from God, "for power is made perfect in weakness."
I dedicate a chapter in my book to this sufficiency, this enough-ness, in all of the many ways that it has wound its way through my heart and my mind and my soul as I have learned to live with mental illness. And after all these years I still need that reminder. The tattoo was a way to have my body be part of that reminder -- a reminder of enough-ness rather than a reminder of shame.
And now, my arm is a palimpsest.
|Definition of "palimpsest" from Merriam-Webster|
A palimpsest is parchment that has layers of writing on it, older layers having been erased to make room for new writing. But the erasure is never quite complete -- evidence of the old writing remains.
"My grace is sufficient for you;" my new tattoo reads. (The semicolon is a reference to Project Semicolon, whose founder, Amy Bleul, claimed it as a symbol of a sentence that could have ended but continued. The semicolon represents a story that is not over.)
It's written on my arm permanently, now, in much darker ink than the white scar tissue. But the scars are still there. That is part of the story, too. The new story contains the old story. We cannot erase the past, only write new words, new sentences, over and in and through the older layers of our lives.
My arm is a palimpsest, as is my life, as is our world, layer upon layer of story that cannot ever be completely erased or covered over. Evidence of the old words remain.
But. I couldn't have gotten this tattoo five years ago. I couldn't have done this, safely, if the wounds were still fresh -- certainly not if the wounds were still being inflicted.
And that matters, because as a country, it often feels as if we are not only trying to erase the past, rather than writing a new story over the still-visible scars of the old, but that we are trying to write a new story while still self-inflicting the very repetitive wounds that we are attempt to deny.
Just as one example: this week, here at Georgetown, we (chaplains and other campus voices) have been responding to what the University refers to as a "bias-related incident." Specifically, multiple cases of swastikas, with accompanying writing about violence against women, being painted in a residence hall bathroom right at the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days.
I would like this to be in the past. I would like for the swastika-shaped scars to be faded and white and ready to be permanently written over with new words. But they are fresh, and red, and hurting, and that means a different type of response is needed. The wounds of white supremacism, of racism, of antisemitism, of sexism, keep being re-inflicted. I want to scream at them, "I thought you were over this!" To end them with shame and fierce ridicule. But we are not over this. We are not. And perhaps there is still a different, more honestly and graciously true story to be written of us.
So we respond to the wounds, and we try to take away the weaponry, the blades, and we write tentative new stories, with soft markers, and it all seems like not enough, like such a paltry response to such harsh and repetitive wounding.
"My grace is sufficient for you," I wrote, over and over and over again. Sometimes it was enough to keep me from hurting myself. Sometimes it wasn't.
But it was a breaking-in of something that at the time seemed so foreign to me, so impossible. Some tentative hope. Some mysterious enough-ness that I could only begin to appropriate and internalize.
Some kind of grace.
My arm is a palimpsest now, so that when I look at it, I first read the grace and the enough-ness, before I encounter the old scars.
And encounter I must. They are a part of me, a part of my story. But they are not all of me. They are not all of my story. And they are certainly not the period at the end of my story.
And so we begin, tentatively, uncertainly, armed with markers against the blades:
to write new stories of grace.
Thank you for reading about a difficult topic. If you appreciated this post, you might check out my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward, which expands on many of these themes and is now available for pre-order at churchpublishing.org or amazon.com. And if you're in the DC area, you can come here me read a bit from it and chat about it this coming Wednesday.
Also, here's a helpful recent article from Mental Health First Aid USA about the differences between suicidal ideation and self-injury.