There go my hopes of becoming Young Women’s President. But seriously, it’s my first, and only ever, tat (Truthfully, I don’t want to be president of anything). I can’t imagine coming up with a reason to get another one, but to be honest, up until the last few years, I never thought I’d find a good enough reason to get this one. But I did come up with a good reason, and it has a whole lot to do with my recent absence from the blog scene. Come to think of it, it also has a whole lot to do with my recent absences from church too. Mostly though, it has everything to do with suicide.
I first got the idea for the tattoo after I took my oldest grandchild to live with his father in Utah, and threw my daughter out on the streets. It wasn’t as cold-hearted as it sounds, though. I knew how much it hurt to have her son taken from her arms, and I knew the dangers she would be facing as a homeless female. I was at my wits end, and so was she, and I knew, just as she did, that hitting rock-bottom was a necessary step if she was to ever recover from alcoholism and drug abuse. Just before I helped her pack her bags in my Illinois apartment and board the plane to the streets of Utah where should be near her son, I prayed, I cried, I consulted with her father (my ex-husband), and then she and I talked about her suicidal ideation and the fact that she would need to address it if she were to come out of the upcoming chapter in her life alive. It was tough on everyone involved, and as a mother, I was terrified for the well-being of my only daughter. She was so lucky that the baby’s father was willing to give her the opportunity to have regular contact with her son. I knew that she felt her son would be better off without her in his life at all, but being able to see him regularly helped keep her going.
During my daughter’s tenure on the streets, I discovered Project Semicolon. As a writer and an English teacher, it was pretty easy for me to see the metaphor of myself as the author of a sentence that could have been over by adding a period, yet furthering the idea by adding a semicolon and going on. I thought of those times just before my divorce when I truly felt that dying was preferable to staying in an emotionally abusive marriage. I understood how my daughter felt, so I didn’t even hesitate. I called my daughter and told her, “We have to do this.”
When she was finally on the path to sobriety, she was quite clear with me about the relationship between childhood molestation, religion, drugs and alcohol, and mental illness–all leading to her suicidal ideation. She was molested by a male cousin mere weeks following my separation from my first husband. This was about the same time that she was baptized, and her attacker was double her age. Although she was coerced, she went for years feeling as if she should have been able to stop the attack, so she told no one. At church she was taught about the importance of sexual purity and chastity, and of course, she was told that only those who were “pure and chaste” could enter into the temple to be married for time and all eternity. In her young mind, she was doomed. It was no wonder that she frequently begged to go to Relief Society with me, instead of attending her Young Women’s classes. By that time, she had completely given up on herself, and reasoned that since she was already “impure,” she had no reason to keep up the charade. This was about the same time she began to joke about “going to hell,” and started smoking. I began getting regular calls from her school, too. She was skipping classes so she could sleep in after sneaking out at nights (she’d wait until she could hear me snoring–remember, I was a single mom). Of course, her nightly escapades introduced her to drugs and alcohol. She became severely depressed; who wouldn’t after all that? Her family knew what she was up to, and so did all the kids at school and church, so she developed social anxiety as well. She began avoiding everyone but her drinking/drug buddies. Street drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes became a sort of treatment for her depression and anxiety; it was a vicious cycle leading to addiction.
Recovery from addiction is an uphill battle, especially when you have no supportive family nearby. By supportive, I mean physically, financially, emotionally, and morally. Alongside my husband, my daughter is my very best friend, but for the past few years she has lived more than 75 miles away from me. Her recovery was spurred by the discovery of her second pregnancy, just months after she’d gotten herself off the streets. Before her baby was six months old, she divorced her new husband who was ardently headed in the opposite direction from her new path.
Being a single mom is never easy, I know that, having done it with four kids over a period of ten years, but she had complicating factors on top of those previously mentioned, including post-traumatic stress, no high school diploma, no car, a part-time job, and ADD exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. To make matters worse, she pointed out to me, studies have proven that even marijuana can cause permanent brain damage in adolescents, and who knows what damage has been caused by other drugs?
Despite the fact that she had gone back to high school, and gotten a job and counseling, she fought immense guilt. Day after day, as she struggled to get herself out of bed, put food on the table and diapers on the baby, find time for homework, make sure her bills were paid, and get her daughter to daycare and herself to work (both without a car), she heard that little voice in her head screaming, “IF ONLY . . .”
She was drowning in guilt, and I knew she was suicidal. In fact, she told me, she’d have committed suicide months ago, if it hadn’t been for her solid belief that no one would care enough to check in on her if she just didn’t show up for work or answer her phone one day, and that her baby could have been alone in her apartment for days before her mother’s body was discovered. It was devastating for me to contemplate this, but her daughter’s presence was the only thing keeping her alive.
I couldn’t stand watching it any longer, and despite the fact that I am not in the best of financial or living circumstances, I drove to her home (I moved back to Utah after finishing grad school in Chicago, so I could be with my kids and grandkids), and told her to pack up her things. She needed physical and moral support, and I was the only one willing to help; no one else has yet been able to accept that she is serious about giving up her past, including most of the bishops she’s had to deal with. The first thing we did was to get our tattoos.
It was a bit difficult for us to find an open tattoo parlor that looked clean and trustworthy. After all, despite the fact that I am a Democrat, I’m still a good Mormon girl, remember? We settled on Garage, Tattoo in Ogden, Utah. I told Thad, our artist, that we’d give him a shout-out, but more importantly, it’s a place where we were not questioned or harassed because of our religious preference, and Thad was friendly, understanding, and professional. As you can see, he did a great job. My daughter’s tat is on the inside of her wrist, where it is not visible to anyone but herself. It tells that there will be better days, and I hope the fact that it matches mine will remind her that I’ve got her back.
Mine is on top. I chose my quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” It’s a bit of good advice from Papa Polonius that I did not follow until well after my divorce, and I am a much happier person now that I am doing things not to impress others or make them happy, but because it is the right choice for me. It is on the outside facing me, where I see it constantly. I wanted it to be where my daughter could see it constantly as well, and know that no matter what, I’ve got her back.
I’m the ward chorister, so everyone at church can see it if they actually look up from their hymnbook while they are singing. I wanted it to be visible, because I want people to ask me about it. Unfortunately no one at church has, and I was afraid of that. After all, tattoos carry a very strong stigma at church. But I want people to understand how pervasive suicidal ideation is. I want people to know that the way they handle tough situations such as finding out they have a gay member in their ward, or learning that their teen daughter is pregnant, or even just reacting uncomfortably to someone because they are different, can contribute to suicidal ideation. I want everyone to understand that suicidal ideation is actually a normal response when bad situations feel inescapable and when people believe that no one understands, or wants to (especially at church). We have to be ready and willing to listen to another’s story without judgment and with compassion. We have to get beyond that religious stigma telling us that suicidal thoughts come from evil deeds, and we need to learn unconditional acceptance of others who make different choices from our own.
I LOVE having my little granddaughter and both of my best friends in my home. Things have become a bit crowded and messy, but there’s a lot more love and laughter, and my daughter makes me get out and go on walks with her on a regular basis. She’s getting out of the house when she’s not at work, and I’m getting healthier. Most importantly, she’s got access to the things that are keeping her happy and functioning: people who will listen to her story and love her just as she is.