Rachel has a tattoo of a semicolon — similar to this — on her wrist. Its message ... the sentence hasn’t ended.
Rachel has a tattoo of a semicolon — similar to this — on her wrist. Its message ... the sentence hasn’t ended.
Rachel, 20, has struggled with emotional issues since she was 9 years old. That was when, as a fourth-grader, she first attempted to kill herself by trying to close a window on her head.

It also was the year she began cutting herself.

Now, as an adult, she has finally been diagnosed with major depressive disorder – characterized by a constant sense of hopelessness and despair, making it difficult to work, study, sleep, eat or enjoy friends and activities.

The disorder affects about 7 percent of the U.S. population over age 18, but as in Rachel’s case, it can affect children and teenagers who frequently go undiagnosed and untreated.

“School wasn’t a hard thing for me,” she recalls. “I had trouble reading, but whenever I really did try, I would get good grades. But when I had depression and I really didn’t care, I would get Ds and Fs.”

Rachel has suffered sexual abuse as a child and as an adult. She describes growing up in an often dysfunctional family.

And she’s seen the sadness in others. Several friends and acquaintances from Southwestern High School and Hanover have died by suicide in the past few years. One of her friends recently recovered from an intentional overdose that left her in a coma for a time.

She said a friend of her mother’s, who was a father figure to her, also died by suicide.

“That was many years ago. That was the very first one,” she said. “I didn’t know what actually happened until a few years later. I still think about him often.”

She eventually discovered that she had many friends in school who knew she was cutting, but they had not told her they were cutting, too.

She has attempted to end her own life, mostly using pills and once by hanging.

She survived swallowing an entire bottle of lithium pills, which had been prescribed to a family member. The drug is used to help treat the manic episodes in someone with bipolar disorder.

“I took probably like 100-plus pills,” she said. “The doctor came in and said, ‘I don’t understand how you’re still here. You should be dead times 10.”

Rachel said, for her, there is a big difference between her urge to cut and her attempts at suicide.

“I understand, I could actually push too hard and accidentally kill myself. But that’s not my intention. When I’m done [cutting], I’m too worn out to freak out or have another panic attack. If I’m in a big, emotional, horrible depression, I think if I cut, [the feelings] will be over sooner,” she explained. “But again, I don’t understand fully why I do it. I’m not going to expect anyone else to even remotely understand it.”

A daily struggle

At first glance, Rachel doesn’t appear to be dealing with such difficult issues. Sitting in her favorite pizza restaurant, she is bubbly, talkative; she smiles and laughs.

But she is brutally honest about her experiences. She no longer wears long sleeves to hide the dozens of scars on the insides of her arms, although she has thoughtfully added tattoos with positive messages: “Be your own kind of beautiful,” “Believe in yourself,” and “Love Never Fails.”

She has found faith, has been baptized and now teaches children’s worship classes at her church; she feels the “Love Never Fails” tattoo speaks to her about the unconditional love of God and Jesus Christ. “It tells me there’s always love out there towards me, and I have to realize that … even though I struggle.”

Another tattoo is a heart with angel wings and the words “Stay Strong.” It is a memorial to her friend Ethan Stewart, who died by suicide in 2015. She said she was training with him at work the week he died.

“He saw my cuts. He took my arm and said, ‘This is stupid. You don’t need to be doing this. You need somebody to talk to, you talk to me.’ And then, just a few days later, he died,” she said.

Ironically, she added, “I’ve noticed the ones who are struggling are the ones who reach out to me.”

She said she agreed to talk about her struggle with The Madison Courier because she wants to help others understand how to support people like her, who have serious bouts with mental illness.

Church helps, she said, but what helps most for her is when people show her they care. One of those people has been Daniel Datillo, a counselor at Southwestern High School.

“Between him and a few others, I would not be alive. He has literally saved my life many times, just being there.”

Another adult friend, Nancy, also has been there for her.

“When things got really bad, I had nobody, and I overdosed. Nancy sat in that hospital for eight hours in the ER,” Rachel said. “That’s not the only time she’s done it.”

But most people seem at a loss.

“Suicide prevention is talked about plenty, but suicide is not,” she said.

For example, on Facebook and other social media, she sees people  simply copy and paste links talking about suicide prevention that includes the phone number of the national suicide hot line.

Rachel said the Facebook posts would be far more meaningful if the poster would make their own phone number available, to enable a person in crisis to talk to them, instead of a stranger manning a hot line.

“That little line could make a difference,” Rachel said. “Your number will make a quicker connection [to help somebody] than [the national] number ever will.”

The national hot line number has let her down in the past, putting her on hold for long periods when she most needed to talk, she said. It also failed a friend of hers, who overdosed while on hold waiting for a human voice to come on the line.

Rachel also supports events, such as the annual Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Awareness, a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She was one of more than 450 participants in Madison’s walk last week, which raised about$23,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“But even then, the people who are going are most of the ones who are also struggling,” she said.

Her wish is that people who have never dealt with suicide on a personal level would get involved with bringing awareness to the subject.

She wants people to know it’s OK to talk about it.

“People are more comfortable when people are physically sick,” she admitted.

When dealing with people suffering from emotional illness or pain, “people should not worry about saying the wrong thing, because saying anything is better than saying nothing at all. You still want to watch your words, but watch your words like you are just talking to another human. It’s not like we’re another species.”

Rachel is working very hard – and finding success – on her way to becoming a thriving adult. She recently got her drivers license. She works part time as a clerk at a grocery store, hoping to go to full time, and has been saving money in her own bank account, so that she can pay for much-needed repairs to the car she now owns.

“So, right now, I’m in a period where I’m OK,” though she admits that, the night before, she had struggled against the urge to cut herself.

Even when she appears to be OK, she wants people to know that she is always struggling.

“I have noticed most people would see my fresh cuts and be worried about it and talk to me about it. As soon as they stopped seeing fresh cuts or burns, they immediately treated it like the flu. ‘Oh, it’s gone. She’s better. She’s happy.’ I told my church recently, it’s not just gone. I struggle with the thought every day,” whether she is actively harming herself or not. “Just the fact that everybody thought it was gone made me feel pushed away and alone.”

Another piece of advice to those who want to help is to be there, if possible, when someone is reaching out, whether it’s on Facebook or other ways.

“People have told me, ‘I didn’t know what to say so you wouldn’t cut.’ ... I don’t know if everyone’s this way, but I would rather you say what you want to say, flat out, because I’m either going to cut or I’m not.”

Speaking to her is unlikely to change her mind, either way. But it always helps.

“I just want people to know that you can ask,” she said.

She points to another tattoo, a tiny one intended to show herself and others that she has not given up her fight.

It is, simply, a semicolon – a message of hope that spawned it’s own organization, Project Semicolon.

She explained that, in writing, the semicolon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to.

Every day she is here means on that day, she has chosen not to.

It’s a reminder to herself and everyone: “My life’s not over yet,” she said.